What Is the Gospel? Part One

The gospel is the good news of God’s saving work for sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is basically how Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  But how is it that the death and resurrection of Christ saves?  What is it about the cross that makes it our hope for salvation?  These questions really take us to the heart of the gospel.

Through the cross we are saved.  But saved from what?  In order to be saved, you first have to be in danger.  What is the greatest threat facing us?  How we answer this question will determine what we understand the gospel to be. 

Some have argued that our greatest threat is us.  God loves me, but I am a sinner who has turned away from him.  What needs to be overcome is my hostility to God.  So God sent his Son to die in order to show me how much he loves me.  When I come to understand this, I will relinquish my hostility and turn to him.  If I am my own worst enemy, then this is the kind of gospel I need.

There is certainly truth in this view.  The cross does reveal the love of God to us (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).  But why did Jesus have to die the most horrible death imaginable in order to show me that?  This view asserts something true about the cross (namely, that it is an expression of God’s love), but it does not explain the cross.  This is not the gospel.

Others say that our greatest threat is each other.  We are caught in a cycle of hostility and violence toward one another that only continuously spirals into more and more hostility.  One person or group attacks another, and then the other must retaliate with a more severe act, and then vice versa, until finally we collectively aim our hostilities at a convenient target, an “other,” a scapegoat.  So, for example, in Nazi Germany the Jews became the scapegoats, targets of this spiral of hostility.  The scapegoat mechanism perpetuates the cycle of violence and keeps it alive.  On this view, Jesus came to absorb everything we could throw at him and then to rise again from the dead and not retaliate, thus exposing the cycle of violence and scapegoat mechanism for what it is.  When we see this revelation in the cross, we relinquish violence as a way of life and follow Christ in a life of love toward others, especially toward outsiders who were formerly the targets of violence. 

Again, this view is not totally without merit.  The cross does indeed heal horizontal divisions between us.  It brings together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, etc. (Gal 3:28).  But the idea that it does so simply by exposing our violence will not do.  We don’t need just to be shown our sin.  We need to be forgiven of it and transformed inwardly.  Furthermore, the idea that Jesus will not retaliate against sinners does not square with the teaching of the New Testament (see 2 Thess 1:5-10).  This is not the gospel.

Others have argued that Satan and his spiritual forces of evil are our greatest threat.  We live in a world that is captive to the evil one, and we must be liberated from his death-grip.  So God sent his Son to die and rise again in order to claim victory over Satan and the powers.  Again, there is certainly truth here.  The cross did defeat Satan and his forces (Col 2:13-15).  But like a view already mentioned, this one simply cannot explain why it was necessary for Christ to die.  General Washington did not have to die in order to claim victory over the British.  Why, then, if our biggest threat is captivity to evil spiritual forces, did Christ specifically have to die for us?  Why didn’t God just destroy Satan?  Why didn’t he perform one giant exorcism over the planet?  No, this view is not the gospel either.

If our greatest threat is not ourselves, each other, or Satan, then who or what is it?  The answer will take us to the heart of the gospel. 

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2 Responses to “What Is the Gospel? Part One”

  1. candmg Says:

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Scot McKnight’s new book, A Community of Atonement. I find it very compelling.

    I just want to know how you incorporate the other classical, historical notions of gospel, specifically the significance of incarnation and Jesus’ life (Irenaeus).

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    I haven’t read McKnight’s book. If something is not on my reading list for school, I generally don’t have time for it right now. One day that will change…

    The incarnation is, of course, essential to the atonement. The payment for sin could not have been made by someone who was not fully human. Humanity was under the curse of God’s wrath, so only a human being could bear it. On the other hand, only one who is fully divine could have paid the infinite price that Christ paid. Thus, in order to be our Redeemer Jesus had to be both fully human and fully divine.

    Jesus’ life connects to his death in that the latter is the culmination of the obedience expressed in the former. Reformed theology has long maintained that both the active and passive obedience of Christ are necessary for our salvation, for salvation involves not only the imputation of our sins to Christ (via his passive obedience) but also the imputation of his righteousness (i.e., active obedience) to us.

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