The Gospel in Paradise

Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 1Last time we saw that there’s nothing new in “biblical theology.” The Christian church has been doing a form of what we “biblical theology” for a very long time. This is because the gospel may be considered as a topic or as a collection of biblical truths and churchly dogmas that Protestants articulate with the shorthand expressions, sola gratia and sola fide. Those expressions are quick ways of summarizing a way of understanding the history of redemption, which came to fulfillment in the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Savior. The creeds contain propositions about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection but they relate them to us in historical sequence, so there’s no necessary tension between historical acts and doctrinal truths.

The Heidelberg Catechism does something quite like this when it explains the gospel in redemptive-historical terms.

19. From where do you know this?

From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.

Zacharias Ursinus, in his lectures on the catechism, says about this answer that the gospel here is parallel to the third question, “From where do you know your misery?” According to the catechism we know the bad news from the law. We know the good news from the gospel. This is the basic Protestant distinction, which, quite mysteriously, in opposition to mountains of historical evidence, some folk continue insist is a “Lutheran” way of speaking. To such one can only ask, “have you read any 16th- or 17th-century Reformed theology?

According to Ursinus, “the doctrine that reveals, describes, and offers [Christ] to us” that is —which “the Gospel.” We are made “partakers of Christ the Mediator (representative) and his benefits “by faith.” The Mediator (Christ) is the “subject of the gospel, which teaches who and what kind of a Mediator he is.” Indeed, Christ himself is the “author of the gospel” and the gospel is a part of the covenant.”

The gospel was present in paradise, because it was in paradise that we willfully fell into sin and death the gospel was first articulated in paradise. Virtually as soon as sin entered history, the good news also entered history. To be sure it was not spelled out in detail. Like the rest of the early chapters of Genesis the story is quite compressed.

Ursinus explains,

immediately after the fall, and which he brought from the bosom of the eternal Father, which promises, and announces, in view of the free grace and mercy of God, to all those that repent and believe, deliverance from sin, death, condemnation, and the wrath of God, which is the same thing as to say that it promises and proclaims the remission of sin, salvation, and eternal life, by and for the sake of the Son of God, the Mediator; and is that through which the Holy Spirit works effectually in the hearts of the faithful, kindling and exciting in them, faith, repentance, and the beginning of eternal life.

The gospel he says we find throughout Scripture, under Adam (after the fall), under Noah, Abraham, and Moses. About the latter Ursinus answered the objection, “But it is said, the law was by Moses; therefore the gospel was not by him.”

This is so declared, because it was the principal part of his office to publish the law. Yet he also taught the gospel, because he wrote and spoke of Christ, although more obscurely, as has been shown. But it was the peculiar office of Christ to publish the gospel, although he at the same time taught the law, but not principally, as did Moses: for he took away from the moral law the corruptions and glosses of false teachers—he fulfilled the ceremonial law, and abrogated it, together with the judicial law.

We see the gospel in shadows in Genesis 3:15,

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

This word from God is, according to Ursinus, categorically different from the law word. He explains the distinction between law and gospel at great length, which we’ve addressed on the HB at length previously. The important thing to see here is that, according to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, the gospel is found from the beginning of Scripture to the end. It is the thread that holds Scripture together.

Depending upon your church background this might be a new idea for you. I understand that it might be difficult to get your mind around this way of thinking, especially if you’ve been led in the past to think that the thing that ties Scripture together is the promise of a national people (Israel). It might be shock but that’s not the historic, Christian way of reading Scripture. From the earliest days of the post-apostolic church, through the medieval church, and into the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, Christians read the history of redemption not as centered on national Israel but upon Jesus, the Israel of God. The idea that Scripture is centered on national Israel is a relatively new idea that is about 150 years old. It is very popular in our age but it simply doesn’t account for passages such as Genesis 3;15. This way of reading Scripture isn’t “allegorizing.” It’s the literal reading Scripture, the way it wants to be read, according to the way it interprets itself. Jesus said explicitly that all the Scriptures are about him (Luke 24; John 8:56). Paul wrote the same thing (2 Cor 1:20).

Next time: the gospel in the patriarchs.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. I recently heard “the “late” J. Vernon McGee (how long do you have to be dead before you are no longer “the late”?) answer a listener’s question: “When was the beginning of the church?” to which J. Vernon replied, “Why Pentecost, of course.” It figures he would say that. Thanks for the post–we need to say that loudly and clearly: Genesis 3:15.

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