Rethinking the Gospel Message
“RETHINKING THE GOSPEL MESSAGE”
by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand
This study originally was intended for a number of close friends of mine in ministry. I wanted to encourage them to consider the nature of this subject because of the important role they play in leading people to faith in Christ. After having reflected upon it, I decided to send it out to many others as well. It is both a significant and fascinating read. For those of you who are not in full-time ministry, I think you will find it a great encouragement to your faith as well. Hopefully my rambling at various points won’t be too big a distraction, and that you will enjoy rethinking the Gospel message.
The principle message Jesus proclaimed was this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”(Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15; 6:12; Acts 2:38; 26:20). The words repent and kingdom point to the twofold emphasis of His message — essentially Jesus was telling people to turn from their sin and turn back to God... to turn from a life of self-rule, to a life of God-rule. So in a nutshell, His message dealt with the issue of “rulership” — to walk in sin is to rule your own life, as opposed to letting the God of creation rule your life. Jesus the King had arrived on earth, so the Kingdom was now near. The Scripture refers to the Kingdom as the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God — that is the sphere in which God’s rule is acknowledged (Dan 2:44; 4:24-27; 7:13-14). The Messiah had come to usher in the age of righteousness, and to subdue Israel’s enemies; but tragically Israel did not repent and did not recognize and accept Him as her King — thus the earthly kingdom was postponed. The spiritual kingdom, however, does exist in the hearts of those who have placed their trust in Jesus as King. Though He is not ruling the nation of Israel and the world as He one day will, He is ruling in the hearts of those who belong to Him by faith. The word “repent” in Greek (metanoeo) essentially means to turn around, to change direction, to change the mind and will from what is wrong to what is right, to turn from darkness to light, to turn from sin to righteousness, and to turn from a life of self-rule to a life of God-rule — by the way, it is inward sorrow over one’s sinfulness that leads to a change of thinking, desire and behavior. The apostle Paul said, “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor 7:9-10) — thus repentance can also be rendered “conversion.”
The “darkness” in which people live is the “darkness of an evil heart” (Mt 4:16-17; Jn 3:19-21). Jesus exhorts us to turn from that darkness so that the light can shine in us (Mt 5:14-16; Col 1:13-14). Thus repentance means to change the way we view life, and to turn around and seek a new way of living; such a radical change of heart always results in a change of behavior (Mt 3:8; Eph 5:8-9). Repentance has always been the first demand of the Gospel, the first requirement of salvation. Since only repentant people worship the heavenly King of glory, only those who are repentant become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God — incidentally, the first phrase emphasizes the kingdom itself, and the second the sovereign Ruler of the kingdom (Mt 19:23-24). It should be noted, there is both an outer and an inner aspect of the kingdom, and both are spoken of in the gospels; the outer aspect is visible (even though we are not able to perfectly assess it – Mt 13:24-30), and the inner aspect is invisible (it is internal, within you, in the heart – Lk 17:21; Rom 14:17). The Kingdom of God in our hearts is the reign of God in Christ destroying all that is hostile to His divine rule in us. By way of contrast, the kingdom of this world is under the control of the arch enemy of God, Satan (Mt 4:8; Eph 2:2; 6:12), and is opposed to the rule of God (2 Cor 4:4; Rev 11:15); as such, it must be conquered (Eph 6:10-13).
What is this thing called “the Gospel”? Our English word “Gospel” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word god-spell, meaning God-story, and is the usual translation of the NT Greek word euaggelion. The word in early Greek signified “a present given to one who brought good tidings.” In later Greek, however, it was employed for the good tidings themselves. Though the word euaggelion rarely signifies “good tidings” outside of early Christian literature, it is found more than 75 times in the NT with the specific connotation of “good news.” Its true significance is therefore not found by probing its linguistic background, but by observing its specific Christian usage. Seven centuries before the birth of Christ the prophet Isaiah spoke of a redeemer who would come to Zion preaching “good news to the afflicted” and “liberty to the captives” (Is 61:1-2). “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news of happiness,” was the word of the Lord to Isaiah (Is 52:7; Lk 2:10-11). Jesus Himself saw in these prophecies a description of His own mission (Lk 4:18-21; 7:22).
