The Gospel

Thought I would post for you an article that Dr. Dwight Smith and I wrote about the gospel.  It's long, so I won't be mad at you if this is not something that fits your appetite.  Here you go:

Toward a more Holistic Understanding of The Gospel

Jerry Gillis and Dwight Smith

The Purpose

Any attempt to fully articulate the idea of the “gospel” will undoubtedly be found wanting, and this brief document will be no different.  Our posture is that the whole of Scripture must be considered in the construction of the idea of the gospel because the Scripture reveals to us the original purposes and design of God for His world.  Our primary concentration is to explore the implications of the gospel relative to the recreative purposes of God in and through Jesus.  Our hope is that this may aid in the process of thinking and dialogue for those charged with leading in the Church, and that their understanding of the gospel would be more fully orbed and give clear intention to facilitate the implications of the gospel for the world in which we are engaged in mission.

The Problem

The tendency in contemporary Western culture to reduce the idea of “the gospel” to a quartet of propositional truths, seemingly divorced from the grand sweep of the entirety of the revelation of God in Scripture, is one that needs to be reevaluated and reformed.

While conceding that these propositional truths can be affirmed, these truths need to be tethered to the grand story of the purposes of God in Jesus and given fuller exposition so that the beauty and weight of the implications of the gospel can be seen and felt by the people of God.

Familiarities with the term “gospel”, and colloquial ways of expressing that term, have helped to form a reductionist version of “gospel” and the fullness it represents.  In Western culture, we have gospel choirs, gospel music (categorized by flavor – southern, black, contemporary), and gospel churches.  From one perspective, the idea that these monikers represent something that is centered on Jesus is accurate and acceptable.

But, even somewhat innocently, these types of expressions cause the holistic intent of the gospel to be compromised – particularly in a culture that demonstrates an alarming illiteracy to the whole of the revelation of God and His purposes in Scripture.

The Term “Gospel”

The idea of “gospel”, or good news, has roots in both Hebraic and Roman contexts prior to the birth and life of Jesus.  In the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament), the idea of good news is frequently used, notably by the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).  The good news for Israel is that God has not forgotten His covenant promise to Abraham (Genesis 12) that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  That is why Paul articulates this reminder in Romans, as well as in Galatians 3:8-9, which states: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’  So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

As well, in the Roman culture, the term “gospel” was employed to announce the birth of a new Caesar or his accession to the throne.  This was not a term that was new with the birth of Jesus; instead, it is a term that was infused with new meaning and virtue when describing the perfect King and our resurrected Lord.  It is with these backdrops that the gospel Paul articulates, weaved through most of his New Testament writings, is made clear.  For Paul, it seems, the gospel meant that Jesus was the long awaited promise of Israel’s Messiah (foreshadowed from Genesis to the prophets, like Isaiah 40 and 52), as well as that He was the ruler of every empire (contra Caesar and the Roman Empire).

Instead of Caesar being Lord, Paul argues that his good news is that Jesus is Lord.

Central to the understanding of good news is a question – “Good news about what, exactly?”  Well, in summary, the good news is less about “what” than about “who.”

The restoration of humanity to its intended purpose and design can only be accomplished through Jesus.  The immeasurable impact of sin has caused a divide so great between humanity and God that only God Himself can bring the two together in an act of sacrificial grace that preserves and honors God’s love, holiness, justice, wrath, and faithfulness.  And it is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus that sufficiently accomplishes this incredible feat whereby the consequences of sin in humanity generated through the first Adam are gloriously and sufficiently undone through the work of the second Adam, Jesus.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).

Fundamentally, then, the good news is specifically about Jesus, and more broadly about the full restorative purpose of God for creation and all its inhabitants in and through the work of Jesus.  The gospel is unapologetically Jesus-centric, while remaining firmly entrenched in a Trinitarian understanding of God.  Paul brilliantly pulls these two facets together when he writes specific things in his letters about Jesus that were only understood to be about God in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Note the comparisons:

​“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear” (Isaiah 45:22-23).

​And then Paul writing to the Church at Philippi: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

With these, Paul is wedding the ultimate restorative purposes of the Trinitarian God in and through the specific person of Jesus.

So, while we understand God as Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) working to secure the restoration of humanity to its original design and purpose, as it relates to the gospel we must understand the centrality of the work of Jesus.  Broadly, it could be said that “Jesus is the good news.”  Clearly, there is simplicity and profundity in that statement. Simplicity in that the focus is on the person and work of Jesus (though not detached from the overall role of God in three persons accomplishing His purpose in the cosmos). Profundity in that the implications of the person and work of Jesus in God’s restorative purpose are inexhaustively rich and inescapably life transforming.  It is to those realities that we now turn our attention.

Who is Jesus?

