Posts Tagged Gospel

The Line between the Church and the World

Traditionally, the separation discussion has had two components—personal and ecclesiastical—that address individual and congregational responsibilities. I hope to have a separate post (DV) that I plan to title “Putting the Ecclesiastical Back into Ecclesiastical Separation” in which I intend to argue that ecclesiastical separation has to do with the local church and its relations to other churches and those ministers and ministries which serve the local church. I believe a lot of confusion has entered the discussion due to the failure to think clearly about the ecclesiastical nature of ecclesiastical separation.

That being said, it isn’t possible to isolate completely the individual and congregational aspects of separation from one another. A congregation, after all, is made up of individual believers, so the values and behaviors of those individuals affect the life of the congregation. The character of congregational life affects individual lives too. It seems clear that the nexus of these two is having dramatic effects on churches. The culture around us is in a time of transition and turmoil, and there is little uniformity to how local churches are responding to all of this.

In terms of the historical relationship between fundamentalism and new evangelicalism, it seems very clear that there was a difference in how the two movements responded to the culture around it. Marsden, for instance, in his history of Fuller Seminary, entitled Reforming Fundamentalism, notes that the pioneers of the new evangelical movement were intent on a departure from fundamentalism’s approach. Marsden writes, “On this point Henry and Ockenga were zeroing in on what they saw as the major weakness in fundamentalism. The fundamentalist preoccupation with separation both ecclesiastically and in personal mores had cut the group off from any real social impact” (Reforming Fundamentalism, p. 80). Dorrien states it more bluntly, “A generational retreat from the world was being called off” (The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, p. 7).

We could probably spend a lot of time discussing the historical differences between the two groups, but I think that would lead us down a side path that wouldn’t be that profitable. After all, the real issue isn’t who was right back then as much as where do we stand right now. My point here is simply to note that the new evangelical departure from fundamentalist separatism included the personal aspect as well the ecclesiastical. The new evangelicals were advocating a change of stance both toward the apostate denominations and the culture around it. Whether you think it was right or wrong, it definitely was a change of stance.

The question of whether it was right or wrong is an important one, but it is also more difficult to answer than some seem to suggest. If anecdotal evidence is sufficient, then both sides could offer up proof that the other was wrong. There is no doubt that there are fundamentalists who go beyond biblical teaching in order to maintain tribal traditions. There is no doubt that there are evangelicals who have thrown off biblical restraint under the guise of freedom. Offering a few bad examples doesn’t really prove much. We need to think more carefully than that. We need to think of core issues, not surface ones.

I believe that making the gospel the touchstone moves us in the right direction for this aspect of the discussion too. I will unpack what I mean more fully over a few posts, but the basic points are that: (1) the transforming power of the gospel changes lives so that there is a clear difference between the saved and lost; and (2) the church, then, must cultivate, maintain, and display this difference so that the line between the church and the world is clear for all to see.

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The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness II

I expressed the view, in yesterday’s post, that the label “secondary separation” is in some ways understandable, yet unhelpful. I tried to explain the part of it that seems understandable, so now let me take a crack at the unhelpful part of the equation.

The most serious way it was unhelpful is that it allowed the impression that this issue was not as important as separation from false teachers. In other words, the use of primary-secondary language could be interpreted as establishing a priority structure, but that really was not the point. Primary, in this context, did not mean of “first importance” and thus result in a meaning for secondary something like “of lesser importance.” One of the points of the earlier post was to show that it was secondary in the sense that it came as a consequence of something which preceded it (refusing to obey clear biblical commands). Primary addressed the application of the separation commands to the false teachers, and secondary addressed the implications regarding believers who disregarded those commands.

My contention is that since the gospel is at stake, both are important and necessary. It is serious, deadly business any time that the purity and clarity of the gospel are being compromised. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but this was the watershed issue between the fundamentalists and the new evangelicals. To grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny fundamentals of the faith betrays the gospel by making it seem unnecessary for one’s salvation. So, planning an evangelistic crusade, for example, which holds men up as legitimate spiritual leaders who deny the deity of Jesus Christ does two things at once: (1) it turns the crusade planners into partners in the evil deeds of the false teacher and (2) it communicates to all who see that you don’t have to believe that Jesus is God to be a Christian. Only man-centered pragmatism would attempt to justify this kind of compromise.

