What Is the Gospel, Really? (Final)

I’ve been asking the question in the title by looking at one man’s summary, namely Greg Gilbert’s short offering in What Is the Gospel? There are several things I like about Gilbert’s book. It is readable without being simplistic; it is informed by an awareness of the church and its history; it offers a neat framework by which a crisp presentation of the gospel can be made and adapted according to an audience and its level of familiarity with Christian teaching; and it does not downplay the severity of the human predicament. By using the formula God, man, Christ, response, we indeed have mental roadmap of where we need to go in speaking the gospel, one which does not seem to be forced onto the biblical accounts.

In the later chapters, however, I became just a bit uneasy about, of all things, the author’s insistence on the cross as the goal of our understanding. He seems to make the absolutely necessary means an end in itself. He does this, it appears, out of fear that any other stated goal implicitly, if not explicitly, diminishes that necessity. Hence, he looks at those presentations of Christianity which, for example, emphasize the Bible’s storyline by way of the creation-fall-redemption-consummation summary as endangering the centrality of the cross. He is skeptical of messages which present the gospel as a story through which we can join in the work of God in transforming the world.

If the gospel does become reduced to getting our hands dirty in the effort to change the course of our communities and nations, then Gilbert is right; and there are those who tend to present this, sometimes overtly. He doesn’t want us to bypass the messiness, the offensiveness, and the downright distasteful idea that the death of Christ is God’s means of saving us. Point taken. But one must ask whether there is an overemphasis on means and underemphasis on the goal–the telos. Is one implicitly undermining “the gospel” by saying that the cross and the resurrection and ascension of Christ are the necessary means to the end which is redemption and life in God’s eternal Kingdom?

There was a reason Christ came to us and died and rose and ascended for us. It was so that the work begun in Genesis 1 and 2 would be completed, in spite of Genesis 3 and the subsequent way of fallen life ever since. It seems that God has chosen to redeem the world, not give up on it, as though He acknowledges that Satan has won this battle, but tells him to wait until the next one. God is redeeming the world, and through the most unlikely of accomplices–the once rebellious people who, having responded to Christ by repentance and faith, have been reclaimed and are being remade by the intervention of Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again. The good news, then, is best summarized in 2 Cor.5, where we are told that God, in Christ, is reconciling the world to Himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. If that’s a compromised gospel, I’m in trouble.

What Is the Gospel, Really? Part 4

Last night I had the joyful task of reading with my grandson. His mother has introduced him the Chronicles of Narnia, and it was my turn to pick up at one of the most poignant passages of the entire series (subjective judgment, of course). It is scene in which Eustace undergoes his “conversion” from the dragon he had become into a new version of his former person. The climactic moment came when he tried to shed his scales, his dragonhood if you will, by his own effort. He could take off a layer, feel a sense of freedom, but realize that there was always another layer remaining. Only when Aslan came and surgically and quite painfully penetrated to the core of Eustace himself could the process be completed and the self be renewed. I love that passage; I hate that passage.

The good news is that though people have rebelled and made a mess of things, God in Christ intervenes to change things–dramatically and eternally. I’ve been reviewing Greg Gilbert’s book What Is the Gospel? He offers a framework of God-man-Christ-response for answering that question. Gilbert affirms the absolute necessity of a substitutionary view of atonement, while acknowledging that other models contribute to our limited grasp of what Christ has done on our behalf by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And because he has done these things he and he alone can change us from dragons into children of God.

Like Eustace, dragons must first recognize their true nature; the first part of Gilbert’s framework is necessary to parts 3 and 4. We need to know who made us, and we need to recognize our failure–both in living as we were made to do and in our efforts to do it better without His intervention. If God in Christ went to the extent He did to redeem us, there really cannot be any thought that it was not necessary for Him to do so, or that there is an alternative. And if God acts, we can have confidence that what He does is sufficient for the purpose. Sufficient, but effective for those who respond, who go under the great Lion’s claw to have removed what they cannot remove themselves.

There is more to the story, more to the gospel. I’ll finish the series with one more post to talk about the greater extent of what God is doing in the world.

What Is the Gospel, Really? Part 3

In this current series I’ve been asking the question in the title, using Greg Gilbert’s brief book as a backdrop. While discussion has been limited, there have been some very important questions and insights contributed by commenters. Some of these have centered around the suggestion that everyone, regardless of where or when they have lived, have struggled with the questions of what our condition and our prospects are as human beings. Using Gilbert’s framework of God-man-Christ-response allows us to compare the way in which Christians handle the questions of being with how others might do so.

Gilbert begins with creation, which is not so surprising. God is the reason for there being a world, and more specifically for there being creatures who ask questions. As was pointed out in the comments, the ancient Greeks had an awareness of God’s absolute presence in the world. The same could be said of other times, places, and peoples. So for Gilbert, the emphasis is twofold: we are responsible/answerable to this Creator; and it is important to know what sort of Creator we are dealing with. The latter issue is well addressed, in my view, in that we are prone to accepting a rather trivialized version of who or what God might be. If we miss the matter of His holiness, we construct a mental idol who expects and demands little of us but somehow owes much to us, usually far more than we believe Him to deliver on.