Mark wrote that Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the “Gospel of God” (Mk 1:14), and Matthew in all but one instance describes the euangelion as “the Gospel of the Kingdom” (Mt 4:23; 24:14). The phrase “preaching the good news of the Kingdom” is twice used in summary state- ments of the ministry of Jesus (Mt 4:23; 9:35). This is the Gospel that is to be preached throughout the entire world prior to the consummation of the age (Mt 24:14; Mk 16:15). Euangelion is a favorite of the apostle Paul — he used it 60 times in his writings — his ministry was distinctively that of the propagation of the Gospel; it was unto this Gospel that he was set apart (Rom 1:1; Eph 3:7). Paul’s divine commission had created such a great sense of urgency in him, that it made him cry out, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). For the sake of the gospel Paul was willing to become all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22-23); no sacrifice was too great, because eternal issues were at stake. Remember, to those who believed, it was the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). For Paul the euangelion was preeminently the “Gospel of God” (Rom 1:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Th 2:2, 8, 9) which proclaims the redemptive activity of God in Christ (1 Cor 9:12; 2 Cor 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal 1:7; 1 Th 3:2; Rom 15:16, 19). In short, the word euangelion was used to signify the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that was preached by His disciples (1 Cor 15:1-4), as well as the good news of the establishment of the Kingdom of God (Mt 4:23; 9:35).
“God’s Kingdom” was the dominant theme of Jesus’ teaching. He began His public ministry by proclaiming, “The time has come... the Kingdom of God is at hand... repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15; Mt 3:2; 4:17, 23; 6:10; 10:7; Lk 4:43). Graeme Goldsworthy, in his book Gospel and Kingdom, defines the Kingdom as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule”(p. 47). God longs for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with Him; this is life as it was designed to be lived. To live under God’s rule simply means to enjoy God’s blessing; the two go together. That is what we see at creation in the Garden of Eden... until the fall. The consequences of man’s disobedience were devastating; everything was effected; but God in His great love promised to put things right again and re-establish His Kingdom on earth (a realm in which His righteousness rules). So the Gospel is about God’s plan of salvation through His Son Jesus. Paul said, “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son” (Gal 4:4); so the waiting was over, God’s King had come to establish God’s Kingdom. It was by His death that Jesus was able to make every- thing right, and completely restore God’s Kingdom. Because He did not completely finish that work when He was here on earth, He proclaimed (before ascending into heaven) that He would return one day to do so. The period between His ascension and His coming again is the time in which we now live — the Bible calls it “the last days.” One day Christ will return, and those who have placed their trust Him for salvation will join Him in a perfect new creation. The book of Revelation describes a fully restored Kingdom — God’s people (from all nations)... in God’s place (heaven)... under God’s rule... enjoying God’s eternal blessings. Incidentally, nothing can stop or spoil this happy ending (Is 14:24; 25:1; 40:8; 46:10-11; 55:11; Ps 33:11; Acts 5:39; Rev 21).
