These wonderful excerpts from a sermon on 1 Peter 1:1-12 and 1:22-2:12 were given in “The Spurgeon Fellowship Journal – Spring 2008.” I appreciate the wonderful abilities that Tim Keller has to explain, elucidate, and illuminate on the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is great food for thought here, and wonderful implications for living out the gospel in ministry – enjoy! – Dr. David P. Craig
Tim Keller on Gospel-Centered Ministry
I am here to talk to you about what ministry shaped by the gospel, profoundly shaped by the gospel, really looks like . . .
In this letter, Peter was not writing to the same type of situation Paul addressed in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul was writing into a situation where there were doctrinal fractions, divisions, and party divisiveness . . . Peter was speaking to a persecuted church – a church which was both passively and actively persecuted . . . they were being beset by a culture around them with very different values that they do not know how to relate to. So, of course, you can never divide the doctrinal from the practical issues. However, I would say that Peter here was less concerned about expounding on the content of the gospel as Paul was in 1 Corinthians 15. I’ll show how the gospel should shape the way in which we live, our ministry, and how the church operates as a community.
When I was looking through 1 Peter 1 and 2, I found seven features that Peter uses to describe the gospel . . . Since everything in these seven points has already been explicated in the previous sermon, I am simply going to draw out the implications for ministry. I am going to read a nice long section: 1 Peter 1:1-12, 1:22-2:12. Chapters one and two are remarkable at giving you all the features of the gospel and helping us to understand the ministry implications:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: may grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith— more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
I hate to do what I am about to do, which is a “fly-over.” I hate to go by some of these verses. These verses are deep wells, as we know. I know at least three or four men of God who would probably base their entire lives on one or two of these verses. I thought of Ed Clowney as I went by verses 2 and 9. Nevertheless, we are here for an overview. And therefore, I would suggest to you that Peter shows us in these two chapters that there are seven features of the gospel that we have to tease out of the ministry. I will say them here so you can write them down.
The gospel is: (1) historical, (2) doxological, (3) Christocentrical, (4) personal, (5) cultural, to quote Don Carson, (6) “massively transformational,” and (7) wonderful. Each one has a ministry implication.
(1) The gospel is historical . . . The word “gospel” shows up twice. Gospel actually means “good news.” You see it spelled out a little bit when it says “he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Why do we say that the gospel is good news? Some years ago, I heard a tape series I am sure was never put into print by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones. It was an evening sermon series on 1 Corinthians 15. He clarified how the Gospel is based on historical events in how the religion got its start. He said there was a big difference between advice and news. The Gospel, he would say, is good news, but not good advice. Here’s what he said about that: “Advice is counsel about something that hasn’t happened yet, but you can do something about it. News is a report about something that has happened which you can’t do anything about because it has been done for you and all you can do is to respond to it.”
So he says think this out: here’s a king, and he goes into a battle against an invading army to defend his land. If the king defeats the invading army, he sends back to the capital city messengers, envoys, and very happy envoys. He sends back good newsers. And what they come back with is a report. They come back and they say: It’s been defeated and it’s been all done. Therefore respond with joy and now go about your lives in this peace which has been achieved for you. But if he doesn’t defeat the invading army, and the invading army breaks through, the king sends back military advisers and says . . . “Marksmen over here and the horseman over there, and we will have to fight for our lives.”
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones says that every other religion sends military advisers to people. Every other religion says that if you want to achieve salvation, you will have to fight for your life. Every other religion is sending advice saying, “here are the rites, here are the rituals, here’s the transformation of the consciousness and here are the laws and the regulations. Marksmen over here and horsemen over there and we are going to fight for our lives.” We send heralds; we send messengers and not military advisers. Isn’t that clarifying? It’s just incredibly clarifying. And it’s not like there’s nothing to do about it, my goodness. Both the messenger and the military adviser get an enormous response. One is a response of joy and the other one is a response of fear. All other religions give advice and they drive everything you do with fear . . . as you know, when you hear the gospel, when you hear the message that it’s all been done for you, it’s a historical event that has happened, your salvation is accomplished for you, what do you want to do? You
want to obey the Ten Commandments, you want to pray, and you want to please the one that did this for you.
