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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The “gospel” was not about the reconciliation of a man with his creator

Here’s another response that I saw on Facebook to my post “What should we expect apostles to do today?” This time the focus is not on the kingdom but on the “gospel”:

There is no gospel but the one that reconciles a man with his creator. Everything else must be built upon this or it is built on nothing. Salvation is an individual experience. The community needs to flow out of this revelation.

This is the standard evangelical understanding of the process, only stated in more gender-exclusive terms than is customary these days. We begin with a gospel of personal salvation, from which community follows: people are converted, then they become church. There is no “public” dimension to this model, so it has been criticised by many in the emerging church and the incarnational-missional movement, among others, for failing to carry and live out a distinctive social-political message. Community never gets beyond being the terminus of the personal conversion-sanctification process.

My argument has been that the New Testament “process” runs in the opposite direction, from the social-political sphere towards the private sphere. We begin with a “gospel” about the impending action of Israel’s God, which will transform the community of God’s people and its place among the nations, and then individuals who believe this are “saved” in order to engage with the process. Any “good news” that we proclaim in our own context should be constructed as an extension to this narrative.

To illustrate and support this thesis I have assembled here a condensed commentary on most of the New Testament passages where the meaning of the noun euangelion (“gospel”) and the verb euangelizō (“to proclaim as good news”) is sufficiently determined by the context. I may have overlooked one or two relevant texts, and there is obviously a lot more material, beyond the scope of a simple word study, that should be taken into account. But it seems pretty clear to me that the New Testament gospel was not about salvation as an individual experience but about kingdom as a public and political experience. I don’t think Scot McKnight takes the argument far enough, but I agree with his statement of the problem:

I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles.1

The Gospels

Jesus proclaims a “gospel of the kingdom of God” (e.g., Lk. 4:43). The good news for Israel is not that individual Jews can be reconciled to God but that God is about to act as king. Individual Jews find forgiveness of sins by believing that this announcement is true and acting accordingly—Zacchaeus is a good example.

Jesus applies to himself the verses in Isaiah which speak of the proclamation of good news (euangelisasthai) to the poor and captive of Israel that God is about to act to liberate them from oppression (Lk. 4:17-19; cf. 7:22).

Jesus sends his disciples, first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, then throughout the empire (Matt. 24:13), to make the same announcement—that YHWH is about to intervene decisively as “king”, within a generation, to transform the condition and status of his people amongst the nations. That is the gospel.

Acts

In the early part of Acts there has been added to this public announcement to Israel the fact that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him Christ and Lord (2:32-36). The apostles “did not cease teaching and proclaiming-the-gospel (euangelizomenoi) that the Christ is Jesus” (5:42). In this context at least, what they are announcing to the Jews is not that Jesus is their personal saviour but that he has been given the authority to judge and rule.

Philip proclaims-the-gospel concerning the kingdom of God, not of personal salvation, in Samaria (8:11; cf. 8:25, 40); people believe this public announcement about the future reign of God and are baptized into the new movement of kingdom-believers. Luke also says that Philip “proclaimed (ekērussen) to them the Christ”, and the people are baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:5, 16). They are baptized into a politically determined community.

Philip also proclaims-the-gospel about Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:35). There is reference here to the unjust execution of Jesus, but nothing is said about the saving effect of his death. We should assume, given the narrative so far, that the “good news” about Jesus is that God raised him from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, the one who would save the nation from its sins (cf. 5:31).

Peter says to Cornelius that the word was sent to Israel proclaiming-the-gospel of peace through Jesus (10:36). So it is part of the announcement about God acting as king that peace is offered to the nation.

Some of the disciples who had been scattered because of persecution following the killing of Stephen spoke to the Hellenists, “proclaiming-the-gospel of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20).

Paul’s gospel to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia is that YHWH has raised Jesus from the dead and given him the nations as his inheritance as Israel’s king (Acts 13:32-33). Because of this, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel (13:39). First Jesus as king with immediate implications for the nation, then forgiveness of sins for those who believe.

The focus now shifts to the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for the Gentiles. The gospel for the people of Lystra is that they should turn from the worship of idols to “a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (14:15). The reason is that Israel’s God, who is the God of the whole earth, is about to judge the pagan empire “by a man whom he has appointed”, having given assurance of this by raising him from the dead (17:31).

Paul

Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is that God raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as “Son of God”—that is, as Israel’s king (Rom. 1:1-6). It is the “preaching of Jesus Christ” to all the nations (Rom. 16:25-26). It includes the prospect of judgment—“according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (2:16), which, I suggest, is the judgment of the oikoumenē that Paul proclaims in Athens. But notice this: the public announcement about Israel’s king, who will be judge and ruler of the nations, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”, whether Jew or Greek (1:16). The gospel is the public statement about kingdom, judgment and rule, a political statement. But it leads to the salvation of Jews and Greeks. No doubt there is a personal aspect to this, but “salvation” means primarily that both Jews and Greeks are becoming part of YHWH’s restored people.