The most common way that the secondary separation tag was unhelpful is that it was too easily susceptible to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. What I’ve written to this point has attempted to address the misunderstanding side of it, but let me add that any label that is so easily misunderstood is of very limited value. It seems hard to toss it out completely because of its common use, but the better part of wisdom might be to jettison it. Along with depending less on labels, we should be more specific in our questions about this matter. Instead of “do you believe in secondary separation” we should probably ask “do you believe that granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines is an act of disobedience that warrants separation from those who do so?” Cumbersome, but clarifying.

The term secondary separation also seemed like easy pickings for those who wanted to caricature it. The main caricature was to claim that secondary separation always leads to tertiary separation and beyond. When someone really wanted to mock it, the idea of degrees was injected—first degree, second degree, third degree, etc. In The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (Dobson, Hindson, and Falwell, p. 129) it gets described as a separation-isolation cycle that runs from first degree to fourth degree. Consider their explanation of the degrees: first degree—compromising brother; second degree—friendly with a compromising brother; third degree—friendly with a friend of a compromising brother; fourth degree—friendly with a friendly friend of a compromising brother. Hopefully you can see why I’ve chosen the term caricature to describe this.

Now, let me concede that some have practiced a distorted kind of separation that operates by this kind of connect-a-dot association game. I know because I’ve been the object of it—anybody remember the “leaven in fundamentalism” video put out by PCC? Against this caricature, though, we need remember that a sinful application does not invalidate a biblical principle. Also, sinful applications can’t legitimately claim to be biblical. Perhaps an analogy would help. If someone beats his child under the guise of corporal punishment: (1) it would be wrong to abandon corporal punishment because of this person’s sinfulness; and (2) it would be wrong to even describe such beatings as corporal punishment. So, the fact that some people have claimed “secondary separation” as the basis for sinfully schismatic behavior does not invalidate the concept of separating from those who refuse to obey clear biblical truth about separating from false teachers. In fact, we should not allow them to claim that term at all.

I believe that the real issue that must be the center of our concern and the contemporary conversation is the demand that gospel fidelity places on us. Genuine Christian fellowship is limited to those who have a credible testimony of faith in the gospel. You cannot extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel without dishonoring God by distorting the very message of the gospel. Either there is only One Way to the Father or there are multiple ways. If you, by word or action, communicate that there are multiple ways, then you have betrayed the gospel and faithful believers and churches should refuse to participate in your disobedience.

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The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness

The clarity with which the Bible speaks of our responsibility to mark and maintain the boundary line between belief and unbelief is what leads to the second plank of biblical separatism: For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15). This aspect of separation has sometimes been labeled “secondary” or “second degree” separation. In some ways this is understandable, yet unhelpful.

It is understandable for at least two reasons. Most obvious is the fact that the liberal and the non-separatist need to be distinguished from each other, so talk of separation tried to distinguish between them. It simply isn’t right to speak of a brother in Christ as if he denies essential doctrine, but it also isn’t right to ignore his willful disobedience to clear biblical commands. Though it didn’t work well, some tried to distinguish between the two by speaking of two kinds of separation (primary and secondary). Primary related to unbelievers and secondary related to believers.

The more significant reason, from my perspective, is that this aspect of separation really is a consequence of disobedience to the clear biblical teaching about separating from false teachers and teaching. It might be called secondary in that it is triggered by the failure to obey Scripture. If the biblical teaching were applied, there would not be any need to separate like this. Separation from those who extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith is secondary only in the sense that it follows as a consequence of disobedience.

One way to look at it would be as lines of defense against deadly theological error. Scripture establishes the first line of defense in texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, we are clearly told to turn away from false teachers and not to extend Christian fellowship to them. What must happen if this primary line of defense is compromised by the disobedience of professing believers? A second line of defense must be built in order to contain the infection (or, using biblical language, to stop the leaven from spreading, cf. Gal 5:9). This secondary line of defense is a necessary consequence of the breakdown on the first line.

