The Gospel Never Changes

I get a little worried when I hear people talk about contextualizing the gospel. If, by contextualization, we mean merely that we change ourselves by means of self-sacrifice, then that’s okay. Paul himself claimed to be all things to all people. It’s important to note that Paul is the one doing the changing here; not the gospel. If, by contextualization, we mean that we have to change the content of the gospel, then that is not okay. In fact, it’s apostasy. Paul said that if even he himself or an angel from heaven preach a gospel contrary to what he proclaimed, let that one be anathema, cursed (Gal 1:8). There is only one gospel.

The gospel transcends time and culture. The good news that the crucified and risen Christ Jesus is now the Lord of heaven and earth is relevant to all people everywhere. It is always a summons to the obedience of faith no matter the context. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first century, the gospel is the same. Whether in Jerusalem, New York, Mexico, Darfur, or India, the gospel is the same.

Why is this so important? Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith and because in the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed (Rom 1:16-17). To change the content of the gospel is to strip it of it’s power. Indeed, it is to strip it of that which makes it gospel in the first place. To change the content of the gospel is to make it no gospel at all!

For these reasons Christians must be absolutely clear about the content of the gospel. It is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3). No matter who you are or where you live, The Jesus who died for our sins according to the scriptures is Lord, and God raised him from the dead!

The Gospel from Jesus to Paul

I’ve spent some time looking at the gospel according to Paul. It is also important to ask about the gospel according to Jesus. Did they preach the same gospel?

In Matthew 4:23, Jesus goes throughout Galilee preaching, “the gospel of the kingdom.” In three out of the four times “gospel” appears in Matthew, it is described as the “gospel of the kingdom (9:35; 24:14; cf. 26:13). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus proclaims the gospel of God saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (1:15). What is the gospel of the kingdom? It is important to remember the meaning of gospel in the first century. The Greek euangelion (gospel) referred to a royal proclamation which constituted a summons to allegiance. Rome’s gospel was, “Caesar is lord.” In this light, Jesus’ message is quite striking. Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, the gospel of God. His first century hearers would have heard in this a claim that God was becoming king and required faithful allegiance. Jesus’ gospel was a royal proclamation about a kingdom that was drawing near.

But how does this relate to Paul’s gospel? We saw in a few previous posts that Paul was preaching a gospel about a kingdom as well. He basic announcement was “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4; 2 Tim 2:8, cf. previous post). Paul and his fellow Christians were even charged with acting contrary to the decree of the emperor proclaiming another king named Jesus (Acts 17:6-7). If Jesus’ gospel was about an approaching kingdom, Paul’s gospel was about an inaugurated kingdom. Their gospel’s are essentially the same; both are about the kingdom of God in Christ. The only difference is one of chronology. Jesus’ preached the coming kingdom of God and inaugurated it with his death and resurrection. Paul preached the kingdom of God which had been inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Thus, it is illegitimate to claim that Paul and Jesus had different gospels. Both of them were proclaiming a new kingdom, the kingdom of God in which Christ reigns and there is hope of resurrection.

The Power of the Gospel

Continued reflection on the gospel must inevitably come to the question of the power of the gospel. What happens when the gospel is preached?

Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 is instructive here. After explaining that the Spirit of God had just been poured out as the fulfillment of Joel 2, Peter went on to provide an extended defense of Jesus’ resurrection. He proclaimed that despite the Jews’ betrayal of Jesus to the Romans and his subsequent execution at their hands, God raised Jesus up freeing him from death (22-24). He then argued that David was speaking of Jesus when he said prophesied, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One experience corruption” (27). Peter then went on to announce Jesus’ sovereign lordship witnessing to his resurrection and saying that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God (33). Peter concluded his sermon saying, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (36).

In this first post-Pentecost and Spirit-filled sermon, Peter preached a gospel highly consistent with what he have seen to be Paul’s basic gospel announcement. Both focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to a place of universal Lordship over all. The interesting thing is what happens next. Acts 2:37 indicates that when those around Peter heard him, “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” Upon hearing the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, these persons began to experience conviction over their sin, perhaps specifically here in betraying Jesus to the Romans.

The point is that the Spirit of God uses the gospel as a means of grace to convict of sin and enable a response of faith to the news of Jesus’ lordship and resurrection. Peter then commanded them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Then he said, “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (38). It is important to note that the Spirit of God began to work graciously to convict prior to the actual forgiveness of sins and indwelling of the Spirit. This is an description of God’s enabling grace that comes before a the experience of new life in him.

So, what is the power of the gospel? How does it work? When the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship and resurrection is preached or the story is told, then the Spirit of God goes to work to convict of sin and graciously enable a response of faith. The gospel is God’s chosen instrument to initiate the reconciliation of fallen human beings to himself. As Paul says in Romans 1:16, “[The gospel] is the power of God for salvation.”

Unpacking the Gospel

In my last post, I argued that Paul’s basic gospel proclamation was the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. This royal proclamation is a dense statement that constitutes a summons to obedience. Thus, after articulating the gospel Paul says that through Jesus Christ our Lord he has, “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (Rom 1:5, NRSV). But what does this involve and how do we proclaim the Lordship and resurrection of Christ as a summons to the obedience of faith?

