Best Kept Secret (9) What is the Gospel?

I’d been looking forward to reading this chapter of John Dickson’s book, called ‘What is the Gospel?’ Scot McKnight in his summer institute at IBI mentioned Dickson as the closest example to what he [Scot] will be saying in his upcoming book In the Beginning was the Gospel. I posted at length on what Scot had to say that week and the two of them are also very close to what Michael Bird was saying the need to get beyond a narrow individualistic gospel in his book on Paul.

This is the longest chapter in the book. I’m going to highlight the big points but its worth reading in full:

The gospel has a specific and limited content

– Gospel (good news) is intrinsically attached to the kingdom of God

– Isaiah 52:7 looks forward to the ‘beautiful feet’ of he who would announce the unveiling of God’s kingdom – which is what Jesus does (Mk 1:14-15)

– The gospel is about the news that God, through his Messiah, rules as king of all

– The gospel is to preached, announced, taught, promoted, within the overall mission of helping people to ‘realise and submit to God’s kingship or lordship over their lives.’

But the gospel is more than ‘God reigns’ – it is all about how the reign has been revealed to the world in the deeds of the Messiah, Jesus.

– Authentic ‘gospel telling’, Dickson says, will recount the broad narrative of Jesus’ life. The good news is all about Jesus and what he has done.

– The ‘gospel’ therefore corresponds closely to the story told in the 4 gospels

– Like Scot McKnight and Michael Bird, Dickson goes to 1 Cor 15:3-5; Roms 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8 as key texts where Paul stops to unpack what is meant by the good news he preaches.

– Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15 mirrors the structure of the gospels in emphasising:

i. Sin atoning death

ii. Burial

iii. Resurrection

iv. Appearances

v.  Of the one vindicated by God to be Messiah / Lord

As with Romans 1:3-4

i. The story of the gospel fulfils the purpose of the Scriptures

ii. Jesus is a royal descendant of King David, the awaited Messiah inaugurating God’s kingdom

iii. He is raised from the dead and demonstrated to be ‘Christ [Messiah] our Lord’. The resurrection is a key part of the gospel, demonstrating that Jesus is the glorious son ‘in full possession of the Spirit-life of God’s kingdom’.

iv. This ‘book-end’ summary of the gospel dovetails with the beginning and ending of the gospels. Jesus is God’s appointed Lord.

–          2 Timothy 2:8 summarises the same themes in an even shorter way. The gospel is all about Jesus raised from the dead and descended from David.

So what is the gospel?

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.” [126]

And within this story of the Christ, are found themes of sin & atonement; faith & repentance. The gospel story has deep theological significance.

“The gospel (message) and the Gospels (books) are one.”

This is why, early in church history, the titles of the 4 gospels were called “The Gospel according to Matthew …Mark ….Luke …John. ”

What Dickson is saying here is that you can’t preach the gospel detached from the story of Jesus (the gospel is NOT a set of abstract theological ideas). And you can’t tell the story of Jesus without unpacking its spiritual significance.

“The gospel message is the grand news about how God’s coming kingdom has been glimpsed and opened up to a sinful world in the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of God’s Son, the Messiah, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity.” [127-8]

And from here Dickson demonstrates how this is the gospel preached by the first Christians in Acts. They recount the saving achievements of Jesus Christ our Lord, from birth to exaltation. Gospel preaching is introducing people to who Jesus is and what he has done.

Some comments and questions:

Are most evangelical presentations of the gospel more like a series of theological concepts virtually (or completely) detached from the story of Jesus?  Where what Scot called the ‘plan of salvation’ gets equated with the gospel and ends up reducing the gospel down to what is in effect a ‘sin-solution’?

And one effect of this CAN be (I’m not wanting to stereotype here) that there is a sense of ‘having arrived’ once I believe the gospel and ‘get saved’. The sin problem is dealt with. A result can be that living kingdom life in the power of the Spirit in the hope of the kingdom to come at the return of the Messiah, can get marginalised. I suspect that many evangelicals do not really have a place for, or know what to do with, the kingdom of God.

Are the gospels seen as spiritual milk, stories setting the scene for the real important theological stuff in Paul and Hebrews?

I remember missionary and then Principal Dr Peter Cotterell at London Bible College (now London School of Theology) telling us how looking back over his Christian ministry if he were to change one thing it would that he would have taught and preached far more from the gospels than he had done. The reason for that neglect (I’m paraphrasing here) was a traditional evangelical ‘plan of salvation’ gospel that majored on the mechanics of the atonement (justification, propitiation etc) and had little place for the ministry and life of Jesus as told in the gospels. And his rediscovery of the gospels was very much part of how the story of Jesus is packed with theological depth and significance from which all else in the NT flows.

Comments and thoughts, as ever, welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Best Kept Secret (9) What is the Gospel?

  1. Great article. So many times I find myself quoting the epistles and ignoring the Gospels. What did Jesus say on Salvation? How do the epistles fit with the Gospels? This article has me thinking.

  2. Welcome Andrew. Good questions – it is not that the two are opposed to each other, but that we need to let the gospels tell the multi-layered rich story of the gospel. It is the gospel [good news] about Jesus Christ that the epistles unpack in complementary depth and variety.

    • But in a sense they are to be taken differently. For example, we would not have the epistles if it were not for one of many false doctrines creeping into the church. The epistles not only complement, but also take on false doctrines that still come into play today.
      God is amazing to use His word to cover the problems of the early church and the heresies of today with the same inspired word.

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