In chapter eight of the Gospel according to John, the apostle records an intriguing dialogue between Jesus and Israel's religious leaders. Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). They were lost as to the strident words from Jesus about coming from a different place, and having a different Father, one who they claimed to know because they were children of Abraham and followers of the words of Moses. But, the words and actions of Jesus were offensive, and even dangerous, to them. If He was right, then they were wrong. Moreover, He threatened their positions within the Jewish religious structure as well their position with the Romans.

Most of chapter eight is a give and take between Jesus, with a view of life rooted in eternity, and these men, rooted only in time, especially Jewish time. In verse 23, Jesus continues, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins.” Whether from cynicism or genuine wonder, in verse 25 they ask Jesus the central question to all human engagement of God, “Who are you?"

The answer to that question reveals the historical and theological nature of the Gospel. It is central to understanding what it means to be His follower and to hold to His teaching about Himself and the Father.  Embracing that truth sets us free.  The ongoing dialogue between Jesus and the religious leaders, even though the religious leaders did not realize it, is set upon truth that starts in the beginning.

The Implications of the Gospel

The Bible is one story running from Genesis to Revelation. It is in the beginning that we see most clearly the divine design. And, from that design, all of the other issues that we read in the Bible must be answered.  From one point of view they are explanatory, preparatory, and corroborating sub-plots of the primary story. In order to fully appreciate what God has done, and is doing, one must constantly move back and forth - or better said, up and down - between the story and its many sub-plots. It is with eternal significance that the story opens with creation.

Genesis 1 is the starting point of the story, and Revelation 22 the end of the story. In between is the story, traced across human history, of how God Himself is accomplishing His purpose. Nothing in the universe bears the uniqueness of the human creation - not the animals, not the natural, not even the angels. Unlike everything else in the universe, God creates Adam and Eve, and by extension their offspring, for two bold purposes. The first is that humanity is created to live in relationship to God. And the second purpose is that humanity is created to represent God. This is the calling of the Bible, to be reconciled to God and His purposes in creating us.

Of the first, Eric Sauer, in the Dawn of World Redemption, says: “But the essence of such spiritual life, and the essence of all true morality in general, is not only an outward, objective carrying out of law and a merely legal freedom from sin and guilt, but a personal, organic participation in the moral life of the Deity itself. For God, as the supreme lawgiver, has appointed the moral ordering of the world according to His nature, and He is love, the most perfect love (I John 4: 16). Therefore the moral appointment of free creatures must also be an appointment to love, and the supreme final purpose of world creation must consist in the self-unfolding and self-displaying of God as the Perfect, Holy, and Loving One, in the establishment of a fellowship of life and love between the Creator and the creature. But this means that God has called the world into existence so as to be able to love it, and that it should love Him in return. His goal evermore is to lead it to an eternal share in the enjoyment of His holiness and love, and thereby to blessedness and glory” (From the online edition of Dawn of World Redemption, chapter two)

Of the second – to play out the reality of our true humanity by representing God - Sauer says: “Thus the extending of man's rule on the earth, provided he remained subject to God, signified a drawing of all things earthly into the sphere of the moral world-purposes, an increasing resumption of the earth for God and therewith a progressive leading forward of the creation to redemption and perfection. Paradise was thus the fixed point from which the uplifting of Nature into the sphere of the spirit should take its beginning. It was appointed by God to that purpose, "so that from here the whole earth should develop into a Paradise. The garden is the Holy of holies, Eden the holy place, the whole surrounding earth the vestibule and court. The climax is, that the whole shall be transformed into the glorified likeness of that Holiest." In this regard Adam himself counted not only as an individual, but at the same time as the primary ancestor and organic representative of the whole of his descendants, then already seen in principle "in" him (I Cor. 15: 22; Rom. 5: 12-21). Therefore is it said first "Be fruitful and multiply and people the earth ", and only afterward, "and subdue it to yourselves and rule it" (Gen.1:28). So then the Paradise garden is beginning and end, start and goal, basis, programme, and type of the whole task of man on earth.” (Ibid)

This same message is traced across the pages of the Bible. In the giving of the law, Moses writes in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And, in Leviticus 19:18, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”

Jesus asserts the same when asked two different questions on two different occasions – the first question being about the greatest commandment, and the second about what a person must do to have eternal life.  Of the first question, the Scripture teaches the following: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied:“'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all yourmind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

And to the second question the Scripture teaches, “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.”Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:25-28).

The apostle Paul says the same: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Nothing in the universe bears the uniqueness of the human creation, for we are made in the image and likeness of God.  Made in the image and likeness of God?  What should we expect? Unlike all of the rest of God's creation, we are created with an abundance of abilities that come from and are in the likeness of God Himself: cognition, verbal communication, relational ability, invention, appreciative ability, deductive ability, concern ability, rational expression, and governing ability, to name a select few.  So, what does this have to say about the gospel?