If the gospel is a summons to faith, then that is how we proclaim it. Our Lord Jesus who was raised from the dead, requires the obedience of faith. The problem is that we are unable to render such obedience because we were born as slaves under sin. In order to deal with this problem, Jesus lived a complete human life in faithfulness to the will of God and was then executed by the Roman Empire on a cross. Because the consequence of sin is death, in his death Jesus took our consequences upon himself in order that we might be declared to have right standing with God. Jesus, in his death and resurrection, also destroyed the power of sin and death enabling humans to respond to the gospel, a graceful summons to faith. With the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated a new kingdom in which Jesus is Lord.

The church has the task of taking the good news of the reign of God in Christ to whole world. However, if we are to do so, we must be clear about the content and the goal of the good news. It’s content is Jesus; it’s goal is obedient faith and ultimate salvation.

Purpose or Choice and Whose Is It? Another Look at Romans 8:28

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (NRSV, italics mine)

This familiar verse has an interesting and largely neglected history of interpretation. A couple of points are worth noting. First, the Greek word translated as “purpose” is prothesis. Interestingly, it can also be taken to mean “choice.” Second, the possessive pronoun which I have italicized and which, to my knowledge, shows up in all English translations, is not in the Greek text. Paul did not explicitly state that the prothesis, whether it means purpose or choice, is something here belonging to God. So, this verse could be legitimately translated, “Now we know that to those who love God, all things work together for good, to those being called according to choice.”

Fourth century preacher, theologian, and Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom took this verse to be referring to the prothesis of those who love God, namely human beings who respond to God’s call. In his homily on Rom 8:28 he said,

The prothesis he here mentions, however, that he might not ascribe everything to the calling; since in this way both Greeks and Jews would be sure to cavil. For if the calling alone were sufficient, how came it that all were not saved? Hence he says, that it is not the calling alone, but the prothesis of those called too, that works the salvation. For the calling was not forced upon them, nor compulsory. All then were called, but all did not obey the call (NPNF, 1st series, 11:453).
I have maintained the original Greek prothesis in this quote because the translator did not agree with Chrysostom’s reading that the purpose/choice is that of the called rather than that of the caller. That Chrysostom saw the prothesis as being on the part of the called may indicate that he took it to mean “choice.” The point here is simply that Paul’s language is unclear as to whether the purpose/choice in question is that of God or that of those whom God calls. Chrysostom takes it as the human response enabled by God’s initial call. This is a clear and ancient denial of the Calvinist idea of an effectual call. This is important because it demonstrates that the Arminian affirmation of resistible grace is not innovative. Rather, it recaptures a strain of thought present in the ancient church and held by none less than an Archbishop of Constantinople and one of the most influential and respected of the early Greek fathers.

**I am thankful to Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary for first drawing my attention to Chrysostom’s reading of this verse.

What is the Gospel?

I’ve recently come across a several articles addressing the question of the gospel. Christianity Today has been running a series from The Christian Vision Project asking, “Is our gospel too small?” A recent issue of Leadership has an article on Tim Keller’s gospel. Mark Dever recently gave a talk addressing various misrepresentations of the gospel. I have also been involved in a discussion with some fellow seminary students regarding the content of the gospel. One thing that I’ve discovered is that there seems to be significant disagreement on what the essential content of the gospel is.

So, what is the gospel? In 2 Timothy 2:8-9 Paul says, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” Romans 1:3-4 says, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” These statements of the gospel have two elements in common.

First, Jesus is descended from David. Some readers will undoubtedly wonder what Jesus’ Davidic lineage has to do with the gospel. Here we must remember that it was to David that God promised, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). If Jesus is descended from David, then he is the rightful king of Israel and, ultimately, the whole world (see Psalm 2:7-9). When Paul says that Jesus is descended from David, he is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the rightful king of Israel and the Lord of the world. To say that Jesus is descended from David is to say that Jesus is Lord, which is precisely what Paul says at the end of Romans 3:4. So, the first basic component of the gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord! Second, in both places Paul asserts that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. This is an essential part of the gospel. Anything that claims to be a gospel presentation and fails to include Jesus’ resurrection is not a whole gospel.

In Greek, the word for gospel is euangelion and it was used by the Roman Empire before Paul ever appropriated it. When a new Roman emperor took the throne, he would send messengers out with the “good news.” Sometimes, the announcement of the emperor’s birthday was also hailed as a gospel. In the Graeco-Roman world, the word “gospel” was basically an announcement of royal authority. Well, Paul and the early Christians believed that there was another king and that his name was Jesus. Rome’s gospel was, “Caesar is lord.” Paul’s gospel was, “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.” It should be clear why Paul was chained like a criminal.

The basic message of the gospel includes the double announcement about Jesus’ lordship and resurrection. It is important for Christians to be able to unpack this dense and compact statement. The announcement immediately raises a variety of questions. Who was Jesus? If he was raised from the dead, how did he die in the first place? Why did Jesus die? What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord? What does it mean for Jesus to be resurrected from the dead? Again, it is helpful to look to scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul uses a slightly enlarged formula that still contains the basic elements we have discussed, “Christ (Messiah) died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead according to the scriptures…”

There is much more that could be said by way of implication here. However, I’ll close by saying that it is of the utmost importance for the church to come to an agreement on what the gospel is. As the church, we are the gospel people. After his statement of the gospel in Romans 1:3-4, Paul says that he, “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.” The church has been entrusted with this good news and that means that we must take it to the world.