Many have commented on the fact that the church in the Western world is going through a time of remarkable fragmentation. Much of this fragmentation extends to our understanding of the gospel itself. For many Christians, the gospel is a narrow set of teachings about Jesus and his death and resurrection which, rightly believed, brings on a path into the kingdom. It is only after that, all the real training and life transformation and discipleship and maturity takes place.
This is a far cry from the emphases on the Bible which understands the gospel to be the embracing category that holds much of the whole Bible together and takes Christians from lostness, condemnation, and alienation from God all the way through conversion and discipleship to the consummation to resurrection bodies and a new heaven and a new earth. Other voices identify the gospel with the first and second commandments: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are so central that Jesus himself insists all the Prophets and the Law hang on them, but they’re not the gospel. A third option today is to treat the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the canonical gospels as the gospel. Yet, it is often the ethical teaching of Jesus abstracted from his passion and resurrection. This approach depends on two disastrous mistakes. First, it overlooks the fact in the first century there was no gospel of Matthew or gospel of Mark or gospel of Luke. Nobody used that terminology in the first century.
In the first century, it was the gospel according to Matthew, the gospel according to Mark, the gospel according to Luke. That is, there was just one gospel according to these various witnesses. When you see, then, what is common in the canonical books we today call Gospels, you run from the beginning of Jesus right through his teaching and miraculous power, the shutting down of the powers of darkness through to his death and resurrection, including his commission. That constitutes the gospel. It is the one gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These elements are not independent pearls on a string that constitute the life and times of Jesus the Messiah or something like that. Accounts of Jesus’ teaching cannot be rightly understood unless we discern how they flow and point forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To study the teaching of Jesus without simultaneously reflecting on his passion and resurrection is far worse than assessing the life of George Washington without reflecting on the American Revolution or trying to make sense of Hitler’s Mein Kampf without thinking about the reality of World War II. Secondly, we shall soon see to focus on Jesus’ teaching while making the cross peripheral reduces the glorious good news of the gospel to mere religion, the joy of forgiveness to mere ethical conformity, the highest motives for obedience to mere duty, and the result is disastrous. It’s catastrophic.
To focus on Jesus’ teaching while making the cross peripheral reduces the glorious good news of the gospel to mere religion, the joy of forgiveness to mere ethical conformity, the highest motives for obedience to mere duty, and the result is disastrous.
Perhaps more common yet today is the tendency to assume the gospel, whatever that is, while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues: marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, bioethics, pressures of secularization, dangers on the left, dangers on the right or even those who sit comfortably in the middle. The list is endless, but this overlooks the fact our hearers inevitably are drawn to that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher knows that. Students are unlikely to learn all that are taught to them. It is the reality that educators resigned thenselves to. They are most likely to learn what we are excited about. If the gospel is merely assumed while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will bring forth a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus on the periphery. It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins. What is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center. What is to be feared, in the famous words of T.S. Eliot, is that the center does not hold.
It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins. What is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center.
Moreover, if, in fact, we do focus on the gospel and understand it aright, we shall soon see how this gospel rightly understood directs us how to think about and what to do about a vast array of other kinds of issues. There are many biblical texts and themes we could usefully explore to think more clearly about the gospel, but here, we shall focus on
1 Corinthians 15:1–19. “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
What Paul is going to talk about in these verses, he says, is the gospel. “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you.” (Verse 1) Again, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.” (Verse 2) Then, these prefatory remarks completed, the very first word that appears is Christ. “I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins …”
A. The gospel is christological. It is Christ centered. The gospel is not a bland theism, still less an impersonal pantheism. The gospel is irrevocably Christ centered. The point is powerfully articulated in every major New Testament book and corpus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He is the long-promised Davidic king who will bring in the kingdom of God. By his death and resurrection, he becomes the mediatorial monarch who insists all authority in heaven and on earth is his and his alone.
The gospel is not a bland theism, still less an impersonal pantheism. The gospel is irrevocably Christ centered.
In John, Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him. In the sermons recorded in Acts, there is no name but Jesus given under heaven by which we must be saved. In Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, Jesus is the last Adam, the one to whom the Law and the Prophets bear witness, the one who by God’s own design propitiates God’s wrath and reconciles Jews and Gentiles to his heavenly Father.
In the great vision of Revelation 4 and 5, the Son alone is worthy to take the scroll from his Father’s hand and break open the seals and bring to pass all of God’s purposes for blessing and judgment. So also here, the gospel is christological. John Stott has rightly said, “The gospel is not preached if Christ is not preached.”