Some may question whether it is a necessary consequence or not, but I’d contend that the ramification of 2 John 11 makes it so. Note John’s words, “the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” This text makes it clear that fellowship in evil deeds is at stake in this matter. Disobeying God’s command on this point makes you a partner in the evil of false teachers. In reality, then, what we are dealing with here is still the boundary between belief and unbelief. One who disobeys 2 John 9-11 is, by that disobedience, attempting move the boundary line. He is accepting as a Christian one who cannot credibly claim to be so, and such an act has the effect of blurring the line between believers and unbelievers. It compromises the clarity of the gospel.

If there is a legitimate distinction between primary and secondary, then, it is at the level of application. The primary application of these separation texts is toward those who deny essential doctrines of the faith. The secondary application would be regarding those believers who refuse to obey what these texts teach. Same texts, but their significance depends on one’s relationship to them. The same issue is at stake in both—not granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines of the faith.

Or, to put it a different way, the central issue is what it means to be a Christian and that question has significance in relation to both theological liberals and those who accept them as Christian brothers. When a genuine Christian brother welcomes into Christian fellowship someone who teaches false doctrine, that genuine Christian brother, according to John, has become a partner in the false teaching. Standing against the false teaching means standing against this partnership with it. The truth and seriousness of the issue at stake necessarily demands this additional application. I’ll let Spurgeon put the finishing touches on this post, “It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin” (as cited in The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 144).

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The Line between Belief and Unbelief II

The first commitment of biblical separatism aims to guard the purity of the gospel by maintaining the line between belief and unbelief. We must be careful to avoid two opposite responses to the question of what should provoke separation. On one hand are those who seem to think that no theological position actually represents an abandonment of the faith which should provoke a breach among professing Christians. On the other hand are those who seem to believe that orthodoxy hangs on every doctrinal issue. The position I’ve been advocating is that there are doctrines that comprise the essence of Christianity and these are the doctrines which must be protected to the extent that we must separate from those who deny them.

Biblical basis for practicing separation like this is found in the explicit teaching of texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. The circumstance in both cases involves people would ostensibly claim to be Christians, otherwise there would seem to be little reason for the instruction. That’s what makes false teachers so dangerous—they come dressed in camouflage. Although the description in Romans 16:18 is shocking for us when applied to professing Christians, that’s the point. Among the professed followers of Jesus Christ are some who are not His followers at all, but really are slaves of their own appetites. That, by the way, means we need to test motives by the doctrine, not doctrine by the motives. Our day has this almost completely backward. If someone seems to have good motives, we tolerate all manner of horrible doctrine. Paul says the real test is doctrinal and that departure from apostolic doctrine reveals self-centered motives.

These teachers were causing “dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching” the Romans had learned. Because of that, Paul was very clear about how the local congregation should respond to them—keep your eye on them and stay away from them! There is no doubt that some people err by becoming super sniffers who smell doctrinal trouble where none truly exists, but I doubt that this is greatest danger among professing Christians. A far greater threat facing the church is the tendency to assume the best well after someone’s recasting of the apostolic doctrine is so contorted that it can no longer credibly claim to be apostolic at all. One wonders if any doctrine is so off base that it can’t find a place to rest inside the evangelical tent.

Paul is equally clear that we cannot extend Christian fellowship to such false teachers. Telling us to “turn away from them” is directly opposite of his instruction to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15:7). There is to be no welcome in the congregation or by the congregation of those who have turned away from apostolic teaching and who are teaching things which lead toward apostasy (“hindrances”).

The issue confronting John’s readers was a denial of Christological doctrine. The basic points of John’s instruction are: (1) that such teachers are not truly God’s people (v. 9 “have not God”); (2) that the believers are not to extend Christian fellowship and greeting to such false teachers (v. 10 “do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting”); and (3) disobeying this command makes one a participant in the false teachers evil deeds (v. 11 “participates in his evil deeds”). While some may disagree, I take house here to refer to the meeting place of the local assembly and that the point of this exhortation is to warn “against the dangers of entertaining heretics and their views in such a way as to strengthen and develop their erroneous position, and so compromise the truth” (Smalley, “1, 2, 3 John” WBC, p. 334).

More definitely could be said and more biblical proof offered, but how much more really needs to be said and how much more proof needs to be offered? The amount of verses that support biblical separatism isn’t the issue. It is the clarity of verses like these that matter. God’s will for his people is to mark off the line between belief and unbelief, never compromising that line by extending Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied the essentials of the faith.