If, on the other hand, military advisers say you have to live a really good life if you want to get into heaven, what do you do? You want to pray and you want to obey the Ten Commandments. It looks the same, doesn’t it? But for two radically different reasons: One is joy and the other one is fear. In the short run, they look alike. But in the long run, over here we have burn out and self-righteousness and guilt and all sorts of problems. And that’s fascinating.
But having said that, what’s the ministry implication? The ministry implication is this: the significance of preaching, of proclamation, of declarative preaching, is irreplaceably central in Gospel ministry. Declarative preaching is irreplaceably central.
Why? If basically we are sending people “how to”, if we are saying here’s the “how to” to live the right way, if that’s the primary message, I am not sure words are necessarily the best thing to send. You want to send a model. If I were to teach an advanced seminar on preaching (and I never have) I would make everybody read CS Lewis’ Studies in Words. It’s amazing because we are wordsmiths and he shows you how important it is to craft your words properly. The last chapter is called “At the Fringe of Language” and he says language can’t do everything. He says that one of the things language cannot do is describe complex operations. On the other hand, when it comes to describing how, to explain to somebody that Joshua Chamberlain, without any ammunition, charged down Little Round Top in an incredible, risky adventure at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, and as a result changed the course of history. You don’t show people that, you tell them that. It’s something that happened, you describe it. You tell them that. If you are going to give them how-tos, very often what you want is modeling and dialogue, action and reflection and so forth.
Therefore, if you believe the gospel is good news, declarative preaching (verbal proclaiming) will always be irreplaceably central to what we do. However, if you subscribe to the assertion that the gospel is simply good advice on how to live a life that changes people and connects to God . . . dialogue would be alright. Stories and modeling and reflection would be more important. In other words, you would believe what some people would quip: “proclaim the gospel, use words if necessary”. You’ve probably heard that. That shows, I think, that they don’t quite understand what the gospel is all about.
(2) The gospel is Doxological. The purpose of the gospel is not merely forgiveness of individuals, but to bring people to full flourishing through glorious worship. Now where do you see that?
Karen Jobs, in her commentary of 1 Peter, points out what all commentators point out, but I like the way she titled it. Chapter 1 verse 3 to verse 12 is all one sentence in Greek. Therefore, there is a main clause. All that follows are subordinate clauses to the main clause. Here is the main clause: “Praise be to the God and Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”. She entitled the whole section, (and that’s what I like about it), “Doxology and Basis for the Christian Life,” because everything in there, even the new birth, is to the praise of the glory of God. Now why is this so important?
One of the most life-changing and especially ministry-changing things in my life was reading Martin Luther’s “Larger Catechism” a few years ago. In “Larger Catechism,” he lays out his understanding of the Ten Commandments. Luther says that the first commandment is first because (he thinks) all the other commandments are based on it. In other words, when you break any of the commandments two through ten, you have already broken or are in the process of breaking commandment one. So, Martin Luther says you don’t lie unless you have already made something else more than God your functional savior; something else is your greatest joy. Why do you lie? You lie either because the approval of other people is more important than God’s or because money is more than the security you have in God. So you wouldn’t lie unless you already have first made something else more important than God in your life . . . something more fundamental to your meaningless in life or happiness or joy. And then Luther went one step further and said underneath every sin is idolatry in general. And underneath every idolatry in general is always some form of work-righteousness in general, in particular some kind of self-salvation project . . . whenever you make something more important than God, that thing is essentially a savior of your making.
Martin Luther says of the first commandment, you have to believe the Gospel. You can’t look to anything else for your justification . . . you have to believe in the Gospel and you can’t look to anything else for your justification . . . If he were here today, he would say that underneath everything from eating disorders to racism is a self-salvation project, a failure to believe in the Gospel, and is some form of idolatry. You have either made an idol of thinness . . . or of your race and your blood . . . your heart’s imagination is captured. Your heart is essentially adoring and dotting on something other than God . . .