Yet, this christological stance does not focus exclusively on Christ’s person. It embraces with equal fervor his death and resurrection. “As a matter of first importance,” Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins.” Earlier in this letter, Paul does not tell his readers in chapter 2, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ.”
Rather, he says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” So also here. “As a matter of first importance, Christ died for our sins.” This is the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again. In other words, it is not enough to make a splash of Christmas and downplay Good Friday and Easter. When we insist as a matter of first importance the gospel is christological, we are not thinking of Christ as a cipher or simply as the God-man who comes along and helps us like a nice insurance agent. “Jesus is a nice God-man. He’s a very, very nice God-man, and when you break down he comes along and fixes you.” There is no content to that kind of Christ. The gospel is christological in a more robust sense. Jesus is the promised Messiah who died and rose again.
B.The gospel is theological. Here we affirmed two important things.
First, God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, as 1 Corinthians 15 repeatedly affirms. For example, verses 5 and following. More broadly, New Testament documents insist God sent the Son into the world and the Son obediently went to the cross because this was his Father’s will. It makes no sense to pit the mission of the Son against the sovereign purpose of the Father. If the gospel is centrally christological, it is no less centrally theological.
Secondly, the text does not simply say Christ died and rose again. Rather, it asserts Christ died for our sins and rose again. The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events. They are historical events with the deepest theological weight. We can glimpse the power of this claim only if we remind ourselves how sin and death are related to God in Scripture.
The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events. They are historical events with the deepest theological weight.
In recent years, it has become popular to sketch the Bible’s storyline something like, “Ever since the fall God has been active to reverse the effects of sin. He takes action to limit sin’s damage. He calls out a new nation, the Israelites, to mediate his teaching and his grace to others and punishes them when they degenerate into too much evil. He promises return from exile. Indeed, he promises one day he will send the promised Davidic king to overthrow sin and death and all their wretched effects.” That is what Jesus does. He conquers death. He inaugurates the kingdom. He calls his followers to live out that righteousness now in prospect of the consummation to come. Much of this description of the Bible’s storyline is true. Yet, it is so painfully reductionistic that it introduces a major distortion. It collapses human rebellion, God’s wrath, and assorted disasters into one construct, namely the degradation of human life, and it depersonalizes the wrath of God.
Thus, it fails to recognize and wrestle with the fact that from the beginning sin is an offense against God. God himself pronounces the sentence of death in Genesis 2 and 3. This is scarcely surprising since God is the source of all life. If his image-bearers spit in his face and insist on going their own way and making their own gods and even becoming their own gods, they cut themselves off from the source of life, their Maker, the one from whom all life derives. What is there, then, but death? Moreover, when we sin in any way, God himself is invariably the most offended party. There is David seducing Bathsheba, bumping off her husband, hiding this from his family, and when he is finally confronted by the prophet Nathan and he eventually repents, he writes Psalm 51, and he says, addressing God, “Against you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.” At one superficial level, that is simply international-class balderdash. He has sinned against Bathsheba. He certainly sinned against her husband; he had him bumped off. He sinned against the military high command. He sinned against the baby in Bathsheba’s womb. He sinned against his own family. He sinned against the nation. It’s hard to think of anybody he didn’t sin against. Yet, he says, “Against you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight,” because at the most profound level, that is what needs to be said. All sin is sin by virtue of the fact that it is sin against God. What makes sin so transcendentally evil is that it is defiance of God himself. In Scripture, what characteristically is said to make God angry is idolatry.
It’s the de-Godding of God. It’s the replacing of God with something or someone else. The God of the Bible is portrayed as resolved to intervene and save us (that’s true), but he’s also portrayed as full of wrath because of our sustained idolatry. As much as he intervenes to save us, he stands over against us as judge, an offended judge with fearsome jealousy. Nor is this a matter of Old Testament theology alone. When Jesus announced the imminence of the dawning of the kingdom, like John the Baptist, he cried, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance is necessary because the coming of the King promises judgment as well as blessing. The Sermon on the Mount, which encourages Jesus’ disciples to turn the other cheek, repeatedly warns them to flee from the gehenna of fire, from hell itself. The sermon warns the hearers not to follow the broad road that leads to destruction and pictures Jesus pronouncing final judgment with the words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.” The parables are replete with warnings of final judgment. A significant percentage of them demonstrate the essential divisiveness of the dawning of the kingdom. Images of hell, outer darkness, furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, undying worms, and eternal fire are just too ghastly to contemplate very long, but they’re all taught by Jesus.
