Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Precisely Is The Gospel?

I love Jeff Purswell, he is the editor of the smaller version of Systematic Theology entitled Bible Doctrine. He's also a pastor and dean of the Pastor's college at Sovereign Grace Church in Maryland. The following is a great explanation of the biblical gospel.
I was having a wide-ranging conversation with a friend the other day when we wandered onto the topic of the gospel. I casually observed how frequently the word gospel was freighted with elements that belong more precisely to the realm of discipleship or ethics—e.g., what we do in response to the gospel, or how we live in light of the gospel.

My friend responded with puzzlement: “Aren’t those things part of the gospel? Didn’t Jesus say in the Great Commission, ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’?”

A lively and edifying conversation ensued in which we found ourselves largely in agreement, but also in which a crucial issue surfaced: what precisely is the gospel?

Perhaps it’s foolish to tackle such a question in a medium that militates against nuance and formulaic clarity. No doubt my comments will be parsed and found wanting by many who discern neglect of this or that biblical theme or emphasis—ah, well, such are the joys of blogging. It is, however, a question that lies at the very heart of our faith, and therefore at the heart of pastoral ministry.

So what does the New Testament present as the gospel?

A good place to begin is Mark’s gospel. At the outset of the book, the author immediately alerts us to the significance of what will follow: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Syntactically, this heading flows directly into the remainder of the prologue (Isaiah’s prophecy, John the Baptist, and Jesus’s baptism/temptations)—indicating that these introductory events are the “beginning of the gospel,” while the balance of Mark’s narrative presents the rest of the gospel.

What’s the point? For Mark, the gospel is the story about Jesus—the good news of all that Jesus did in his life and ministry and death and resurrection.

We see a similar idea in the early preaching of the church. When Peter is summoned to Cornelius’s home and discovers that God is behind this miraculous chain of events, his presentation of the gospel (“proclaiming the good news of peace”—Acts 10:36b) is an outline of Jesus’s ministry, beginning with John the Baptist on through to his resurrection and commissioning of the apostles to proclaim forgiveness through his name (Acts 10:36-41; cf. 2:22-24; 3:13-15). As far back as C.H. Dodd, commentators have viewed this as a summary of apostolic preaching and noted its basic agreement with the structure of Mark’s gospel. Once again, the gospel is the news of what God was doing through Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection.

Paul uses the term gospel more than any other NT writer. Of course, one of the most familiar renditions of “gospel” in the NT is Paul’s summary statement in 1 Corinthians 15:1ff: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you...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…” Again, the gospel consists of what Jesus did to save us. Paul’s presentation is more narrow, focusing on the pinnacle of Christ’s work—his substitutionary death and resurrection—but that focus is also embedded into the very structures of the canonical gospels themselves, which reserve far more space for, and place the greatest emphasis on, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the gospel?

Although this brief survey is far from complete, it consistently reveals that the gospel is good news concerning Jesus and what he did to accomplish salvation for sinners.

In other words, the gospel is objective. It tells us what God has done to save his people. It consists of concrete, historical events, rooted in Old Testament promises, types, and institutions that were fulfilled in Jesus. It promises that all who trust in Christ and his work will receive forgiveness and life. Of course, this isn’t merely a catalogue of events of only historical interest; all of this has massive implications for our lives. But we must not confuse the gospel message itself with the outworking of those implications.

So, for example, although the gospel calls me to respond to what Jesus has done, strictly speaking it doesn’t include my response—repentance is not the gospel. Although the gospel introduces me to a life lived in glad obedience to God, strictly speaking it doesn’t include that life of obedience. Our existence as Christians involves unspeakable privileges, significant responsibilities, and untold promise. But those things themselves are not the gospel.

Why is all this important? It’s important because the very nature of the gospel is at stake—and there is no higher priority for the pastor than to guard the gospel from neglect, distortion, or redefinition (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14).

If the gospel message expands to include “discipleship in the kingdom,” then the objective nature of Christ’s work is minimized. When the gospel is redefined as a call to a social or political movement, Christ’s work is replaced with ours. When the gospel includes my response, then the ground of my assurance lies in me rather than in Christ. Indeed, anytime we shift the definition of the gospel from God’s objective accomplishment to our subjective appropriation, the rock-solid foundation of our faith is misplaced—and the glory of God in the gospel is obscured.

Of course, we can be clear on the gospel message and make other mistakes. We can neglect the entailments of the gospel (a life of self-denial and obedience to Christ). We can focus only on spiritual salvation to the exclusion of any concern for the material or physical well-being of others. We can so focus on a heavenly home that we neglect our responsibilities of loving others in a fallen world, and that our ultimate future lies in a “new heavens and new earth” that have been fully renewed by God’s power.

None of these mistakes, however, minimizes the importance of holding fast to the gospel of our salvation. For it is through the power of the gospel that we are transformed to live new lives by the power of the Spirit. It is through the gospel that we are freed from selfishness to give our lives in service of others. Sure, the scope of Christ’s redemption is the whole cosmos (Colossians 1:20), but at the center of his redemptive concern are rebellious image-bearers whom he is ransoming to be his children. But all of these entailments, implications, and promises are founded upon the rock-solid, unchanging accomplishment of God through the gospel of his Son. It is this message that is God’s power to save sinners, to comfort the grieving, to motivate the listless, to encourage the downhearted, to assure the guilt-stricken.

This message never changes; this message is always true; and so our hope is always secure.

And it precisely when those erstwhile rebels grasp God’s accomplishment in the gospel—the greatest display of “the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love”—that they will be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19) and marvel with wonder at the gospel’s display of God’s glorious grace.


Jeff Purswell serves as the Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastors College and a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.


Steve said...

Amen brother. This would be help to all that read, it is for me. God bless you and your family

Ron Reffett said...

Hey Steve,
Glad that this brought some encouragement your way!