Some years ago . . . I was talking to a young woman, a fifteen year-old girl in my church in Virginia . . . she was really struggling and said this: “I really understand this, I am a Christian. I have clothed myself in the righteousness of Christ, I have a guaranteed place in heaven, and I am the delight of the Father. But what good is that when the boys in high school won’t even look at me?” She was absolutely honest. You might say: is she even a Christian? Of course she was a Christian, as far as I can tell. If I look back on it and she looks back on it, there have been changes. Here’s the point: boys were on video, and God was on audio . . . if you have an audio and video happening at the same time, you know which one wins. Right?
Jonathan Edwards would say that the ultimate purpose of preaching is not just to make the truth clear, but also to make it real. Of course for it to be real, it’s got to be clear. If it’s confused . . . sorry, no worship happens. But you can’t stop there. We are, I think, afraid of the spirit of the age, of subjectivism, because we believe in objective truth. As a result, our expository messages are too cognitive. Jonathan Edwards did not tell stories, he was incredibly rational. But he was also unbelievably vivid. He was incredibly logical, and precise, and clear because he knew that unless the truth is clear, it will never be real. It’s got to be crystal clear, amazingly clear. But it also has to be vivid.
I don’t think this is going to be very easy. I see the narrative preaching approach which works superficially on people’s emotions. And you have a kind of an expository preaching that tends to be like a Bible commentary that works more on the head. But the heart is not exclusively the emotions, and certainly not just the intellect . . . Therefore, the preaching has to be gripping . . .
What I love about Edwards is how incredibly rational he is, how logical and persuasive he is and yet at the same time, so vivid. You go into his messages and there’s the sun, the moon, and the stars. There are mountains and dandelions . . . it’s just astounding . . . he understood that telling stories to tweak the emotions, is like putting dynamite on the face of the rock, blowing it up and shearing off the face but not really changing the life.
One the other hand, if you bore down into it with the truth, and put dynamite in there, if you are able to preach Christ vividly, and you are able to preach the truth practically and you are able to preach it out of a changed life and heart in yourself (which obviously isn’t the easiest thing by any means) then when there is an explosion, it really changes people’s lives. I don’t think we have the right end of the stick in general, either in the movement of the people who are working towards telling stories because they want to get people emotionally or working towards giving people the truth because they want to be sure that people are doctrinally sound.
The Doctor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was not a touchy-feely type . . . based on his understanding of Edwards, he asserts that the first and primary object of preaching is not to give information. It is, as Jonathan Edwards said, to produce an impression. This is the Doctor, now. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. Edwards, in my opinion, understood the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information . . . while you write your notes, you may be missing something that will impact your spirit.
As preachers, we must not forget this. We should tell our people to read books at home and to take notes at home; the business of preaching is to make such knowledge live. Now, by the way, I don’t mind if people are taking notes in my sermons, in the first part of the sermon. But if you are still taking notes at the end of the sermon, I don’t think that I have made it home . . .
Thomas Chalmers puts it like this:
“It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere nature process of natural extinction. At least it is very seldom it is done by the instrumentality of reasoning or by the force of mental determination. What cannot be destroyed however may be dispossessed. One case may be made to give away to another and to lose its power entirely has the reigning affect of the mind. Here’s an example: A youth may cease to idolize sensual pleasure but it is because of the idol of wealth. The desire to make money has gotten ascendancy, so he becomes disciplined. But the love of money might have ceased to be in his heart if he was draw to ideology and politics. Now he is lorded over by the love of power and moral superiority instead of wealth. But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. The human heart’s desire for one particular object is conquered. But its desire to have some object of adoration is unconquerable. The only way to dispossess the heart of all its affection is by the explosive power of a new one. Thus is it not enough to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections, it is not enough to come forth with the demonstration . . . of the character of their enjoyment, it is not enough to just simply speak the conscience, to speak its follies. Rather, you must seek, as a preacher, every legitimate method of finding access to the heart for the love of Him who is greater than the world.”
