REDISCOVERING THE GOOD NEWS IN A WORLD OF FALSE HOPE
By trevin wax
Copyright © 2011 Trevin Wax
All right reserved.
Chapter One the gospel story
HOW MUCH would you pay to be written into a famous novel? That was the question posed a few years ago by a nonprofit organization called the First Amendment Project, which hosted a very unusual fundraiser on eBay. The Internet auction offered the highest bidder the chance to be written into the next Stephen King novel. Seventy-six bids came in. The winner paid $25,100 to receive literary immortality by, ironically, being killed off in King's story. Other authors decided to help as well, including John Grisham, who promised to write the highest bidder ($12,100) into one of his books.
It's amazing to think that people would pay big money to be written into a famous story. Perhaps it reflects a longing deep in our hearts, a longing to find our place in a story bigger and better than our own personal story.
From the time we can put together syllables and comprehend what other people are saying, we are fascinated by stories. Children love fairy tales at bedtime, even if they are the same adventures they have heard dozens of times. Teenagers flock to the local movie theater to experience the latest stories coming out of Hollywood. Even adults enter the world of stories, curling up on the sofa with a good book, whether a biography of some famous person, a fictional drama, a romantic fling, or the history of a nation. From kindergarten on, we live for stories. Something deep within the human soul hungers for narratives and the truths they convey.
But stories are not merely for our relaxation and entertainment. We do not only live for stories; we live by them also. How we understand the story of our world affects how we live.
The Bible is a library of books that contain many different types of literature. Taken as a whole, the Scriptures provide us with a grand narrative—a great story in which every person is invited to take part. God has chosen, through His Word, to tell His children the Story, not a bedtime story that rocks us into a gentle sleep, but the story that we wake up to in the morning that explains why we exist. God's Story tells us who we are, what has gone wrong with the world, what God has done to redeem and restore His broken creation, and what the future holds for His people, those who accept His offer of salvation.
The fundamental questions that define our existence find their answers in the biblical narrative. And if we are to live by the biblical story, it's important that we rightly understand it and the good news at its heart.
As I have posted various definitions of "the gospel" on my blog, I have noticed that people hear the question "What is the gospel?" in different ways. Some hear this question and immediately think about how to present the gospel to an unbeliever. Their presentation usually begins with God as a holy and righteous judge. Then we hear about man's desperate plight apart from God and how our sinfulness deserves His wrath. But the good news is that Christ has come to live an obedient life and die in our place. We are then called to repent of our sins and trust in Christ.
Others hear, "What is the gospel?" and think quite specifically about the announcement of Jesus. They focus on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The gospel, according to this second group, is telling people who Jesus is and what He has done.
Still others hear the word "gospel" and think of the whole good news of Christianity, how God has acted in Christ to bring redemption to a fallen world. They focus on the grand sweep of the Bible's storyline and how Jesus comes to reverse the curse and make all things new.
Though there is significant overlap among these groups, advocates of each position often discuss and debate the others, convinced that taking a different approach messes up the gospel.
The Story crowd says, "If you only focus on the announcement of Jesus, you leave out the reason we need good news."
The Announcement crowd says, "You're adding too much to the gospel, confusing the truth about our sin or our necessary response of repentance with the good news itself, which is only about Jesus."
The New Creation crowd says, "If you only focus on individual salvation, you leave out the cosmic sweep of what God is doing."
The debate can be frustrating because the groups tend to talk over one another. But for the most part, I am encouraged by these discussions. Christians—young and old—are seeking clarity on the message that is at the heart of our faith. The motivation behind these debates is to get the message right.
The Heart of the Gospel
Having perused these gospel definitions carefully and followed the debates that surround them, I am convinced that the different approaches to "the gospel" are more complementary than contradictory. Of course, there is only one gospel. At its core, that gospel is the specific announcement about what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to bring about our salvation. The announcement of Jesus is the gospel.
