What is the "gospel?"
Is it "Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ has come," orHas the "good news" changed since the first century?
is it "Go preach it on the molehill that our doctrine is right?"
During the first several centuries following Pentecost, Christians primarily had oral traditions as guidelines for determining God's will. Preachers and evangelists would teach the word and epistles would be circulated and perhaps copied, but the main source of written scripture was the Old Testament. For the first approximately 300 years, Christians proclaimed the gospel to unbelievers mainly by their lives, their behavioral conduct, and often by the way they died in martyrdom.
So, is this really the "good news" -- that you get to die early? Doesn't sound like anything very good. But people kept doing that martyr thing for some reason. There must be something to this message -- that so many people would be so dedicated to this Jesus person that they would choose to die rather than give up.
After Christianity became the accepted (state) religion of Rome, a secular "stamp of approval" was placed on the gospel. Christianity was increasingly centralized under the control of an institution embodied by men who officially interpreted what the scripture said; and, sometimes that interpretation was scholarly and sometimes it was more political. The mixture of politics and religion produced disagreements over power control and self interests, and separation of groups and governments began to occur. More and more, the gospel became less of a way of life and more of a doctrinal view of the scripture through a particular chosen interpretation. The gospel was protected from change and doled out by the organization that called itself "the church." The "good news" became more like the "good institution." The church institution retained the power of religion because it essentially controlled access to the scripture and set itself as the self-appointed conduit between God and man. This began to change with the invention of the printing press and the translations of the Bible into English and other languages, but the church institutions continued to hold onto their control as long as they could.
As folks other than church officials began to have access to the scripture, people had the opportunity to determine for themselves what constituted the "good news." But, even then, the good news was heavily influenced by traditional interpretations of passages that had been built into foundational support for certain pillars of church doctrine. When preconceptions about scriptural support for church doctrine persisted for generations, it became "it's always been this way." Preconceptions become what was accepted, and groups were built from those people who could agree about a particular doctrine. Since the groups became defined by their developed doctrine, the foundation and "reason to be" of the group was threatened by challenge or disagreement about the doctrine. The doctrine had to be protected and defended. Disagreement from the outside had to be contested; disagreement from the inside had to be purged. Thus, the groups tended to represent their particular doctrine as the "good news."
Scholars during the Reformation Movement objected to many of the immutable doctrines that had been developed through the centuries by the Roman Catholic church. Depending on the emphasis of the particular Reformer, the "good news" changed, or at least how it was presented changed. The gospel message was filtered through interpretations of scripture that were, in part, reactions to what had been considered erroneous doctrine of the Catholic Church. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Knox, and others produced variants of interpretation of the gospel depending on their focus of objections to Catholic doctrine. There was an emphasis on salvation by grace with no works whatsoever, an emphasis on the redemption from sin through the sacrifice of Jesus, an emphasis on some individuals being foreknown and predestined by God to receive salvation and others not, an emphasis on the necessity of free will and the decision to accept God's extension of grace. The doctrine of the "Fall of Adam" and "original sin," as the "condemned default" of mankind without Christ, served as a contrast between the "good news" and the "bad news." If one could do a good enough job of letting sinners gaze into the pits of the hell they deserved, the alternative of salvation looked better by comparison. There were other variants and combinations of these doctrines of salvation, most of which still exist today in some form or another.
We know that God doesn't change - He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. God's word doesn't change; the Bible doesn't change. God's love through Jesus Christ doesn't change. What Jesus did for us doesn't change. But it should be obvious that human perception of God, the nature of God, and what God has revealed to us does change. The Bible doesn't change, but the translation can change, the understanding of the meaning changes, and certainly the application changes depending on the circumstances and time. The gospel, the "good news," doesn't change, but our understanding of what constitutes the gospel has changed since the first century.
Today, all the different answers to the simple question, "What must I do to be saved?" could fill a bookshelf.
In view of these changes in human perspective of God through Christ, the Restoration Movement began several hundred years ago to bypass the evolution of traditional doctrines developed since the first century and go back to the authority of the Bible. "Restore New Testament Christianity" was the theme which is still heard today. The movement began with a sincere "back to the Bible" motivation, but, unfortunately over time, different traditions and interpretations developed that were not written down, but which were still enforced by newspapers, journal editors, debates, and division. The churches within that movement have since struggled to come out of a binding legalistic hermeneutic that has been based more on the letter of the law than the on Spirit. The gospel went from "good news" to "good works," which has some truth, but only when viewed from a totally different perspective than when applied to the "correct way" to initially accept Christ.