The Kingdom that will be established on earth when Jesus returns, will be administered by all those whom God has granted immortality. Thus the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus constantly spoke, is a real Kingdom, a divine government on earth, to be administered by Christ and His saints, with a renewed Jerusalem as its capital (as foreseen by all the OT prophets – Ps 2; Rev 21:1-5; Lk 19:11). It is for this Kingdom (the rule of God) that we as Christians are to pray (Mt 6:10). Jesus promised His disciples and all future believers positions of rulership with Him in the coming Kingdom (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:28; 1 Cor 6:2; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26; 3:21; 5:10; 20:1-4). The Bible says, those who are of God shall inherit the earth and reign upon it (Mt 5:5; Rev 5:10) — this reign shall be a reign of righteousness, and the world will experience perfect peace under the government of the Messiah (Is 9:6-7; 11:1-9; Zech 14:9; Mic 4:7). Therefore the object of the Christian life is not to disappear at the moment of death and relocate to another world (as some think), rather it is to participate through a future resurrection from the dead, in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
What exactly is “the message” that Christians are to proclaim to the world? Ravi Zacharias addresses this issue in his book Jesus Among Other Gods. Before expanding on the message, let me first give a little background on Ravi to better help you understand the context from which he approached this subject. He was raised a nominal Christian in India; though he was influenced by Christendom, there was very little emphasis on the person of Christ Himself. Essentially he was raised in a culture of Hinduism with its 330 million gods, Buddhism, Islam and Atheism. The Hindu world focuses on living a good life, karma and an endless number of reincarnations (though this is reason for optimism, multiple lives means going through multiple lifetimes of suffering and death)... the Buddhist world also believes in karma and storing up sufficient merit for a better incarnation; their focus is to not be attached to this world — that is the major hurdle before them (this is done by following the Eightfold Path). It should be noted, Buddhists do not posit the existence of a supreme God (the spiritual realm is simply made up of similar beings who have reached higher levels of blissfulness and nirvana)... the Islamic world is essentially one of performing various religious practices in obedience to Allah; the God of Islam is basically one who transcends the created order, with very little emphasis being placed on His immanence or active involvement in the world (nothing remotely close to that of Christianity). The basis for ultimate judgment in Islam, is a sincere submission to Allah’s will and the five core practices of Islam (confession, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage), so the central question for the Muslim is this: Did he/she recognize God alone and endeavor to live by Allah’s commands? Such was the multifaceted religious society in which Ravi grew up.
Ravi Zacharias believes the Western world is increasingly “rejecting” the claims of Christ, and the existence of God, because they are not able to reconcile “how a so-called good God can let bad things happen to good people” and “how a good God can let evil exist?” Obviously, those are daunting questions (particularly to the western mind). Ravi explains it this way: People need to remember that everybody needs to answer these questions (not just the Christian)... the Hindu... the Buddhist... the Muslim... the Atheist... and the Skeptic — they all need to address these questions. By the way, when a person says there is too much evil in this world, they are making the assumption that there is such a thing as a “moral law” on the base of which to differentiate between good and evil. And when they posit such a thing as a moral law, they must posit the existence of a “moral lawgiver,” and that is whom the skeptic is trying to disprove; hence, if there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no moral law... and if there is no moral law, there is no such thing as good & evil. So what becomes of these questions? To raise such questions actually posits or assumes the existence of God. What the questioner must remember is that raising such questions does not disprove the existence of God (as many Western minds ignorantly assume), it only necessitates the existence of God; because without God, good and evil do not actually exist. Thus the answer of God in the Christian faith is supremely unique.
Within the Christian world view, there is a plethora of evidence as to how Jesus defends the reality of evil and the reality of good. Ravi Zacharias says, when we got to the cross, we see the two converge — evil in the heart of man, and goodness in the heart of God. That convergence in the cross of Jesus Christ is so unique that it prompted Mahatma Gandhi (Hindu guru of India) to say this: “Outside the cross [of Christ], I do not know where else something so unique could be given as an answer.” Now, if evil around us bothers us, then we must ask the question — “Does the evil within us bother us?” And for that indwelling evil, only Christ has the answer. How wonderful to know that when Jesus Christ speaks to you and to me, He enables us to understand ourselves, to die to ourselves because of the cross, and brings the real self to birth. When we are crucified with Christ, we live, yet not us, but Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20). God retains the individuality and the identity, but brings it to fruition in our identity in the person of Christ. The uniqueness of Christianity is “becoming one with God” through the cross of Christ. No other religion offers anything like that. That should explain why the forgiveness and love and grace of God are the very essence of the Christian faith.
As Ravi Zacharias states, there are four fundamental questions regarding life that we all need to answer. Every person who thinks has asked these questions... and they all boil down to this — origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. The questions can be posited thus:
1. How did I come into being? — origin
2. What brings life meaning? — meaning
3. How do I know right from wrong? — morality
4. Where am I headed after I die? — destiny
When you take the answers of Christ to those four questions, says Ravi, there is no parallel that correspondingly brings true answers to those questions. And when you put the four questions together, there is no other world view that brings such a coherent set of answers that are applicably true to each of us as individuals. The person of Christ is so unique that no honest seeker can deny it, once he has looked at God’s answers to these questions.