(3) The gospel is Christocentrical. The gospel, as Don [D.A. Carson] pointed out, in a certain sense, the gospel is just Jesus. What is the gospel? It is who Jesus is and what He did for us. The Gospel is Jesus. Of course, you see this in 1 Peter 1:10 where it says, “About which salvation the prophets sought out and searched out, prophesying concerning the grace for you; searching for what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ made clear within them, testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that should follow.”
What’s intriguing to me is this: reading in Luke and Acts how Jesus got His disciples together during the forty days before He ascended after He was resurrected. What was He doing? I am sure He was doing more than what we are told. But if you look in Luke 24, it looks like He was giving them a New Testament hermeneutical seminar. This should give professors a lot of hope . . . even Jesus thought running a seminar on hermeneutics was a good idea! If he was running them in those forty days, maybe it is a good idea to run them now. Basically, He was saying that everything in the Old Testament points to Him . . .
He told Cleopas and the other disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room that everything in the Prophets and the Psalms and the Law points to Him. It’s intriguing, we see that in Luke and now here in 1 Peter we have an echo of it. Peter was in on that seminar . . . now he is explaining that concerning this salvation, the salvation of the gospel of Christ, the Prophets had the Holy Spirit in them pointing them towards Jesus . . . Peter is saying what Jesus was saying . . . that everything pointed towards Jesus. Every text in the Old Testament was pointing toward Jesus.
Now my ministry implication is this: The basic subject of every sermon ought to be Jesus, regardless of what passage is at hand. It doesn’t matter whether it is Old or New Testament; it’s got to be about Jesus. By the way, you might say this is only about Old Testament hermeneutics; no, you need to know that my friend Sinclair Ferguson says most evangelical ministers don’t preach Christ. Not only do they not preach Christ in the Old Testament . . . they don’t preach Christ in the New Testament. I will get back to this in a second.
I know this is somewhat of an internal debate here and I’ve got to be careful. I don’t want to be a party guy and say, “I follow Chapell, or I follow Goldsworthy.” And you know there are people who say that you preach everything in the Bible pointing to Jesus and there are other good men that just don’t think that’s right. You shouldn’t preach Christ from Jacob wrestling with God . . . you should preach about wrestling with God in prayer or suffering or something like that. Honestly, I believe those good and sincere men are wrong on the basis of reading the Bible and the understanding of hermeneutics and so on.
But part of this goes back, I remember, some years ago, to when I sat down with my wife. You know what that’s like – on the way home – after the sermon. First you are hoping she will say: “Great sermon, honey.” But if she doesn’t say anything, you fear the worst. I remember one day we really got into it. I said, “Let me ask you, how often do you think it was a great sermon? How many weeks out of the month?” And she said “no more than one in every four or five weeks.” So, we sat down and here’s what she said: “For a good part of your sermon, your sermons are great. They are rational and biblical, and they are exegetical. They show me how I should live, and what I should believe. But every so often – suddenly at the end – Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up, it suddenly becomes not a lecture but a sermon for me, because when you say this is what you ought to do, I think to myself, ‘I know, I know, okay. Now I am a little clearer about it and I am a little more guilty about it. Fine.’ But sometimes you get to the place where you say, ‘This is what you ought to do, though you really probably can’t do it; but there is one who did. And because He did it on our behalf, and because He did it in our place, we believe in Him. We will begin to be able to do it.’” This is true only to the degree that we understand what He did for us. And she says: “That’s different. One time out of four or five, your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up and I want to do that. I have hope. And I begin to see how I can do it.”
I really didn’t understand . . . but basically, now I do. Here’s the thing. Your preaching will never be doxological and it won’t be central unless it is Christocentric. Here’s why: if you tell people they need to be generous, and ask why they aren’t being more generous . . . I happen to know about people being generous. Sometimes you don’t know about the lust in someone’s heart week to week, but you know if people are being generous week to week.
Why aren’t people being more generous? Are they just being sinners? Let’s go back to Martin Luther. Let’s go back to the catechism. If you are not being generous, then there is something going on there, is there not? You are saying your status or your security, which is based on money, is very important to you. You need to be able to buy certain cloths and live in certain circles and go to certain places. Human approval, security, there’s idols underneath the lack of generosity. The money is more than just money. It’s security, it’s significance, it’s status. You’ve got to make more money, and then you will give it away.
