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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 1

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There seems to be a lot of confusion today about what the gospel is. There are the obviously crass examples on display at Christian and secular bookstores everywhere, encouraging us all to have our "best life now" or, more recently, to Have a New You by Friday.


But there are also others in our time who point to the ongoing work of social rather than personal transformation. They tell us that we should partner with God in his redemptive mission to change the world through the pursuit of social justice. Now I'm not saying that these aren't worthy goals. The pursuit of justice either for an individual or for a society is a noble calling, and I would encourage most of the readers of this blog to become better versions of you. But the question is whether these things actually provide a good description of what the gospel is.


Alexis De Tocqueville was a Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s and was fascinated by differences between America and Europe. He published his observations in a book titled Democracy in America. In that book he focused primarily on politics but also made some fascinating observations about religion in this country. He writes,

Priests in the Middle Ages spoke of nothing but the other life; they hardly took any trouble to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below. But preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they 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.
That emphasis is certainly still with us today. Churches, we are told, need to be relevant, down to earth, practical. They need to meet people where they are. But what if where we are is in a world of consumerism, entertainment, and narcissistic hedonism? In such a time a gospel about me, my prosperity, or my worship experience will always be relevant. But churches that focus on something outside of ourselves, something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture - explained and unpacked with big and unfamiliar words like propitiation, justification, and predestination - will always appear to us as irrelevant if we fail to challenge the world's way of thinking.


Paul helps us in 1 Corinthians 15 by giving us a very good definition of what the gospel is. But before we dive into that definition, here is a little historical background. Paul's letters to the Corinthians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament, a fact is undisputed in our day even by the most liberal scholars. This is a wonderful concession because it means that historians everywhere must explain how by 53-55 AD (which is the generally accepted date of the Corinthian epistles) we find a monotheistic Jewish Pharisee professing faith in the divinity of one of his fellow Rabbis who had gotten himself crucified just a couple decades earlier. It's a fascinating historical drama in and of itself, especially when you add the fact that before he became a Christian leader and evangelist, Paul was a fierce opponent of this strange Jewish sect, persecuting other believers even unto death. Of course the way the story is usually told is that Jesus was a nice groovy teacher who preached peace, love, and harmony until he unfortunately got himself crucified . The story continues like a good fish story: tales about this Jesus evolved over time so that by the late first century, when the story was finally written down, this teacher is pictured with a halo, walking on water and performing miracles. In other words, the man was turned into a God over time by the believing community.


But if that's really what happened, how do we explain Paul's conversion in the early 30s AD? How do we explain the various documents that he left behind, some written in the late 40s (ie. his epistles to the Galatians and Thessalonians)? It's one thing to get a Greek or Roman pagan to believe in the divinity of one of his neighbors (you might recall the story of when Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for incarnations of Zeus and Hermes in Lystra). But Jews were different. Pharisees in particular were very strict monotheists. So how do we get a man like this to profess the divinity of one of his fellow rabbis at such an early date? This question is totally ignored by most liberal scholars as well as by a popularizer such as Dan Brown in his book the Da Vinci Code. In that story, the teacher Jesus wasn't declared to be divine until a decree by Constantine in 325 AD. It made for interesting fiction, but it is far from the complexity of actual historical events.


The great thing about Paul is that we don't have to speculate. We have his writings and no one disputes the early dates of their composition. So the best way to find out what made Paul tick would be to go back to the original sources. And this text for 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most important such sources.


In the next installment of this blog series, we'll start walking through Paul's arguments from this text in order to get a better understanding of what the gospel is and why we should believe it!

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  • Looking at DeTocqueville's quote you cited, it's interesting to see the seeds of the "prosperity gospel", or "Your Best Life Now" theology being planted in his day. Focusing on our blessings, such as freedom or abundance instead of our calling & commission are a real danger to the cause of Christ. The church must keep the balance of recognising God's blessings while doing His ordained work with diligence. Great article. God bless.JodI

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  • Guest - knownbyhim

    GOSPEL=Kingdom of Heaven.

    This is the Gospel Jesus preached.

    :)

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  • I hope you get to something that keeps troubling me. Even with Conservative Christians, the Gospel seems to be something we do for ourselves. We believe solely so we can be saved. Here we haven't challenged the self-centeredness and narcissism, we have spiritualized it.

    It isn't that our personal salvation and eternal destiny should not be a part of the mix. My concern is that it is the only reason why some say we should believe and there is something inside that says that is wrong.

