What is the gospel?
This is a popular discussion topic these days. Most people are aware of the group known as The Gospel Coalition that organized around a common desire to better understand the gospel (it is worth stating it is very debatable whether or not this has been successful since when many think of this group other, secondary matters seem more defining than the gospel itself). At the seminary where I study (Western Seminary in Portland, OR) the motto is “Gospel-Centered Transformation” and I can attest to the reality that the professors do ask how their various subjects relate to the gospel, its proclamation, and its mission in the world. A flurry of books on the subject have been published in recent years as well as many articles.
I confess that I spend most of my study time reading the Apostle Paul. It is my niche. It is his writings where I see the story of Israel unfold from a post-resurrection perspective in relation to the real life of some of the earliest Christian communities. So when I ask myself what I mean when I say that I am trying to better understand the gospel this means, in part, that I am asking what the great Apostle meant by the gospel.
This is not to say the rest of the canon doesn’t contribute. It does have much to say and I know that this discussion must be made with an eye toward catholicity. That being said, I want to talk about the Pauline gospel in this post.
First, I think most students of Paul would say we ought to begin with 1. Cor. 15.1-8, which he wrote just prior to addressing the Corinthian’s misunderstanding of the resurrection:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
As we see it is the gospel from the beginning to the end for Paul. This gospel is defined here in relation to the error that Paul addresses, so we should not say it is his final summary on the matter, but merely the central aspect that he wishes to highlight in relation to doubts regarding the resurrection of the dead.
In his gospel we see that it is “according to the Scriptures”, sometime he says elsewhere in relation to this subject. It is about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It includes the fact that Jesus was seen post-resurrection by central figures in the early church and Paul includes himself as one of those people.
At the beginning of his letter to Rome (Rom. 1.1-7) he notes similar points of contact: (1) Paul’s apostleship is about announcing the “gospel of God”; (2) it is derived from the Scriptures; (3) it builds on Jesus being a Davidic descendant; (4) it proclaims his enthronement as occurring by the Holy Spirit at the resurrection; (5) this marks Jesus as Lord.
In Rom. 1.16-21 we note that Paul understands this message as being either one of salvation from the judgment of God for those who live by faithfulness in Christ or it is a message of judgment for those who continue to suppress the truth of God in their wicked state. Throughout this epistle there is a continual division between those who remain in rebellion against God in their Adamic state and those who proclaim their allegiance to Christ (Rom. 10.9-10). Those who pledge allegiance to Christ receive the Holy Spirit which resurrects the dead into the age to come where they will be adopted children of God reigning in the new, redeemed Creation (Rom. 8.1-25; cf. Eph 1.11-2.10).
In his letter to Rome he intended on realigning the paradigm that had caused division in that church. It was split between Jews and Gentiles. For Paul this is not how humanity is divided. One is either in the sphere of Adam or the sphere of Christ. Since this is so, we must note that part of Paul’s gospel proclamation included that there would be a new people that included the remnant of faithful Israel as well as Gentile converts. This is what Paul writes in Gal. 3.8:
“Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (NIV)
For those who choose to remain identified with Adam there is nothing but judgment as the aforementioned Rom. 1.16-21 notes as well as 2 Cor. 2.12-17 where Paul sees his apostolic announcement as an aroma of life to those who are saved and one of death to those who are perishing.
This whole approach by Paul frames the gospel as (1) the message of God to the world (2) about his Son, Jesus the Messiah (who is part of the Davidic line and who was foreseen by the prophets) who (3) has been enthroned by the Holy Spirit at the resurrection into the heavenlies.
(4) As the King he has demanded allegiance (read Ps. 2 for such context) and Paul, an apostle, functions as a royal herald. (5) Those who believe will confess Jesus as Lord declaring their allegiance to God’s Messiah. This will result in resurrection life by the Holy Spirit. (6) Those who continue to rebel remain part of the Adamic sphere whose end is eternal death.
(7) A new people have formed around Christ. This ends the division between Jews and Gentiles who have declared allegiance to Christ (see also Eph. 2.11-3.13). As we see in Rom. 9-11 this results in the people of God being centered on Christ which includes a Jewish remnant and Gentile converts.
(8) According to 1 Thess. 4.13-18 both the dead and living followers of Messiah will be resurrected to welcome Christ to reign on earth when the Father decides that Christ’s inauguration is not enough and it is time he rule the earth (again, see Rom. 8.18-25 and 1 Cor. 15.24-28 where death is the last enemy).
What would you add to this description? What would you say is missing that ought to be given more attention? I could not give all the details to this broad outline, e.g. the Abrahamic promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Do you think some assumed details need to be given more prominence for this to make sense?