Saturday, July 31, 2010

Preaching the Gospel, Believing in Christ

Well, I guess it's time for my first real post. This is an article I wrote as a result of studying the use of the word "gospel" in the New Testament. It became very clear to me, especially when I considered the places where the verb form of the word occurs, that "gospel" is not used technically of a certain few propositions about Jesus which an unsaved person must believe in order to be saved, but rather of the entire scope of good news about Jesus. This shouldn't be a surprise, since Mark referred to the whole book he wrote as "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ," but since it was different than what I had been taught, I was surprised by what I found. So, this article summarizes the view I ended up with. I hope this can be helpful, even to people who are not involved in the "promise only" gospel debate. All of us as Christians can benefit by a careful study of how terms are used in the New Testament.

Preaching the Gospel, Believing in Christ
In looking at the area of sharing the gospel, or good news, with the lost, two questions are vital to answer. One is, what is the gospel? The other is, what must a sinner believe in order to receive eternal life? In brief, the gospel is the message about Jesus which we preach (whether to unbelievers or believers, though I am speaking specifically about preaching it to unbelievers). The response which God requires from sinners is that they believe in Jesus Christ, or put their trust in Him alone to save them. Both of these elements are seen clearly in Ephesians 1:13, where Paul says, "In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation." They heard the good news about how God provided salvation for them through Christ, and in response they trusted in Christ alone and were saved.

The Gospel
The word translated "gospel" in our English Bibles simply means good news, and is used in a variety of contexts. In the gospels it is mostly used of the "gospel of the kingdom," which was a broad term encompassing the good news that the promised King had come, the good news about how to enter His kingdom by faith, and many other teachings about the kingdom. In the rest of the New Testament the noun form euangelion, "good news," and the verb form euangelizo, "preach good news," are also used broadly about different aspects of the good news concerning Jesus. Sometimes the word gospel is used specifically about Christ's death and resurrection, by which He purchased salvation for all who would believe in Him (1Cor. 15:3-8), and sometimes it includes other aspects such as the fact that Jesus is going to judge the world (Rom. 2:16). Sometimes it is used more generally referring to all of the good news about Jesus Christ by which people are not only eternally saved, but also by which they grow and are established. This is apparent, for instance, in Rom. 1:15, where Paul declared his desire to "preach the gospel" to the believers in Rome, and in Rom. 16:25 where he said that God was able to establish them according to, or by, his gospel.
Because preaching the gospel is a broad term which means proclaiming the good news about Jesus, we may notice as we read through the Bible different aspects of the good news being emphasized at different times. For instance, Paul told the Corinthians that the gospel he had preached to them was that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that He was seen by certain witnesses, including Paul himself (1Cor. 15:3-8). When we read Paul's evangelistic message in Pisidian Antioch, however, recorded in Acts 13:16-41, we don't see exactly the same elements. In that sermon, as recorded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we see mention made of Jesus' death, burial, ressurection, and the fact that He was seen by witnesses, but not specifically that His death was "for our sins." Does this mean that Paul did not preach the gospel in Pisidian Antioch? No. He preached the good news about Jesus, including the fact that "through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39)." Certainly those who believed in Christ at that time were later taught much more about Him, but what they heard in that initial sermon and that which they heard later could all be referred to as the gospel which was preached to them.
Another example we could look at of preaching the gospel in the New Testament is Peter's message to Cornelius and his family in Acts 10:34-43. Later, in Acts 15:7, Peter looks back on that occasion and specifically refers to the message he presented there as "the gospel." In that message, Peter, like Paul in Acts 13, told of Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearance to witnesses, but as in Paul's message in Pisidian Antioch, he did not specify that Jesus' death was in the place of sinners or "for sins." He also included some other elements in his message, such as the fact that Jesus had gone around doing miracles (Acts 10:38), and that God had appointed Him the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). Then he taught that "whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins (Acts 10:43)." He wasn't finished with his message, but at that point Cornelius and those with him did believe in Christ for eternal salvation and were saved.
Throughout the New Testament, it is consistent to say that preaching the gospel means telling the good news about Jesus Christ. Different aspects of the good news may be included and emphasized, though when the good news was preached to the unsaved, it always included the element of salvation coming by faith alone in Christ alone. When a person hears about the Lord Jesus Christ and believes in Him alone to save him and give him eternal life, he is saved.

Believing in Jesus
The gospel is the good news about Jesus which we tell people. The response by which people receive eternal salvation is believing in Jesus Christ for the free gift which He offers. Throughout the New Testament, where the object of faith is stated, the object is almost always specified as being Jesus Christ Himself. This is true whether we look in the book of John, where we see "that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16)," or the book of Romans, where we see that the righteousness which God offers is "through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22)." Believing in Jesus Christ means believing, or trusting, in Him alone to save us and to give us eternal life as He has offered.
As we preach about Jesus, we should give as much information as we can about why we need a Savior, who Jesus Christ is and how He provided salvation by His death for sins on the cross. One good way to do this might be to read or study through the book of John with someone and address each of these issues as it comes up. With less time available, individual verses addressing these areas could be used. The end goal is that the listener will be convinced of the Lord Jesus' ability to provide eternal life to all who believe in Him for it and to place their confidence in Him. We preach the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, to bring people to saving faith, which is confidence or trust in the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Intro/My Theological Journey

My name is Ken White. I am 39 years old and live in Bakersfield, California. For the past 13 years, my family and I have been missionaries in Papua New Guinea, where I did Bible translation and church-planting. We currently are back in the United States and are trying to begin a Free Grace church, or rather a multiplying, Free Grace church-planting movement, by starting Bible studies in our home. We hope to start the first one this Sunday.

