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Archive for May, 2012

There has been quite a debate in recent years over the definition of the word ‘gospel.’

Now, right there many of my readers (if I may be so bold as to presume multiple) are ready to write this off as another instance where scholars waste time and ink arguing about things we already know.  After all, the gospel is about how a person gets saved and has a relationship with God.  Why complicate something so simple a child could understand it?

Problems with the Popular Conception

The critique of this concept of the gospel has already been leveled by many people.  Here are some of my issues with it, in no particular order:

1. Why are the Gospels called “Gospels?’  The standard definition doesn’t fit this usage.  “How You Get Saved, According to Mark.”  Sorry, doesn’t work.  Because if that were the case, I’m not sure why we have 4 different Gospels.

2. It doesn’t quite fit with the OT usage of the word (or at least the Greek word, euanggelion).  Take, for example, Isaiah’s usage of it in Is 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1 (paying attention to the surrounding context, of course).  Those passage, indeed, most of Isaiah 40-66, are about God rescuing, restoring and re-establishing the nation from their exile.  That, of course, includes individuals, but that’s not at all the focus.

3. It doesn’t always fit the NT usage, either.  Some frequently point to Romans 1:1-4.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Again, the standard answer can’t simply be substituted and work well.

4. Nor does it fit too well with Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The gospel here is not simply having the debt of sin paid for and the promise of relationship with God.

5. Or consider Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).  There is no mention of Jesus dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  I want to be clear, though: I think what we have here is a condensed version of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians.  I have serious doubts he went too long without mentioning the cross of Christ.  But, it is interesting that Luke doesn’t include that aspect of Paul’s proclamation in this passage.

Okay, we could probably multiply passages and the like, but I think I’ve proven my point.

Where the Popular Conception Is Right

On the other hand, though, those who want to diminish the individual aspect of the gospel- that we are sinners in need of good news that God has made a way for us to know and have a relationship with him- also fail to deal adequately with the biblical data.  One would only have to read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where Paul clearly delineates the gospel he preached (here are vv3-8):

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

So there it is, in plain language: Christ died for our sins, was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers.  That the biblical writers didn’t believe in or emphasize individual salvation is a wrong-headed idea, considering one of them once wrote “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m saying the traditional definition of the gospel is wrong.  It’s just that it doesn’t exhaust all that the Bible says the gospel is.  It’s not simple, it’s simplistic.

Keller & Gathercole on the Gospel

I want to highlight two resources, one of which I only recently learned about.  First, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s (free!) talk, appropriately called “What Is the Gospel?”  My coblogger, Brian, recommended it to me with this sales pitch: ‘it was like hearing the gospel for the first time!’  The second, recommended by Keller, is an essay by NT scholar Simon Gathercole called “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” (this is a pdf, HT: JT).

Both of these resources take a careful look at the biblical material, but are by no means technical.  Anyone can use them, most probably should.  Keller’s talk if about 49 minutes, whereas Gathercole’s essay is 17 pages (with huge margins).  In the meantime, I’ll highlight the keys points.

Keller gives 3 aspects to the gospel, all of which are important and irreplaceable.

1. The Historical Aspect (the gospel events).  “The gospel is news about what Jesus has done, not primarily advice about how to live.”

2. The Sonship Aspect (the gospel identity).  The gospel is about a status you receive now, not just a reward you receive later.

3. The Kingdom Aspect (the gospel administration).  “The gospel is a completely transformed reversal of the world’s values, not just strength to live according to the old values.”   Also, this aspect is about God making this world a great world again.

Gathercole’s essay deals with the question of what is the gospel in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels, and are they ‘different gospels.’  Here is his summary of Paul’s gospel: “the gospel is God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation.”  In other words, the gospel is about both who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his work, which includes both salvation for people and bringing about a new creation).