How do you do that? You have to show that Jesus Christ is their true wealth. You have to show them what their idols are. You have to get to Jesus. As a result, if you don’t get there, you are going to find that you are wailing on people’s wills. You are beating on wills. Sinclair Ferguson wrote a book . . . called Preaching Christ in the Old Testament. And this is what he says: Not only do most ministers not preach Christ in the Old Testament; they don’t preach Christ from the New Testament. The preacher has looked into the text, even in the New Testament, to find himself and the congregation . . . not to find Christ. You can do this even in the New Testament, in the Gospels. The sermon, therefore, is consequently about the people in the Gospels and not the Christ in that Gospel. The more fundamental issue is this question: What is the Bible really about? Is the Bible basically about me and what I must do or is it about Jesus and what He has done? Is the Bible about the objective and indicative?
Here’s an example. Hermeneutics is important. You can’t just find Jesus in every little twig. And there needs to be a way where you are following the trajectory of the text no matter what that text is to Jesus. You have to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that particular trajectory of the text. You’ve got to be responsible. And yet, like Sinclair said, it’s more like an instinct. It’s not so much just the right hermeneutical principles; it’s an instinct. Do you believe the Bible is basically about you or basically about Him? Is David and Goliath basically about you and how you can be like David and Goliath or about Him, the One that took on the only giants in life who can kill us? You see. And His victory is imputed on us. Who is this all about? That’s the fundamental question.
And when that happens, you start to read the bible anew. Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden. His garden is a much tougher garden and his obedience is imputed on us. Jesus is the true and better Abel, who though innocently slain has blood that cries out: not for our condemnation but for our acquittal. Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answers the call of God, who leaves all the familiar comforts of the world into the void, not knowing where He went. Jesus is the true and better Isaac who is not only offered by his father on the mount but who was truly sacrificed for us all. While God said to Abraham: “Now I know you truly love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” Now we, at the foot of the cross, can say to God: “Now we know you love us because you did not withhold your Son, your only Son, whom you love, from us.”
Jesus is the true and better Jacob, who wrestled and took the blows of justice that we deserved so we like Jacob only receive the wounds of grace that wake us up and disciple us. Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who is at the right hand of the king, and forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his power to save them. Jesus is the true and better Moses, who stands in the gap between the people and the LORD and mediates the new covenant. Jesus is the true and better rock of Moses who struck with the rod of God’s justice now gives us water in the desert. Jesus is the true and better Job, He is the truly innocent sufferer who then intercedes for and saves His stupid friends. Is that a type? That’s not typology. That’s an instinct.
Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory becomes the people’s victory even though they didn’t lift a stone to accomplish it themselves. Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but lost ultimately the heavenly one, who didn’t just risk His life but gave His life, who didn’t say if I perish I perish but when I perish, I perish for them . . . to save my people. Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so we can be brought in. He’s the real Passover Lamb; He’s the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the true lamb, the true life, the true bread. The Bible is not about you. And that’s an instinct.
Until that shows up in your sermons, it will be lectures and not sermons. It won’t be doxological, it won’t be central.
(4) The gospel is personal and individual. Don [D.A. Carson] already said this. In 1 Peter 1 and 2, we see a lot of references to the new birth. What does the new birth mean – think about the metaphor of the birth – you can’t make yourself a Christian? You can make yourself a Buddhist. You can make yourself a Muslim. You can make yourself an Atheist. But you can’t make yourself a Christian. To become a Christian, you have to be converted . . . notice that’s a passive. You don’t convert yourself, something happens to you. Through faith you’re born again. You are confronted with you sin in front of a holy and jealous God. And you see the provision. Now, that’s individual conversion. This is very important, at this moment, in all our lives as Christians, especially in North America, but I am sure in other places as well. There is an erosion in the confidence of the thing that I just said. It is the idea that we have sinned against a holy and jealous God, the wrath of God has to be satisfied, Jesus Christ stood in our place, substitutionary atonement is provided, and when we believe in this, both in His suffering and obedience is imputed to us . . .
