The briefest Gospel.
It seems that when you encounter the Gospel as it is presented today it comes shrouded in theories of atonement and tightly wrapped up in peoples’ world views and various ways of restricting God’s grace. Sometimes it comes as several things that one must do or not do or so many other things that one must believe or avoid all reflecting a specific theological orientation. Often it is presented as a choice to be made after a recitation and interpretation of a series of carefully selected Bible verses. It might come drowning in emotionality or presented as a series of irrefutable laws or the proposition of a logical syllogism. You can find Jesus being marketed as one would a commodity—with nothing of the context of his life or the content of his ministry and message. The good news is that when we intentionally look for it in Scripture we can find it; tucked away in Paul’s pastoral letters, in Luke presentation of the early church in Acts, and in the books we call Gospels.
In II Timothy (1:6-10), one of my all time favorite passages, Paul writes: “…stir into flame the gift of God which is within you through the laying on of my hands. For the spirit that God gave us is no craven spirit, but one to inspire strength, love, and self-discipline. So never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but take your share of suffering for the sake of the Gospel, in the strength that comes from God. It is he who brought us salvation and called us to a dedicated life, not for any merit of ours but of his own purpose and his own grace, which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity but has now at length been brought fully into view by the appearance on earth of our Savior Jesus Christ.” And then, in the last line of this paragraph, we find the gospel: “For he has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”
Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, is quoted in Acts 2:24: “But God raised him to life again, setting him free from the pangs of death, because it could not be that death should keep him in its grip.”
This is the really good news. Even in Romans 8, after a long dissertation of Paul’s on the connection of sin and death, he finally concludes: “…if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give new life your mortal bodies through the indwelling Spirit.”
The primary emphasis of Roman Catholic theology is the birth of Jesus in a theology of the incarnation. The ever-virgin Mary gave birth to the perfect child. That is not to say that Roman Catholic theology neglects the death of Jesus. The ubiquitous crucifix found in Catholic churches, hospitals and homes, and on the end of rosaries, is witness to that. But the primary emphasis to explain Jesus as the God-man has been on the incarnational birth of Jesus.
Protestant theology, on the other hand, has emphasized the death of Jesus. The focus is on the cross and the sacrificial blood of Jesus. Taking its clue from the Pauline corpus and its attachment to Genesis 3 the Reformation emphasis was and is on “the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ as an expiatory action that propitiated God’s judgment on humanity and reconciles sinners to God so that they may be declared justified”. Imagine it, some actually call that the “simple plan of salvation”.
If the incarnation and crucifixion were the only historical acts of God on our behalf the gospel would cease to be “good news”. If the gospel narrative was only that “Jesus was born. Jesus died. God said to us: ‘There is the remedy! I came. I fixed the problem. Now you are fixed. The slate is wiped clean. Now, go and do a better job next time.'”, well, that is not good news! If Christian theology doesn’t get beyond the cradle and the cross, then all we have to offer is a static history lesson with no contemporary consequence. If Christian theology does not get beyond an apologetic defense for what “was”, and a longing expectation for what “will be,” then it becomes what one writer decried as an ‘irrelevancy of temporalized “bookends” that fails to address what “is” and “should be”’.
Only in the resurrection do we have the message that we have been given God’s life in order that we might be as God intended us to be; in order that the resurrection life of the risen Lord Jesus might become the essence of spiritual life of the Christian; in order that we might live by Christ’s life and the expression of Christ’s character. The resurrection is the positive provision of life in Christ Jesus around which all other theological topics must be oriented.
H.A. Williams explains that, “Resurrection, at least in Western Christendom, has invariably been described as belonging to another time and place. The typical emphasis has been upon the past and future, a past and future with which our connection can only be theoretical… So, for example, a book about the resurrection is naturally assumed to be a discussion either about what can be held to have happened in the environs of Jerusalem and Galilee on the third day after Jesus was crucified or about what can be held to be in store for us after our own death.”
Another writer, Walter Kunneth writes that: “The raising of the Christ is the act of God, whose significance is not to be compared with any event before or after. It is the primal datum of theology, from which there can be no abstracting, and the normative presupposition for every valid dogmatic judgment and for the meaningful construction of a Christian theology.”
When resurrection is considered in terms of past and future, it is robbed of its impact on the present. That is why for most of the time resurrection means little to us. It is remote and isolated. It may even be something of an embarrassment to our sophisticated world view. And this banishing of resurrection to past and future is a neat trick…. It saves us from a lot of reality and delivers us from a great deal of fear. It has, in short, the advantage of safeguarding us from life itself.
How could it have been that a little group of ordinary, fallible and blundering people became the nucleus of a movement that turned the world upside down? They had no official backing, no impressive credentials and none of them were commanding personalities. Quite the opposite. It was simply that the unearthly power which at the first had brought creation into being had inaugurated a new creation in the Resurrection of Christ. It laid hold of them and re-fashioned their lives.
The resurrection was the very core of the apostolic teaching. It was the theme of every Christian sermon; it was the master-motive of every act of Christian evangelism. Those first Christians never preached the resurrection simply as Jesus’ escape from the grave. They always proclaimed it as the living God in action.
Those early evangelists never made the mistake of regarding the Resurrection as an addendum to the scheme of salvation, a providential divine afterthought, a codicil to the divine last will and testament. The God the apostles worshipped was the God of the Resurrection. The Gospel they preached was the overpowering, magnificent good news of the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus is not an historical event of yesteryear nor an anticipation of some life in the future, it is the essence of the vital restoration of humanity in the present.
Apostolic voices were not concerned with proofs and theories of survival. Proclaiming the Resurrection meant telling people that the power that was strong enough to bring Jesus from the grave was available to them not only at the hour of their death, but available here and now. The faith of Christianity continues to be a message not merely of what “has been” and “will be”; it is the message of what “is”, the vital dynamic of the resurrected Christ who restores the whole of creation.
The Resurrection was the beginning of a new era for the universe, the decisive turning-point for all humanity. Its’ heralds were not merely preaching it as a fact: they were living in it as in a new country.
The Resurrection is the basis of everything that can legitimately be called “Christian.” It is only by the indwelling activity of the risen Lord Jesus that the dynamic life of Christ continues to effect Christianity. Apart from the Resurrection there is no Christianity. Apart from the Resurrection there is no gospel. Apart from the Resurrection there is no spiritual life. Apart from the Resurrection there is no salvation. Only by the power of the Resurrection is there righteousness, holiness and godliness. Only by the power of the Resurrection does Christian living exist. Only in the power of the Resurrection can we know hope.