Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Gospel and Justification

Hi all,what follows are some notes I put together to send to Diane as we were discussing whether the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel refer to two different things, and whether the word "gospel" is used to refer to the preaching of eternal life/justification. Specifically, we were discussing the use of the terms in Acts and the gospels. It is basically a follow-up to what I have previously written on the gospel and the gospel of the kingdom, with a little bit more about what has led me to my conclusions. I thought maybe it would be profitable to put it on the blog for anyone else out there who is interested in the discussion. So, for any who are interested, here it is-

I have put together the following notes to discuss two questions: First, does the word “gospel” include justification truths, or only truths for Christian growth? I understand that the word gospel does not only refer to justification, but it is my contention that it is a broad term which does include truths about justification. Second, is the Gospel of the Kingdom different than the gospel? Does it refer only to the national reception of the kingdom by Israel, or to a broad spectrum of truths about the kingdom, including individual entrance by faith?

Following are some cases where I believe it is clear that the word “gospel” is being used to refer to justification.
- Ephesians 1:13- “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise…” Even if the word "trusted" is taken out of this verse, as it is not in the Greek, it clearly refers to a chain of events in which the Ephesians heard the "gospel of their salvation," believed in Christ, and were sealed with the Holy Spirit. So, in this case, the gospel has to at least include the initial justification truths which they heard. I realize the word gospel does not appear alone here, but in the phrase, "gospel of your salvation." Still, it seems like a clear example of euangelion (the noun for gospel) being used to refer to justification truths. I also recognize that "salvation" could theoretically not be referring to justification in this context, but since the response to the hearing is believing and being sealed with the Spirit, it seems clear that it is referring to justification.

- Galatians 1:8-9- Paul uses the word "gospel" here and elsewhere in the book to refer to the message which he had taught and was trying to defend. In the context (see especially 2:16), it is clear that the primary truth he was writing to defend was the truth of justification by faith in Jesus.

- 1 Corinthians 4:15- ...for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
- This seems to clearly label the truths which led to the Corinthians believers being born again as "the gospel."

So, though Paul obviously used the word gospel in a much broader sense than only to refer to truths leading to justification, it seems clear to me that he did use the word to include the teaching of justification by faith.

Now, what about the book of Acts?
- In Acts, Luke mostly uses the verb form, euangelizo, rather than the noun. In the book of Luke, he only used the verb, never the noun. The verb is often translated simply as "preached" in English, but it is a closely related word and should be considered. As far as the noun goes, in Acts 15:7, Luke records Peter using the noun form "gospel" to refer back to the message which he preached to Cornelius and his family. This was a justification message, and the context in Acts 15 is also dealing with the Gentiles being justified by faith alone. So, here is at least one place where Luke used the noun to refer to justification truths. Of course, we know that Luke was a disciple of Paul, so it is to be expected that he would use terminology with the same meanings as his mentor, and it seems clear to me that Paul used the word broadly, to include either justification or sanctification truths, or both, depending on the context.

If we expand our look at the book of Acts to include the verb form, there are also some cases where it seems to clearly refer to preaching justification/eternal life through faith in Jesus. For example:
- Acts 5:42- "They did not cease teaching and preaching (euangelizo) Jesus as the Christ." Preaching Jesus as the Christ biblically has to mean telling people the good news (gospel) that He is the one who gives eternal life to all who believe in Him.
- Acts 8:35- "Philip...preached (euangelizo) Jesus to him." This preaching resulted in the Ethiopian eunuch believing in Jesus and being baptized., so again, must refer to preaching justification by faith.

So, here is my chain of logic: Paul used the word gospel to include either or both justification and sanctification truths. Luke, a disciple of Paul, also used it that way, at least when he wrote the book of Acts. When Luke used either the noun or verb form of the word in Acts, he gave no indication that it meant something different than the verb had meant in his first book. So, this implies to me that among the churches, the word "gospel" was a known term that didn't need explanation, and was used to include both justification and sanctification truths. Therefore it would have been understood that way in verses like Luke 20:1, where it says that Jesus "preached the gospel" in the temple.

