If you have been tracking here lately, you know that we are in the middle of the Advent season. Advent is the four weeks prior to Christmas (or more accurately, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas day). Advent is the time in which we symbolically await the coming of our savior Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas, while waiting (for real) for him to come again as he promised. We are now in week 3 of the Advent season.
During the Advent season my modus operandi is to pick an Advent-related (somewhat at least) topic and talk about it for four weeks. This week I would like to continue our discussion by focusing in on what exactly constitutes the Gospel.
The Gospel is the core message of our Christian faith, so it is vitally important that we get it right. Lately there has been a lively discussion in some of the blogs where I hang out regularly. To get things going, allow me to direct your attention to two pieces by D. M. Williams at Resurrecting Raleigh:
In these pieces, Williams critiques the view widely held in evangelical circles, particularly in the Neo-Reformed wing that has gained tremendous influence over the past decade and includes the likes of R. C. Sproul, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper. This view identifies the Gospel with the Protestant distinctive of sola fide (justification by faith) which formed the core of Luther’s teaching during the Reformation. In the first of the two pieces, Williams includes several written definitions and video discussions which illustrate this.
Over and against this, Williams contends that while sola fide is an important component of the Gospel message, it is not the whole Gospel. If the Gospel is sola fide, then only some Protestants believe the Gospel and the vast majority of church history was dominated by rank unbelief. That alone should at least give us pause:
If one identifies the gospel with the doctrine of justification sola fide, then, by implication, one has to say that only (some) Protestants believe in the gospel. Not only does this equation require one to automatically put contemporary Catholics, Orthodox, and many other Christians in the “unbeliever” box, it also means putting everyone from the 1st century to the 16th–Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Thomas a Kempis, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, etc.–in that box as well. Most of the spiritual greats of Christian history–the Church Fathers and Mothers, the Medieval doctors, the great mystics–are all cast outside. To my mind, this implication alone is sufficient to warrant a reconsideration of the evangelical equation of the gospel with Luther’s doctrine of justification.
Williams goes on to contend that the Gospel message is bigger and wider than just sola fide:
Over the last seven years I have become increasingly convinced that the message which the apostles proclaimed as “the gospel” was not sola fide but Kyrios Christos, “Christ is Lord.” That is to say, the gospel is, properly speaking, the royal announcement that Jesus of Nazareth is the God of Israel’s promised Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
To support this viewpoint, Williams argues that the first century was not a cultural vacuum and that people would have understood the word for “Gospel” in very specific ways. Specifically it would have referred to some conquering ruler’s proclamation that he has defeated all enemies and he is lord over a specific region, for example the frequent announcements throughout the Roman world of Caesar’s lordship. Over and against this, Christians offered the massively counter-cultural message that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and that he has conquered all enemies, even death itself.
In the second piece Williams looks at what was meant by the phrase “the gospel” when it appears in the Gospels and contends that it points to the Kingdom, and not just sola fide. Starting in the Gospel of Mark, he walks through all the occurences of the phrase to euangelion (the gospel), and shows how they point to the Kingdom. He then argues that the portions of the Gospels which are taken as classic examples of the justification by faith message have no euangelion language anywhere near them.
So what does all this mean? First, in Williams’ concluding words:
…if the NT gospel is the announcement of God’s ruling the world through Jesus Christ, then all Christians–Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike–believe in the NT gospel.
I find it extremely difficult to believe that St. Peter is standing at the gates of heaven (How did he get the job of celestial bouncer anyway? But that’s another diatribe for another day) with rubric in hand, checking everyone who passes through to see if they can articulate a doctrinally correct statement of penal substitutionary atonement, double forensic imputation, or what have you. One doesn’t have to understand the workings of the internal combustion engine in order to enjoy the benefits of driving a car. In the same way, one does not have to be able to articulate a theologically correct understanding of justification by faith in order to be justified by faith.
Second, one of the classic dilemmas of the Christian life is the question “What do I do now that I’m saved?” If the Gospel is nothing more than the message of justification by faith, then this question becomes especially poignant because Jesus’ substitutionary atonement does not have any relevance for you (beyond the abstract and theoretical realm) until you actually die and are face-to-face with a God who is asking why He should let you into heaven. Under this view, the Gospel becomes nothing more than eternal fire insurance with a Rapture boarding pass thrown in for good measure.
But if we understand the Gospel in Kingdom terms, namely that Jesus has defeated all enemies including death itself, that he is building a new community and all of humanity is invited to become a part of it, then those in-between years from the time we are saved until the time we die become much more important and meaningful. It is during this time that we live as part of the community of Christ-followers all around the world, working at the vocations to which God has called us, watching and waiting together for our Savior who has promised to return for us.