Regarding the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Gathercole doesn’t try to ‘over-harmonize’ them with Paul.  They are different, as seen in the usage of the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,’ which isn’t not prevalent in Paul.  But while the linguistic ties aren’t always there, the basic thematic outline of the gospel is the same in both sets of writings:

The unity of their presentations of the gospel can be seen in the broad outlines of these three key themes: (1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, (2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and (3) his inauguration of a new dominion.  These lie at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

What both Keller and Gathercole do well is note the ‘broad gospel’ without losing focus on the individual aspect of it.  While their three categories don’t exactly match up, it’s actually pretty close.  What I like about them both is this: they keep the big picture (new creation/dominion) and the narrow picture (forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection), but also tie it in to the historical events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would would restore not only them, but the nations of the world (Is 49:6).

One Last Bit of Wisdom from Keller

Some would, understandably, ask how this should affect our proclamation/sharing of the gospel.  After all, the 4 Spiritual Laws are nothing if not easy to share and understand, why make it harder by having to include everything in one shot?

I recommend Keller’s blog post here.  Among other things, he notes that the biblical writers themselves rarely include everything about the gospel in a one-stop shopping manner.  Even before twitter, we were accustomed to trying to make everything ‘short, sweet and to the point.’  But maybe we’d be better off casting a full blown gospel vision before people rather than aim for pithy.  For a people who have lost even the basic biblical categories (sin, justice, forgiveness, etc), this might be exactly what we need to do.

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I just received an e-mail from a friend of mine informing me that Todd MacDonald, a friend from seminary, passed away last week after battling cancer.  You can read his obituary here and see any other updates on his website.  This is obviously incredibly sad news for those of us who knew Todd.  For me personally it hit me because I had planned on e-mailing Todd this morning to see how he was doing.  Now I know.

I had highlighted Todd’s album, Pilgrims Here, a couple years back, and in that post I briefly mentioned the impact Todd had on my life.  I wanted to take a second and honor Todd again.

I e-mailed Todd way back in March of 2009.  I had been trying to find a way to contact him to tell him about how a random theological conversation at Brian’s (my coblogger) wedding had helped change my life.  While I was searching for contact info (on the internet) I discovered that he was battling cancer.  I’m grateful for the chance to tell him this before he passed away, and for the random e-mails we shared over the past 3 years.

This is a portion of the e-mail I sent him 3+ years ago:

Do you remember being at Brian Marchionni’s wedding a few years back (almost 5, now)?  You and I discussed theology for most of the reception, which was a pretty dorky thing to do.  But, you spent a lot of time convincing me of your reading of Romans 7, specifically that it doesn’t deal with a regenerate man but an unregenerate man.  Seems fairly innocuous, but it ended up being an important time of my life.

One thing that no one knew about me in seminary is that I struggled greatly with depression.  I felt hopeless in the face of it, and felt as if I could never overcome my sin that was largely responsible for my depression.  Basically, in my mind, in the battle between my flesh and the Spirit, I felt as if the flesh would always win.  But after our conversation, I went back and read the NT again to see what I thought about what you said.  It opened up a new world for me, one that actually had hope and I began to believe that sin actually was defeatable.

I’m not saying the change was overnight, but I can honestly say that our conversation that night was a major turning point for me in my battle with sin and depression.  It’s weird, seminary students have theological conversations on a daily basis, but only a small percentage actually make a difference.  This is one that has had a profound impact on me, and I’m grateful to you for your insight.  It truly changed my life.

I’m actually teaching on this tonight.  I’ve been telling people for years now that our conversation that night at Brian’s wedding changed my life, but about a month ago I realized that you probably had no idea; I had decided I needed to write you and tell you.  Soon after that, I found out you’re sick, and was heartbroken.  So, I’m writing to let you know how much I appreciate you and how thankful I am that God crossed our paths at just the right time.  Now that I’m on the “other side” of my depression battle, I can clearly see that you were an instrument in the hands of God, even without knowing it.  God truly is amazing!

Now that Todd has temporarily lost his battle with cancer, I reflect on that conversation (now almost 8 years ago) and can’t believe how far the Lord has brought me.  I don’t want to overstate things in the wake of his death.  Todd and I were not best friends.  He wouldn’t have put me on his short list of closest buddies.  That conversation was not the single most important event in my life.