Yet this Jesus-centered message needs context. The Story group is right to insist that the story is needed if the gospel announcement is to make sense. And the New Creation crowd is right to insist that we place our individual salvation within the bigger picture of God's glory in the renewal of all things. This discussion brings us back to the threefold sense of the gospel I explained in the introduction.
The gospel is a three-legged stool. There is an overarching story, which recounts our history from first creation to new creation and demonstrates how God will be magnified as our all in all. Then there is an announcement about Jesus Christ—His obedient life, His substitutionary death for sinners, and His resurrection and exaltation as king of the world. This announcement finds meaning within the story. The announcement elicits a response (repentance and faith) that then births the gospel community, the church that puts on display the gospel announcement by holy living that provides a foretaste of heaven here on earth.
As we will see shortly, each of the counterfeit gospels harms one of the legs on the stool, which eventually leads to the toppling of the entire stool. So it is important that we think clearly about these three aspects of the gospel.
Biblical Hints of the Gospel as Story
One of the clearest definitions of the gospel in the Bible comes from 1 Corinthians 15:1–4. Paul says:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
On the surface, it seems that Paul is speaking of the gospel in terms of the announcement: Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and has been raised from the dead. If the "gospel announcement" group is looking for ammo, they can add this passage to their arsenal.
But on closer inspection, we see that more is going on here. Paul repeats a phrase: "in accordance with the Scriptures." Paul is linking the announcement of Christ's death and resurrection to the promises made in the Old Testament Scriptures. The announcement is not divorced from the story. Rather, the announcement finds its meaning and fulfillment according to the Scriptures.
Paul is not the only New Testament writer who thinks this way. Each of the four Gospels also begins with a summary and recapitulation of Old Testament truth.
Matthew kicks things off with a genealogy, a long list of names that causes our eyes to glaze over. But just because we modern readers don't understand the point of genealogies doesn't mean Matthew didn't. The ancestral line of Jesus that Matthew places at the start of his Gospel links Jesus to David and then back to Abraham. The point? Jesus doesn't simply appear out of the blue. He is the faithful Israelite and the promised king through David's line.
Mark's Gospel is the shortest. He skips the story of Jesus' birth entirely. No manger scene. No angelic chorus for the shepherds. No star in the east for the wise men. Nevertheless, Mark grounds his Gospel in the Old Testament. He starts by quoting from Isaiah the prophet (who had much to say about "good news," by the way). "As it is written" is Mark's way of saying, "according to the Scriptures." So Mark joins Matthew in hinting that we need to catch up on the back story if we are to make sense of Jesus.
Luke, the diligent historian, begins his Gospel by recounting the birth of John the Baptist. Ever the artist, Luke gives us the Old Testament backstory in a more subtle way: through song. When an expectant Mary visits an expectant Elizabeth, she bursts into praise. Her song places her squarely in the context of first-century Jewish anticipation of the Messiah: God "has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever" (1:54–55). Not long after, Zechariah prophesies, reminding us of David and Abraham. So Luke also relates the story of Jesus' birth as the next chapter in a story already in progress.
What about John? The beginning of his Gospel harkens back to the creation narrative of Genesis 1: "In the beginning was the Word." But John also reminds us of Jewish history, telling us that "the law was given through Moses; [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17).
We need to pay attention to these hints we find in the Scriptures. The apostle Paul and each of the Gospel authors (in their own way) point us back to the Old Testament in order to make sense of Jesus. The gospel announcement—as powerful as it is, as central as it is to our faith—needs the gospel story in order to make sense.
Knowing the Backstory
Imagine sitting down for the first time to watch The Return of the King, the final film in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You start with the scene that shows Sam and Frodo approaching Mordor. From the music and intensity of the filmmaking, you gather that this must be a key moment in the story. But without any understanding of what has transpired in the past or any knowledge of the shire, the ring, and the importance of these hobbits, you'd be hard pressed to know why this moment is so important or how the future of Middle Earth hinges upon Frodo's actions.
Television dramas work the same way. Many of them begin with a brief recap of scenes from previous episodes. The announcer begins by saying, "Previously on ..." The retrospective clips remind you of the important moments in earlier episodes so that you can better understand what's going on in the current episode.