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The Line between Belief and Unbelief

In the last post in this series, I listed three statements that I consider to be the irreducible minimum of separatist commitment. By describing them that way, it should be clear that there is more to the separatist position than this, but it doesn’t seem, to me, that one can reasonably claim to be a separatist if you deny any of these statements. The first two statements are closely related, with the second growing out of the first, and the third addresses a separate, but important aspect of separation that is rooted in the gospel. The very idea of reducing biblical separatism to a few brief summary statements has drawbacks, no doubt. In the face of a changing ecclesiastical landscape, though, it seems more profitable to focus attention on the belief and practice rather than an outdated label system.

The first statement attempts to mark the boundary line between belief and unbelief—“For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).” I’ve already attempted to show the connection in my thinking between the gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints. We’re talking about a body of biblical truth which includes not only the message which must be believed in order to be saved, but includes those doctrines which cannot be denied without tearing the very fabric of genuine Christianity.

The phrase “essential doctrines” is a less than perfect way to express the point, but it seems that quibbles are made about any attempt to distinguish the core of Christianity from the totality of its teachings. The most obvious objection is that identifying “essentials” suggests there are “non-essentials.” That’s why I’ve tried to avoid this terminology in the past, but eventually adopted it simply because there isn’t any better way to state what I consider to be a significant point.

The problem is that the word essential is sometimes used as simply meaning important, and, thus, non-essential would mean unimportant. But that’s not what the word essential means in the statement above (or normally when people use it in contexts like this). If something is essential it relates to or constitutes the essence of something. As the dictionary states, “essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” So, to speak of the “essential doctrines of the faith” is to talk about those doctrines which cannot be removed without destroying the faith itself or its character.

The issue is not important versus unimportant doctrines. It is about the doctrines which form the essence of Christianity—if you remove them then you no longer have the Christian faith. I hold very firm convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding the return of Jesus Christ. These matters are very important to me because I believe they are important doctrines. A person can be wrong on the details of these matters, though, and not have removed something that destroys the faith or its character. If a person denies that Jesus Christ is coming again, that does cut to the essential doctrines of the faith (cf. 1 Ths 1:10), but being wrong about the timing of Christ’s return does not.

We are talking about the fault line between gospel churches and false churches, not about the relative importance of our more narrow doctrinal distinctives. Every truth in Scripture is important, but not every truth in Scripture belongs to the essential nature of the Christian faith.

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Separation for the Sake of the Gospel

The case that I am trying to make for gospel-driven separation is based on the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that the gospel is of “first importance.” The gospel reveals God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ and there is no higher priority than God’s glory (2 Cor 4:6). God’s grace spreading to more and more people “causes the giving of thanks to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15), so even the good that comes from the gospel leads back to God’s glory; therefore, preserving, protecting, and proclaiming the glorious gospel is a matter of vital importance to God’s people, particularly those charged with shepherding local assemblies.

At this point in this series, I am simply going to state what I believe is the irreducible minimum of separatist commitments. Each of these is stated so as to explicitly make the connection to the gospel.

  1. For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).
  2. For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15).
  3. For the sake of the credibility of the gospel, believers and churches must strive to reflect God’s holiness and to live differently than those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:15-16; Eph 4:17-19).

As the Lord gives opportunity, I will unpack each of these statements and attempt to explain what I understand of their significance to local church life and ministry. Any attempt to synthesize biblical teaching into a summary like this will have its shortcomings. All I am attempting to do is to communicate how I have tried to understand the Scriptures and make application to the contemporary question of ecclesiastical separation. My intent is not to impose my understanding on everybody else, but to express how we have decided to handle these matters. I simply offer it, and the explanations, for your consideration.

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The Gospel and Separation III

I’ve been setting forth the case that the gospel must control our understanding and practice of separation. The gospel should not be understood, though, merely as three or four statements about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 was not an exhaustive statement of gospel content, but to provide a summary of the message in order to lay the foundation for addressing the doctrinal problem over the resurrection at Corinth. The gospel is the faith which was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

The gospel is a message with essential content—things which must be accepted and cannot be denied. It claims this authority because it was given to us by the apostles and is recorded for us in the Scriptures. The gospel cannot be understood properly unless it is set in the context of man’s alienation from the true and living God who created us. If you study the evangelistic preaching in Acts and examine the way that Romans unpacks the gospel, it becomes very clear that contemporary gospel presentations are woefully shallow.