After Jesus’ resurrection, when Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost, he aims to convince his hearers that Jesus is the promised Messiah and that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of Scripture, and he tells them, “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” That’s not just a theological cipher. If Jesus is Lord and Christ and they have crucified him, they stand under threat. That is why they are cut to the heart, we’re told, and cry, “What shall we do?” and that is what elicits Peter’s, “Repent and believe.” When Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the climax of his moving address is, in fulfillment of Scripture, God appointed Jesus as judge of the living and the dead, and thus, not of Jews only. Those who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name. Transparently, that’s what’s essential if we’re to face the Judge and emerge unscathed. We must have forgiveness of sins. When he preaches to the Athenian pagan intellectuals, Paul, as we all know, fills in some of the great truths that constitute the matrix in which alone Jesus makes sense: monotheism, creation, who human beings are, God’s independence, what the Puritans called God’s aseity (he doesn’t need us), his providential sovereignty, and the wretchedness and danger of idolatry
We’re all familiar with those steps. Before he is interrupted, however, Paul gets to the place in his argument where he insists God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice, and his appointed judge is Jesus, whose authoritative status is established by his resurrection from the dead. When Felix invites the apostle to speak about faith in Christ Jesus (that’s what the text says), we are told Paul discourses on righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come. Apparently, such themes are an irreducible part of faithful gospel preaching. Small wonder, then, that Felix was terrified. It’s hard to imagine much gospel preaching today will terrify anybody.
The letter to the Romans, which many rightly take to be, at very least, a core summary of the apostle’s understanding of the gospel finds Paul insisting the judgment takes place “on the day when God will judge everyone’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares.” Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds us Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10). This Jesus will be revealed from heaven in blazing fire with powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Similarly, like the rest in Ephesians, “We were by nature objects of wrath, for we gratified the cravings of our sinful nature, but now we’re saved by grace through faith.” That is the context of those famous verses. “Jesus himself is our peace,” we’re told. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, but God presented Christ as a propitiation in his blood, and now we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Time and space fail to reflect on how the sacrifice of Christ in the letter to the Hebrews is what alone enables us to escape the terror of those who fall into the hands of a living God who is a consuming fire or how the Apocalypse presents the Lamb as the slaughtered sacrifice even while warning of the danger of falling under the wrath of the Lamb. This nexus of themes (God, sin, wrath, death, and judgment) is precisely what makes the simple words of 1 Corinthians 15:3 so profoundly theological. “As a matter of first importance: Christ died for our sins.” Parallel texts instantly leap to mind. “Christ was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification,” and so on. You can fill in the texts for yourself. The gospel is theological.
C. The gospel is biblical. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried. He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” What biblical texts Paul has in mind he does not say. He may have had the kind of thing Jesus himself taught after his resurrection when he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24). Perhaps he was thinking of such texts as Psalm 16 and Isaiah 53 used by Peter on the Day of Pentecost or Psalm2 used by Paul in Pisidian Antioch.
Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul alludes to Christ as “our Passover sacrificed for us.” Perhaps he could have replicated the reasoning of the author of the letter to the Hebrews who elegantly traces out some of the ways in which the Old Testament Scriptures lay out in a kind of salvation-historical grid, the way those ancient sacrifices pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Whatever he was thinking of, this gospel is biblical. Indeed, what is very striking is that the apostle grounds the gospel, the matters of first importance in the Scriptures, and of course, he has in mind what we call the Old Testament. Then he moves on to the apostles, and thus, what we call the New Testament. In that sense, the gospel is biblically grounded in both Testaments.
D. The gospel is apostolic. Of course, Paul cheerfully insists there were more than 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he repeatedly draws attention to the apostles. We’re told in verses 5 to 9, “Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, he appeared to me, the least of the apostles.”
Listen to the sequence of pronouns in verse 11. “Whether, then, it was I …” An apostle. “… or they …” The other apostles. “… this is what we …” The apostles. “… preach, and this is what you believed.” This sequence of pronouns (I, they, we, and you) becomes a powerful way of connecting the witness and teaching of the apostles with the faith of all subsequent Christians. I am indebted to this insight on the sequence of pronouns to John Stott. This gospel is apostolic.
E. The gospel is historical. Here, four things must be said.
First, 1 Corinthians 15 specifies both Jesus’ burial and his resurrection. The burial testifies to Jesus’ death, since normally at least we bury only those who have died. The appearances testify to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection, thus, are tied together in history. The one who was crucified is the one who was resurrected. The body that came out of the tomb, as Thomas wanted to have demonstrated, had the wounds of the body that went into the tomb. This resurrection took place on the third day. It is in datable sequence from the death. The cross and the resurrection are irrefragably tied together. Any approach, theological or evangelistic, that attempts to pit Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection against each other is not much more than silly. Perhaps one or the other might have to be emphasized in certain contexts, but the two form a nexus of what happened in real history.
