What message?

Evangelical churches in the west are very strong on proclaiming ‘the gospel’, and very little but ‘the gospel’, but is their gospel authentic, i.e. how does it conform to what Jesus, the apostles and the New Testament writers preached?

What does ‘gospel’ mean?

The word “gospel” translates the Greek word euangelion, which was used in the Roman world to describe an imperial announcement that was ‘good news’. A similar word was also used in Greek translations of a few parts of the Old Testament (e.g. “glad tidings: in Isaiah). It is used in quite original ways in the New Testament. In Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message in Mark 1:15, ‘gospel’ refers to Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God was near. It was used predominantly by Paul to indicate the whole message about Jesus and salvation. Thus in the New Testament, it didn’t have a narrow and tightly defined meaning.

A typical evangelical presentation of the gospel

We are all familiar with this, in one form or another. The “Romans Road” is one popular formulation:

  1. Our sin (rebellion against God) – Romans 3:23
  2. Sin leads to death – Romans 6:23
  3. Jesus died for our sins – Romans 5:8
  4. Repent, believe and accept Jesus as Saviour – Romans 10:9-10

This “sin-based” gospel is similar to what we find in other New Testament letters – e.g 1 Peter 2:24-25). However we find that Paul’s preaching as recorded in Acts is not quite so formulaic. In particular, there were differences in Paul’s approach to Jews and Gentiles.

  • In Acts 13:15-39 Paul addresses the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, and spends the first part of his talk setting the scene in Jewish history before he finally mentions Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sins is only mentioned briefly, though it is possibly the climax of his address, and the main theme seems to be to encourage the Jews to recognise their Messiah.
  • In Acts 17:19-34 Paul addresses the philosophers of the Athens Areopagus, and again starts with a discussion of the God who the Athenians hadn’t yet recognised. And again, sin and repentance are only mentioned very late, as the final point Paul wishes to make.

Things we learn from Jesus’ ministry

We can see a different approach in the ministry of Jesus.

What the historians tell us about Jesus

New Testament scholars understand the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different terms to those sometimes taught in western evangelical christianity. For example, historian John Dickson (himself part of the evangelical community) emphasises the following aspects of Jesus in his excellent book and video Life of Jesus:

  1. Jesus saw himself as the Messiah and Saviour, but not a military Messiah but a servant one (Luke 2:6-12, Mark 10:45).
  2. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, where he will right all wrongs (Luke 4:43). We have to strive to enter the kingdom. Being in the kingdom implies living a life of love (Luke 6:27-36).
  3. Jesus will judge all those who lack love for God and for neighbours (Matthew 25:41-45) – especially religious hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-15).
  4. Yet Jesus was the friend of sinners (Matthew 9:10-13) and he rarely emphasised their sin (John 8:7-11). He even let one man’s claim to have obeyed the entire law pass without adverse comment, but with a compliment (Mark 10:17-21), something modern day evangelical christians might find hard to do!
  5. Jesus died to save us (#1), defeat evil and begin the kingdom (#2), and resolve the apparent dilemma between his judgment of sin and his love for sinners (#3, 4).

Jesus treated people very individually

He generally said different things to different people:

  • He told Nicodemus he must be born again (John 3:3).
  • A rich man was told to sell everything he had and follow Jesus (Mark 10:17-21).
  • We don’t know what Zaccheus was told (Luke 19:1-10) except that Jesus invited himself for a meal, but the outcome was that he gave up much of his wealth to those he had cheated.
  • He asked the Samaritan women for a drink of water, answered her questions and told her he was the Messiah (John 4:1-42), but he didn’t seem to give her any “gospel” message.
  • The paralysed man was healed and then told his sins were forgiven, without any statement of repentance on the man’s part (Mark 2:1-12).
  • The women in Luke 7:36-50 was clearly repentant, and was simply told her sins were forgiven and she could go in peace.

Jesus tended to call people to action

  • Jesus often called for, or praised, belief or faith when people were seeking healing: e.g. Mark 5:21-43.
  • John’s Gospel often talks of the importance of believing: e.g. John 6:35-47.
  • But it wasn’t always simply believing in him, but in the coming of God’s kingdom – Mark 1:15.
  • Often Jesus called people to follow him, not just believe – e.g. Mark 1:16-20, Luke 9:57-62.
  • Sometimes he made special demands for action (Mark 10:17-22).
  • Jesus requires us all to follow him – Matthew 10:38, 16:24.
  • Jesus calls us to make disciples who obey his commands – Matthew 28:19-20.
  • It is worth noting that “sinners” in Jesus day were people despised by the religious elite and therefore on the fringes of polite society. Jesus generally showed them compassion, while reserving his strongest condemnation for the religious elite.
  • Our response should be to repent – to change our minds, stop going our own way and start following him (Mark 1:15).

