Recovering the Gospel: A Biblical, Historical, Salvific Message
To begin our recovery of the gospel, we must start from a biblical-theological perspective. The gospel comes from God, who is on a mission in the world. As Ed Stetzer writes, “God is on a mission, and Jesus is the embodiment of that mission.” Stetzer sums up well the overarching storyline of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, we see God set on filling the earth with the knowledge of his glory. The mission is outlined in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2. Humanity is positioned at the center of God’s created world; made to live in perfect relationship with God, with self, with others, and with all creation; tasked with stewarding all things to the glory of God; and invited to co-create with God in the earth for his glory and their joy. This is shalom, peace and wholeness found under the good rule of God. What a world!
Tragically, the creation plan of God turns into a redemptive plan following the rebellion of Satan and the subsequent fall of man. The results of the Fall are as such: God is violated, his law is broken, his mission is threatened, and his righteous justice is enacted. The effects of sin devastate humanity’s relationship with God, with self, with one another, and with creation. Genesis 3 to 11 shows us the result— the earth is filled with sin, division, death, and the dominion of Satan. Sin’s effects are crippling in a much more holistic way than we often view sin. Sin is not a narrow “missing the mark”; it devastates all areas of life in the world (personal, relational, societal). But there are glimmers of good news in God’s response to human sin. God curses, but he does not destroy. He deals with sinners rightly, but he promises to redeem. From Genesis 3 to Revelation, we see God patiently at work, willing the world toward reconciliation. His mission is to atone for sin, deal with Satan, defeat death, redeem a people, and restore his creation. The promise of redemption travels from Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, and through the voice of the prophets. With each covenant, the promise gets clearer. And with each covenant, God’s heart for the whole world gets expressed. Israel is to be a light to the nations, an example of what life looks like worshipping the one true God and living under his good rule. But Israel was never meant to be the final resting place for God’s mission. Israel’s failure and unfaithfulness to God and his mission remind us of this. The story of Israel points us to the coming seed of the woman who would bless the nations as their full and final Passover Lamb and victorious King whose Kingdom would never end. Jesus, the messiah, fulfills every covenant, every sign, and every motif of Israel. This redemption project of God climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the person and work of Jesus, God purchases and purifies for himself a new people he calls his church. He puts his Holy Spirit within them and establishes with them a new covenant. The risen Jesus commissions his church to go into all the world and witness to the victorious work of Christ, the life-giving reality of the Spirit, and the coming rule and reign (and judgment) of God. The church is to be a people who give a foretaste (a representation in every place) of the coming Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. This witness is done in word and deed, spirit and truth, grace and power. The book of Acts shows us God’s purpose for his church. The Apostles’ letters offer us patterns and principles his church ought to work out in every place as it participates in God’s mission and awaits his promised return.
The mission of God will be consummated upon the return of Jesus Christ. When Jesus appears again, he will raise the dead in Christ, judge the living and the dead, and usher in the new heavens and new earth. On this day, the mission of God will be complete, and the knowledge of the glory of God will finally fill the world. All things will have been reconciled in heaven and earth. The church will reign as co-heirs with Christ in the New City. We will enjoy the renewed creation; no more toil and tears. We will relate to one another in perfect harmony; no more division and destruction. And we will enjoy unbridled fellowship with Father, Son, and Spirit forever; no more hiding, pretending, or doubting. Shalom will be restored. What a day that will be! The church (locally and globally) exists to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (Mk. 16:17 [ESV)” until that day comes.
If we are going to proclaim the true gospel in our day effectively, we must first and foremost understand it from this biblical-theological perspective. Next, we must understand it as historical and salvific. Understanding the gospel in this order helps us cut through the fog and proclaim the whole gospel as good news for the whole of life.
The Gospel is Historical
As N.T. Wright says, the biblical gospel is not “a piece of advice about something you might or might not wish to do. It [is] news.” It is a word or a message about a real historical event. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9…
1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Paul is reminding us this all really happened. The gospel is the message that God entered into real space, time human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not mythology or mystic spirituality. It’s news, an actual historical event. Jesus really lived, really died, really rose again, really appeared, and he really ascended into heaven; doing all of this in real human history.
He was born among Israel in 4 BC when Augustus was emperor of the Roman empire, and Herod ruled over Judea. He lived a perfect, sinless, beautiful human life as Israel’s promised messiah. He had a massive following from all over Judea as he ministered from roughly 27 AD-30 AD. Despite his growing following and miraculous ministry he was, in the end, rejected by Israel and unjustly arrested and tried. He was sentenced to crucifixion under Rome, severely beaten, eventually killed, and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But on the third day, when some of his followers went to the tomb, they were surprised to find it empty. The body had not been stolen; it had been raised to life. The resurrected Jesus appeared to hundreds of people over a period of forty days before he ascended into Heaven before many eyewitnesses. The message of the gospel is that while the Jewish people in 30 AD were using the Roman courtroom to try Jesus for blasphemy and the Roman cross to unjustly kill Jesus, God was using it to atone for sins, to defeat death, and overcome evil. The gospel message is that God has acted in human history to defeat sin, death, and Satan through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And the good news of this message is that when one receives it and takes their stand on it (1 Cor. 15:1), it has profound salvific implications on our everyday lives (1 Cor. 15:2)!