Gospel in the synoptics-
Though there are no verses in the synoptics which clearly use the word gospel to refer to justification, there are a few places, even in Matthew and Mark, where it seems to be used more broadly than what dispensationalists have thought of as the gospel of the kingdom.

- Matthew 26:13 and Mark 14:9 both say "wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her." The fact that Jesus said "this gospel," seems to imply that the same "gospel" His disciples had heard Him preach would be preached worldwide. Therefore, even Matthew seems to be using the word here in a broader sense than simply "the kingdom is available to Israel if they repent and believe in the Messiah." He is referring to the story of Jesus being told worldwide.

- Mark 16:15- Jesus commissioned the disciples to "preach the gospel" in the whole world. Again, worldwide proclamation implies a message broader than simply that the kingdom was available to Israel. And we know that what the apostles did in response to this commission was to preach the whole story about Jesus, starting with justification by faith in Him.

- If you test the hypothesis that the word "gospel" only refers to sanctification truths, or that in the synoptics it only refers to the good news that the kingdom was available to Israel as a nation, there are many places that don't seem to fit. On the other hand, if you test the hypothesis that "the gospel" refers to the whole story of Jesus, with one or another aspect of it sometimes more to the forefront, I believe it fits in every case.

What about "the gospel of the kingdom," specifically?
First of all, in the book of Acts, preaching the kingdom and preaching about Jesus seem to be used interchangeably, or at least in the same context, which indicates to me that terminology such as "the gospel of the kingdom," (though it is not specifically used in Acts) or "preaching the kingdom" were being used in a broad sense. For example:
- Acts 8:12- Philip "preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ," resulting in people believing and being baptized. The word "preached" here is euangelizo, so this could be translated as "preached the good news of the things concerning the kingdom of God and of the name of Jesus Christ." Admittedly, this could have been two different things he was preaching about, but even so, at least part of what Philip was proclaiming to non-Jewish (Samaritan) people in an initial message which resulted in faith was referred to as "things concerning the kingdom of God." This is very similar terminology to "gospel of the kingdom" being used by a writer of one of the synoptic gospels, in a way that is probably much more broad than simply referring to the nation of Israel potentially receiving the kingdom, since it was being preached to non-Jews in what we would call an “evangelistic” message.

- Acts 19:8- Paul's preaching in the synagogue for three months is called "reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God." The context is Paul preaching to unsaved people (Jews and some Gentiles), many of whom became hardened and "did not believe," so it seems like this terminology must be broad enough to cover truths regarding individual entrance into God's kingdom (and justification) by faith in Christ.

- Acts 20:25-
Paul here refers to his ministry among the Ephesians as "preaching the kingdom of God." If preaching the kingdom in the gospels referred only to announcing the national aspects of the kingdom to Israel, it would seem strange for Paul to then use the same terminology to refer to his teaching to the church in this dispensation. If, however, this term is broad enough to also cover individual entrance into the kingdom (like John chapter 3) and rewards in the kingdom, then it would make sense for Paul's teaching to be called "preaching the kingdom of God."

- Acts 28:23- In Paul's preaching to the Jews in Rome, testifying of the kingdom of God and persuading them concerning Jesus seem to be parallel thoughts.

I realize that the specific phrase "gospel of the kingdom" is not used in any of these cases, but I believe they do show that teaching about the kingdom was seen in a broad sense that would have included not only the national aspects of the kingdom, but also individual entrance by faith and individual reward based on faithfulness. If terminology like this was being used that broadly in the book of Acts, it seems likely that it was also being used broadly by the writers of the gospels, who were writing for the church.

