Thinking About the Gospel, Part 3

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1 and Part 2.

A Brief Detour

The gospel is good news. News is about events, which means that the gospel is about events. The gospel is not merely the narration of the events, however. It includes the true explanation of the meaning of the events. Such explanations are rightly called doctrines; therefore, the gospel is fundamentally doctrinal.

The Christian gospel is deliberately defined by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. It consists of two events: Christ died, and Christ rose again from the dead. Each event is supported by evidence. The genuine death of Christ is supported by the evidence of the burial, which includes the whole complex of events involving the examination and preparation of the body. The bodily resurrection of Christ is supported by the evidence of the witnesses, of whom Paul supplies an appreciable list.

Paul also explains the meaning of the events. The death of Christ was not a death such as other men die. He died “for our sins,” which is explained more fully elsewhere as penal substitution. Christ bore “our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24); He was made “to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21); God “laid on him the … [transgression] of us all” (Isa. 53:6). The substitutionary atonement, and all that it assumes, is a major aspect of the gospel.

The resurrection of Christ is also full of meaning, and Paul explores that meaning in the balance of 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is not risen, then both faith and preaching are vain, we are yet in our sins, and we have hope only in this life. By His resurrection, the new Adam reverses the fall consequences that came through the first Adam. Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of His triumph and His Kingdom.

In sum, the gospel is an announcement of good news, explaining the significance of Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection from the dead. Remove the events, and you remove the gospel. Remove the explanations, and you remove the gospel. Remove the doctrines, and you remove the gospel.

The factual and doctrinal nature of the gospel leads to certain important conclusions regarding the Christian faith. Before we are in a position to draw those conclusions, however, we must take a brief detour. This detour concerns the “gospel of the Kingdom.”

The question is whether the gospel of the Kingdom is the same gospel as the gospel that Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 15. Many Christians completely identify the two while others distinguish them to varying degrees.

Before attempting to deal with this question, one clarification is necessary. The gospel of the Kingdom is certainly not the same thing that I have called the “gospel of Kingdom activity.” This “gospel of Kingdom activity” does not deal so much with personal transgression as with the introduction of the social and environmental blessings of the (inaugurated) Kingdom into the present age. According to its promoters, it is not so much about getting people to heaven as it is about getting heaven onto earth. This view runs counter to Paul’s presentation in 1 Corinthians, however, in which the gospel is definitely about Christ’s dying for our sins—and the sins Paul names in 1 Corinthians are always personal transgressions, even when they have social implications. The gospel of Kingdom activity is not the biblical gospel. It is not even a gospel of the same kind.

Although the gospel of the Kingdom is not the “gospel of Kingdom activity,” is it the same as the gospel that Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 15? One answer to this question is of special interest.

Some have suggested that the Bible does not allow for two gospels that are distinguishable in any sense. They charge that any attempt to add “another gospel” falls under the anathema of Galatians 1:8-9. Therefore, anyone who would attempt to distinguish the gospel of the Kingdom from Paul’s gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is committing a serious error and perhaps jeopardizing the faith.

This is a very harsh judgment. Before we agree with such an extreme verdict, we ought to be sure that it is warranted by Scripture. In this case, the judgment most likely is not.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul had to deal with a Judaizing teaching that mixed law with grace. According to this false doctrine, spiritual standing was somehow dependent upon law-keeping. In 1:6, he expresses his surprise and dismay that the Galatian believers could be so easily turned aside after another, different (heteros) gospel. In 1:7, he specifies that the gospel of the Judaizers was not another gospel of the same kind (allos), but a perversion of the gospel of Christ. This perverted gospel is what Paul condemns in 1:8-9.

Clearly, Paul condemns any supposed gospel that contradicts the gospel of Christ. Such a gospel is another of a different kind. Paul’s discussion, however, leaves open the possibility that there might be or might have been another gospel of the same kind. Such a gospel would not contradict the gospel of Christ but supplement it.

In fact, another gospel comes into being whenever the content of the gospel has to change. That the content of the gospel has changed is too obvious to require demonstration. At one time the gospel was “Christ will die for our sins.” After his passion, however the content changed to “Christ died for our sins.” Furthermore, the content of the gospel also changed to acknowledge that “Jesus is the Christ.” These changes in content changed what people had to believe. They altered the message of the gospel, but they did not make it into a different gospel. After the change, what was left was, in a certain sense, another gospel—but it was another of the same kind.

We are strictly forbidden to entertain gospels that differ from and contradict the gospel of Christ. At the same time, we must recognize that the content of the gospel has changed over time, resulting in a message that has developed through a series of supplementary gospels. These are not different or contradictory gospels, but they are distinguishable. To recognize the distinctions does not merit the apostolic anathema against different gospels.

So we return to the original question. Is the gospel of the Kingdom the same gospel that Paul defined in 1 Corinthians 15, or is it a distinct gospel? Even if the two are distinguishable, they are not necessarily different or contradictory. Both could be true and legitimate announcements for the times and places for which they were intended.


Henry Vaughan (1650)

Weighing the steadfastness and state
Of some mean things which here below reside,
Where birds, like watchful clocks, the noiseless date
And intercourse of times divide,
Where bees at night get home and hive, and flow’rs
Early, as well as late,
Rise with the sun and set in the same bow’rs;

I would—said I—my God would give
The staidness of these things to man! for these
To His divine appointments ever cleave,
And no new business breaks their peace;
The birds nor sow nor reap, yet sup and dine;
The flow’rs without clothes live,
Yet Solomon was never dress’d so fine.

Man hath still either toys, or care;
He hath no root, nor to one place is tied,
But ever restless and irregular
About this Earth doth run and ride.
He knows he hath a home, but scarce knows where;
He says it is so far,
That he hath quite forgot how to go there.

He knocks at all doors, strays and roams,
Nay, hath not so much wit as some stones have,
Which in the darkest nights point to their homes,
By some hid sense their Maker gave;
Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest
And passage through these looms
God order’d motion, but ordain’d no rest.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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