J.I. Packer, in his little chapter on grace in Knowing God, said there are two things you have to know in order to understand the concept of grace. Grace isn’t the opposite of Law. First of all, you have to understand how lost you are, how bad you are, how dire your condition is, and how big the debt is. You have to understand that . . .
Now if somebody says, “I believe Jesus died for me, He shed His blood for me and I have given my life to Christ. I accepted Him; I walked forward and invited Him into my life,” but you don’t see any change in that person’s life, you don’t see identify shifting, behavior transformation and joy, what’s the problem? It’s clear that this person doesn’t understand the size of the debt, and therefore the size of the payment . . . Jim Packer used to say to understand grace, and for grace to be transforming, first you have to understand the debt.
The second thing you have to understand, besides the size of the debt, is the magnitude of the provision. There are people who do understand that they are pretty bad. They do understand how flawed they are. They do understand how far short they fall. But they aren’t convinced of the magnitude, sufficiency, freeness, and fullness of the provision. They may only believe that Jesus died the death that we should have died. And maybe they also don’t believe Jesus lived the life that we should have lived . . . And you also see Pharisees – people who are really under the burden of guilt. As a result, they are withdrawn and hostile and moralistic and legalistic. And we look at these two groups of people and the evangelical world is filled with them. Easy-Believeism is really deadly. The Cost of Discipleship book by Bonhoeffer explains why Easy-Believeism was the reason Nazism could come into power. That’s pretty dangerous. Why Easy-Believesim? Why the Moralism? Because they don’t understand the gospel; the old gospel, the historic gospel. The gospel of salvation by grace through faith and the work of Jesus Christ alone, and substitutionary atonement . . . they don’t get it.
So what’s the solution to all the Easy-Believeism? Why is it that we don’t have people living the life they ought to live? Why do we see people culturally withdraw, being really negative and narrow? Because people think the solution is “let’s change the gospel” . . . I can’t imagine that anybody is going to write a hymn that goes like this: “my chains fell off and my heart was free, I rose forth and followed thee.” It’s just not going to happen . . .
(5) The gospel is cultural. What do I mean by cultural? The gospel creates a culture called The Church. It’s not just an aggregation of saved individuals. It’s a culture. The gospel is so different in what it says about God, you, and your standing with God. It’s so identity transforming; every other religion or system motivates you through fear and pride to do the right thing. Only the gospel motivates you through joy . . . the fear and trembling joy . . . the fear of God joy. That doesn’t mean that now we are a bunch of saved individuals with wonderful internal fulfillment. It means that when we get together we want to do things differently. We will do everything differently. The gospel is massively transformational and it creates a counter culture but it also makes us as people relate to the culture around us. And this comes out especially in 1 Peter 2. I will be brief on this but it’s crucial.
Those of us who believe in that individual gospel often miss the communal aspects of the gospel. And in 1 Peter 2:12, he says “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Right before this, he says, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers.” In 1 Peter 1:1, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world.” There’s been a lot of discussion about this. There’s pretty much a consensus. The word “strangers” there means not a tourist who’s just passing through the world briefly, but not a citizen of the world either. Somebody who’s going to be there a long time whose true citizenship and value belongs somewhere else.
Peter makes an amazingly balanced statement and we have to understand this. The gospel, I believe, is radical. The nature of the gospel, on the one hand, does say “you need to engage” to the legalists who are afraid to be polluted by the culture and have the tendency to bolster their fragile sense of righteousness by feeling superior to the sinners around them. On the other hand, the gospel also confronts the secular, irreligious, liberal Christian, who asserts that we really can’t believe in sin or the holiness of God and hell because it offends people.
The gospel says that there are dangers on both sides: cultural accommodation, culture withdrawal. Most of us as Christians today think that most of the dangers today are on one side. We tend to get together with a group of people and say: the main danger, the main danger today is cultural accommodation. On the other side, there are Christians who think the main danger is cultural isolation and irrelevance. No one will see the good deeds of those who withdraw from the world and just hate the world. They don’t glorify God. They are not involved with caring for the poor; they are not engaged. On the other hand, people who accommodate the culture are never persecuted. How do we know that the radical gospel is turning us into a counter-culture for the common good? This counter-culture should be distinct, very different from the side we have inside of us, but a side that shows that we love the world and care about the world. We love our enemies because we are saved by a man who died loving His enemies.