What does this suggest about our gospel presentation?

It seems clear that we need to think and pray carefully about all this. Here are a few tentative conclusions:

  • There are three obvious ways we may try to resolve the apparent difference between Paul’s presentation and Jesus’:
    1. It is tempting to say that Jesus was special (Son of God) and was preaching to Jews before his death and resurrection, so we cannot take his example as normative – thus we should stick with Paul and the “Romans Road”. But this would render all Jesus’ teaching irrelevant on the same logic. I just can’t see this being the answer.
    2. Sceptics are fond of saying that christianity is based on Paul rather than Jesus, because Paul transformed christian belief into something Jesus hadn’t taught. But while sceptics may make this claim, no-one who believes in Jesus can take it seriously. If God truly sent Jesus, he would not have allowed the true teachings to be lost within a decade or two of Jesus’ death.
    3. The only viable alternative I can see is to look for principles to guide us into an understanding that embraces both approaches, show us why each one was used at the time and give us clues into the most useful and truthful approach today.
  • I remember hearing one preacher claim that Jesus spoke more subtly because he was speaking into a culture that that was permeated with religion, but not necessarily with faith, and he wanted to draw out people who were somewhat bruised spiritually. Paul, on the other hand, was speaking mainly into a pagan culture that was thirsty for some genuine good news. On this analysis, our culture would be closer to the one Jesus spoke to. People have been bruised by religion and many don’t trust the church. Statistics suggest about 70% of the population in the UK and Australia are not open to going to church. Perhaps we need a more subtle approach?
  • Paul’s approach was essentially based on looking at the past (our sin) whereas Jesus’ approach tended to look to the future (the kingdom of God and our part in it). I personally find the latter more attractive, and I believe most people today would feel the same. If this is true, then perhaps we need to present the positive, and allow time, the Spirit and ongoing Bible reading to lead converts to an awareness of their need for forgiveness.
  • Calling people to follow Jesus tends to weaken the old faith vs works tensions. It remains true that we cannot live good enough lives to earn our salvation, but since our response requires both faith and action, it makes little sense to think the two are opposed to each other.
  • This doesn’t mean we no longer believe that people commit sins and need forgiveness. Rather, we are judicious in how we present this teaching. Trying to convince someone they are a sinner seems to me to be something Jesus didn’t do. If following Jesus doesn’t lead a person to repentance, I’m not sure if my words will.
  • We cannot ignore Jesus’ example. He treated each person differently, apparently guided by the Spirit. We have the same Spirit, shouldn’t we likewise pray that he will lead us to appropriate approaches?

John Carroll, an unbeliever, suggests we need to emphasise the “big story” of christianity, which is the story of Jesus. Perhaps we need to spend less time preaching the doctrine of Jesus and the sinfulness of the human race, and more time telling the stories of Jesus. The teaching can come later.

Perhaps this is a better outline of the “good news”

1. God made human beings in his image (Genesis 1:26, Psalm 8:5) – as moral, rational beings who must take responsibility for our choices (Acts 17:30-31).

2. Because things have gone wrong on earth, God sent Jesus to begin the process of putting things right, by beginning a new community who follow Jesus as king (Mark 1:15, Luke 4:16-21). Jesus did this by:

  • teaching (Luke 4:43),
  • putting things right in people’s lives through healing, love and acceptance (Luke 7:36-50, Mark 5:1-20),
  • establishing a new community of followers (John 17:9-23),
  • dying to redeem us (Mark 10:45), and
  • being resurrected to demonstrate he has conquered sin and death (Luke 24:36-47).

3. Jesus invites us to trust him and join/follow him in putting things right (Matthew 5:13-16; 16:24-25). This will involve us in:

  • recognising we need to stop doing things our way and start doing things God’s way (Luke 16:13-32);
  • asking for forgiveness for the things we get wrong (Luke 5:32; 18:9-14);
  • living a life in which we love God wholeheartedly and love/ serve our fellow human beings (Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37);
  • sharing the good news that God is putting things right and inviting others to follow the same path (Matthew 28:18-20, John 20:21-23).
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