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  • Guest - james jordan

    "That emphasis is certainly still with us today. Churches, we are told, need to be relevant, down to earth, practical. They need to meet people where they are. But what if where we are is in a world of consumerism, entertainment, and narcissistic hedonism? In such a time a gospel about me, my prosperity, or my worship experience will always be relevant. But churches that focus on something outside of ourselves, something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture – explained and unpacked with big and unfamiliar words like propitiation, justification, and predestination – will always appear to us as irrelevant if we fail to challenge the world’s way of thinking."

    Why must "something outside of ourselves" automatically be Calvislam? Its not "something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture" -- its from the 1500s, and words like "propitiation, justification, and predestination" don't date much further back than the 5th century. If we really want "something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture" we ought to look at the Sadducees. There we have the emphasis on this world that is craved, but without the hedonism and consumerism of this age. We ought to look to Sirach rather than Paul, unless our goal is to be Gnostics.

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  • [...] What The Gospel Is & Why We Believe It (Blog Series)Shane Rosenthal Using God, Kim Riddlebarger Corinthian DistractionsMichael Horton WHI Discussion Group QuestionsComing Soon [...]

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  • Guest - Steven Pitkin

    In reply to Kurt Day, you state:

    " Even with Conservative Christians, the Gospel seems to be something we do for ourselves. We believe solely so we can be saved. Here we haven’t challenged the self-centeredness and narcissism, we have spiritualized it."

    In part I agree with you, and your resulting confusion is because in many Evangelical Pulpits today, the Gospel is treated as "Good News" to get us into the front door. Once inside one is treated to the old game of "Chutes and Ladders" or like myself found I was on an "Evangelical Hamster cage with the spinning wheel to nowhere." On top of this our families is taught to think in terms of "WWJD"(What would Jesus do?) instead of "What has Jesus done?"
    The answer is that many of us simply don't know, and that's enough to bring one to tears.
    The Gospel first and foremost an action that was done for us, and not by us. Red flags and warning sirens go off in the Christian mind that understands this when the mind hears, "The Gospel is something we live."
    If that is so then we're in real bad shape, because if my salvation is dependent on any action on my part (Even my decision), then that's not "Good News", that's the worst news in the world.
    The Bible states we are spiritually dead.
    Romans 3:10 gets it's reference from Psalm 14:1-4, and then there's Ephesians 2:1-10; especially verse 8&9 "For by grace are ye saved THROUGH FAITH: (Emphasis mine)and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." Titus 3:5,6 states: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; "No where in the Bible does one find the Gospel is something we have to do for ourselves, but the data indicates we are the recipient of undeserved mercy.Like a drowning victim at the bottom of the sea. We are dead in our sins and do not have the ability to bring life back into ourselves.
    The Bible (Both Old and New) tells us that we are rescued by God. It's all of His doing from start to finish. Yes, we have to believe this is so, but we cannot confess this unless God the Holy Spirit indwells us. So God, from start to finish gets all of the glory, and we get blessed with eternal and might I add new life! Yet today we still think of ways of taking credit for the rescue event. Some of my Brothers and Sisters in Christ say, "Well at least He (God) knows my heart." I have to reply "Yet in spite of that He saved us." Reference Jeremiah 17:9. Charles Spurgeon says on this point, "There is tinder enough in the saint who is nearest to heaven to kindle another hell if God should but permit a spark to fall upon it."
    In my 29 years of Military service, 17 were spent in the Coast Guard. When we were able to get to a drowning victim in time and revive him, I never heard the first words out of their mouth say "Did you see the way I pulled myself out of the water and revived myself?" The only thing I noticed was how dead they were before life saving measures were taken to revive them, and later how grateful they were to be alive.
    Imputed Righteousness, is the Gospel, and I prayerfully hope that you will immerse yourself in it's understanding, so your hope and knowledge of your rescue will be beyond questioning. To quote the Dutch Theologian G.C.Berkower, " Grace is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics."

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  • Good article and topic of discussion. The way I see it is that when God created humanity in Genesis 1 he blessed them and told them to be fruitful, increase, reproduce after yourselves, walk in authority and dominate. God doesn't just use words randomly, they mean something and they affect us.
    I believe there is an inherent, instinctive desire within every person to live this out. But without a continual seeking of God's presence or a deeper spiritual awareness we will look to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and seek to fulfill this inherent desire and calling we have in our own strength according to our own fleshly abilities.
    But just because some may look to their flesh or "the tree" does not mean the desires to bear fruit, increase, reproduce, walk in authority, or have dominion are wrong or bad desires that we must try to suppress. They are God given desires. Instead of spending your days trying to suppress the desires that God has placed there, spend your time "walking with God in the cool of the day" and simply keep Jesus at the center. In Christ alone do we glory.

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