But it would make the Top 10 major events in my adult life, truth be told.  It was a significant turning point, one, as I said, I frequently pointed to in my teachings about overcoming sin (even before I found out Todd was sick).  I know Todd was grateful that I let him know about this.  He even joked that he was probably fueled by pride in trying to convince me of his position (he didn’t even remember the conversation, as we probably had so many).  Whether or not that’s true, I’m grateful we talked.

So now we await the glorious future of Todd MacDonald.  I’m sad he’s passed, happy he’s not suffering now and excited that there is the hope of the resurrection to come.  Todd MacDonald will one day return, not in a cancer-ridden body, but one transformed into a glorious body like that of our Savior’s (Phil 3:21).  While I have no doubt his suffering was immense, and the suffering his family now endures is unquestionably heavy, I also know that those “present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).  Amen and amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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I have a great appreciation for Carl Trueman.  For those who don’t know, Trueman is a theologian and historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He also blogs regularly at Reformation21.  He is one of the wittiest and most insightful writers out there, one from whom I’ve learned much.

Part of what I like about Trueman is that he is unabashedly Reformed.  It’s not that I agree with his positions, but I admire the man for the fact that he has strong convictions, doesn’t mind stating them strongly and, it seems, he appreciates when others do the same.  I like people who know where they stand and hold to it firmly, as well as grant you the right to do the same.

Then there I times I shake my head.  Like yesterday, when I was reading this post on an unfortunate incident regarding a church suing a former member.  The context of that post isn’t my concern here (since I agree with Trueman, save for the following points).  But in it he makes a statement I’ve heard/read from him previously: “The church is marked by two things: the word and the sacraments.”

This is, of course, a classic Reformed position, so he’s not stating anything new here.  And since I went to a Reformed seminary, I’m well aware of the arguments in favor of it.  I don’t necessarily disagree with “the word” part of the statement, though Trueman and I might not see eye-to-eye on how it’s carried out.  Most Reformed folks I know would stress the preaching of the word- one guy standing up in the front and the congregation listening, with very little interaction otherwise.  That, to me, is not necessarily bad, in fact, it’s mostly a good thing, but it’s not exactly what the NT writers had in mind.  There was some of that style of preaching, to be sure, but there also seemed to be a bit more interaction happening, too.

Anyway, I find his statement regarding the centrality of the ‘sacraments’ (and the term he uses next, ‘means of grace’) to be the most problematic.  This is the mark of the church?  I’m not sure if a person who has never read the NT before would come away with these two points as the marks of the church.  What about love (Jn 13:35)?  What about obeying the commands of Jesus (Jn 14:23-24)?  What about living lives of faith?  It seems to me that Paul thought faith set the church apart from others.

What about believers helping fellow believers financially, practically, etc?  In fact, that shows up more often in the NT than the Lord’s Supper does.  Why doesn’t that make the Top 2 Marks of the Church?

Or, perhaps even more egregious, how about the fact that the very presence of God who was present at the beginning of creation now dwells in the hearts of his people individually and among his people corporately?  You mean to tell me that someone read the NT and came away thinking that the Holy Spirit is not the mark of the church?  God himself dwells among us!  After all, it is the Spirit’s presence in our corporate worship that ought to make unbelievers “fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Cor 14:25).  If that isn’t something that marks off the church, I don’t know what is.

I want to be clear.  I’m not down on the so-called ‘sacraments,’ or as I state here, my inner Baptist prefers to use the term ‘ordinance.’  In fact, I’d argue baptism and the Lord’s Supper are undervalued in the modern church.  I’m a proponent of weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (though I’d stress more ‘supper’ than a cracker and juice).  I have very strong feelings about baptism, not just the mode but also its importance.

But what I think Reformed theology has done in general, and Trueman in particular, is give a good thing too high a place in the life of the church.  It is, in my opinion, very difficult to get from the NT that the two primary marks of the church are the word and sacraments.  The first, as I said, is defensible, depending on how we define it.  The second is a harder case to make.

