Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tim Keller on "What is the Gospel?"

This article by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is a serious, learned and pastorally sensitive response to the recent remarks by Katherine Jefferts Shori about the gospel of personal salvation. Keller says much more comprehensively and clearly much of what I was trying to say in the previous post. Here is a section:

"Let's take the second criticism first. The belief that there is no single basic gospel outline in the Bible goes back at least to the Tubingen school of biblical scholarship, which insisted Paul's gospel of justification was sharply different from Jesus' gospel of the kingdom. In the 20th century, British professor C.H. Dodd countered that there was one consensus gospel message in the Bible. Then, in turn, James Dunn argued in Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (1977) that the gospel formulations in the Bible are so different that we can't come up with a single outline.

Now hundreds of websites of young Christian leaders complain that the older evangelical church spent too much time reading Romans rather than Jesus' declaration that "the kingdom of God is at hand." But to be true to first-century Christians' own understanding of the gospel, I believe we must side with Dodd over Dunn. Paul is emphatic that the gospel he presents is the same as the one preached by the Jerusalem apostles. "Whether it was I or they," Paul says, referring to Peter and the others, "so we preached and so you believed" (1 Cor. 15:10-11). This statement assumes a single body of gospel content.

One gospel, many forms.

So yes, there must be one gospel, yet there are clearly different forms in which that one gospel can be expressed. This is the Bible's own way of speaking of the gospel, and we should stick with it. Paul is an example. After insisting there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8), he then speaks of being entrusted with "the gospel of the uncircumcised" as opposed to the "gospel of the circumcised" (Gal. 2:7).

When Paul spoke to Greeks, he confronted their culture's idol of speculation and philosophy with the "foolishness" of the cross, and then presented Christ's salvation as true wisdom. When he spoke to Jews, he confronted their culture's idol of power and accomplishment with the "weakness" of the cross, and then presented the gospel as true power (1 Cor. 1:22-25).

One of Paul's gospel forms was tailored to Bible-believing people who thought they would be justified by works on judgment day, and the other to pagans. These two approaches can be discerned in Paul's speeches in the book of Acts, some to Jews and some to pagans.There are other forms of the gospel.

Readers have always noticed that the kingdom language of the Synoptic Gospels is virtually missing in the Gospel of John, which usually talks instead about receiving eternal life. However, when we compare Mark 10:17, 23-34 , Matthew 25:34, 46, and John 3:5, 6 and 17, we see that "entering the kingdom of God" and "receiving eternal life" are virtually the same thing. Reading Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15 and John 3:3, 5 together reveal that conversion, the new birth, and receiving the kingdom of God "as a child" are the same move.

Why, then, the difference in vocabulary between the Synoptics and John? As many scholars have pointed out, John emphasizes the individual and inward spiritual aspects of being in the kingdom of God. He is at pains to show that it is not basically an earthly social-political order (John 18:36). On the other hand, when the Synoptics talk of the kingdom, they lay out the real social and behavioral changes that the gospel brings. We see in John and the Synoptics two more forms of the gospel-one that stresses the individual and the other the corporate aspect to our salvation.What, then, is the one simple gospel?

Simon Gathercole distills a three-point outline that both Paul and the Synoptic writers held in common. (See "The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom" in God's Power to Save, ed. Chris Green Apollos/Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 2006.) He writes that Paul's good news was, first, that Jesus was the promised Messianic King and Son of God come to earth as a servant, in human form. (Rom. 1:3-4; Phil. 2:4ff.)

Second, by his death and resurrection, Jesus atoned for our sin and secured our justification by grace, not by our works (1 Cor. 15:3ff.)

Third, on the cross Jesus broke the dominion of sin and evil over us (Col. 2:13-15) and at his return he will complete what he began by the renewal of the entire material creation and the resurrection of our bodies (Rom 8:18ff.)

Gathercole then traces these same three aspects in the Synoptics' teaching that Jesus, the Messiah, is the divine Son of God (Mark 1:1) who died as a substitutionary ransom for the many (Mark 10:45), who has conquered the demonic present age with its sin and evil (Mark 1:14-2:10) and will return to regenerate the material world (Matt. 19:28.)

If I had to put this outline in a single statement, I might do it like this: Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever."

Read it all here.

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