In 1 Corinthians Paul states: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). The relation between “gospel” and “cross” here needs to be understood carefully. Paul is not saying that the gospel is the message of the cross. The gospel is still that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations—that he will be revealed to the world “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7-8). But just as Jesus achieved that exalted status by way of the cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-11), so Paul proclaims the gospel about Jesus’ lordship not in a display of wisdom and power but in cruciform fashion.

Paul’s recapitulation in 1 Corinthians of the gospel that had been delivered to him takes the form of a narrative: Jesus died for the sins of God’s people, he was buried, he was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3-4). But the thrust of his argument here is not that people have been reconciled to God; it is that those who believe will inherit the kingdom that is guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”, and says that the apostles proclaim “Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:4–5).

In Galatians the controversy about faith and works is not a dispute about the gospel; it is a dispute about the response to the gospel. The content of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles was the revelation of the risen Jesus as God’s Son—that is, as the one to whom authority had been given (Gal. 1:11-12, 16), and through whom all the nations would be blessed (3:8). For Gentiles the only valid response to this public announcement about kingdom is faith—belief and trust—not works of the Jewish Law.

Paul’s gospel in Ephesians is likewise a statement about “the unsearchable riches of Christ” and about the “eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:7-12), who has been exalted “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (1:21). That is the public announcement. But Paul then lays especial emphasis on the implication of this for the Gentiles—that they are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6).

We may suppose that the gospel in Philippians, the proclamation of Christ (Phil. 1:15-18), is encapsulated in the “hymn” of 2:6-11: Jesus made himself of no account, was obedient to the point of death, but was exalted by God and given the status and authority of “Lord”. There is no reference to atonement here, no reconciliation of individuals to the Father through Jesus, no personal salvation: it is entirely a public political proclamation to the Greek-Roman world—indeed, the whole imperial guard has heard about it (1:13).

The gospel that reached the Colossians was also a proclamation about Jesus captured in a hymn-like passage about the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:15-20, 28). Those who believe this message and understood its implications for the ancient world were transferred to “the kingdom of his beloved Son”, and in the process found redemption (1:13-14). First the public proclamation about kingdom, then the “salvation” of those who believe it.

The gospel that came to the Thessalonians, consistent with Luke’s account of Paul’s preaching, must have been the announcement that YHWH would soon judge the idolatrous pagan world through Jesus. The Thessalonians are commended for having turned “from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:5, 9-10; 2:2). Those who do not obey this gospel about Jesus as king will be cut off from the presence of the Lord when he comes to judge the nations (2 Thess. 1:5-10; cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). The political force of the message is apparent.

Finally, the gospel in the Pastorals is that Jesus is the descendant of David, risen from the dead (2 Tim. 2:8). “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). It is a gospel about the Son who was raised from the dead and given authority to rule.

Revelation

The “gospel of the age” proclaimed by the three angels which John sees is the announcement of impending judgment on “Babylon the great” and those who worship the demonic power of Rome (Rev. 14:6-11). No message of personal salvation here, I’m afraid.

  • 1. S. McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (2011), 26.
Image of The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited

On Amazon (US):

Scot McKnight
Zondervan (2011), Hardcover, 192 pages, $21.99

Comments

Well, I think the gospel is about the reconcilation of man with his Creator, non gender-inclusive language notwithstanding. The broader picture is that this is what the kingdom of God means, but the gospel of personal salvation is only effective if God becomes king through the one anointed to be king: Jesus.

God became king on earth through Jesus, and the gospels show what this kingdom looks like. The proposed dichotomy between a personal and public gospel is misleading and meaningless. There cannot be a public proclamation of the gospel without a personal response. Jesus invites us today as he did then, to come to him as Lord and join his agenda, which is an agenda for God’s reforming power through the Spirit, and which he modelled in his earthly ministry.

Until the cross, Jesus’s agenda for change was limited to himself and those in physical and geographical proximity to him. After the resurrection and outpoured Spirit, the agenda was multiplied with worldwide impact.

Biblical history is presented as a worldwide phenomenon, stretching back to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, then a rescue operation through the calling of Abraham, then focusing on his family, then the nation of Israel and its interactions with the nations.

Despite Israel’s failures, the essential components of God’s coming rule on earth were uniquely laid out in Israel’s history. The giving of the Law to Israel was both a demonstration to the world of God’s character and covenant purposes (He would be their God, they would be His people), and the Law’s limitations.

