July 18, 2008

Why is the Gospel Good News?

In a series of recent posts I have been defending the position that Paul's gospel is most basically understood as the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by the Romans, has been raised from the dead by Israel's God and exalted to a place of supremacy as Lord of heaven and earth. This argument is based primarily on two Pauline texts, Romans 1:3-4 and 2 Timothy 2:8-9, where Paul provides some of the specific content of his gospel. The argument is strengthened by the historical use of the Greek word euangellion (gospel) which was an announcement about the reign of a new Caesar, Caesar's birthday, or an important military victory.

The position that Paul's gospel is the news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead has come under criticism as of late. John Piper has recently charged that, "The announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the imperial Lord of the universe, is not good news, but is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution" (The Future of Justification, Crossway, 2007, p. 86). The aim of this post then is to answer this criticism by answering the question, "Why is the gospel of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection good news?"

1. The announcement of Jesus' Lordship is good news because it is the means of grace prior to conversion which brings conviction of sin and draws the guilty one to repentance and the obedience of faith. As in previous posts, Acts 2:36-37 is instructive. After vigorously proclaiming Jesus' resurrection, Peter brings his Pentecost sermon to a climax with the announcement that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. Luke then says of the hearers that they " were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other disciples, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" These men were guilty of handing Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans. Surely these guilty ones have blasphemed and rejected both the God of Israel and his Son. However, the announcement of Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is used by the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and enable repentance and faith. In this case, the announcement of Jesus as imperial Lord of the universe was the power of God for salvation.

2. To say that Paul's gospel is not the announcement of Jesus' Lordship is simply to ignore the first century meaning of the word euangellion. Sure, Paul can take a word and fill it with new content, and that may be what is happening when Paul adds the idea of resurrection. No one was saying that Caesar had been resurrected. Paul doesn't really seem to change the fundamental concept of euangellion though. Euangellion appears twice in the first three verses of Romans. If anyone would have understood the historical meaning of this word it would be the members of the church in ROME! Paul does not then go and change the meaning of euangellion to something other than a royal announcement. No. He says exactly what a first century Roman might expect him to say. He announces the new king saying that the gospel is about God's Son who is descended from Israel's very own King David. This claim gives Jesus a royal lineage far older than that to which any emperor could appeal. At this point Paul is right in line with the historical meaning of gospel. He then adds the news about Jesus' resurrection. This is not a departure from the basic idea of gospel as royal announcement because it means that Jesus is the Son of God (Rom 1:4). The addition of resurrection may be new content to gospel, but it does not change the basic usage of the word as the proclamation of a king.

3. The message of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection is good news because it means, at long last, that a fully righteous and just human being is Lord of the world and that death has been defeated.

4. The news about Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is good news simply because Paul says so. It is, after all, the good news about God's Son, descend from David (Lord/Messiah) and raised from the dead (Rom 1:3-4, cf. 10:9).

I am not denying that Paul can flesh this out differently on any given occasion. I am arguing that this basic message about Lordship and resurrection is the gospel. Paul certainly brought the doctrine of justification into his preaching on occasion as is the case in Acts 13:38-39. However, Paul has already announced that Jesus was raised from the dead (30) and was made Israel's Messiah (32-33). However, Paul did not mention justification at the Aeropaegus (Acts 17:22-31). And, as we have seen, Peter did not address justification in Acts 2. So, the basic gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. This is good news because it is the means of grace. It is good news because gospel means royal announcement. It is good news because death has been defeated and the only righteous fully human being is Lord of the universe. And, last but certainly not least, it is good news because Paul said so.

3 comments:

Luke said...