So what is the "good news?" If we take the gospel with us and make disciples as we go, in accordance with what Jesus said in Matt. 28:18-20, what message do we represent as being the gospel and from where in the Scripture does it come? Although only the first four books of the New Testament are called "the gospels," the message of "salvation from default condemnation of man" derives, not from the gospels, but mainly from the books of Acts through Revelation. Those groups with heavy emphasis on what one must do to be saved draw their "proof texts" from Acts; those groups with particular emphasis on doctrine lean significantly on the epistles, particularly the first 8 chapters of Romans, where the "Great Doctrines of Salvation" are developed in detail.
So, what's the short of this history, and why does it end up not making good sense? We have the Bible that testifies to God, the love of God, and the plan of God as it evolved throughout recorded history. There is the record of Jesus Christ, who brought the final revelation of God and of God's plan and who fulfilled everything in the past and endowed everything for the future. We have the record of how the church was established and was directed by the Holy Spirit working through inspired writers to explain the plan, how the plan had been finally revealed, what the plan involves, and how the church is supposed to be enacting the plan. Exactly how the church is supposed to testify to the world is addressed in relatively few places in the New Testament.
What has the church ended up doing to represent to the world the love of God through Jesus Christ, the plan of God for all of creation, and the church's role in the world? Note that the question is "What is the church doing...," not "What is the church saying.... " And, by "the church," we mean at all levels .. what is the universal church doing, what are large groups doing, what are small groups doing, what are individual congregations doing about the gospel? The church already says a lot.
WWJD? Jesus said; we do:
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34-35Jesus came to earth, completely revealed the nature of the Father, and lived the perfect example of the Father's character. How is the church supposed to testify to the world about what Jesus did for us all? Is the church to say, "Hey everybody, we are the light of the world; we love one another; we are in unity," or is the church to do -- be light that shines, do love that serves, live unity that shows the love of the Father -- all are actions, not just words.
"My prayer is not for them along. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they maybe one as we are one -- I in them and you in me-- so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John 17:20-13
"You are the light of the world..... let you light shine before men so that they may see your good deeds and praise God in heaven." Matt. 5:14-16
"...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Matt. 16:18
How is the church doing in preaching the good news by the way Christians are loving one another, maintaining the unity that was between the Son and the Father, letting the light of good deeds be seen, and overcoming the world without being overcome, itself? How attractive does the gospel look to the world through these church stained glass windows? Does the world see the church living this gospel or just talking about it?
Jesus said that "while we are going" we should be "making disciples ... teaching them to obey" everything He had commanded (Matt. 28:18-20) and for His church, as His representatives, to be His witnesses to all parts of the world (Acts 1:8).
What might this "witnessing" or "testifying" involve?
Paul said that the plan of God, made before the creation of the world and held in mystery until revealed through Christ, had been made known through the apostles -- which was then written and preserved for us in the Scripture. What is the church today supposed to do with this revelation?
The church is supposed to make known the wisdom of God in the eternal purpose that was accomplished through Christ.
Ephesians 3:7 -12 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.How is this wisdom to be made known by the church? What does the Scripture say? There are references to the church being faithful even in the face of outside persecution (1 Pet. 4:19). There are references to the church handling its own affairs instead of inviting the world in to handle them (1 Cor. 6) and not engaging in worldly activities (1 Cor. 5). Where are references to what the church should preach to the world or to what the church should be doing as a witness to the world? Actually, there are few to none. The nearest reference to the church evangelizing unbelievers is in 1 Cor. 14:24-25, when an unbeliever comes into an assembly and recognizes God is present because people are prophesying in an orderly manner.
But the scripture is full of commands, admonitions, encouragements and examples of how the church is to behave within itself, with unity of mind and purpose, living in peace, and expressing love to God by serving one another. This is doing the gospel. Why would anyone consider the "news" to be "good" unless people showed how the "good" was working for them and through them.
So, how is the church doing at making the manifold wisdom of God known? And the answer is? Surely we don't have to go through all the surveys to find out why more and more people are leaving organized Christianity, surveys of people who aren't particularly committed to anything religious anymore, surveys showing that more of the youth leave the church every generation? Do we have to go through the signs in society and government and argue about it based more on our special interests than on scripture? Do we have to talk about disunity and division and competition within the body of Christ? Can't we just skip all the "going into denial routine" and admit that it's not going well for the universal church?