In Acts 13, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Jews and gentile God-fearers who were not part of the covenant of the Law. The inclusive “Everyone who believes is justified” is contrasted with the limited “from everything you could not be justified from by the Law of Moses” (v.39). Everyone is worldwide, you is Israel. No wonder Paul’s message was offensive to Jews (and welcome to Gentiles). Forgiveness of sins was to be closely connected with the renewal of creation, as shown in the prophets especially, but there was a deeper problem which prevented Israel from effectively fulfilling the Law’s requirements.

This deeper problem, and its resolution, is at the heart of the message of Romans, chapters 5-8 especially. The message is set against the worldwide phenomenon of sin, which affects Jew and Gentile alike, and the covenant forming purposes of God which included Gentiles (Abraham) and Jews (David), which depended not on works of the Law but faith in and loyalty to God, and His purposes. The coming kingdom of God, and its particular character, lay at the heart of these purposes, as woven into Israel’s troubled history.

The gospel of the kingdom of God had become a present reality in the person of its king, Jesus, and was fulfilled through his death and resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus had implications for the whole world as the beginning of the renewal of the entire creation. It is to this creation-renewing agenda that we are called to commit ourselves with Jesus as our king. Renewal begins with renewed people, whose prophetic destiny is to demonstrate to the world the nature of the kingdom to which they now belong in a spectrum of ways affecting all aspects of our existence on earth and going beyond anything seen in Jesus’s own life and ministry.

There cannot be a renewed community of God’s people without renewed people to form it. Personal engagement with God as King through Jesus comes first. Personal engagement with the world through the renewed community follows. It’s a story which runs through the entire bible, finding its fulfilment in and through its central character - God, as defined in the New Testament by Jesus the risen Messiah, through whom uniquely the world, Jew and Gentile, were to know the Father as He really is.

Sidestepping a gospel of personal salvation limits the true extent of the gospel of the kingdom and undercuts its very possibility. The fundamental problem in such an interpretation is a misunderstanding and limitation of the meaning of “kingdom” in relation to God and His purposes. For each of the passages quoted to support this supposed limited view, a more satisfactory interpretation can be provided, by which they make better sense of the whole.

Andrew, I still enjoy the stimulus of reading your posts. My own personal spiritual journey has been moulded enormously by interacting with you. Please understand that disagreeing with your arguments and their conclusions does not equate to disagreeing with you as a person, whom I have always found to be very stimulating and agreeable.

The inclusive “Everyone who believes is justified” is contrasted with the limited “from everything you could not be justified from by the Law of Moses” (v.39). Everyone is worldwide, you is Israel.

I don’t think this is sustainable.

Let it be known to you therefore, men, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, [and] from all things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses, by this man everyone believing is justified.

I think it’s out of the question that in this context “everyone believing” is intended to have a universal scope of reference. Paul speaks to the men of Israel, his brothers, who are under the Law of Moses. Forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to this group of people. Nothing in the passage suggests that Paul is thinking of the justification of the Gentiles. The referential scope of πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων is determined by the context: every Jew who believes is justified by believing that God has made his Son king. You have taken it out of context. The statement is: everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses. It is solely an argument about the Jews. Gentiles are not intentionally excluded, they are simply of no relevance to the argument.

Apart from this, I would simply point out that you have overlooked the fact that whenever the New Testament uses the word “gospel” it has in view not the announcement of personal salvation but the announcement of kingdom, one consequence of which is personal salvation for Jews and Gentiles, insofar as they become part of a redeemed people. Your argument relies on generalizations. The one passage you discuss, you have misinterpreted. I am not side-stepping the importance of personal salvation. I am saying that it is not the New Testament gospel.

The seriousness of this for the church today is that we are not doing what the New Testament church did. We are not boldly proclaiming to the world that the creator God is in control of history. We are privately telling a small number of individuals that God loves them and sent his Son to die for their sins.

We are not boldly proclaiming to the world that the creator God is in control of history. We are privately telling a small number of individuals that God loves them and sent his Son to die for their sins.

No, we are selling INDIVIDUAL Fire Insurance policies with bonus complementary Rapture boarding passes, one per person, non-transferrable. Just Say the Magic Words and wait to be beamed up. It’s all over but the screaming; Every Man for Himself!

Andrew,

How does 2 Corinthians 5:11-19 fit into your understanding of Gospel?

11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Andrew,

Since the theme of this post is “gospel”, I would be very interested in your thoughts on this paper by Derrick Olliff. I think it is one of the best I’ve ever come across on the subject of “the gospel”. It definitely hits hard on the historical setting of Paul’s message, like you do, and I’m curious how much of it overlaps with your point of view or what might differ.

Perhaps I should send this to you via a personal message, I don’t know. But since it is on the “gospel”, I figured others might benefit from it as well.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7037150/Gospel_to_the_Galatians.pdf