Secondly, the manner in which we have access to the historical events of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is exactly the same as that by which we have access to almost any historical event: through the witness and remains of those who were there by means of the records they left behind.
That is why there is such a huge emphasis on witness in Scripture. That is why Paul enumerates the witnesses. He mentions many of them are still alive at this time of writing and, therefore, could still be checked out. He recognizes, moreover, the importance of their reliability. In his mercy, the Bible really is the writing down, the inscripturation, a written record of these first witnesses. It is other things, but it is not less than that.
Thirdly, unlike other religions the central Christian claims are irreducibly historical. If somehow (I have no idea how) you could prove Gautama the Buddha never lived, would you destroy the credibility of Buddhism? Of course not. The plausibility and credibility of Buddhism depend on the internal coherence and attractiveness of Buddhism as a kind of philosophical religious system. It depends not a whit on any historical claim.
If somehow (I have no idea how) you could prove the great Hindu god Krishna never lived, would you destroy Hinduism? No, of course not. If the ancient Greeks had thousands of gods, Hindus have millions, and the complex vision of Hinduism in which all of reality is enmeshed in one truth with its infinite variations and it’s karmic system of retribution and cyclic advance falling away all depends in no way on the existence of any one of them. If Krishna gets bumped off, go down the street to a Shiva temple. Suppose, then, you approach your friendly neighborhood mullah and you seek to explore how tightly Islam is tied to historical events, you will discover history is important in Islam, but not the same way in which it is important in biblically faithful Christianity. You might ask them, “Could Allah, in your understanding, had he chosen to do so, have given his final revelation to someone other than Muhammad?”
There’s a pretty good chance the mullah will misunderstand your question and say, “We believe God gave great revelation to the prophet Abraham and great revelation to the prophet Moses and great revelation to the prophet Jesus, but we believe Allah gave his greatest and final revelation to Muhammad.” You might reply, “With respect, sir, I understand that is what Islam teaches, and of course, you will understand that I as a Christian don’t see things quite that way, but I’m not asking if Muslims believe God gave his greatest and final revelation to Muhammad. Of course, you believe that. I’m asking, rather, a hypothetical question. Could God have given his greatest and final revelation to someone other than Muhammad had he chosen to do so?”
Then your thoughtful mullah will reply, “Of course. Allah, blessed be he, is sovereign. He can do whatever he wishes. The revelation is not Muhammad. He merely conveyed the revelation. There is nothing intrinsic to Muhammad that constitutes the revelation. Revelation is entirely in the gift of Allah. Allah could have given it to anyone to whom he chose to give it, but we believe he gave it to Muhammad.” In other words, although it is important to Muslims to believe and teach ultimate revelation from Allah was given in history to Muhammad and Islam’s historical claims regarding Muhammad are part and parcel of its apologetic to justify this view, there is nothing intrinsic to Muhammad himself that is bound up with a theological vision of Islam. Otherwise put, a Muslim must confess there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet, but Muhammad’s historical existence does not in itself determine the Muslim’s understanding of God.
Now suppose you ask a similar question to a Christian pastor. “Do you believe the God of the Bible might have given his final revelation to someone other than Jesus Christ?” In our context, the question is bizarre. It’s incoherent. The revelation is Jesus Christ. It’s not even coherent as a question. This revelation entered history in the incarnation. As John puts it in his first letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the word of life …” “The life appeared. We have seen it and testified to it.” This is a historical revelation. Moreover, there are specific historical events in Jesus’ life that are essential to the most elementary grasp of Christianity, and here pride of place goes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. A little over two years ago, a reporter put a question to the then archbishop of Perth who was then primate of the Anglican Church of Australia and asked him, “Suppose we found the tomb of Jesus and we could demonstrate with high, high credibility that Jesus never really did rise from the dead and this was Jesus’ body, what would this do to your Christian faith?” The dear archbishop replied, “Nothing. For I believe Jesus has risen in my heart”.
Paul understands the issue with a somewhat different lens, much more straightforward clarity. “If Christ has not risen,” he says, in verse 17, “your faith is futile.” In other words, part of the validation of faith is the truthfulness of faith’s object. Let me repeat that. It is very important. Part of the validation of faith (it’s not the only validation) is the truthfulness of faith’s object. In this case, Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus has not risen, they can believe it till the cows come home, but it is still a futile belief because it’s believing something that isn’t true. Paul goes on to say, “Indeed, if you believe it anyway even though it isn’t true, you’re to be pitied more than all men. You’re just a bit of a joke.” There is no point getting angry with the former archbishop. He and his opinions in this matter are simply pitiful.