Do Christians not understand the foreordained plan of God except when interpreted through a human institutional matrix? If the church were carrying out the plan of God and testifying to the manifold wisdom of God, it would look as described by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-16 --
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.The body of Christ works together in love, peace, and unity so that everyone heads toward the goal -- unity in the faith, becoming mature in the faith, attaining the full knowledge of the Son of God - the fullness of Christ, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ, as the body builds itself up in love. This is the prime directive for the church. Evangelism occurs when the world sees the church accomplishing its prime directive. Evangelicals are Christians obeying the prime directive. In this sense, the entire church is both evangelical and missional, because the church is showing the manifold wisdom of God in the design of His foreordained plan, made before time began.
That's preaching the good news; that's confessing "Jesus Christ is Lord." That describes a body of Christians who are, together, "growing to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" through their love for God and for one another. That is believers who are being transformed into the image of the Creator by renewal of the mind (Col. 3:10) to understand the will of God (Rom. 12:2) as set out in His predestined plan.
That's the gospel. We are growing to be like God in fellowship in the divine nature both now (2 Pet. 1:4) and throughout eternity. Why wouldn't anyone desire to be a part of that? People accepting Christ is sometimes referred to as "obeying the gospel." We have that backwards. The church is the one to obey the gospel. God accepts those who believe through His love and grace.
What other gospel is there?
Some of the Jewish Christians in the first century church had another gospel -- it was called "accept Christ and show your worthiness by keeping the Law of Moses." Perhaps they considered that Christ could be accepted as Savior only if one went through the circumcision requirement of the Old Law as they had done. Even though the Law was condemning because one could never attain righteousness, the Jews still wanted the Gentile believers to go through the route of a proselyte to Judaism. If it was "to the Jew first, then also to the Greek," let's just put the requirements of salvation in that order, too. The road to Jesus went through the Law.
So, the Jews set up the Law as a precedent to Jesus. Perhaps they didn't fully understand the predestined plan of God and how the enactment of that plan took precedence over everything -- over the Law, circumcision, over "that's how we've always done it," over "the unbeliever has to be obedient." No, it's none of this. All of man's opinions, interpretations, and doctrines submit to the perfect plan of the eternal God -- the creator of all things in accordance with His will -- which is the Unifying Field Law of Everything in the Universe -- that we were created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24).
So, does the church understand the plan of God? Do Christians understand the plan of God? If they did, why aren't things working better? Sometimes the world seems to understand the expectations for Christians better than Christians do, themselves. And, the world sees when the church falls short, even while much of Christianity seems to be in denial.
Marketing the gospel?
The following does not represent an "inside" view of evangelism. Whatever deficiencies in preaching the gospel to the world are almost always unintentional. The present discussion describes a perception from the "outside" -- what people see when they approach the Christian message from a different mindset and set of assumptions. Who is right - inside or outside? Maybe everyone is correct to some degree; maybe no one. But, whatever barrier of understanding there may be, doesn't it behoove the people with the mind of Christ to initiate the removal of the barrier?
If a salesman (gender neutral) were trying to convince someone that they needed to move from one place to another, the salesman would need to show the person some sort of contrast to the their present living situation. Either the new place is so much better, or else the person lives in a really bad place now -- in a much worse condition than the person realized. The salesman would be at a disadvantage if his company couldn't represent the new location very well, because the company didn't maintain that great a location, either. In fact, what if the location the salesman is trying to describe is much better than what the company maintains for itself? That compromised contrast would not be too convincing. Therefore, the salesman tries to convince the person that his present location is much worse than the person realized -- in fact, the person is living in condemned housing. "You wouldn't want to be caught dead there." Might be scary. Then again, the person might not be so convinced about his unworthy status if he found that the salesman was using outdated building codes to claim the building was condemned.
"What? That sounds like deliberate misrepresentation for selfish advantage. Come on, Christians don't do that!"
Let's not be in denial and deceive ourselves. Even if totally unintentional, that is the message and the motivation as it is perceived by many people who look at Christianity from the outside. Even if the reaction is exaggerated and not totally accurate, it can't be a total fabrication. It must be based on something real within the attitude of the church that should be addressed.
