I’ve argued several times before that the Churches of Christ have misunderstood the meaning of “gospel” as used in the New Testament. We have a tendency to use “gospel” to refer to just about any Biblical truth.
My own view of the gospel has been that it’s about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus–and what those events mean for our salvation. I based my position largely on such passages as this–
(1 Cor. 15:1-5) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
Wright, however, takes a different slant–
I begin where Romans begins – with the gospel. My proposal is this. When Paul refers to ‘the gospel’, he is not referring to a system of salvation, though of course the gospel implies and contains this, nor even to the good news that there now is a way of salvation open to all, but rather to the proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and thereby demonstrated to be both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. ‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
Wright does not so much disagree with my viewpoint as expand it and refocus on the Lordship of Jesus. (Wright quotations are from his paper “New Perspectives on Paul.”)
Romans has a central passage that supports Wright’s view–
(Rom. 10:8-10) But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
“The word of faith” is “Jesus is Lord” and that “God raised him from the dead.” Believe these two things and “you will be saved.”
Remember, now, that “Lord” in First Century Greek was used to refer to the king or emperor. It was a political title. Of course, it was also the Old Testament’s title for God, as king of kings.
Many authors have noted that the concept of “gospel” predates Jesus, going back at least to Isaiah. In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, written to a Jewish audience, Matthew assumes that the readers know what the good news is, going several chapters before giving much in the way of a definition.
First, Paul is clearly echoing the language of Isaiah: the message announced by the herald in Isaiah 40 and 52 has at last arrived. Saying ‘Jesus is Messiah and Lord’ is thus a way of saying, among other things, ‘Israel’s history has come to its climax’; or ‘Isaiah’s prophecy has come true at last’. This is powerfully reinforced by Paul’s insistence, exactly as in Isaiah, that this heraldic message reveals God’s righteousness, that is, God’s covenant faithfulness, about which more anon.
Of course, Luke reports that Jesus began his ministry by claiming to fulfill the “good news” prophecies of Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19).
Second, since the word ‘gospel’ was in public use to designate the message that Caesar was the Lord of the whole world, Paul’s message could not escape being confrontative: Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, and at his name, not that of the Emperor, every knee shall bow. This aspect lies at the heart of what I have called ‘the fresh perspective on Paul’, the discovery of a subversive political dimension not as an add-on to Paul’s theology but as part of the inner meaning of ‘gospel’, ‘righteousness’, and so on.
We discussed this aspect of the gospel in the preceding post. Wright’s point is that the confrontation of Christian with secular government was central to the gospel, not a mere arguable conclusion for theologians to debate in their journals.
Wright next explains–
And, since the gospel is the heraldic proclamation of Jesus as Lord, it is not first and foremost a suggestion that one might like to enjoy a new religious experience. Nor is it even the take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation. It is a royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance; and the form that this submission and obedient allegiance takes is of course faith. That is what Paul means by ‘the obedience of faith’.
Now, this is a very challenging thought indeed. Nowadays, many churches try to market Jesus like toothpaste. Let’s tell the world what is just so cool about Jesus! Why, Jesus provides good mental health! Jesus helps us get in touch with our emotions! Jesus helps us make friends! Jesus gives us wonderful emotional experiences on Sunday morning!
The older approach was, of course, quite different. We tended to say, “Get baptized or spend eternity in hell!” Or join the right church to escape hell. Or have the right positions on the issues to escape hell. Or even: believe or be damned.
You see, the influence of the Reformation was to focus entirely on the saving experience. Jesus is all about getting to heaven. The Churches of Christ modified the common preaching somewhat, adding a disproportionate emphasis on baptism. But the result was the same–going back to Luther and Calvin, we taught that the central truth of the gospel was escaping hell and going to heaven.
More recently, when this appeal stopped working, we went to more modern marketing approaches, pitching the good things about Christianity and saving the tough parts for the fine print.
And there is, of course, a lot of truth in all these statements. The point isn’t to dispute that we should fear hell, be baptized, or seek wonderful worship experiences. The point, rather, is that the central message is Jesus (and no one else) is Lord.
Now, I can’t say I’ve totally bought into this, although it is unquestionably a fair interpretation of Romans 10:9. And so, indulge me a bit while I think through it.
How would things be different if we taught “Jesus is Lord” as the central assertion of the gospel?
Well, first, we in the Churches of Christ would not see baptism as quite as central as we do. Rather, the baptism is meaningless if the convert doesn’t yield to the Lordship of Jesus. All too often, we baptize a 12-year old who is scared of hell and willing to agree that Jesus is the Son of God–but we do this without asking whether the child is willing to let Jesus be Lord. Rather, the only obedience we sometimes teach in our conversion teaching is baptism.
But baptism is but the beginning. Rather, we should clearly teach that becoming a Christian means surrendering entirely to the will of Jesus. But this is a hard sell, might reduce the baptism count, and so is often saved for later. I mean, we know this, we really do, but we just don’t emphasize it in our pre-conversion teaching.
Second, churches with more of a Calvinistic slant (Presbyterians, Baptists) so emphasize faith that obedience is pushed to the back. “Faith only” is true, but we often forget that faith includes submitting to Jesus as Lord.
Rather, we are all often guilty of teaching an intellectual faith centered on intellectual assent: Yes, I went to the apologetics class, believe Jesus is God’s son, and don’t want to go to hell. But this is far different from: Yes, Jesus is the Lord of my life and I’ll submit to him in all things.
Third, one of the biggest problem churches face–churches of all stripes–is getting volunteers to do church work. Now think about this. To be a Christian at all, you must yield to Jesus as Lord of everything about you–your sex life, your money, your job–everything! And we can’t get volunteers for the nursery!
Somewhere or other, the gospel has gotten all messed up. We teach hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. “Believe” means give intellectual assent. “Repent” means agree to live morally. Nowhere in the formula do we say, “Do good works for Jesus” although this is the essence of faith and penitence! (“Essence” in the sense of essential.)
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Some of our members get it. They really do. But the experts say no church can expect to get more than 60% of their members to volunteer on a regular basis. What would Jesus say about such a number? Would he say God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven?
Fourth, properly understood, the declaration “Jesus is Lord” tells us that we are to live as Jesus lived–helping others, especially the outcast and vulnerable of society. And many Churches of Christ (and Baptists and others) do not live this. Rather, in order to build our numbers, we prefer to cater to our own needs. It’s easier to convert people to being catered to.
Now, there are many Churches of Christ (and Baptists and others) that get it and do great work following in the Lord’s footsteps. But this remains unusual among conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Indeed, there are very few churches that the surrounding community would miss if they went out of business.
This is changing. God is alive in his church and making changes. But he has a lot of work left to do.
In conclusion, I have to say I like the direction this is heading. It is no doubt true that both the Churches of Christ and many Reformation churches have failed to properly emphasize the Lordship of Jesus.
Of course, as Wright would be the first to remind us, this does not move us to a works-based salvation. We still can’t earn it. Hopefully, as we press on through these ideas, we can reconcile “faith not works” with “Jesus is Lord” in a most Biblical way.