The Gospel Examined

Power of the Gospel

The notion of ‘gospel’ is central to Christian faith, yet it’s meaning and significance has become somewhat muddy over the past few centuries, possibly because of the rise of evangelicalism.

Let me explain.

In modern evangelical usage the term ‘gospel’ most commonly signifies either that body of truth which is life changing (the good news message) or the preached message which is meant to lead people to a prescribed evangelical response, such as ‘making a decision’, going to the altar or otherwise signifying in a measurable way that they have stepped over the line from sinner to saint.

It is this second meaning which is popularised in evangelical parlance and which undermines a truer concept of the Gospel.

We refer to the four historical accounts of Christ’s life on earth as the ‘Gospels’, yet they don’t end in an altar call or a prescription of the approved response by which a person is transformed by that message.

On the other hand it is expected in evangelical circles that if a series of ‘gospel’ messages is preached it is to result in people making a public response that can be tabulated. So at the end of the series of meetings, or the ‘revival’ or the outreach, it can be said that a certain number responded, and that can be compared with last event or with the impact of a different evangelist.

This preoccupation with public record of conversions has subtly transferred the concept of the Gospel as the message good news about who Christ is and what He has done, which message is to be received and believed with life-changing effect, to the concept of the gospel as a style of message that presses people’s buttons and gets them out of their chair to join the Christian band.

Please don’t think I am cynical about getting people to respond to the gospel message. I am not denigrating the work of evangelistic preaching, but simply relating it back to our concept of ‘gospel’.

For the past six decades I have had the privilege of hearing hundreds of evangelistic messages and preaching a few of them myself. I have heard some clear and lucid expositions of the life and sacrifice of Jesus as our Saviour among those messages. I have also heard an array of messages embodying soppy sentiment, scientific mind boggling, heart tugging emotion, end of the world scaremongering and a range of other causes for action.

In those wide ranging messages, labeled as ‘gospel’ the simple message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection may be incidental or even irrelevant to the impassioned appeal for the sinner to respond.

And so the ‘gospel’ becomes in our consciousness a muddy mix of messages designed to motivate sinners to accept Christianity.

A cursory review of the New Testament message should help us clarify what the ‘gospel’ actually is and that might inform us on how best to employ it in Christian ministry. So let me throw a few observations at you and see how they prompt your own investigation of the gospel.

Apostle Paul frequently links the notion of ‘gospel’ with change in the hearer, calling it “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16) and saying that those who engage with his message will be “saved” (Romans 10:9).

So the true ‘gospel’ is more than just ‘news’, but a good news message that has life-changing effect in the hearer, should they respond with faith (believe). Do we see messages in the New Testament that speak of such change and such news?

The first public preaching message in the New Testament was that of John the Baptist telling his hearers “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus first began preaching this was his message too (Matthew 4:17). So we could say that the first ‘gospel’ preaching involved a call to action from the hearer, responding in the fear of God.

Another view of the gospel and its call on hearers comes from the mouth of Jesus in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Here it is Christ, Himself, focusing he gospel on his own life and on the response of ‘belief’ in the hearer.

The Apostle John, in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, uses another term than ‘believe’ in discussing the appropriate response to Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12)

John links ‘receiving’ and ‘believing’ as our response to the gospel, showing, as Christ did in John 3, that people can choose to receive and believe, or not.

With that background, let’s now look specifically at the ‘gospel’ as explained by Paul. We could say that the four historical gospels present the ‘gospel’ in a non-prescriptive manner, as truth to be received and believed, while Paul, address the churches, was more prescriptive about what was to be expected from believers.

So, what do we see in Paul’s approach to the gospel?

We see a determined focus on the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1Corinthians 2:2

Paul’s gospel was not about how he could manipulate hearers to embrace Christianity, but was anchored on the core truth of the good news message, the work of Christ.

That was the message Peter employed at Pentecost, with great impact.

The crucifixion of Christ was a core component of Paul’s gospel narrative. “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Corinthians 1:23)

But the crucifixion message was always joined with the message of the resurrection, as Paul notes in his famous evangelism prescription in Romans 10:9 “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

So, when Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel we know that he was speaking of the message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and man’s response to that message of faith in Christ resulting in the believer establishing righteousness with God.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16,17

What then is the gospel?

While evangelists are ever creative about their means of prompting sinners to respond to God, the true ‘gospel’ is the wonderful message of Christ dying for us and rising to new life, as proof that sin and death are defeated, to which message man is to respond with faith, believing that Christ truly did rise from the dead, and by that act of believing receiving divine impact that saves and transforms the believer.

A ‘gospel’ message that does not bring the power of God through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection may be nothing more than mere manipulation, and may leave the ‘convert’ without the life-changing impact of the ‘Gospel’.

Footnote:

The gospel of Christ, including the account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, involves Christ’s reality in two broad dimensions: his earthly life (after the flesh); and his resurrected and eternal character.

The Gospel writers knew from first hand sources the account of Christ’s earthly life, divinity made flesh. The Apostle John also encountered Christ in his resurrected glory, in vision form on the Island of Patmos (refer Revelation). That infusion of the divine perspective is reflected in the Gospel of John (see John 1:1-5, 9-14).

Paul’s contribution to scripture is unique in that Paul did not know Christ in His earthly ministry (after the flesh) but only met Christ in His heavenly, resurrected glory. Paul saw a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7), but also visited heaven in vision form (2Corinthians 12:1-7). In his heavenly visits Paul met the resurrected Christ, as indicated by Paul’s claim that Christ personally talked with him about Christ’s earthly life.

See 1Corinthians 11:23 “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread”

Paul, having his own encounters with the resurrected Christ and meeting others who had been with the flesh and blood Christ, made commentary about the difference.

2Corinthians 5:16 “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”

Paul’s gospel, then, did not focus on humanity. It was not about a good man who did good for us by dying selflessly for us. Paul’s gospel celebrated a divine being who experienced glory and divine authority and brought that to bear on those who believed in Him.

Philippians 2:9-11 “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul and the Apostle John stand special in their encounters of the risen and glorified Christ and we find that the encounters infused their gospel message with reflections of that divine nature.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews clearly understood the divine character of Christ.

Hebrews 2:9 “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

Some believe that Paul authored Hebrews and the emphasis on divine elements of Christ’s existence (such as reference to Melchizedek) suggests that Paul’s divine perspective is indicated in Hebrews.