Whose Gospel Will You Choose?
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35 – 10.23
In his book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren confesses: “Like a lot of Protestants, for many years I “knew” what the gospel was. I “knew” that the gospel was the message of “justification by grace through faith…” A bit later, he adds, “To my embarrassment, though, about fifteen years ago I stopped knowing a lot of what I previously knew.” McLaren then relates how his enlightenment began:
A lunchtime meeting in a Chinese restaurant unconvinced and untaught me. My lunch mate was a well-known Evangelical theologian who quite rudely upset years of theological certainty with one provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked me how I would define the gospel, and I answered as any good Romans Protestant would, quoting Romans. He followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” When I gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, I mumbled something akin to “You tell me,” and he replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus. Right?” I again mumbled something, maybe “I guess so.” Seeing my lack of conviction, he added, “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?” (A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38)
Today’s readings confront us with two very different versions of the Gospel – one from Paul found in Romans and one from Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s begin with Romans 5.
Last week we noted Paul’s argument in chapters 1-4, directed toward the scribes and Pharisees, that salvation comes through faith, as with Abraham, as opposed to obedience to the Law. Thus, Paul says: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.1-2; NRSVUE). A few verses later, Paul notes that God proved “his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely, therefore, since we have now been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (5.8-9; NRSVUE).
Paul’s view of the gospel has been summarized as follows: 1) We were created for God’s glory. 2) We should live for God’s glory. 3) We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 4) We deserve eternal punishment. 5) But God, in his mercy, sent his only Son to die for us that we might have eternal life. 6) Thus, eternal life is a free gift for all who believe (trust) in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-six-point-summary-of-the-gospel). In Romans 10.9, we read: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Here is a more succinct statement of the gospel according to Paul: “The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy (https://www.desiringgod.org › topics › the-gospel).
I suspect most of us who have grown up in the church are familiar with the Pauline view of the gospel, but what does Jesus have to say about the gospel?
When Jesus commissioned his disciples, he told them “Proclaim the good news (the gospel), ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’. Cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse those with a skin disease; cast out demons” (Matthew 10.7-8; NRSVUE). Honor was, and is, all important in the Middle East. The actions Jess required of his disciples restored people to their place of honor in the social context. Remember, the common view was that illness signified God’s displeasure; as such, one who was ill was dishonored. Jesus ministry, and the disciple’s ministry, aimed to make people whole. Initially Jesus limited this ministry to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but the ministry was extended to all through the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20). As we have noted previously, the kingdom of heaven signifies the coming of God’s new age.
What are we to make of these two versions of the Gospel? First, we need to bear in mind that Jesus’ words concerning the good news extend beyond the assertion that the kingdom of heaven is near. In John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Vss. 2-3). A few verses later, we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.16-17).
When we read, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” we typically understand the kingdom of God as eternal life, as some future benefit which will ultimately be realized. But Jesus told the disciples to preach the gospel by saying, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” God’s kingdom, God’s new age, is already present, but we cannot see it unless we have been born from above, unless we have found new life in Christ Jesus.
Let me submit, the Pauline version of the Gospel emphasizes personal salvation through faith. We need to remember that Paul was setting forth a corrective view to combat the Pharisees’ emphasis that righteousness was obtained through obedience to the law. This is well and good, but it is incomplete. In contrast, Jesus’ version of the Gospel is not limited to personal salvation; it emphasizes personal and social salvation (being born from above through belief in Jesus while announcing the kingdom of God is near and ministering to those who are downtrodden and outcast in an effort to expand God’s kingdom on earth).
With this in mind, let’s note the Evangelical’s Church’s emphasis on personal salvation, (often at the expense of social salvation (social justice)), and the mainline church’s emphasis on social salvation (social justice), (often at the expense of personal salvation). Have both branches of the Church lost sight of Jesus’ message?
I believe Jesus calls us to personal transformation in preparation for a ministry of social transformation (advancing the coming of the kingdom, the coming of God’s New Age). Being saved, finding personal salvation, is wonderful, but God expects more of us – we are called to be co-laborers, to be co-creators, in God’s kingdom! We are called to promote the common good; we are called to engage in creation care; we are called to work for social justice. If you are faithful to this call, you should expect to be branded a “socialist,” a “communist,” a “bleeding heart liberal”! Might the emphasis on personal salvation reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the desire to retain as much as one can for oneself? All that matter is saving one’s soul!
Let us read Paul in light of Jesus rather than reading Jesus in light of Paul.