If the church doesn't show the world the manifold wisdom of God in His eternal plan, if the church is not building itself up in love but is instead entering into competition and division, and if the church behaves in a way that isn't any different from the world, then the church doesn't have a very convincing testimony to give to the world. So what is the remaining alternative? Is it judging the world against a standard the church is not keeping itself and placing the world under condemnation because that is the traditional doctrine?
The "Fall of Mankind," "original sin," "the sin of Adam," "born into sin and a sinner from birth," and similar doctrines of inherent condemnation are not found in Genesis, nor were they doctrines of the New Testament church. These doctrines of sin and resulting condemnation are lifted from passages in Scripture, but the doctrines are based on a tradition of thinking passed down and protected for hundreds of years. No, it's not as if this is some sort of marketing scheme developed in the back room with the goal of "how can we make people buy into the gospel." But it is largely a doctrine that was developed during the Reformation Movement in reaction to teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Scriptures were found that could be used to support that new mindset. But, these presuppositions of "original sin" and a once-perfect world, that is now fallen, continue to greatly influence thinking and doctrine in Christianity today.
Condemnation of the world provides a contrast that highlights a need for the "divine rescue." This doctrine says that the foreordained plan of God predestined that mankind would fail, fall, and flop. The creation that God said to be "very good" was, in fact, not so good -- created with a fatal flaw. Either God had to make a divine adjustment because His creation wasn't so perfect after all, or else God built failure into His divine equation, perhaps even unfairly causing Adam and Eve to sin and reap the consequences. Does God learn by making mistakes? Hasn't some human said more than once, "Well, if I were God I would have done it this better way ....." (Of course, 1 Cor 1:19-21, 1 Cor. 2:18, and many other places say otherwise.)
[People may point to God supposedly admitting to mistakes when He repented of creating man because of sin and therefore destroyed the world by flood, and when God wanted to wipe out the children of Israel but Moses, and then Joshua, talked Him out of it. But these are written from a human perspective making a anthropomorphic assignment to God. Have to discuss that in another place.]
God didn't and doesn't make mistakes; God didn't fail in the creation; God didn't make Adam and Eve mess up their nice Garden. God didn't create everything perfect, as we usually perceive perfection, so it could fouled up. It was created in accordance with His plan, because the plan predated creation. "Good" and "very good" doesn't mean perfect as in God is perfect, but rather these created things were confirmed to be a part of His divine plan. A lot of this "perfect earth before Adam's sin" type of thinking comes from Young Earth Creationism that says one day all the animals were happy and existed together just fine, and there was no death. (Maybe this worked if one assumes everything was zapped into instant existence with full stomachs, and the next species came along before the previous ones could get hungry). But shortly (how long?) after creation came the "apple" episode, and then the fallen animals were killing and devouring each other -- all because of the consequences of Adam's sin. A literal interpretations of Gen 1-3, imposing our present English-speaking Western definitions of time and space, presents a chaotic picture of a creation that was supposed to bring order.That interpretation is inconsistent with other scripture and doesn't make sense.
A better explanation
The better alternative to God making mistakes, and having to come and bail out His plan gone sour, is that the entire sequence is part of God's foreordained plan of transformation. Transformation has occurred in one form or another from the initial spark of creation until the present time. There was physical and cosmic transformation in nature from a big bang (or whatever) to humankind. There was social, relational, organization, political, and religious changes as humankind grew in numbers and further matured. When this developmental phase had reached a critical physical, intellectual, and social threshold, Jesus Christ came and completed the phase of the Old Law and brought in the new phase. This phase started on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all humankind. The spiritual genes of God that coded for the character of Jesus Christ, manifested in His life on earth, were placed in our hearts for expression by the Holy Spirit into the fruit of the Spirit. This spiritual evolution is spiritual renewal, transformation, sanctification, glorification. There has been no "fall" and recovery -- it is a smooth transition that was planned before creation.
The pinnacle of the book of Romans is transformation, not a divine escape from condemnation
When the church doesn't understand that transformation into the likeness of God is the foreordained plan of God, the church is left with the alternate message of condemnation setting up salvation. This is how the book of Romans has been used. However, when one discerns the message of Romans beginning from the standpoint of transformation (Rom. 12:2), there is an entirely different conclusion than when one starts with a preconception out of the doctrine of "original sin" and "the Fall."
