The Legend of Universal Importance
Did you know that some parts of the Bible are more important than other parts? Yes, all the Scriptures are God-breathed, infallible, inerrant, sufficient and authoritative, but some parts are more important (not more God-breathed, etc.). The Holy Spirit had the Apostle Paul pen these familiar words:
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. (1 Corinthians 15:3–4, emphasis added)
Paul knows that the entire Bible is important. He fully grasps the gravity of God breathing out “every jot and tittle” of the Bible (Matt 5:17–18; 2 Tim 3:16). Yet, Paul writes “of first importance,” meaning that some truths in the Word are more important than others. Paul acknowledges a hierarchy of biblical truth. Even though every topic and subject in the Bible is important, something is the most important.
Before video games ruled the world, boys had to play outside and use their minds to come up with creative activities. One such pursuit was sneaking grandma’s magnifying glass outside on a cloudless, sunny day. Rambunctious boys can readily find the perfect focal point for the sun’s rays to be concentrated enough to cause smoke and then fire to belch forth from a dried leaf. But after a while, leaves seem pretty routine and boring. “Been there, burnt that.” Then it is time to up the ante to living creatures, namely assorted insects. To continue the analogy, 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 teaches that if all of the Bible was beamed through a magnifying glass, the burning hot focal point would be the substitutionary death, burial, resurrection, and appearance of Jesus Christ. Jesus and His work is “of first importance.” The Gospel matters.
The Fairytale Gospel
When defining terms or concepts, it is often helpful to describe the contrast or opposite. Before the definition of the gospel is elucidated in the following essays, what are some of the definitions of the gospel that are incorrect?
What the gospel is not (I have collected these from many people):
- The Golden Rule
- God helps those who help themselves
- Be good
- Be nice
- Be like Jesus
- The Four Spiritual Laws
- Love the Lord your God
- Love your neighbor
- Follow Jesus
- Have purpose in your life
- Have a relationship with God
- Have your best life now
- Be baptized
- Feed the poor
- Be born again
- Get baptized with the Holy Spirit
- Speak in tongues
- Let Jesus be on the throne of your heart
- Say the “sinner’s prayer”
- The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man
- Make Jesus your Lord
Many of the above statements are true. After all, some of them are verses from the Bible itself. What is wrong? Exhortations to do something, that is, statements of an imperatival nature, are what theologians call “law.” Law and gospel are mutually exclusive. In addition, the list’s common denominator is what is noticeably absent, namely, a declaration of good news, or “the gospel.” The gospel says, “This is what God in Christ has done on the behalf of sinners.” Law says, “Do this and live.” None of the above list explicates the person and work of Jesus Christ, who was sent by the unbegotten Father.
What is the gospel specifically? Glad you asked.
The Gospel Truth
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:1–5)
In this passage Paul reveals six components of the gospel. While there could be more said about the gospel of God elsewhere in Scripture, no other passage contains so much gospel ore found in one mineshaft of truth.
First, the gospel is a declaration. The word “gospel” comes from the Old English, “god-spell,” which means “good news.” The Greek word signifies “good message.” The background of the original words carries military inferences. The general would send a runner to the front of the battle for a report. The runner would hastily return, hopefully with the good news, “We won!” Good news is delivered with what J. Gresham Machen called, “triumphant indicatives,”1 that is, statements of fact. Therefore, it is wrong to try to “live the gospel.” The gospel is good news to be reported, not lived. Michael Horton understands the difference, exclaiming, “Instead of reporting the news, we become the news. In fact, today we often hear Christians speak of ‘living the gospel’ and ‘being the gospel,’ as if anything we do, and are, can be considered a supplement to God’s victory in Christ Jesus.”2 Anytime a Christian mixes up the gospel with the law, the gospel evaporates. As many say, it turns into “glawspel.”
Declarations of good news protect God’s gospel from any inroads of the law, but pure gospel preaching additionally serves as a built-in protection device from the temptation of the reporter to put his own spin on the story. Heralds of good news should not tell others about themselves, their inner workings, or what they think. Instead, they are to report objective facts. Historical verities. Report! The herald’s life is not good news and neither are the felt needs of the hearers. Horton correctly assesses such selfishness, noting,
We are all “curved in on ourselves.” Born with a severe case of spiritual scoliosis, our spines are twisted so that all we can see are our own immediate felt needs, desires, wants, and momentary gratifications. But the gospel makes us stand erect, looking up to God in faith and out to the world and our neighbors in love and service. Not every piece of news can do that, but the gospel can. It is interesting that the biblical writers chose the word “gospel.” The heart of most religions is good advice, good techniques, good programs, good ideas, and good support systems. These drive us deeper into ourselves, to find our inner light, inner goodness, inner voice, or inner resources. Nothing new can be found inside of us. . . . The average person thinks that the purpose of religion is to give us a list of rules and techniques or to frame a way of life that helps us to be more loving, forgiving, patient, caring and generous.3
“It’s a boy!” “Reagan elected in a landslide!” “Victory for the Allies!” “The Nebraska Cornhuskers win the National Championship” (1995). What do all of these declarations have in common? For many people, these announcements were good news (feel free to substitute “girl,” a Democrat, or another victorious country in war if it pleases you—but please do not mess with the Big Red or Dr. Clark will be disappointed!). The point remains—each is a publication of good news. There is nothing that must be done. These announcements are not giving any commands. Law is noticeably absent in each statement. Similarly, the gospel is good news about what God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Savior who triumphed over sin, death, and Satan. Good news. No law.
I want to highlight the importance of the objective declaration of God’s good news in Jesus Christ and to stress how every believer is responsible to guarantee its faithful transmission to the next generation. To accomplish this task we must believe this good news, protect it, and broadcast it through proclamation (evangelism).
Second, the gospel is God-centered. The gospel is not good news by announcement only, but it is also good news in the form of content. The subject of almost every verb in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 is Jesus Christ. To emphasize God’s activity in the gospel, Paul even utilized some passive verbs to keep the stress on God’s work (“He was buried,” instead of “they buried Him”). God is active and sinners are passive. The Lord is the Savior who does the saving. Faith did not die for sins. Faith was not buried. Faith was not raised and faith did not appear to many after the resurrection. Theologian Sinclair Ferguson understands the place of faith, which is never the Savior: “True faith takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself. Faith gets a man out of himself and into Christ. Its strength therefore depends on the character of Christ. Even those of us who have weak faith have the same strong Christ as others!”4
1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 39.
2. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2008), 106.
3. Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2009), 20.
4. Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2013), 67.
©Mike Abendroth. All Rights Reserved.
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