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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 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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It’s been roughly a month now, but my mind keeps wandering back to a post I read by R C Sproul Jr. called “Five Evangelical Myths or Half Truths.”  In it, as you can imagine, Sproul writes about 5 sayings commonly heard in the evangelical world that either aren’t true at all, or aren’t completely true and thus potentially dangerous.  I agree, for the most part, with his disagreements on 4 of the 5, but the middle one is something he botches pretty badly, in my opinion.  I’ll quote it here:

3. “Jesus saves us from our sins.”

Well, no. It is absolutely true that Jesus saves us. When we face trouble, He is the one we should be crying out to for deliverance. But the great problem with our sins isn’t our sins, but the wrath of God. The trouble I need to be delivered from is the wrath of God. Hell is not my sins, but the wrath of God. We don’t need to be saved from our sins. We need to be saved from the wrath due for our sins.

Now, I can see what he’s thinking here.  He’s worried that if we focus too much on sin, we miss the fact that sin itself is an offense to God and justifiably incurs his wrath and punishment.  The wrath of God is a topic rarely addressed and taken seriously, and perhaps the precise wording he quotes – ‘Jesus saves us from our sins’- contributes to that neglect (although I’m not convinced).

But his approach is just as bad than the one he opposes.  ‘Jesus saves us from our sins’ is 100% true.  The problem is not in the saying itself, but in the fact that we don’t know just how true it is.

Sproul misdiagnoses the problem to begin with.  He wants to focus more on our salvation from the consequences of our sin (God’s wrath) rather than sin itself.  In my experience most evangelicals share that focus with him.  That is, when evangelicals talk about salvation, we are really referring to eternal salvation/salvation from hell/etc.  So while Sproul disagrees with wording of the above phrase (and I’ll agree wording is important), the basic intention is the same as what he means.

But Jesus actually does save us from our sins.  We have been set free from ‘the law of sin and death’ and sin has been condemned (Rom 8:2-3).  We have been set free from sin (Rom 6:7), are dead to sin (6:11) and are no longer under the rule of our old master, sin (6:14).  We used to be slaves to sin, but have been freed (6:17-18, 22).

So let’s get this straight: we used to be enslaved to sin, but Jesus has freed us from sin and bound us to himself.  Isn’t that, by its very definition, saving us from our sin?  How can Sproul respond to this statement with “well, no”?  Is he not perpetuating a half-truth himself?

Many Christians don’t take seriously enough that Jesus has actually saved us from our sins.  We are (rightfully) grateful for salvation from the consequences of our sin, but forget that there is a ‘here and now’ victory over sin that is made possible by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and the gift of the indwelling Spirit of God (Rom 8:3-4).

The best way to fight a half-truth is not to replace it with another one.  The best approach is to teach the whole truth, and in this case, not only to teach it, but to live it.  We have been saved from our sins and are no longer slaves to what once bound us.  Now, by the power of the Spirit, let’s live that truth out in our daily lives.

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I read the following quote in Jim Hamilton’s book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (a book I’m reviewing and have enjoyed thoroughly) during his discussion on the sentence of death in Genesis 3 (p78), and it got me thinking.

Adam, at the moment of his sin, brings death into the world.  Death is alienation from the life of God.  Death truly removes the couple from the freedom and innocence and lack of shame and fear that is found only in perfect obedience.  The moment they sin, Adam and Eve are removed from that realm of life, and in the opening of their eyes (3:7), they find themselves in the realm of death.  This spiritual reality is made a physical reality when they are banished from the garden of Eden (3:23-24).  But even here there is mercy: they will not have access to the tree of life, whereby they might live forever in a fallen state.  God gives the gift of physical death (3:22; 5:5).

I’ve italicized the sentences that give me the most trouble theologically.  This is not the first time I’ve encountered this viewpoint, but I’ve never been able to understand how one squares this with the biblical teaching on death.  Even within his own paragraph, Hamilton is holding two views that seem to me to be contradictory: death is both a judgment and a gift.  How can that be?

There are strong arguments against this view, besides the context of Genesis 3 and following.  Look at Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15.  There he refers to death as an enemy, in fact, the last enemy to be defeated when Chris himself returns (vv20-26).  Or how about these verses from Romans 5, where “gift” appears:

But the gift is not like the trespass.  For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!  Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: the judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

Here, there is a true gift- grace, righteousness, life- that overthrows the sentence of death brought about by sin.  It seems odd to me that God would give a gift to overthrow a previously given gift.  If that’s the case, was the first “gift” really a gift at all?

Now, I understand the logic behind what Hamilton is saying.  The problem with it, however, is that he doesn’t (can’t?) back it up scripturally.  Death is never referred to as a gift, at least not that I’m aware of. It is an enemy that has been defeated in Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Cor 15, previously quoted).  Death did, for a time, have reign, but that reign has been cast aside by the reign of life in Christ (Rom 5).  And its end is pictured so powerfully in Revelation 20:14, when death itself is thrown into the lake of fire.

So what do you think?  Is Hamilton drawing a valid inference from Gen 3:22?  Can death be a gift from God, as Hamilton asserts, and an enemy of God (as I’m sure he also believes)?

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The biblical theologian who writes in the service of the church does so to elucidate the biblical worldview, not merely so that it can be studied but so that it can be adopted.

James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, page 45.

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Within a covenant structure, the Old Testament held out a programme of ideals for a perfected people of God.  But the Old age did not reach that goal.  Now [sic] did the New.  Neither has our own.  The kingship of God sought expression through a whole web of relationships which successive covenants both pointed towards and also exercised over the people of God and their world.  But this kingship presupposed a return within history to the beginning of history.  As we have repeatedly noted, nothing less than a new creation – and thus a new covenant – would achieve this goal.  In that sense, the notion of the kingdom of God, controlling as it does the whole of biblical thinking, was always a theological assertion pointing towards a future reality – the New Covenant.

-William J Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, p206

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What?  Did you think we forgot about this series?

J I Packer carries the theme of wisdom from Chapter 9 into Chapter 10 of his classic book, Knowing God.  Whereas Chapter 9 dealt more with God’s wisdom, Chapter 10 dives into how God grants wisdom to His people and what that wisdom looks like.  In fancy theological language, it looks at wisdom from the standpoint of one of God’s communicable attributes.

Packer gives two prerequisites for attaining wisdom (p101):

1. We must learn to reverence God.  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10, Prov 9:10)

2. We must learn to receive God’s word.  “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies… I have more insight than all my teachers for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99, see also Col 3:16, 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Of course, one wonders why Packer didn’t marshal James 1:5 in support, but his point is still well made.

What we learn from Ecclesiastes is that the difficult realities of life show us that we are not as wise as we thought:

…we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. (p106)

For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. (p106)

Packer’s thoughts are good, as far as they go.  That is, I begged for more in this chapter that gives a positive look at wisdom.  I kept wanting to know, what does a wise person look like?  In my opinion, Ecclesiastes only gives one part of the biblical picture of wisdom.  It is mostly (though not entirely) a cautionary tale.  But something like the book of Proverbs, while echoing much of what is in Ecclesiastes, offers a broader picture of “our wisdom.”

That said, Packer is correct.  We often think we are wise, when in reality we show our ignorance in our inability to come to terms with our lack of understanding of God’s ways.  We demonstrate our wisdom by accepting that we cannot fully understand what God is doing in our world.  Those who refuse to admit otherwise betray their arrogance.

Packer ends with a helpful section entitled, “The Fruit of Wisdom” (p108).  And I leave you with his words, with one interjection of my own:

Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits [fantastic word choice!] to give to those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.

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