Many in our culture believe the word faith is either a synonym for religion (there are many faiths; there are many religions) or it refers to a personal, subjective, religious choice (it has nothing to do with truth; it’s a personal, subjective, religious choice), but in this passage, Paul insists if Christ is not risen, then faith that believes Christ is risen is merely futile. Part, then, of the validation of faith is the truthfulness, the reliability, of faith’s object, and in this case, this object is a historical event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible never asks us to believe what is not true. By the same token, one of the principle ways the Bible has of increasing and strengthening faith is by articulating and defending the truth.
The Bible never asks us to believe what is not true.
It would seem there’s another way of clarifying this relationship. Not too long ago, the members of a New Testament department in a Seminary interviewed a possible addition to their department. They were one under budget, and they wanted the extra body. They interviewed this person who actually had two degrees from Trinity. He has had years in pastoral ministry, a European PhD, and is teaching at another school. He’s a fine man on many, many fronts. He’s capable. He’s godly, with streets of pastoral experience, and believes the Bible.
Somewhere along the line, they asked the question, “Suppose, then, a student came to you with an array of historical questions regarding what Matthew says or regarding what Luke says, how would you answer?” He said, “My whole approach is to read Matthew as a coherent document, so I want to get across the Matthean theology and the Markan theology. Of course, I believe they bear witness to Christ, but that’s what I would do. I would take his eyes off those sorts of things and on the coherent theology of Matthew.” They started pushing a little harder, and they couldn’t get him beyond that point. Finally, two or three of the interviewers, gently exploded and told him he would become a member of our department over our dead bodies. We were trying to shock him a little bit into hearing what he was saying. He was really saying the gospel gets turned into a mess of ideas divorced from the historical Jesus.
You have to get the link between what the text says about Jesus and the historical Jesus. If you’re merely focusing on what the text says about Jesus with no care for whether or not what it says about Jesus is true, then you’re not caring whether or not the object of the faith is true. You have to wrestle with historical questions. You cannot duck them because at the end of the day it’s not faith about Jesus that saves; it’s Jesus who saves.
Fourthly, in contemporary discussion the word historical is sometimes invested with a number of slippery assumptions.
For some who are heavily invested in naturalism, the word historical can be applied only to those events that have causes and effects entirely located in the ordinary or natural or time-based stream of sequence of events. If that is the definition of historical, then Jesus’ resurrection was not historical, for such a definition excludes the miraculous, but it is far better to think that historical rightly refers to events that take place within the continuum of space and time regardless of whether God has brought about those events by ordinary causes controlled and constrained by his providential rule or by a supernatural explosion of power. We insist in this sense the resurrection is historical. It takes place in history in the space-time continuum, even if it was caused by God’s spectacular power when he raised the man Christ Jesus from the dead, giving him a resurrection body that had genuine continuity with the body that was put in the tomb even though this body, which could, on the one hand, be touched and handled and it could eat ordinary food, could also appear in a locked room.
Ultimately, Paul himself scratches his head and refers to it as a spiritual or a heavenly body. Nevertheless, that body was raised from the tomb by the spectacular, supernatural power of God operating in history. In short, the gospel is historical.
F. The gospel is personal. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not merely historical events. The gospel is not merely theological in the sense that it organizes a lot of theological precepts. It sets out the way of individual salvation, of personal salvation. How does the text begin?
Paul writes, “Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved.” (Verses 1 and 2) A historical gospel that is not personal and powerful is merely antiquarian. A theological gospel that is not received by faith and found to be transforming is merely abstract. In reality, the gospel is personal.
G. The gospel is universal. If we step further into 1 Corinthians 15, we find Paul demonstrating Christ is the new Adam (verses 22, 47–50). In this context, Paul does not develop the move from Jew to Gentile that he does elsewhere or from the Israelites as the national locus of the people of God to the church as an international community of the elect.
Nevertheless, Christ as the new Adam alludes to a comprehensive vision. The new humanity in him draws in people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. The gospel, in this sense, is universal. It is not universal in the sense that it transforms and saves everyone without exception, for in reality, those whose existence is connected exclusively to the old Adam are not included. Yet, this gospel is gloriously universal in its comprehensive sweep. There is not a trace of racism here. The gospel is universal.
H. The gospel is eschatological. This could be teased out in many ways, for the gospel is eschatological in more ways than one. For instance, some of the blessings Christians receive today are essentially blessings from the last day. They’re eschatological blessings. They’re blessings from the last day brought back to our time.