Thus far, there is nothing said that would warrant the word “gospel.” It is perhaps interesting, fascinating, or informative to know that there is a Creator, and that He has a certain character. But it is not necessarily good news, especially when judgment might be involved. And in the second movement of Gilbert’s scheme the news becomes even less “good.” It is that subject of our sinful human condition, the one that inevitably forms the Christian answer to a universal question: what’s wrong with the world? One can complain, as many have done, that the idea of a universal depravity is irrational; but after the complaints, we are still left with a world to explain, one in which things are not done in a morally responsible fashion. See Blaise Pascal on that one.

Gilbert’s explanation of sin, in my opinion, is a very effective as a summary, particularly in pointing out various deficiencies in the way even Christians see it. Specific misperceptions begin with the confusion of sin with sin’s effects. This leads Christian preachers to appeal to our sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, emptiness, etc., as that which needs to be corrected by Christ–rather than understanding that these very real and potentially debilitating feelings are themselves the symptoms of a deeper problem. We experience them because we have sinned. Another very current deficient view is to speak about sin as a broken relationship; it is this, of course, but we often fail to note the kindof relationship we are speaking about. It is not a relationship between equals that needs to be mended; it is one between a king and his subject. Sin is also not merely negative thinking, which once corrected will enable us to flourish in a variety of ways related to this world. Finally, Gilbert points to the confusing of sin with sins; it’s not just a matter of the things we do realization of what we are at our core–rebellious toward our Creator, insistent on our own design for life.

This is certainly not good news. But it is required nonetheless if we are going to get to what the Christian gospel is really about. I’m curious as to how the categories of misperceptions about the bad news have been experienced in your recent hearing of “the gospel.” Do you hear the bad news at all, and is it a watered down version?

What Is the Gospel, Really? Part 2

It seems that some people are taken back by the question of what Christian gospel is. That’s understandable for those who have been involved in churches for the better part of their lives. And it also seems silly to ask where we find the core of the Christian message, that which is indeed worth calling “good news.”

In selecting a bite-sized summary, however, we necessarily leave vast portions of the Bible out of play, at least momentarily. I would argue that the ability of one’s summary to account for the rest of the scripture in a way that is compatible and consistent is a measure of the validity of that summary. If it leaves too much unexplained, we rightly question whether we’ve really grasped the “full gospel.”

These issues, to reiterate, are raised in a brief book I’ve been dealing with–What Is the Gospel?by Greg Gilbert. The author asks some of the questions I’ve been posing, answering some of them well and some of them not as thoroughly as I would like. He tackles the defining question by looking for the most comprehensive answer provided by the Bible itself; that is, what text most completely describes for believers and non-beievers alike what the message is all about. He finds this in the first four chapters of Romans, then summarizes that passage with a four-word formula: God, man, Christ, response. Each of these words, of course must be further specified, which invites us to do with a question for each one.

Here are his questions:
1. Who made us, and to whom are we accountable?
2. What is our problem? In other words, are we in trouble and why?
3. What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it?
4. How do I–myself, right here, right now–how do I come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else?

On one hand, it seems to me that the author implies a lot of answers in the very wording of the questions. I think he is importing a lot of assumptions about the Bible’s message into the way he asks the questions. On the other hand, there is a basic similarity with other authors, some of them more academically oriented, about the kinds of questions any faith (including faith in an atheistic universe) must answer if it is to be taken seriously. Let’s rephrase them just a bit; they are quite recognizable by those who have ever read James Sire, Nancy Pearcey, Francis Schaeffer, N. T. Wright, Diogenes Allen, or a host of others:

1. Why is there a world, and why the world that is?
2. What’s wrong with the world, or, more specifically, with people?
3. What is the solution to the problem?
4. What happens to us, both as individuals and as a human race?

We’ll explore how these questions and proposed answers are elaborated in upcoming posts. For today, what do you think of the questions as expressions of universally felt conundrums; and should we express them as such, without reference to the solution in veiled ways when we ask them? And what kind of answers must we assume before the gospel becomes “good news”?

What Is the Gospel, Really? (Part 1)

Thanks to those who have taken time and thought to offer what they believe to be the gospel in short. We even heard from the Roman Catholic perspective–not a bad addition to the discussion, either. At this point I’d like to offer a synopsis of Greg Gilbert’s take in his short book, What Is the Gospel?

The author’s first point is to ask what our authority is going to be in coming to a conclusion about what the Christian message is at its core. Regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize that familiar theme of authority; here, it’s not about who has the right or responsibility to decide standards of belief and practice, but about who or what tells us what we’re all about in the first place. I’m unaware of any self-designated Christian denomination which does not believe there is good news–gospel–to be proclaimed. But we are all well aware that which is spoken by various churches does not sound like the same message. So who has it right? Or are all versions equally valid, with some being more central while others are true but peripheral?