The epistle to the Romans was written by Paul "To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7). As in all other epistles in the New Testament, Romans was written to Christians who made up the church in a particular location -- in this case, Rome. This point seems obvious when said, but it is apparently not so obvious when it comes to determining the exact details of the composition of "the gospel" message and how the gospel should be represented to the world. The epistles were not written as evangelistic sermons to unbelievers to convince them that they needed Christ. The epistles were written to explain to the church how it should go about living out the plan of God as a testimony to the world and to the powers in the heavenly realms. When the church lives out the plan of God, the world can see the difference for itself and ask about it, without having it pointed out to them. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin (John 16:8). Jesus didn't even say that the world was condemned, but it is the prince of the world (John 16:11). One might say, "Yeah, but condemnation is waiting for them, and we need to tell them." But it is the Holy Spirit who also convicts the world of judgment (John 16:8). It is not the job of the church to take God's position to judge and condemn anyone under the supposition that the church knows the mind of God and the fate of the universe. This is a doctrine that the institution of the Roman Catholic Church began presuming for itself soon after becoming the "state religion." Many denominations, restoration movement churches, and other fellowship groups that have derived from these movements would deny having any Catholic doctrine , but there are some presuppositions that still exist, even in a hidden subliminal way, that the church is in the business of rescuing people from the open fire-breathing mouth of hell instead of attracting people by showing them what the kingdom of heaven looks when the church is growing into the fullness of Christ. The church has shown that it is not fruitful to preach condemnation while growing into the fullness of Christ. It's like serving two masters.
Has "the gospel" changed from that of the first century? God's plan has not changed since before the universe was created, but the understanding of the church today as to its role in presenting the plan is not the same as described by Paul and is not the same as the descriptions by Jesus of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.
In that sense, yes, we do still need to establish New Testament Christianity. But further back than that, we need to establish the church's compliance with the foreordained plan of God, made before the creation of the world. We do not need to reestablish the beliefs of the Christian Pharisees who said new converts first had to pass through the briar patch of condemnation from the Old Law and its regulations, especially circumcision, before they would be qualified for Christ (Acts 15:5). Neither do we need to toss the world under the bus of legalistic condemnation as if the baptismal waters perform some sort of exorcism during a physical act that we humans control. Christians, and collectively the church, are to show the world what life in the Spirit looks like, what it looks like to take off the old nature and put on the new, and the evidence of being transformed into the likeness of God with every increasing glory in the love, peace, and unity of the Lord. This is transformation, renewal, sanctification, glorification -- the message of Romans and the eternal plan of God. It is becoming like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24).
But there are traces of the old way of legalistic-oriented thinking just about everywhere. It's been an accepted part of the scenery for so long that we don't notice it. In fact, we promote it. Legalistic thinking is like a viral infection. A virus injects foreign genetic material into a normal cell that "takes over" the cellular control and commandeers the cell's metabolic resources to produce more virus before self-destructing, thereby releasing and spreading more virus. This insidious infection cycle occurs quickly so that the virus spreads before the body can recognize and react to the foreign material. Legalism is like that. It spreads and takes over spiritual thinking and produces works of the flesh, in people and collectively in churches. Jesus said "flesh gives birth to flesh" (John 3:6), and Paul said "a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough" (1 Cor. 5:6).
It's everywhere ...
... and it's current. The integrated study materials -- sermon, class, home, connection group -- "The Road to Redemption," is a study based on Romans, systematically going through start to finish. The material makes a transition at week 11, after 10 weeks in Romans 1-11. Week 11 starts into Romans 12. The title for the week is "Family Theme Christian Living," and the section begins with this classic sentence:
"Having presented the doctrine of salvation, Paul began to explain how Christians are to live."We have it backward. We have flipped God's doctrine 180 degrees. The "plan of salvation" is not limited to justification and redemption. The plan of God is not the doctrine of salvation; the doctrine of salvation brings about and allows the crux of the plan of God -- which is transformation -- to occur. Salvation is the "One whom we are becoming" because we are on the path toward being like God.
Mountaineering, not molehilleering
Transformation to be like God is the real mountain. The importance of everything else, by comparison, is a field of molehills. Molehills are real; they are important; they are based on scripture; they have a function. Molehills are part of the larger plan of God -- the mountain. But, molehills are not the mountain.
"Go tell it on the mountain -- it's Jesus Christ we become."