Will Campbell in his autobiography “Brother to a Dragonfly,” recalls how his childhood friend P. D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long fancy explanation — “I’m not too bright,” he told his friend, “so keep it simple... in ten words or less, what is the Christian message?” Will responded: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway!” Obviously that’s a pretty crass way of stating it, but it did resonate with his friend. Perhaps the way western society has watered down the word “sin” makes it significantly less offensive than it really is — the word sin today just seems to imply behaviors that are mere mistakes. The reality is, we are not just mistake prone as human beings... our nature is totally corrupt and sinful to the core! The word “evil” today is probably be a better description of our condition (being as society has not yet watered down its meaning). The good news is this, even though we all suffer from a pervasive sin problem... God still loves us!” Probably the most profound delusion we suffer from as human beings is that “we don’t think we are really all that bad!” (and that includes believers). Obviously many have trouble with the Bible’s definition of the human condition (including believers), but rather than continuing to further expand upon the problem of sin in this study, let me simply encourage you to read another study I did called “The Game Changer” — it’s an enlightening study on the essence of our human condition. At this point, let’s return to the discussion Campbell and his friend were having — eventually they had an extended conversation regarding his definition of Christianity, and though the end result of their discussion was not disclosed, one thing that grew out of it was this...
The ministry “Christian Century” invited some authors to try their hand at summarizing the Christian message. They were instructed to proclaim the gospel in a maximum of seven words and expand on their statement in a few sentences. It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few seconds — How would you describe the essence of Christianity? This exercise can have very practical benefits. Christian leaders need to have what business consultants call an “elevator speech” — a quick way to sum up what’s distinctive and compelling about Christianity. Campbell clearly presented a pithy version of the good news, and it began by emphasizing the bad news — but it is bad news that occasions a longing for the good news. The other respondents were not so blunt in diagnosing the human condition, and many seemed determined to make grace, not sin, the prominent feature; nevertheless, they all acknowledged sin in some way. The human propensity to mess things up and long for another chance was central (though implicit) in a number of them. It might be a worthwhile exercise for you to come up with your own summary. Personally, for years I simply emphasized the fact that my life “lacked meaning & purpose,” and that I was just “empty” inside (that was the essence of my testimony), but after rethinking that position, the truth of the matter is, “sin and self” was my problem. I find it interesting that most Christians find it difficult to admit that they are really sinful. Why is this? There is still a proud beast that lives in our souls — the old sin disposition is still very much alive. By the way, here are a few other summarizations to the Christian message that were offered to “Christian Century” —
• Donald W. Shriver— “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.”
• Bevery Robers Gaventa — “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.”
• Martin E. Marty — “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.”
• Mary Karr — “We are the church of infinite chances.”
• Brian McLaren — He highlighted “the call to reconciliation.”
• Carol Zaleski — She celebrated “the end of captivity.”
• Ellen Charry — She reported that “the wall of hostility has come down.”
• Lamin Sanneh — He quoted Paul, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world” (2 Cor 5:19)
• Bill McKibben — He opted for the “Golden Rule.”
• Scott Cairns — “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity” (Eastern Orthodox view of Gospel)
• Walter Brueggemann — “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.”
• Craig Barnes — “We live by grace.”
Paul Tillich is generally considered one of America’s preeminent, influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and then University Professor at Harvard University. He has also authored a number of books. In his essay from “Theology of Culture,” he addresses the issue of how the message should be focused for the people of our culture and time, not what the message should be — his primary concern in this essay was how the Gospel should be communicated. Tillich begins with the following statement — “To communicate the Gospel means putting it before the people so that they are able to decide for it or against it.” The Christian Gospel, he says, is a matter of decision; it is to be accepted or rejected. All that we can do is make possible a genuine decision. He goes on to say, that we who communicate the Gospel must understand that we all participate in human existence; as such, we must speak about the anxiety of being finite,subject to fate an destiny, and having to die. Furthermore we must speak about our feelings of guilt as an implication of human existence. So the first thing we must do is to communicate the Gospel as “a message of man understanding his own predicament” — and in doing so, we must show the structures of anxiety, of conflicts, and of guilt. These structures are effective because they mirror what we are, and they exist in all people — so if we bring these structures before them, then it is like simply holding up a mirror in which they see themselves. Tillich describes this as the humbling risk we must take... it is very humbling knowing we can know who we are, even though we do not know who we can become.
