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The Five-Part Gospel

What is the Gospel?  Does the Bible define it?  Is it an important doctrine?



Writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul calls the Gospel "of first importance".  In other words, the Gospel is the foremost and foundational doctrine of the entire Christian faith.  Without it Christianity is just an empty shell - a house of cards that will soon collapse in on itself.  The word "Gospel" is regularly thrown around without definition as if everyone who hears the word instantly recognizes its meaning.  To most it's indecipherable Christianese.  The Church has largely failed to remind itself and others of what this word means and divisions are the direct result - dare I say all divisions.

Catechisms and official doctrinal statements are replete with the word "Gospel", yet its definition, either directly or through inference, is usually given as "Jesus coming into the world", "God living with man", "the coming kingdom of God", "the life and death of Jesus", and so forth.  They all touch a similar chord.  They are all nice sentiments.  Yet from a biblical perspective they are all dead wrong.

1 Corinthians 15 contains the clearest and most explicit definition of the Gospel in the entire Bible.  Paul calls the doctrine "of first importance" and maintains that this very specific message of good news must be believed, until death or rapture, in order for a person to be saved:

1 Now, brothers and sisters, 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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Pay very careful attention to these eight verses because from a soteriological perspective you won't find a more important section of Scripture.  By all means, memorize Psalm 23, memorize John 3:16, memorize Romans 8, but if you're going to memorize anything, memorize these eight verses.

Let's break this down.

In the first verse we learn that the Gospel is the message originally preached to the Church.  We also learn that this is the message the Church received and has since taken its stand on.

In the second verse we are told that we are saved by this message if we hold firmly to it.  If we reject the message or twist the message into something else, then whatever belief we once had or think we currently have is in vain.

Then in verses three through eight we learn what the fundamental Christian belief is.  It contains five critical parts or pillars and I'll briefly demonstrate how each pillar is under attack.  If one pillar goes down, the whole house collapses.

1. Christ died

The text doesn't just mention Jesus.  His role as the Anointed One of God, Christ, is explicit in the text.  Jesus was sent by God.  Jesus is the Messiah.  And this Messiah, sent by God, died a literal death.

Christian and secular scholars alike believe that Jesus died, but secular scholars fail to recognize that the One who died is Christ - the Anointed One of God.

On the other hand, Islam teaches that Jesus was indeed the Messiah sent by God, but that He did not die.  They say He recovered from His crucifixion.  By disbelieving in His death they undercut both the atonement and His resurrection, which are both essential beliefs.

2. For our sins

This is where professing Christians run into the most trouble.  This is at the very heart of the Gospel and is yet the most ignored pillar in Christianity.  It is the neglect or twisting of these three words that has led to the majority of divisions within Christendom.

Jesus died a literal death to atone for our literal sins.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  Since all have fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23), no one is righteous (Psalm 14:1-3, Romans 3:10), all are condemned by the law (Romans 3:20, Galatians 3:11, 5:3, James 2:10), and no Christian ever has or ever will attain sinless perfection in this life (James 3:2, 1 John 1:8-2:1, Romans 7:14-25), then to reject the finished work of Christ is to reject the entire Gospel.

This core doctrine is attacked by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, many in the Hebrew Roots movement, and even many within the Protestant, Pentecostal, and Evangelical movements who reject their own denominational affirmations of sola fide.

I firmly believe that this is the doctrine that in the end will separate those who merely profess Christianity from those who have a genuine saving faith.  Some seek to establish their own righteousness apart from the righteousness revealed in Christ (Romans 10).  When you claim to believe in God, but reject the atonement, there is no sacrifice for sins left - you have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).

The works-righteousness crowd within Christianity eliminates this clause from the Gospel by redefining grace.  In theological jargon they call it "sanctifying grace".  A term that effectively means that grace is not mercy, kindness, or unmerited pardon as the Bible teaches, but rather is spiritual fuel you keep filling your gas tank up with - you better not die with your gas tank on empty!  In other words, they teach that grace is not undeserved atonement for sin, but rather divine power not to sin.  They effectively eliminate the doctrine of justification, which is the atonement itself.  In short, to them grace isn't grace.

The works-righteousness cabal is great at defining sin.  They know homosexuality is wrong.  They know adultery is wrong.  They certainly know that abortion is wrong.  Yet they fail to recognize that their sins of choice (pride, self-righteousness, self-adulation, among others) have also separated them from God.  They fail to accept Christ's atonement for sin.