Already God declares his blood-bought, Spirit-regenerated people to be justified. That is, the final declarative sentence from the end of the age has already been pronounced on Christ’s people because of what Christ has already done. We are already justified, so in that sense, the gospel is eschatological. Yet, there is another sense in which this gospel is eschatological. In the chapter before us, Paul focuses on the final transformation. In verses 50 and following, he says, “I declare to you, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, revealed is a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ”
It is not enough to focus narrowly on the blessings Christians enjoy in Christ in this present age. The gospel is fully eschatological, and all of its fruit appears finally in the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness. What Paul preaches as a matter of first importance is the gospel is christological, theological, biblical, apostolic, historical, personal, universal, and eschatological. The passage in front of us also includes several other wonderful truths that further unpack this gospel before our eyes.
Five Clarifying Sentences
A.This gospel is normally disseminated in proclamation. Paul says in verse 1, “This gospel Ipreached to you.” Then in verse 2, “This is the word I preached to you.” This way of describing thedissemination of the gospel is typical of New Testament documents. The gospel that was preachedwas what the Corinthians believed (verse 11).
Look up every instance of the word gospel, and wherever there is any mention of its dissemination almost always, almost without exception, it’s connected with one of the preaching words. This gospel is disseminated by heraldic ministry. Earlier in this same letter, Paul insists in God’s unfathomable wisdom, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
The content was what was preached. The mode of delivery was what was preached. The content is what was preached; the mode is what was preached. There are plenty of texts that talk about the importance of being salt and light; of doing good to all people, especially those of the household of God; of seeking the good of the city.
Yet, when dissemination of the gospel is in view, overwhelmingly, the Bible specifies proclamation. The good news must be announced. It must be heralded. It must be explained. God himself visits and revisits human beings through his Word. As God reveals himself by his Word, so the right proclamation of that Word finds God revisiting his people again. It is re-revelation from God. This gospel is normally disseminated in proclamation.
When dissemination of the gospel is in view, overwhelmingly, the Bible specifies proclamation. The good news must be announced. It must be heralded.
B.This gospel is fruitfully received in authentic, persevering faith. Paul writes in verse 11, “Thisis what we preach, and this is what you believed.” Toward the beginning of the chapter, Paul tellsthem, “By this gospel you are saved if you hold firmly to the word I preach to you. Otherwise, youhave believed in vain.” (Verse 2)
In other words, their faith in the Word Paul preached, in the gospel, must be of the persevering type. There are a lot of other New Testament passages that say the same sort of thing. Here is Colossians 1.“God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” This gospel is fruitfully received, in other words, in authentic, persevering faith
C.This gospel is properly disclosed in personal self-humiliation. It is properly disclosed in thecontext of personal self-humiliation. When the gospel is properly understood and received inpersevering faith, people properly respond the way the apostle does. Yes, the risen Christ appearedlast of all to him (verse 8). Yet, far from this event becoming a source of pride, this finalresurrection appearance evokes in Paul a sense of his own worthlessness.
He writes, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.” It reminds me of John Newton’s famous utterance, the slave trader who could not get off his conscience the memory of 20,000, but he could say, “I am not what I want to be; I am not what I ought to be; I am not what one day I will be; but I am not what I was, and the by grace of God, I am what I am.”
That’s the kind of tone Paul has here. It’s an utterance not of pride but of contrition. How could it be otherwise? Jesus had purchased Paul’s redemption at the cost of his own blood. He had graciously forgiven him of his sins, including the sin of persecuting the church of God. He had confronted the apostle on the Damascus road and revealed himself to him at the very moment the apostle was setting out to do more damage to the church.
Even if in the wake of his conversion Paul confesses (verse 10) that he has worked harder than all of the other apostles, he insists this can only be true because of the grace of God that was with him. Humility. Gratitude. Dependence on Christ. Contrition. These are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted, the matrix out of which Christians experience joy and love. When the gospel truly does its work, proud Christian is an unthinkable oxymoron. The gospel is properly disclosed in personal self-humiliation.
D.This gospel is rightly asserted to be the central confession of the whole church. At numerouspoints in 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers the Corinthian church is not the only church, orbetter put, that there are many other churches with common beliefs and practices such that at somepoint the independence of the Corinthians, far from being a virtue, is merely evidence that they’reout of step.
In 4:17, Paul tells them Timothy will remind the Corinthians of his way of life, “which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” In 7:17, when he’s dealing with marriage and divorce, Paul stipulates, “This is the rule I lay down in every church.” After laying down what believers are to think about headship and relationships between men and women, Paul closes his discussion with the words, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.”
However we understand the restriction found in 14:33, Paul introduces it with the words, “As in all the congregations of the saints …” There is no explicit formula just like that in 1 Corinthians 15. Nevertheless, Paul repeatedly alludes to what he preaches everywhere, not just in Corinth. Passive expressions in verse 11 like, “If it is preached,” give the impression this is the common content, not something that was reserved for Corinth.