Matt, you offer four great reasons that we can believe in the “goodness” of the proclamation, “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.” But I think you may be missing John Piper’s point. I seriously doubt that Piper (or others who lodge this complaint against N.T. Wright’s definition of the gospel) would disagree with any of your points. To put it another way, critics of the Jesus-is-Lord definition of the gospel most certainly do believe that the lordship of Jesus is good news, provided that this royal proclamation also includes the announcement of the forgiveness of sins.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: critics of the New Perspective on Paul believe that its proponents offer a truncated definition of the gospel. The announcement that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead is certainly at the heart of the gospel, but it does not constitute the gospel. The gospel is broader than that bare announcement. In order for the gospel to be good news for sinners, it must also include a provision for forgiveness, which means that justification cannot be simply an addendum to the gospel; it, too, must be at the heart of the gospel message. Indeed, Paul tells us as much when he includes the substitutionary death of Christ in his programmatic statement of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. “Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures” is an indispensable aspect of the gospel message that is “of first importance” in Paul’s preaching. Likewise when we examine the preaching in Acts, the gospel message there, too, includes the promise of forgiveness to those who believe in Jesus’ name. From Peter’s Pentecost sermon (where he proclaims the forgiveness of sins to crowds) to Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (where he teaches “the good news of Jesus Christ” from the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 53) to Paul’s preaching at Pisidian Antioch (where he proclaims that Jesus sets us free from all of the things over which the law was powerless), the promise of forgiveness is crucial in the early church’s gospel announcement. Take this promise away and there is warrant for questioning the goodness of the lordship of Christ. After all, when this same Risen Lord comes again he will produce terror in the hearts of those who have refused to worship him (Rev. 6:16).

The problem is not what the NPP includes in its definition of the gospel but what it omits. This problem is exacerbated in the minds of many evangelicals because there is good reason to believe that Wright and others are not only omitting justification from the gospel message, but are also dramatically redefining justification as well. Justification is no longer about “how a person can be saved” (to use Wright’s dismissive language), but is mainly about Jew-Gentile relationships in the church. Even when Wright speaks of justification as a verdict on sinful men, he believes that the basis of this justification is person’s whole life of obedience. Even if this obedient life is said to be enabled by God’s grace, this will not do much to assuage evangelicals who still affirm the sola in sola fide. In the words of J. Gresham Machen, when it comes to justification “Christ will do all or he will do none at all.”

Luke

Matt O'Reilly said...

Luke,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am not here arguing for a New Perspective take on justification. I am not persuaded that Wright's version of justification is correct. It seems to me that a forensic declaration of "right/righteous" is the decisive movement where sins are forgiven and one is brought into the people of God rather than the confirmation that this has already taken place. One is not forgiven until the judge actually says so. So, I don't see this matter of the basic content of the gospel as requiring a NPP view of justification. My case is based on exegetical and historical evidence. Also, I plan to work through 1 Cor 15:3 and the relevant verses in Acts 13 in future posts.

Grace and peace,

Matt

Luke said...

I didn't mean to imply that your post was arguing in favor of the NPP (and I think your affirmation of forensic justification was well-stated). The reason I brought it up was that the quote by John Piper was given in the context of the NPP debate. The definition of the gospel you offer (Jesus' lordship and resurrection) is also shared by proponents of the NPP. In their case, the omission of justification is evidence of a deeper problem, namely, the redefinition of justification. That is, I believe, why Piper and others are critical of N. T. Wright’s reductionistic definition of the gospel. In your case, I trust that you would want to include the atoning death of Jesus and the offer of forgiveness in your gospel presentation. I was simply trying to point out where Piper's criticism was coming from.

In terms of the exegetical evidence you offer, I grant that the gospel can sometimes be stated in terms of Jesus’ lordship and resurrection (although I would want to argue that the Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2 passages are not silent about atonement and justification). But defining the gospel is a synthetic question, a question that cannot be limited to one or two passages. Of course, that is the danger of all definitions: they tend toward reductionism. But if we are going to be faithful to the whole NT witness in our contemporary restatements of the gospel, we cannot leave out elements that the NT authors saw as central.

With regard to the historical evidence you offer, I agree that the NT references to the “gospel” must be seen light of contemporary usage. But these references also must be seen in light of the OT background (so, for example, passages like Isaiah 40—indeed the whole of Isaiah 40-66). That is the semantic milieu in which the NT authors were writing: both the first century Hellenistic/Jewish context and the Ancient Hebrew/biblical context must be considered. In addition, we also must allow the possibility that Paul and the other NT writers added there own nuances to the existing term. In short, I don’t think we can reduce the meaning of the biblical gospel to a Caesarean/militaristic connotation, as helpful as that background may be for understanding some implications of the gospel. The Caesar cult no doubt lies in the background of the gospel proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” but I doubt that this exhausts the meaning of this early Christian creed.

Sorry for the long responses (it’s been a long summer and I’m ready to get back into theology-mode!). In the end, I am sure that you and I are in substantial agreement on the main contours of the NT gospel: the perfect life, atoning death, victorious resurrection and glorious exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the gospel that we herald to sinners that they might be reconciled to God and ushered into the kingdom of his Son. I look forward to your future posts.