The Parable of the Sower-
- As I said before, this was the clincher for me. Restating what I said previously in my brief article, in Matthew 13:19, Jesus is recorded as saying that the seed sown represents "the word of the kingdom." Then in Luke 8:12, Jesus says that the seed which falls by the wayside represents those who hear the word, but the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. So, by comparing these two records of the one parable, we can see that Jesus Himself indicated that "the word of the kingdom" included truths which could be believed resulting in salvation. The whole context of the seed springing up also indicates that this "salvation" refers to justification. So this indicates to me that preaching the kingdom included, but was obviously not limited to, information about how someone could enter the kingdom by being born again.

The other argument I made in my article, which I do think bears some weight, is the fact that we know from the gospel of John that Jesus did preach the message of eternal life broadly throughout Israel. We know that, first of all because some of the recorded instances in John were given in public messages, and secondly because throughout the book of John we see that many people believed in Jesus, even when the specific message that was preached to them is not recorded. So, when Jesus traveled around teaching, He must have taught about eternal life and/or justification by faith in Him. That is the only way people could have believed in Him in the biblical sense. Therefore, when the synoptic gospels say that He went around "preaching the gospel of the kingdom," it either has to refer to only part of what Jesus went around preaching, in which case the synoptic gospels would be virtually ignoring the fact that Jesus taught about eternal life, or it has to be a broad enough term to cover the message of eternal life as well and other truths. I think the other uses of similar terminology which I have pointed out make it clear that the second option was actually the case.

If my conclusions are correct, I think it helps make more sense of the synoptic gospels, because it would mean that they at least make broad reference to Jesus preaching eternal life. With my previous understanding, I had to assume that Matthew, Mark and Luke chose to virtually ignore that aspect of Jesus’ teaching. It also makes sense of the fact that Jesus indicated that the “gospel of the kingdom” will be preached in all the world during the tribulation (Matthew 24:14). This would seem strange if the terminology only referred to the national aspects of the kingdom, but not if it was a broad term which included any preaching about the kingdom.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Making a decision for Jesus

I was thinking the other day about the common thinking among evangelical Christians that when we talk to unsaved people about the Lord, we need to push for a decision or provide them with an opportunity to respond to the gospel. Actually, I think that’s true, but in a different way than most people think.

The other day I met a man named David who was standing outside the grocery store asking for money or food. After I helped him with a little food (whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll let you judge), I started talking with him about his situation and about the Lord. What I found was that, while he agreed that there probably is a God, he didn’t see how he could trust someone he couldn’t see. When I was done talking to him, I did push him a little to make a decision, but it wasn’t to decide to believe in Jesus. Rather I gave him a book of John and a “The Best News You’ll Ever Hear” tract, and asked him to read them with an open mind to see what God has to say about the free gift of eternal life.

Since everyone who has so far read this blog and made comments already shares my same basic beliefs, I realize that I am “preaching to the choir” here, but I thought my conversation with David was a good example of the futility of trying to make someone decide to believe. How can a person who is not sure there is a trustworthy God decide to believe that the Bible is His infallible word and that He truly offers eternal life through faith in His Son? It is through exposure to truth and considering it with an open mind that people find themselves believing something. A person believes in Jesus when he becomes convinced that His offer of eternal life to all who believe is true and reliable.

While a person cannot make himself believe in Jesus or in anything else, God in His word does have strong things to say against those who reject Jesus in spite of the evidence. John 3:36, for example, says that the wrath of God abides on the person who does not believe the Son. “Does not believe” in this verse is one Greek word, apeitheo, and is better translated “disbelieves” or “rejects.” Throughout the book of John and the other gospels, Jesus repeatedly rebukes the Pharisees because of their refusal to believe. So it seems that, while a person cannot choose to believe something they are not convinced of, they can choose not to believe because they refuse to even consider the evidence. On the positive side, they can decide to weigh the evidence with an open mind, and that is the type of decision I believe we should ask people to make. If a person does show interest, but is not yet convinced of the truth of Jesus’ claims, I believe that inviting them to study the word further together is also a good type of decision to push for. If a person does decide to study the issue out and weigh the evidence, then God can use His word in that person’s heart to draw them to faith in Christ.

I would welcome any of your thoughts as well on the types of decisions we should or should not ask unsaved people to make.