Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Gospel proper and the implications of the Gospel: One and the same?

When we talk about "the Gospel" and talk about the implications resulting from the Gospel, a lot of the time it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. I think this is a problem. There's a huge difference between the Gospel itself and the implications of the Gospel and our missing or misunderstanding that distinction is the cause of a lot of the division in the church. What is the Gospel, the Good News that we are called to take to the world? Unlike a lot of terminology we use in the church (trinity is a great example), "Gospel" has a pretty concise and specific definition that we find in 1 Corinthians:

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. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:1-8)

So what, according to Paul, is "the Gospel"? Is it "following Jesus"? Is it feeding the poor? Is it even loving our neighbor? None of the above. Paul reminds the church in Corinth of the Gospel that he delivered to them. Jesus "died for our sins", i.e. made propitiation for the sins of His sheep. He was buried and He rose again, witnessed by Peter and then the rest of the Apostles and then more than 500 others. That is the Gospel, the Good News. All of the rest of the practices and doctrines we see in the New Testament flow from that but the implications are not the same as the central fact of the Gospel. The Gospel flows from the New Covenant wherein we have had a heart transplant, the old stony heart being replaced by a heart of flesh making us born-again and having our sins remembered no more. It is also worth noting that this would be the same Gospel that Paul warns against tampering with in Galatians 1:6-9

Many Christians, and I am thinking primarily of those in the Reformed camp here, tend to focus so much on the Gospel proper, i.e. justification by faith, that they neglect the implications of the Gospel. In other words always studying how we were saved and not what we do now that we are saved. On the other hand a growing number of Christians are expanding the Gospel and running perilously close to a works-righteousness. The Gospel becomes a way of life rather than a new birth, a dangerous reversal of the order. You are not saved/justified by "following Jesus" or walking as He walked, you follow Jesus because you are saved. The order is incredibly important for how we present the Gospel. The evangelical church in America, especially in our youth groups, has been guilty of reversing this and we end up with a bunch of morally upright, saving it till marriage, not smoking, drinking or chewing or going with girls that do, lost sinners who walk away from organized religion when they are adults because they never were confronted with more than a false gospel of behavior modification.

The question that (rightly) might follow is this: Can we separate the two, the Gospel proper and the implications thereof? Sort of. We cannot preach the Gospel and make disciples without subsequently teaching them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus makes that clear in the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:18-20)

Even in this we see the distinction and order laid out. Our commission as His disciples and ambassadors of Christ is to take the Gospel to the nations, make disciples, baptizing them (i.e. "them" being believers) and then teaching them what that means. The order is not random but speaks to the logical and biblical progression. I don't think anything is random or unimportant in Scripture so when something is laid out in a particular order, it means something.

Isn't this just splitting hairs? If the implications of the Gospel inevitably follow the life changing message of the Gospel what is the point? Just this. God has very specifically designed the Gospel to mean what it means. We are in no position to make the Gospel less than it is by making it one of many ways to be saved or just a potential salvation and we are not called to expand upon the Gospel message and add works to the finished work of Christ. The church suffers in this day and age from a serious lack of specificity. We toss words around with apparently little thought to what they mean and the result is confusion in the church and confusion outside of the church. If we don't even know what we are talking about, how is the world supposed to hear our disjointed message that often seems to contradict itself? Just look at the breathless praise heaped on Jorge Bergoglio from so many evangelicals. Certainly he is doing the sorts of things we would expect from the Gospel message received, more so than many evangelicals, but as Tim Challies points out in his post, The People's Pope, The Man of the Year, using language that seems jarring to our politically correct ears, that doesn't change the underlying theology and misunderstanding of the Gospel represented in the papacy:

How are we, as Protestants, to think of this pope? It is easy for us to be swept up in the praise given to Francis, and easy to be impressed by his public acts of faith and humility. Many Protestants see him as an exciting Christian leader and are paying tribute to him. Yet we need to think carefully and discerningly, because what is fundamentally true is this: The Roman Catholic Church is a false church that teaches a false gospel. Rome is semper eadem, always the same, never changing, and her long, long history has proven the validity of this motto. While the face of her leader may change, and while this pope’s actions may appear admirable in many ways, the core doctrine of the church is unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable.

That is not "anti-Catholic". It is simply repeating the historic position of the church that rejects Rome since the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation. The condemnation from defenders of Rome have long been as strongly worded.  I don't think what we are seeing today is a historic detente and reunification of the church, a sign of our maturity because we have risen above such conflicts. Rather we are seeing a mushy, muddled confusion that stems from ignorance and lack of precision.

So does it matter? Absolutely it does. The Gospel and the Gospel alone saves. We should as the church be continually preaching this good news to the lost. We must also as the church be constantly encouraging, equipping and exhorting one another to the work of ministry, the necessary implications of a Gospel changed life lived out by the born-again sheep. We must do both without blending the two together. We must for the sake of those we are reaching with the Gospel and for the sake of those who have been reached and ask "How then are we to live?".

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