That’s what we’ve covered so far, so let’s look again with 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, and other supporting texts, to sharpen our thinking regarding the biblical gospel. In regarding to the essential content of the gospel, we must be very clear that…

The Center of the Gospel is Jesus Christ, “Christ died…was raised” (cf. Phil 1:12, 15, 16-18).

This may seem like a given, but we must not pass by it too quickly. The modern tendency to design gospel presentations around what Jesus will do for you and what you must do to receive these benefits is seriously out of step with the NT. The center of the message was the person and work of Jesus Christ. Look at the language that is used for communicating the gospel: “proclaiming Christ to them” (Acts 8:5); “he preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35); “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20); “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20); “solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5); “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2); and “we preach…Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). To preach the gospel is to preach Christ. Preaching Christ is preaching the gospel.

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the OT promises (Acts 13:32). Those promises include details of His life, death, and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-5). Preaching the gospel also means announcing His exaltation, Lordship, and coming Kingdom (Acts 2:36; 2 Cor 4:5; Acts 8:12; cf. 14:22). The preaching of the gospel includes warnings about coming judgment by Jesus Christ (Rom 2:16 “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ;” Acts 10:42 “He ordered us to preach…that this is the One who has been appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead;” 17:31). Gospel preaching offers the promise of final salvation through Him (Acts 13:38-39; cf. 1 Ths 1:10 “to wait for His Son from heaven…who rescues us from the wrath to come”).

Any doctrinal threat to the person and work of Jesus Christ cuts at the heart of biblical Christianity. Because it attacks a fundamental of the faith, the gospel is at stake. Paul warned about people who might preach “another Jesus” than the one that Paul had preached (2 Cor 11:4). The only Jesus who saves is the one revealed to us in the Scriptures. Any so-called gospel that rejects or distorts what the Scriptures teach about Jesus Christ is no gospel at all.

It is a Message with Eternal Consequences, “by which also you are saved”

The seriousness of getting the gospel right is seen in the first few words of 1 Corinthians 15: 2, “by which also you are saved.” Though some disagree, I take this as referring to final salvation (vs. sanctification) for the following reasons: (1) the context addresses final salvation, e.g., “you are still in your sins” (v. 17) and “have perished” (v. 18); and (2) this is consistent with other NT passages which call for an enduring faith, cf. Col 1:23 “if indeed you continue in the faith” and Heb 10:39 “we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” Genuine saving faith is an enduring faith. If it is real, it lasts because it is the work of God in the soul (cf. Phil 1:6).

Paul’s point here is that to deny or turn away from any essential element of the gospel is to reveal that your faith was really vain or empty (v. 2b “unless you believed in vain”). It was a defective faith. The particular point of departure in this text is the resurrection (cf. v. 12). This means there is no “gospel lite”—either you have the biblical gospel in its fullness or you don’t have the gospel at all. God graciously gives us warnings like this so that we do not become careless about the gospel.

This is why the gospel isn’t simply an evangelistic issue—it is the center of the church as well:

  • A congregation is formed by the gospel (2 Ths 2:14).
  • The ordinances picture the gospel and serve as constant reminders of the gospel and what it has accomplished (Rom 6:3-7; 1 Cor 11:23-26).
  • Our fellowship is supposed to be a display of the gospel (John 13:34-35).
  • Our praise recounts and rejoices in the gospel (Rev 5:9-10, 12).
  • Our preaching and teaching is the exposition of the meaning and implications of the gospel (Acts 20:24, 32).
  • Our giving is a confession of the gospel (2 Cor 9:13).
  • Our separation, internal and external, is a defense of the gospel (1 Cor 5:11-13; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1).

Keeping the gospel at the center of the church is the means by which God will preserve His people and bring them to glory. Guarding the gospel, then, through the proper application of what the Bible teaches about separation is crucial to health of the church and the advance of the mission of Jesus Christ.