On the other end of the spectrum there is a large and growing contingent within Christianity who argue that sin isn't sin - we'll call them the antinomians (meaning against law).  At times they talk incessantly of grace and love, yet they define neither.  To them the Gospel is unconditional affirmation of everyone.  Many of their churches call themselves "affirming".  All those mean Pharisees that called your homosexual lifestyle choice a "sin" are wrong - they say.  Come to our "church" and we'll affirm you.  That's what Jesus was all about, right?

The antinomian Christians have rejected the atonement just as much as the works-righteousness Christians have.  Whereas the latter group accurately defines sin, but thinks they can overcome it without God's righteousness, the former group believes there is no standard to measure up to because sin isn't sin.  Jesus didn't really have to die, so they believe.

God has set the standard through His law and then recognizing our inability to meet the standard, paid the price with His own Son.  It's one thing to struggle with sin - every Christian does, including the Apostle Paul.  It's another thing to claim to believe in Christ and yet reject your personal need for His atoning death.  Christian legalists and antinomians often occupy two very opposing sides on the political spectrum, yet they reject the Gospel in the very same place.

3. He was buried

A consequence of His literal death, Jesus was buried in a real tomb.  Armed Roman guardsmen were placed in front of the tomb to prevent Jesus' disciples from faking the resurrection.  This also fulfilled the prophecy called The Sign of Jonah, which foretold that the Messiah would reside in the earth for three days, just as the Prophet Jonah resided in the belly of a fish.  On the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which represented sinlessness, the sinless body of the Messiah was placed in a tomb.

From time to time you'll see articles appear in the news with some archaeologist in Israel claiming to have found the body of Jesus in some random tomb.  Each time the claim is found to be utterly fraudulent or at the very least, very twisted logic.  Never true.

4. He was raised on the third day

Jesus came back to life.  He was physically, literally raised (1 Corinthians 15:12-20), after a physical, literal death.  Jesus conquered both sin and death in the resurrection.  His resurrection completes our justification before God (Romans 4:25).  Believing in the resurrection is a requirement for salvation (Romans 10:9).

The resurrection is attacked by non-Christians more than any other doctrine because they know full well that all of Christianity stands or falls on this one belief.  Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists alike all reject this well-established historical event.  So important is the resurrection that Paul says if it did not really happen then the entire Christian faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17).

5. He appeared to many

Often neglected and not a salvific part of the Gospel, the fact that Paul includes it here as part of his definition of the Gospel is nonetheless important.  It is the Gospel's "seal" so to speak.  The Bible says a matter must be established or proven by at least two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1) and if no one saw the risen Christ then no one would have known the resurrection occurred and there would be no Christian faith.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus was seen by well over 500 people, including all of the living Apostles and most of the remaining disciples.  So convinced were they that they had seen the Risen Lord that many of them gave their lives in bloody martyrdom rather than recant their faith - an occurrence without historical precedent.


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5 comments :

  1. Excellent work Gary. Much needed and timely.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! I'd been meaning to do a post on this for awhile.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good points. Also keep in mind these two key verses that specifically state "the message" of the church:

    1 Tim. 2:5-6 (NLT)
    For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and people. He is the man Christ Jesus. [6] He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. THIS is the message that God gave to the world at the proper time.

    2 Cor. 5:19 (NLT)
    For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. THIS is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm glad you mentioned the part about how He appeared to many, because one of the strongest proofs of the authenticity of the Gospels is what the disciples did after the Resurrection.

    Atheists and various other critics love to spout off about how "all serious scholars" agree that the Gospel accounts are fiction contrived by anonymous zealots many decades after the fact for some nefarious purpose, like elevating this (possibly fictional) character named Yeshua to messianic status to stick it to the Jews, or something of that nature.

    They have a really difficult time, however, explaining why 10 of the original 12 disciples died as martyrs spreading the gospel to the world if they knew for a fact that it was a preposterous lie someone had dreamed up.

    After the Crucifixion, the disciples were broken shadows of men who had just witnessed everything they believed in crushed out of existence. They had just witnessed their beloved friend and spiritual leader executed in the most horrific, ignominious manner imaginable, and they were hiding out like a bunch of defeated cowards for fear of the Jews.

    But virtually overnight, they inexplicably morphed into the boldest preachers of the gospel the world has ever known, and took the message of the gospel--of Christ and Him crucified and RESURRECTED for the atonement for sin-- to the utmost parts of the known world until the day they were martyred without ever once recanting their testimony.

    Why would they do that? Because He appeared to many.

    Few die for the truth--who dies for a lie?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Beautifully stated, Greg. I wholeheartedly agree. The apostles' eye-witness testimony and word are integral to having true fellowship with the Father and His Son, which is basically John's argument in his first epistle (1 John 1:1-4).

      Delete


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