Throughout this blog series I have been arguing that Paul clearly identifies the essence of the Christian gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. But his discussion of what the gospel entails is presented in a summary form only and is certainly not exhaustive. For example, though he writes elsewhere about propitiation (Rom 3:25), imputed righteousness (Rom 5:17), or our adoption as sons (Eph 1:5), in this passage Paul simply sums up this gospel by pointing to Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. All that happened to Jesus, he argued, was both “according to the Scriptures” and verified by eyewitnesses.
I have also argued that Paul’s words in verses 3 through 7 appear to be in the structure of an early Christian mnemonic device, or creed. I believe this is what he had received (15:3) from the early Christian community in Jerusalem and was bringing to the remembrance of the Corinthian church.
Some get confused at this point when comparing this passage to Gal 1:12. In that passage, Paul says he received the gospel not from any man but directly “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is totally consistent with the account of his conversion that we discover in Acts 9.
But here in 1 Cor. 15, he is not merely passing on the content of the Christian gospel. Instead, he is passing on a particular construction of it in the form of an early Christian creed that likely dates back to sometime within the first decade after Christ’s crucifixion. In other words, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection was not one that evolved later. This was the confession of the earliest Christians.
So now let’s conclude our reading of this section from 1 Corinthians. Paul, the chief of sinners, the most hostile of the hostile eyewitnesses, goes on to say:
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
That last line is especially significant when paired with the observation from De Tocqueville that we quoted in the first blog post. He had observed that,
Preachers in America are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.
Unfortunately what was true in 1840 has only gotten worse in our generation. Visit an average congregation, regardless of the denomination, and you’re likely to hear sermons about life in this world and how Jesus will help you live more abundantly here and now.
I’ve been arguing in these posts that the gospel is not ultimately about us or how we can improve this world or ourselves. Rather, it’s about Christ. And it’s not merely about Christ in general or what he can do for us in the here and now. Rather it is about what he did during a particular time when Tiberius was reigning as Caesar and Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Judea. It’s about Christ’s death for sin and his resurrection on the third day, testified by the prophets before it happened, witnessed by the apostles when it happened, and richly explained by them after it happened. We’re dealing with real time and space events that are first and foremost to be understood as true rather than helpful, useful, or life changing. This gospel may have the effect of changing a person’s life, but that is to be understood as a fruit of the gospel and not the thing itself.
These days we’ve turned things around. We don’t talk about the truth of the gospel anymore, just its therapeutic value, what it can do for our finances, how it can repair our broken relationships, how it solves loneliness, etc. As we go around repeating these kinds of things, many people will respond, “Oh that’s great for you, I’m glad that you found something that works.” Others say, “I’m doing just fine with my finances and relationships, thank you,” or “What worked for me was reading Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. That book changed my life!”
But a truth claim is something different. If Jesus really rose again from the dead then, like all historical facts, this would be true not merely for me but for everyone. And if it’s true for everyone, we would all do well to pay attention to what Jesus says about himself and the claims he makes about where history is headed, about our true nature, and about our need for redemption.
Finally, we end with the beginning. This gospel is the announcement concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul says in the first two verses of 1 Corinthians 15 that it is the gospel “in which you stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached…” In other words, this isn’t merely an announcement of a particular set of facts, but is something of eternal significance for us all. We are not made right before a holy God by the things we do. However, we can be saved by attending to these particular words about a particular event that took place some two thousand years ago having to do with a certain Jewish rabbi who got himself crucified and didn’t stay dead.
This is why we put such an important emphasis on preaching and proclamation. The gospel saves, not going to church, or concern for the poor, or spiritual journaling, or the pursuit of social justice, or simply trying to be a nice and decent person in a fallen world. As Paul says in Romans 4:25, “Christ was raised for our justification.” We are declared righteous based on the events of his life, not our own. And if clinging to this gospel is what saves, then preaching this gospel is the main business of Christian ministers in Christian churches throughout the world until he comes.