I have held a Free Grace view of the gospel for many years. When I was in high school, our youth pastor got me well-grounded in a Lordship Salvation view of the gospel and of saving faith. At that point it never made me doubt my own salvation, but it did make me doubt the salvation of many around me, who didn’t seem to have much of a commitment to following Jesus.

With my Lordship Salvation perspective, I set off to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where I intended to train to be a missionary. Some of my professors there espoused Lordship Salvation and some did not, but one of those who did not changed my life by assigning us to read Balancing the Christian Life by Charles Ryrie. In that book was one chapter about whether Jesus must be Lord of one’s life in order to be one’s Savior, and it really rocked my thinking and made me realize that maybe I was wrong in my views. Through that book and subsequent study of the Bible, I came to be convinced that salvation was truly a free gift, received simply by faith in Christ, and that faith really means believing, and nothing more complex than that.

After one year at Moody, my wife and I were married back in California and lived there for a year. After that, we went into missionary training with the organization with which we were to work. During the time of our missionary training, another major milestone in my theological journey came about when I discovered that there were biblically sound ways to interpret scripture that were neither Calvinist (not even 4 or 3 point Calvinist), nor Arminian. I remain a committed “non-Calvinist” to this day, which may or may not enter into future blog entries.

The final two issues (at least to this point) which have really defined my perspective on soteriology have been the discussions about the content of saving faith and about repentance . As far as the content of saving faith, through the years and throughout my ministry in PNG, I always communicated to people the idea that “if you believe that Jesus died for your sins on the cross and rose again, you will be saved.” Over time, though, I began to have doubts about saying things that way. For one thing, I always realized that I didn’t really mean exactly that. I knew that a person could believe that Jesus paid for all his sins on the cross and rose again, and yet think he had to do good works in order to get to heaven. So I knew there was a missing element in the way I was presenting things. The other thing that bothered me about the way I expressed things was that it didn’t seem to be well-supported scripturally. In my view, faith in what Jesus did on the cross was the core element in saving faith, and yet I knew that the many references to believing in Jesus in the book of John, which occurred before His death, couldn’t mean that. Also, in the couple of recorded evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts, the element of believing “that Jesus died for your sins” seemed to be missing. So I wondered why God hadn’t made things more clear.

Then on my last home assignment, or “furlough,” from the mission field, I attended a conference put on by the Grace Evangelical Society and heard Zane Hodges speak. In the question and answer time which followed his session, he expressed the idea that the content of saving faith has not changed between the time when Jesus offered living water to the Samaritan woman at the well and now. He expressed the idea that a person receives eternal life when he believes in Jesus for it. I had actually read such things before, but had never processed it until then. I realized that Zane’s view made sense with the biblical data. It wasn’t until later, though, that I realized there was a lot of controversy about this view.

Because of the controversy surrounding the view that saving faith could be as simple as believing in Jesus for eternal life, I spent a long time wrestling with the issue, studying it out, and reading everything I could find by those opposed to the view. I realized that if I became firmly settled on a “promise only” view of the gospel, I might not be able to continue to work with the organization with which I was working. The end result of all that wrestling, praying and studying was that I became firmly convinced that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe in Him for it. In order to get to that point, I had to question many of the underlying positions, for example: Was the gospel of John the sole book of the New Testament written with the purpose of evangelism? Is the gospel of John adequate for evangelism? Does the word “gospel” refer to a certain set of propositions which must be believed about Jesus, or to a broader good news? If there are certain minimums a person must believe to be saved, where are they listed? I will talk about things I discovered in these areas in later posts.

Finally, I rethought my position on repentance. I had long believed that repent meant only “change your mind,” that it was a requirement for eternal life, and that the context determined what a person must change his mind about. Because this post has already gotten far to long, I will not right now go into the inconsistencies which I found in this view, but will simply say that a careful study of every occurrence of the words “repent” and “repentance” led me to the view, also espoused by Zane Hodges, that repentance refers to a decision to turn from sin, but that it is a separate issue from the reception of eternal life. Repentance turns aside God’s temporal punishment and should prepare an unsaved person to believe in Jesus, but it is not the same as faith nor a prerequisite to faith.

Because of these changes in my views, I did have to quit working with the mission organization I was working with, and that is why my family and I have returned to the U.S. It has been hard to leave the life and the ministry we have known, but I cannot be sorry, because the things I have learned have made the Bible make so much more sense to me, and I believe they will make it easier for me to share the truth with others also.

I’m sorry this post has gotten so outrageously long, but I thought it would be good to give a little background before I started making other posts. I don’t know how many people will actually read this blog, but hopefully down the road, God will bring people along who will be benefited by what I have to share and by the discussion which (I hope) will follow.