The Gospel is Salvific
The news of Jesus’ victorious life, death, and resurrection has forever changed the world because the message carries with it redeeming power. Imagine for a second what things would have been like in the ancient world when word arrived to people in cities and towns, ‘your kingdom has fallen, and there is now a new king in charge.’ It would bring a whole new way of life; life in a new kingdom under the rule of a new king. So, what changes for us when we receive the news of the gospel and give our allegiance to King Jesus?
In Colossians 1:13-14, Paul tells us we are called into a new kingdom, where we learn a new way. He writes, “13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” By grace alone, through faith in the gospel, we are transferred out of a life/world of sin and decay into the kingdom of Jesus, where redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness of sin is the new reality. The Christian life isn’t just about praying a prayer and going to heaven one day. It’s about learning and living into the reconciling realities of Jesus and his Kingdom. This journey of discipleship starts here and now and extends into all eternity.
Recall back to God’s mission and his work to restore and reconcile all things in Christ. Well, he is doing this in us, among us, and through us. As we learn to say “no” to the world and its agendas and say “yes” to Jesus and his way– we find redemption and reconciliation in him. The saving power of the gospel comes to bear on our lives in three ways. We experience redemption personally, relationally, and societally. This is what I call the three dimensions of the gospel.
First, the gospel is deeply personal in our lives. We must come to terms with the truth that God embarrassingly loves those he saves. This is true for all who believe. He doesn’t love a future version of you; if you have put your faith in him and what he has done for you, you are fully loved and accepted by a Holy God. The bible describes the personal dimension of the good news to us in many places. You have been “chosen in Him before the foundations of the earth” (Eph. 1:4 [ESV]); you are beloved (Jn. 3:16 [ESV]); you are now a child of God adopted into his family and receiving all the benefits of sonship (Gal. 4:4-7 [ESV]); you have been made right (justified) before God (Rom. 3:21-26[ESV]); you have been imputed with the righteousness of Jesus (Rom. 4:22-25 [ESV]); you are united to Jesus (Gal. 2:20, Col. 3:3-4 [ESV]); you are a co-heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17 [ESV]); he has put his Spirit within you (Eph. 1:13-14 [ESV]); and on the cross, he has put to death all shame, guilt, and condemnation for your sins past, present, and future (Rom. 5:9, 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:13-14; Heb. 10:10, 12:2 [ESV]). The gospel is profoundly personal and embarrassingly lavish. Learning to live in Jesus’ kingdom means continually growing in your relationship with God, learning to live into these benefits, and embracing the new identity he gives.
But the good news of the gospel isn’t one-dimensional; there is more. It’s relational. In Jesus’s kingdom, we are called to “put away all malice, deceit, envy, and slander (1 Pet. 2:1 [ESV])”. We are called to “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander be put away…along with all malice. [To] be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32 [ESV]). Why is this how we are to relate to one another in the Kingdom of God? Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not only victorious over the effects of sin separating us from God, but also over the effects of sin and Satan that tear us apart from one another. Ephesians 2:14-16 reminds us that “For he himself is our peace, who has made us one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…[reconciling] us… in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Jesus has accomplished this for us. He gives us reconciling grace and empowers us with His Spirit to walk in reconciliation, unity, forgiveness, and peace with one another. This is really good news for our marriages, for our families, for friendships. It gives us the confidence to forge deep relationships with other Christians. It compels us to seek healing where we’ve been wounded or have wounded others. It gives us hope to pursue reconciliation and unity across racial and cultural lines. Most importantly, it reminds us that there is no such thing as an individualistic Christian. When we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, we are adopted into God’s family, we become a member of his body, and we are joined together with his church. The gospel is not only profoundly personal (good news for me); it is also deeply relational (good news for us).
Finally, the gospel is societal in its saving power. We “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”. (Mark 16:17 [ESV]) As the gospel works in us and among us, it also ought to be working through us in the world. In Matthew 6:10, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are “ambassadors” of Christ and his kingdom, that “God is making his appeal through us,” and that he has given us the “ministry of reconciliation.” In other words, as Christians in this world, we do not sit back idly waiting on Jesus to return, nor do we rage against the world as culture warriors for Christ. Instead, we live and work in such a way that displays the Kingdom of God. We live and work as salt and light. We live lives marked by the grace and truth of Jesus. We point others to the gospel in word and deed. This has implications for how we work (unto the Lord, not man, [Col. 3:23 ESV]), how we steward our resources with generosity (1Tim. 6:18 [ESV]), and how we care for the needy with compassion (Matt. 25:40 [ESV]). It means we pray for the sick (Jms 5:14 [ESV]), care about the widow and orphan (Jms 1:27 [ESV]), speak about and engage matters of injustice (Isa 1:17, Amos 5:15, Jer. 23:5 [ESV]), and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39 [ESV]). To be clear, we are not to do all of these things alone. We do them together as his church, each using the gifts God has given. Remembering what God has done for us by his grace, he wants to extend through us in the world.
The gospel is the news about Jesus, who he is, what he has done, and what God is offering the world through him. And this message brings good news to every area of life (personal, relational, and societal). Effective evangelism in our day will require that the church 1) recover the biblical, historical gospel and make it central in the church, and 2) commit to winsomely and contextually proclaiming the whole gospel for the whole of life. Or, as I like to say, the church must show its neighbors the gospel in 3D.
Stetzer, Ed. God’s Mission has a Church: My Interview with Tabletalk Magazine. Christianity Today. 2014
Wright, N. T.. Simply Good News (p. 20). HarperOne. Kindle Edition. (p. 68). InterVarsity Press 1979