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The big headline in 1996 was that Barack Obama wrote that he supported same-sex marriage.  Apparently he’s voiced this support again more recently, which I didn’t know because I’ve been comatose in an isolated concrete bunker at the earth’s core for a month.  One particular reaction to his (re)announcement has caught my eye, and I’m submitting it as my entry for this year’s “Most Post-Modern Thing You’ve Ever Heard” contest (or MPMTYEH, pronounced “em-pum-TEE-ah”). For what it’s worth, my entry last year, “All religions are basically the same” narrowly lost to “That’s true for you, but not for me.”  It was a shame, really; I should have won.  MPMTYEH is so subjective now, almost as if there’s no absolute standard by which to judge the entries…

Anyway, the statement?  One supporter encourages Obama after his announcement with the phrase, “Stand in your truth!”  I can probably explain this statement away as simply meaning, “Stand up for the things you believe in” or something like that, against which I take no issue.  However, the word “truth” really bugs me, not unlike last years MPMTYEH winner, “That’s true for you, but not for me.”  The encouragement implies that Obama’s “truth” is distinct from somebody else’s “truth.”  Thus the concept of truth is made subjective, as if we make our own truth.  This is, of course, false.  If you disagree with me, consider that my truth is that we don’t make our own truth. Q.E.D.

My second contest entry this year also (purely coincidentally) involves the issue of homosexuality.  I’m submitting this into the 2012 “Four Words I Never Thought I’d See Together” contest (FWINTIST – “fuh-WIN-tist”).  My entry is “St. Augustine Gay Pride.”  The context is the gay pride day taking place in the Florida city named after Augustine.  Granted, this doesn’t sound alarming.  On its own, however, it is quite shocking.  I was never terribly close to Augustine of Hippo, as he tended to hang out with an older crowd than me (i.e., people long dead), but I’m pretty sure he never thought he’d see his name followed by “gay pride.”

Regarding actual non-snarky commentary about gay marriage, these days I’m most impressed by the prescience of Francis Schaeffer, who back in the 70’s (or perhaps earlier) noted that in a society without absolutes, society becomes the absolute.  For my money, this is precisely what is happening with same-sex marriage.  American societies are gradually reaching the point of saying that they define what marriage is, and many of those societies are concluding that marriage includes same-sex couples.  An ancillary observation by Schaeffer was that erasing absolutes would still leave two: Personal peace and affluence.  In other words, the two things people will continue to cling to in the absence of other absolutes are their own personal peace and affluence.  I have found the personal peace aspect of this relevant to the debates about same-sex marriage as well, since I’ve often heard the (weak) argument, “It’s not hurting anybody; let them marry.”  What’s ultimately being said here, in my opinion, is that it’s not bothering me (personal peace), so let them marry.  Again, the absolute is still rooted in the individual.

We tend to stray from topics like homosexuality here at BBG, but not for lack of conviction about the issue, or for lack of confidence in our position.  Rather, I’ve yet to see any fruitful exchange about such emotionally charged issues take place on a public blog.  If you want to see flame wars, hate speech, deep irony, and a bunch of people writing things they’d never actually say with no real exchange of ideas, look at the comments after a CNN article on homosexuality.  This is what we do not want BBG to become.

It will come as no surprise to our reader(s?) that this author does not support same-sex marriage (cue sound of can of worms opening).  After all, this is Boston Bible Geeks, not Boston Secular-Humanism Geeks, or something like that.  As such, my feelings on the matter stem from the fact that the Bible is authoritative in my life: It defines marriage for me, and I can find no compelling evidence that marriage was purposed for same-sex couples (or polygamy, by the way).  As for whether or not we should legislate Biblical principles, frankly, the best arguments I’ve read about same-sex marriage have nothing to do with the Bible, religion, “the sanctity of marriage” or anything like that, such as the exchanges regarding natural law here, here and here (lots of reading, but also thorough, intelligent writing on the subject showcasing opposing views).   While I’m linking articles, from a Christian standpoint, Collin Hansen at TGC has written a reaction to Obama’s announcement here, which is also worth reading.

I’d be happy to discuss privately over e-mail anyone who wishes for an actual “conversation.”  It would be an interesting social experiment to see if two adults could disagree about something so controversial and remain friendly.  Perhaps we might even learn something from each other, and even grow to understand differing views without the noise of the media, blog trolls, or quick, superficial, straw-man dismissals.  For the subject matter at hand, this would be a good thing.

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