If you Google the phrase “What is the gospel?” you will find a spate of links with precisely that title ready to unpack the contents of…of…the gospel? Well, maybe. But I’m not so sure.
Most of these sites are sponsored by high profile Evangelical organizations particularly of the Neo-Reformed camp and offer as their account of the gospel what is, properly speaking, the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith, i.e., justification sola fide (by faith alone). So, for instance, on the Resurgence’s “What is the Gospel?” page, between the headings Jesus Died and Jesus Rose is the heading Jesus Exchanged, invoking the Reformation idea of dual forensic imputation: Our sin imputed to Jesus and Jesus’s righteousness imputed to us. They write:
Jesus not only took the punishment for your sin, but he also lived a perfectly righteous life. When you trust in Christ, your sins are forgiven and you are declared righteous by God, the ultimate judge. The righteousness of Christ is attributed to you as if you lived a perfect life.
Similarly, on the Ligonier ministries “What is the Gospel?” page R.C. Sproul tells us:
The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.
And I know of at least one local pastor whose slogan-like summary of the gospel is “Christ in my place.” Throughout this post I have embedded videos of prominent evangelical leaders more or less equating the gospel itself with the doctrine of justification sola fide and they are worth watching if you aren’t sure you know what I am talking about.
To be sure, the identification of Luther’s doctrine of justification with the gospel itself has been a mainstay of conservative Protestantism from the Reformation onward, and so none of this is all that surprising. But, surprising or not, is it right? Is this idea of “Christ in my place,” this idea that we are justified by faith alone really what the apostles and the early Church had in mind when they talked about the euangelion, the “good news,” the gospel?
It would be hard to overplay the importance of this question. If one identifies the gospel with the doctrine of justification sola fide, then, by implication, one has to say that only (some) Protestants believe in the gospel. Not only does this equation require one to automatically put contemporary Catholics, Orthodox, and many other Christians in the “unbeliever” box, it also means putting everyone from the 1st century to the 16th–Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Thomas a Kempis, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, etc.–in that box as well. Most of the spiritual greats of Christian history–the Church Fathers and Mothers, the Medieval doctors, the great mystics–are all cast outside. To my mind, this implication alone is sufficient to warrant a reconsideration of the evangelical equation of the gospel with Luther’s doctrine of justification.
Let me be clear, my purpose here is not to dispute the truth of the doctrine of justification sola fide (detailed exegetical questions aside, I think Luther was more right than wrong on this issue) but only the strict equation of that doctrine with the gospel itself. Over the last seven years I have become increasingly convinced that the message which the apostles proclaimed as “the gospel” was not sola fide but Kyrios Christos, “Christ is Lord.” That is to say, the gospel is, properly speaking, the royal announcement that Jesus of Nazareth is the God of Israel’s promised Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Over the next few posts I’d like to offer some of the reasons for just why I think that is:
1. The New Testament writers were not writing in a cultural or linguistic vacuum and their language of euangelion and euangelizomai would have been understood by their audience in fairly specific ways. Namely, in the Greco-Roman world for which the New Testament authors wrote euangelion/euangelizomai language typically had to do with either A) the announcement of the accession of a ruler, or B) the announcement of a victory in battle, and would probably have been understood along one or the other of those lines. Let’s take the announcements of a new ruler first. The classic example of such a language is the Priene Calendar Inscription, dating to circa 9 BCE, which celebrates the rule (and birthday) of Caesar Augustus as follows:
It was seeming to the Greeks in Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since Providence, which has ordered all things of our life and is very much interested in our life, has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior [soter] both for us and for those after us, him who would end war and order all things, and since Caesar by his appearance [epiphanein] surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings [euangelia], not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god [he genethlios tou theou] was for the world the beginning of the good tidings [euangelion] through him; and Asia resolved it in Smyrna.
The association of the term euangelion with the announcement of Augustus’s rule is clear enough and is typical of how this language is used elsewhere. (Here’s a great article by Craig Evans on the relevance of the Priene Calendar Inscription for study of the Gospels) So, to give another example, Josephus records that at the news of the accession of the new emperor Vespasian (69 CE) “every city kept festival for the good news (euangelia) and offered sacrifices on his behalf.” (The Jewish War, IV.618) Finally, a papyrus dating to ca. 498 CE begins,
Since I have become aware of the good news (euangeliou) about the proclamation as Caesar (of Gaius Julius Verus Maximus Augustus)…
This usage occurs also in the Septuagint, the Greek translations of the Jewish Scriptures. For instance LXX Isaiah 52:7 reads, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news (euangelizomenou), who publishes peace, who brings good news (euangelizomenos) of salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Similarly, LXX Isaiah 40:9-10 reads,
…Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good tidings (ho euangelizomenos) to Sion; lift up your voice with strength, you who bring good tidings (ho euangelizomenos); lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Ioudas, “See your God!” Behold, the Lord comes with strength, and his arm with authority (kyrieias)…. (NETS Esaias 40:9-10)
This consistent close connection between euangelion/euangelizomai language and announcements of rule strongly suggests that many of the initial hearers/readers of the early Christians’ evangelical language would likely have understood that language as the announcement of a new ruler (see, e.g., Acts 17:7), and, unless there is strong NT evidence to the contrary, we should presume that the NT writers probably intended their language to be so understood.
However, the other main way in which euangelion/euangelizomai language was used in the Greco-Roman world was with reference to battle reports, announcements of victory in war. A classic example of this sort of usage can be found in LXX 2 Samuel 18:19ff, where David receives word that his traitorous son, Absalom, has been defeated in battle. Euangelion/euangelizomai is used throughout the passage for the communications from the front.
There is, of course, a considerable thread in the NT that speaks of Jesus’s death and resurrection as a great victory over the (supernatural?) powers that be and, most importantly, over Death itself. Here we might look at Colossians 2:15 or Romans 8:37-39 or 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, but, as we shall see, when euangelion/euangelizomai language occurs in the NT, it does so more in conjunction with royal, messianic language than in direct conjunction with conquest language. Thus I think it’s safe to say that insofar as Jesus’ conquest of the principalities and powers underlies the gospel it does so as the establishment of His rule and comprehensive authority over heaven and earth, that is, of His Lordship over all things. But it would seem that it is the announcement of His Lordship itself which constitutes the content of the gospel.
I will have more to say about this in coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s the piece by N.T. Wright that set me down this line of thought in the first place. To be continued…