So also Paul’s reference to his service in Ephesus in verse 32 and his many earlier references to common practices in preaching the gospel. Of course, what the whole church or all the churches are doing is not necessarily right. Just ask Athanasius or Luther. One must test everything by Scripture. We should never, ever retreat to a high-bound traditionalism. Moreover, one must grimly admit there is a kind of traditionalism that loses its way and that preserves formal sacrificing authenticity in power.
In Corinth, however, that doesn’t seem to have been the problem. Corinth speaks, rather, to the lust for endless innovation that casually cuts a swath away from the practices and beliefs of other churches while quietly sidestepping the careful instruction of the apostle. Paul insists the gospel is rightly asserted to be the central confession of the whole church. Always be suspicious of churches that proudly flaunt how different they are from what has gone before.
E.The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the King. On this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of God’s sovereignty is mediated exclusivelythrough King Jesus. That is simply and amply taught in many places in the New Testament.
For example, Matthew concludes with Jesus’ claim, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.” In the so-called Christ hymn of Philippians 2, Paul rejoices that the name that is above every name has been given to Jesus. So also and dramatically here. Verse 25: “Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”
That presupposes the reign is still contested. There are still enemies out there. This is of a piece with Jesus’ claim, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is, the gates of hell are sure trying, but one day the final enemy, death itself, will die, and Jesus’ mediatory kingship will end. God will be all in all.
It is in the light of this gospel (all that the death and resurrection of Jesus have achieved, all the advancing kingdom of King Jesus is accomplishing, and all that we will inherit in resurrection existence on the last day) that Paul writes to these Corinthian believers and to us, and he says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of King Jesus. Now it’s time to take stock.
The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of King Jesus.
One Evocative Summary
A striking result of this summary of the gospel so far is how cognitive the gospel is. Here is what is to be understood, believed, and obeyed. Here is what is promised, taught, and explained. All of this must be said loudly and repeatedly in a generation that feels slightly embarrassed when it has to deal with the cognitive and the propositional. Yet, something else must also be said. This chapter comes at the end of a book that repeatedly shows how the gospel rightly works out in the massive transformation of attitudes, morals, relationships, and cultural interactions. As everyone knows, Calvin insists that justification is by faith alone, but genuine faith is never alone.
We might add the gospel focuses on a message of what God has done and is doing and must be cast in cognitive truths to be believed and obeyed, but this gospel is never properly the gospel if it remains exclusively cognitive. Thus, in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, the gospel (the word of the cross) is not only God’s wisdom which the world judges to be folly, but it is God’s power which the world judges to be weakness. The first four chapters find Paul pained at the divisions in the Corinthian church, different factions associating themselves exclusively with one hero or another. “I am of Peter,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Paul,” and the most sanctimonious of the lot, “I am of Christ.” What the apostle works out is how this is a betrayal of the gospel, a misunderstanding of the nature of Christian leadership, a tragic and bitter diminution of the exclusive place of the crucified Christ who is the focus of the gospel.
Chapter 4 shows in a spectacular way there is no place for triumphalism in the church of the blood-bought, in the church led by apostles who eat everyone’s dirt at the end of the procession. In chapters 5 and 6, the gospel of Christ the Passover Lamb prescribes that believers must, in line with Passover, get rid of all yeast.
This works out in terms of church discipline where there is grievous sexual sin. Where the gospel triumphs, relationships are transformed. With the result that lawsuits bringing brothers into conflict with each other before pagan courts becomes almost unthinkable and casual sex is recognized as a massive denial of Christ’s lordship. In chapter 7, complex questions about divorce and remarriage are worked out in the context of the priorities of the gospel and the transformed vision brought about by the dawning of the eschatological age and the anticipation of the end.
I’m sure most of us are aware of the polls by Gallup and Barna that show the mores and morals of people who call themselves evangelicals are not statistically different from the morals and mores of the country at large. It’s pretty dispiriting, isn’t it? But there is another side even to those polls. They have been rerun with some extra filters. You can’t really ask the question in a poll, “But are you truly born again?” so they put in filters like, “Are you an evangelical?” Check. “Do you attend church at least once a week?” Check. “Do you read your Bible at least three times a week?” Check. “Do you honestly hunger to come under the lordship of Christ?” Check.
They just put in some filters like that. Then, the disparity between that group’s morals and mores from the population at large is very significant. Why should we be surprised? It simply means there are a lot of people who call themselves evangelicals who don’t know anything about the gospel. Meanwhile, where the gospel does its work, it transforms.