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The Gospel and Separation II

One of the men that made a deep impact on my life when I was in college was Richard Rupp. I had the privilege of getting to know him because of his work with and my involvement in the ministerial class at Bob Jones University. On one occasion, sitting in his office talking over the issue of separation, he told a group of us that the real issue in separation is the gospel. We are to practice separation for the sake of the gospel. I believe that conversation happened during my senior year of college (1982-83). It made sense then and I think it makes sense now. Our practice of separation should be focused on gospel issues. Building on yesterday’s post, I’d like expand on what I believe the gospel entails and why is it so important to hold firmly to it. I am again rooting my thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, but appealing to other texts as needed.

The Gospel is a Message with Essential Content, “the gospel which I preached” (v. 2; cf. v. 11)

There is a very definite and deliberate shift away from propositional truth that poses a serious threat to the health of the church and the souls of lost people. Sadly, this attack is often disguised as a call to a more pure love for and trust in Jesus Christ. Listen to Robert Webber:

                The primary problem we evangelicals have inherited from the Enlightenment is its emphasis on the foundational nature of Scripture. The church has from its beginning confessed that Jesus Christ is the foundation of faith…. This foundation of Christianity is the incarnation of God into our humanity to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: Defeat the powers of evil and restore the creation in the new heavens and the new earth.

                It was during the Enlightenment that the foundation of the Christian faith shifted from the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to the centrality of the Bible. Theology shifted from the God who acts to the God who spoke. In the worst scenario faith shifted from trust in Christ to trust in the Book. Therefore, the first question we must address as evangelicals in a postmodern world is this: Do we believe in a book or a person? (Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999], p. 45.)

 Webber creates an artificial and false dichotomy between Jesus Christ and the Scriptures—he tries to make us choose between two options, but no choice really needs to be made. We believe in a Person who has been revealed to us through a book! Paul says plainly here that there was a gospel which was preached by him and was received by the Corinthians. It is within this gospel message that the Corinthians stand, if they stand at all. There is a definite “word” which Paul preached to them.

The Character of the Gospel is that it is Apostolic and Biblical, “we preached…according to the Scriptures”

The apostolic witness in the Scriptures is a foundational truth that we must guard. It is “the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Any explanation of the gospel must be apostolic and biblical or it is not God’s gospel.

Paul is unmistakably clear about this in Galatians 1:6-9. The way in which Paul describes the true gospel is a key to guarding ourselves against false teaching. He says it was what “he preached” and what “you received.” The language here is the language of apostolic truth and discipleship. The apostles “received” the message from Jesus Christ and then proclaimed it to others who also “received” it. By using this language, Paul is establishing a test for the truth that must be accepted and what must be rejected: Is it the doctrine received from Christ and transmitted to us through the apostles? In other words, it is the principle of Sola Scriptura that must be the testing mechanism.

The Context of the Gospel is Man’s Alienation from the True and Living God, our Creator, “died for our sins” (cf. Acts 14:15; 17:23, 30-31; 1 Ths 1:10).

You cannot understand the biblical gospel outside of its theistic framework—God, the source, support, and end of all things, created man; man sinned against God; God’s wrath is kindled against man because of his sin. This is why the gospel preaching of Acts begins with God, cf. Acts 14:15 “we preach the gospel to you so that you should turn from these vain things to a living God” and Acts 17:23 “this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it.” When Paul preached in the synagogue, he confronted the Jews with the God of the covenant. When he preached to Gentiles, he confronted them with the God of creation. His point of contact with them was their awareness of God, and he proclaimed to them the true and living God who had provided salvation through His Son, Jesus (1 Ths 1:9-10).

This is where the book of Romans starts the gospel message—the wrath of God revealed against all unrighteousness. Why? Because when they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, neither were thankful (1:21). Without this aspect of the message, there is no need for the good news. This means that the message of the gospel is more than simply information to be known. It confronts us with our rebellion and demands our repentance. I have seen some argue that repentance and faith are not part of the gospel, but I would contend that this is a reductionist view of the gospel—Paul could say that his life’s mission was to “testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” and within three verses also say that he had been “solemnly testifying…of repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:24, 21).

It may seem unnecessary to some to address what seem to be such straightforward truths, but we live in a day where some are arguing that God the Father and Jesus Christ of the Scriptures are the same as the god and Jesus of the Koran. This is a serious error that undercuts the biblical witness about God, Christ, sin, and salvation. In other words, it is an attack on the gospel. The biblical gospel must be understood within the context and framework that the Bible itself establishes. The biblical gospel also includes the message of why God’s grace is needed and how it is received.

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