Tillich goes on to say that we can speak to people only if we “participate in their concern” by sharing in it, not by being condescending. Our answers must have as many forms as there are questions and situations, individual and social. Because the doctrine of sin has been under such attack during the past 150 years, perhaps it is wiser to speak of it today in terms of concupiscence, the self-elevation of man and its negative consequences (self-hate, hostility, pride, despair, and self-seclusion), and the concept of estrangement from oneself. A profound insight has been developed in modern literature namely, that one of the fundamental expressions of sin is to make the other person into an object (a thing) — this is perhaps the greatest temptation in an industrial society in which everybody is brought into the process of mechanical production and consumption, and even the spiritual life in all its forms is commercialized and subjected to the same process. Tillich goes on to say that...
The essence of salvation is that we become a “New Reality.” Christianity is not a set of prohibitions and commands, and neither is it about making man better and better. Christianity is the message of a New Reality which makes the fulfillment of our essential being possible. Such being transcends all special prohibitions and commands by one law (which is not a law), namely love. The healing power of medicine has helped us to rediscover the meaning of grace in our theology — you cannot help people who are in psychosomatic distress by telling them what to do; you can only help them by giving them something — by accepting them. Essentially people must feel like they have been accepted, because only then can they accept themselves. That was the plight of Luther in his struggle against the distorted Roman Church which believed “that men make themselves acceptable first, and then God would accept them.” But it has always been the other way around — first you must be accepted... then you can accept yourself! And that means you can be healed! Illness, in the largest sense of body, soul, and spirit, is estrangement... and Christ is the healing power that overcomes estrangement!
The Church is not organized religion... it is not hierarchical authority... it is not a social organization — though it is all of this, it is primarily a group of people who express a “New Reality” by which they have been grasped. Only this is what the Church really means. It is the place where the power of the New Reality, which is Christ, moves into us and is continued by us. It can be said, then, that the Church is the place where an act of love overcomes the demonic force that makes people into things. The Church is the place where the New Being is real, and the place where we can go to introduce the New Being to reality. It is the continuation of the New Being, behind which is the Divine Being (that power of being that conquers non-being). It is eternity conquering temporality; it is grace conquering sin; it is ultimate reality conquering doubt. And out of this New Reality we can get the courage to affirm being. The New Being includes a new approach to God which is possible even to those who are under the despair of doubt and don’t know the way out.
In closing, let me exhort those of you who are ministers of the Gospel to be careful not to place a “stumbling block” in the path of those who listen to our words, so as to cause them to decide to reject Christ. Though Christ Himself is indeed a stumbling block to many (1 Cor 1:23), let us exercise extreme care that we not add another one by inadequately communicating the Gospel.
In addition to the various individuals stated in the foregoing study, some of the themes and material was taken from the following authors and sources —
Walter A. Elwell — Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker Academic, 2001, pp. 708-711 and pp. 896-897
Everett F. Harrison — Editor, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology. Baker Book House, 1960, pp. 708-711 and pp. 254-257
Ravi Zacharias — Jesus Among Other Gods, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000
Vaughan Roberts — God’s Big Picture, InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 21-25
Graeme Goldsworthy — Gospel and Kingdom, Exeter: Paternoster, 1981, p. 47
Paul Tillich — Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 210-213
Erik Raymond — The Essence of the Christian Message, Website: www.ordinarypastor.com
Anthony Buzzard — The Simplicity of the Christian Message, Website: http://focusonthekingdom.org
David Heim — The Gospel in Seven Words, Website: www.christiancentury.org