So also here. Chapters 8 to 10 wrestle with how believers must interact with the broader pagan culture over the matter of food offered to idols, with a central example of the apostle Paul himself demonstrating in a dramatic fashion that cheerful and voluntary self-restraint for the sake of the advance of the gospel. “I do this so all may hear the gospel so that many may be saved.” What it looks like and even how such a stance is tied to a proper understanding of the relationship between the new covenant and the old. Relationships between men and women are tied in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 not only to relationships in the Godhead but also to what it means to live in the Lord and, thus, in the gospel. We see blistering condemnation of Corinthian practices at the Lord’s Supper in directives such as, “I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” It’s the only time Paul is so negative in the entire epistle. Mostly in 1 Corinthians, he’s saying, “Yes, yes, yes. But.… Yes, yes, yes. But …”
Here he says, “I have no praise …” It’s only negative. His blistering condemnation is tied not only to the barbarous insensitivity some Christians were displaying toward other Christians, but also to the massive failure to take the cross seriously and use this Christ-given rite as an occasion for self-examination and repentance.
The ways in which the charismata, the gracious gifts, and the pneumatika, the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 through 14 are to be exercised is finally predicated on the fact that all believers confess Jesus is Lord, all believers have been baptized in one Spirit into one body, and above all, the most excellent way mandated of all believers without exception is the way of love. Love is the most important member of the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love, this triplet of virtues that are deeply intrinsic to the working out of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs is no Christianity at all. What does this say in concrete terms about the communion of saints, the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly countercultural? What will this say about intergenerational relationships, about race, about how we treat one another in the local church, about how we think of brothers and sisters in highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world? Just as Paul found it necessary to hammer away at the outworking of the gospel in every domain of the lives of the Corinthians, so we must do the same today.
Just as Paul found it necessary to hammer away at the outworking of the gospel in every domain of the lives of the Corinthians, so we must do the same today.
Recently here at Trinity, a wise worker on an Ivy League campus (she was theologically trained and was working on this campus for five or six years) told us what, in her experience, drives most of the young women whom she disciples every week. She said, “First, from parents, ‘Never get less than an A.’ Well, it’s an Ivy League school. What do you expect? Still, even on an Ivy League campus, grades are distributed on a bell curve, so this expectation introduces competition and pressure. Secondly, partly from parents and partly from the ambient culture, ‘Be yourself. Enjoy yourself. Live a rich and full life, and include in this some altruism such as helping victims of Katrina. It’s good for you.’ Thirdly, from peers, from Madison Avenue, and from the media, ‘Be hot.’ This, too, is competitive. There are only so many guys out there. This affects dress, relationships, what you look for in the opposite sex, and what you want them to look for in you.
These demands drum away incessantly. There is no margin, no room for letting up. There’s only room for failure. The result is that about 80 percent of young women in their undergraduate years will suffer eating disorders and close to the same percentage will at some point be clinically depressed. The world keeps telling them they can do anything, and soon this is transmuted into the demand they must do everything or be a failure, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.”
But the stinger in the tail from this campus worker was, “When they become Christians, it is not long before they feel the pressure to become the best Christians. They’re supposed to be the best at everything else; they have to be the best here, too, as measured by attendance at Bible studies, leading prayer groups, and faithfully recording their daily devotions.”
You see, there’s a part of me that wants to say, “Yes, yes! That’s good!” But where is the human flourishing that springs from the gospel of grace, God’s image-bearers happily justified before God on the ground of what Christ has done, powerfully regenerated so they respond in faith and obedience, joy, and gratitude instead of an incessant sense of more guilt (“If only I can do more, I will be accepted by my peers and by God Almighty”)?
The gospel must be worked out for these women and demonstrated in the life of the church so that it issues in liberation from the wretched claims of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape apart from the powerful word of the cross. Of course, I picked on one small demographic. It doesn’t take much to think through how the gospel must also transform the business practices and priorities of Christians in commerce, the priorities of young men steeped in indecisive but relentless narcissism, the lonely anguish and often the guilty pleasures of single folk who pursue pleasure but who cannot find happiness, the tired despair of those living on the margins, and much more.
This must be done not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, not by imposing new levels of rules, and still less by endless focus on the periphery in the vain effort to sound prophetic, but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious gospel of our blessed Redeemer.
[Working out the transforming implications of the gospel] must be done not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, not by imposing new levels of rules, and still less by endless focus on the periphery in the vain effort to sound prophetic, but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious gospel of our blessed Redeemer. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Let us pray.
So hear us, Lord God. Forgive our sins. Bring restoration and reformation to your church and a deep understanding of and conformity to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.