What do these clips communicate? That you are watching a story. And that if you want to understand what's happening now, you need to know what happened then.
We are two thousand years removed from the story of Jesus. We open up the Gospels and seek to understand them, learn from them, and apply them in a world much different from the one in which they were written. To be able to accomplish this effectively, we must keep the Gospels grounded in history. Without a clear understanding of the historical situation in which this announcement about Jesus is made, we are bound to misunderstand the emphasis of Jesus' message. We may be able to gather a few isolated theological truths, but the focus of the message may be off.
The sweeping story of God and humankind is written on the pages of Scripture, in poems, in psalms, in proverbs, in narrative, and in songs. But all of these genres combine to give us a history, and it is the story we are swept up into by the gracious providence of a loving Creator who desires to be endlessly glorified throughout all eternity.
So the gospel needs the story in order to make sense. The announcement may be glorious and true, but without the surrounding story, it can be misunderstood. It's important that we get the story right; otherwise, we will lose something integral to the plotline and wind up with a counterfeit.
What Is the Gospel Story?
There are four main movements to the gospel story, and these four aspects accomplish several tasks simultaneously.
First, these movements answer key questions: Where did we come from? What has gone wrong? What is the solution? What is our future?
Second, each of these movements tells us something about God's character. God reveals Himself through the words He speaks and the actions He takes in each of these scenes.
Third, these movements highlight theological truths that we can state in propositional form. The story brings biblical and systematic theology together, placing propositional truths within a grand narrative. As we watch the story unfold throughout Scripture, we learn about God and ourselves in the process. So let's take a quick journey through the primary scenes of the gospel story.
The opening scenes of the Bible reveal an all-powerful God who speaks and the universe appears out of nothing. At His word, light pierces the darkness. He stretches the sky over the sea. He pulls dry land up out of the ocean and then gently massages it into mountains and valleys, hills and prairies. From the ground spring plants and bushes, solid oak trees and weeping willows, sunflowers and roses.
Like a painter splashing brilliant hues of color onto a canvas, God sends planets spinning and stars whirling into the vast expanse of space. He fills the sky with robins and bluebirds, eagles and seagulls, cardinals and herons. The sea teems with minnows and catfish, dolphins and whales, lobsters and crabs. On the land roam rabbits and horses, ants and elephants, puppies and mountain lions. Over and over again, like an artist admiring his handiwork, God looks at His colorful world and joyfully declares, "It's good!"
Then God made us. The first humans, Adam and Eve, lived in perfect harmony with one another and with God. As the pinnacle of God's glorious creation, we were to reflect the image of our Creator. We were given the task of ruling over this world wisely, an act of stewardship for the glory of our king (Genesis 1:28). We were to be mirrors of His majesty and a living testament to the good rule of our Father.
One Hebrew word sums up the picture of Genesis 1 and 2: shalom. Peace. Earth was full of God's shalom, the kind of peace in which everything works according to God's intention. The world was made for human flourishing, where we could live in joy in the presence of our Maker, worshiping God by loving Him and one another forever. Looking past all the galaxies and planets, looking through space and time, over and above the exotic creatures that filled the earth, God set His affections on us—His human image-bearers—whom He created to share in the joy of His love forever.
The opening pages of the Bible resonate with us because we know we were made for this kind of world. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewiswrote:
A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.
The fact that deep down we feel that the world has gone wrong indicates that we were created for a world that is right. The gospel story explains this longing for Eden by telling us that, in the beginning, God created a world that He declared to be good.
What does this movement of the story teach us about God?
He is powerful.
He is transcendent, directly involved in creation but not part of that creation.
He is not an impersonal force like that imagined by the creators of Star Wars, but a personal being who delights in his creation.
He is holy—set apart from us, the Other. He alone is God.
Excerpted from Counterfeit gospels by trevin wax Copyright © 2011 by Trevin Wax. Excerpted by permission of MOODY PUBLISHERS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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