The answer to that question is directly related to the impact of sin on these creation likenesses. How far, how deep, and to what extent can they be corrupted by the effect of sin and the impact of sinful choices?  As well, how does God solve these corruptions in His gospel?

The  original untested but righteous compass that God gave to Adam and Eve in creation before the fall, has been displaced by the sinful choice of Adam and Eve ending in a lawless human spirit and marred image of God (Romans 5) , thus leading to corrupted: cognition, communication, relationships, inventions, appreciations, deductions, concerns, emotions, rationalizing, governing, etc. (Romans 3).

When God restores the originally intended compass through our regeneration in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the residency of the Holy Spirit, and our growing understanding of these through regular engagement of His Word, we see restored likenesses of God's original creation (Romans 6). The drag of whatever still exists of the leftover flesh we have from our creation likeness to Adam has to be progressively dominated by the new creation likeness to Jesus (Romans 6).

For the child of God, all of the Adam likeness is left behind upon exit from this world into a new world to be created by God free of the sin of this world (2 Corinthians 5). Even for the world, the representative governing ability of Man over the Earth is someday to be restored (Romans 8).

What are some of the more tangible characteristics of a restored God likeness?

1.  Abounding appreciation towards all things. Paul says that in all circumstances he learned to abound (Phil. 4). He says to the Thessalonians that we are to give thanks in all things.

2. Relational acceptance. Jesus says pray for your enemy (Matt.5). Paul says bear with one another (Romans 8). Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 5). Paul says for husbands to love their wives as their own bodies (Ephesians 5).

3. Released cognition so that we see and think more clearly. Nebuchadnezzar says twice in Daniel 4 that God’s sovereignty extends over all things. Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). Jesus says that no one can take us from his hand. He says that if God cares for such small things as lilies and birds, won't he care for us (Matt. 6)?

4. Renewed communication. Paul says to lay aside all course jestings (Ephesians 5). He says to encourage one another with the resurrection and return of Jesus (1 Thess. 5). Jesus says that every word we speak will be heard and judged (Matt. 12).

5. Renewed concerns. Jesus says that peace makers are like God their father (Matt. 5). James says that pure and undefiled religion is to care for the widow and orphan (James 5). The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that our neighbor's benefit is our concern (Luke 10). Jesus tells us that having been released from our "gentile" life we are to be like God in Jesus giving our lives in exchange for others (Luke 10).

6. Renewed invention and communication. Paul says that everything we do (an aspect of invention) is to be done to the glory of God, as if we were serving Him. Jesus says that in our going we are to make disciples (communication) (Matt. 28).

7. Responsible and compassionate stewardship of the created world. The book of Genesis calls those created in the likeness of God to care for and steward the world into which they were placed (Genesis 2).  As well, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a cosmic restoration in which we are called to participate (Romans 8, Colossians 1, and Revelation 21).

The Impact of the Gospel

The impact of this restored image of God is progressively and in a maturing way felt in:

Our marriages

Our families

Our neighborhoods

Our church bodies

Our market places

Our decisions over assets

Our ultimate expectations

The restored likeness of God sitting now at the center of our being in the new man, bounded by sin in the members of our bodies, is capable and expected to live life, unto God, in a new/old way (Romans 6).  It is old because that is how God created it to be before the fall. It is new because it has been restored, partially in time, fully after death, in Jesus Christ, the last Adam.

All of the ways in which the New Testament describes the relational incarnations of this new, restored life, are predicated upon the residency of this restored likeness and image of God (John 3), the residency of the Holy Spirit to give it power (Romans 8), and our willful cooperation with it (Romans 6). When placed alongside unrestored people, its witness is powerful because it demonstrates: the image of God, the likeness of how He created the world to be, and what is available to those who submit to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for and in them. (Matt. 5)

In all of their relationships, Christians are learning to release this new life:

Husbands love their wives as their own bodies

Wives respect their husbands

Fathers do not exasperate their children

Children obey their parents

We forgive our neighbors random offenses

We pray for our enemy

We bear one another's burdens

We maintain peace among the brethren

We work as unto the Lord

We live the blessedness of giving over receiving

We invest our worth and expectations in eternity

The gospel (good news) cannot be extracted from this macro view. When it is, itminimizes the full extent of God's work and purpose. It runs the risk of nominalizing those who appear to act on the offer of salvation by short circuiting the full and miraculous work God has achieved in the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ; thus, it produces "faith still-borns" (people who say that they belong toJesus, but never look or act like Him).

The only way to look like Him is to follow Him into death, burial, and resurrection so that the original relationship to God and His purpose can be restored. The lawless man is killed with Jesus on the cross, and the new, righteous man is resurrected with Him in His resurrection. He is now (re)created and able to live to (for, by and in) God.

The affirmation of the Apostle John at the end of his life is an appropriate place for us to end as it encapsulates all of the above: To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father –to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.

April 2011