In deciding where we should go to find the “true gospel” Gilbert offers these options: the Bible as interpreted by Church tradition, with tradition taking the higher role; reason as that which will guide us to the truth; our own experience of and in the world will lead us to recognize truth “in our hearts”; or, we can rely on the Bible itself as the Word of God. The first option (tradition) is simply dismissed by equating it with the opinions of men, which can and have been wrong. Reason is dismissed by pointing out (correctly enough) that bare reason leads to nothing but skepticism. Experience means we have no confidence beyond ourselves, providing no certainty of anything we were looking for in the first place; it’s only a matter of how strong our will is, not of how the world is actually structured.

This, of course leads to the fourth option for finding the truth, or the real gospel: the pure scripture. Since it is all God-breathed, there is nothing to trump it or legitimately challenge its assertions. It comes from the Creator Himself; what more could be said? This is, of course standard fare in conservative circles. And I’m not interested in arguing against the idea of inspiration, without which we really do not have much to be confident about.

But is it so easily assumed that what everyone reads is the same message? Does the concept of inspiration override the differences in how people read or hear what the Bible says? The idea that what the authors penned and what we perceive are identical is open to serious question, as can be demonstrated through the history of interpretation. And the idea that any of us come to the text without some kind of tradition that tells us how to receive certain passages is mistaken. Maybe we need to at least open ourselves to a role for the options Gilbert dismisses out of hand–because in point of fact, he will use each of them to some measure throughout his writing. Tradition, reason, and experience may be difficult if not impossible task masters; but they may also be indispensable tools.

In the next entry we’ll discuss the hermeneutic Gilbert employs–and whether or not it actually affects the conclusion about his basic question of what the gospel is. For today, what do you see as the role of these factors–the other three sides of the so-called quadrilateral–in determining just what the gospel really is?

What Is It?

Every now and then we find ourselves so thoroughly involved in something that we forget what the “something” is without all of the peripheral things that are added to it. It certainly happens in sports, where so much is now made of statistics that we have created fantasies out of them. It happens in politics, where maintaining a party takes precedence over the governing principles that begat the party in the first place.

Has it happened with something as important as the Gospel? Do we know what it is well enough to speak it easily to someone who truly wants to know? And will the inquirer receive anything like the same answer from more than one source? These are among the questions asked by Greg Gilbert is his short book by the auspicious title, What Is the Gospel? It is one in a series of volumes to be published by Crossway under the title of 9 Marks–itself a spinoff from Mark Dever’s book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’m going to be reviewing and posting from Gilbert’s book, partially because of its purpose, which is to help believers to be clear in their thinking and their speaking of their faith. It will also, in part, be engaged because I will disagree with him at a few points points, and will want to know if any of those disagreements entail that we are speaking different “gospels.”

To begin, I’d like to engage in an exercise which forms Gilbert’s own introduction, establishing the need for a book with this title. He conducted a bit of a survey, asking the simple question he wishes to discuss: what is the gospel? It’s a question about which we are prone to say dismissively, “everybody knows that–at least anyone who is really saved.” Everybody knows–what?

So that’s the question I’d like to have as many people weigh in on as possible. Keep it short, as we are looking for encapsulations which can be expanded upon as opportunity permits, yet hit the core of the matter. After a day or two, we’ll see if it will be of benefit to consider the answers Gilbert provides in his brief book. So tell me, what is the gospel?

Pope Embraces Big Bang

This may not be such big news, in that the Vatican gave its blessing to evolution as God’s means of creating life in the world under John Paul II. Pope Benedict has simply taken the next logical step in affirming that scientific theories pointing to the origin of the universe approximately 13.7 billion years ago are compatible with Roman Catholic teachings.

The pontiff’s declaration also included a reference to the non-scientific nature of the first three chapters of Genesis. On one hand, that could easily be greeted with a “well, duh.” It doesn’t read like anything we would normally expect from a science book. And the more one reflects on the nature of origins myths from the Middle East at the likely time of the writing of Genesis, the more one might conclude that it is written as a polemic against those myths. On the other hand, connecting a mythical interpretation of Genesis 1-3 to the real human beings who follow in the subsequent chapters is fraught with challenges of its own.

What I find ironic is that the report from the Vatican comes shortly after the release of those Top Ten stories of 2010 noted in recent posts on this blog. Among those stories was the case of Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, who was “encouraged” to resign from his teaching position at Reformed Theological Seminary. His transgression was to advocate a reading of Genesis which would appear to be very much at home within Roman Catholicism, questioning the historicity of one named Adam.

What is also at issue here is authority, an issue I’ve been raising repeatedly. Here, it is not only the locus of authority, but the extent of that authority as well. What are the matters over which a recognized authority is competent to speak? Does orthodoxy extend over matters of doctrines of salvation only, or is it equally valid in matters such as the interpretation of science and the means through which God created the heavens and the earth? In answering this, we must also bear in mind that the traditional conservative reading of such passages as Genesis 1-3 is itself dependent upon a certain hermeneutic–a way of reading and interpreting the text. Does a recognized church authority have the right and/or the responsibility to dictate a hermeneutical approach to Scripture? If not, are there any boundaries, and who would determine them if there are?

So let’s get controversial for the new year. What do you think of either the papal position or of Waltke’s situation?