Therefore, this balance is awfully hard to maintain. In Jeremiah 29, the exiles, wanted to stay outside of Babylon and remain pure. The Babylonians wanted to come in to Babylon, and lose their cultural identity. God told them through Jeremiah to do the hardest thing possible. In a sense, He said, “I don’t want you to stay out and be different. I don’t want you to go in and become like them. I want you to go deeply in and stay very different.” And that’s exactly what 1 Peter is talking about. Peter calls them exiles. He knows that the relationship with the culture around them has to be the same relationship as the Jewish exiles had with the Babylonians. We need to seek the welfares of the city. We need to care about that. We need to follow in the footsteps of the one who serves His enemies and forgave His enemies and died for His enemies.
At the same time, we have to be telling people that they are going to hell. Now, generally speaking, by and large, the people who want to be prophetic don’t want to be priestly. The people that want to talk about going to hell do not just sacrificially pour out themselves and say we are going to love you and we are going to serve you, whether you really like what we do or not. And the people who are serving like that are afraid of talking about things like hell or wrath. I don’t know whether we can become a movement of people who understand what 1 Peter is saying: that the gospel creates a counter culture, but a culture that engages the community around us at the expense of persecution . . .
New Yorkers love what the Bible says about forgiveness and reconciliation and caring about the poor. They hate what it says about sex and gender and family. Go on to the Middle East and find people who love what the Bible says about sex and gender and family, but abhor the idea of forgiving people, 70 times 7. I think what 1 Peter 2:12 is trying to say is in every single culture, if you actually live distinctively in an engaged way, you will get persecution AND you will get approval. It will always be different depending on the culture. You will attract people, you will influence people. You will be salt and light and at the same time you will get punched in the mouth.
If you are only getting punched in the mouth, or if you are only getting praise, you are not living the gospel life. Either you are falling into legalism and withdrawal or you are falling into accommodation.
(6) The gospel is massively transformational. When I say the gospel is massively transformational, I am just saying the gospel creates a worldview, a basis of worldview that actually touches every area of life; the way you do business, the way you do art, the way you conduct your family life. What do I mean when I say the gospel is wonderful? 1 Peter 1:12, “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
Angels love to look into the gospel. They never get tired of it. So what does that mean? It means gospel ministry is endlessly creative. It means you can preach the gospel and never have to be afraid of boring people . . .
(7) The gospel is wonderful. Isn’t that amazing? The gospel is not the ABC’s of Christianity, it’s A to Z. It’s not just the elementary and introductory truths. The gospel is what drives everything that we do. The gospel is pretty much the solution to every problem. The gospel is what every theological category should be expounding when we do our systematic theology. It should be very much a part of everything.
Even angels long to look into it. And you should. Let’s pray.
About Dr. Tim Keller: He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of a study of Mark entitled King’s Cross; The Prodigal God based on Luke 15; The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness; Generous Justice; Counterfeit Gods; Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road; The Meaning of Marriage; a wonderful small group study entitled Gospel In Life; and the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God; & the forthcoming Center Church (August 2012). Tim has a passion for Jesus Christ, making the Gospel clear, church planting, and reaching cities for Christ. If you really want to understand the gospel, and how grace applies to all of life I urge you to devour his books and sermons!
|The Goal||The Chief purpose of the Church’s Mission is to bring glory to God. Glory is brought to God when every nation, tribe, and tongue find their delight in worshipping God.The salvation of souls is certainly a goal in mission. When we look at souls, however, we desire not only that they are saved from Hell, but saved for Heaven.||In man-centered missions’ the salvation of the lost is seen as the main purpose of missions. Men and Women are dying without Christ, and so we must bring them the good news.|
|What drives us?||“People deserve to be damned, but Jesus, the suffering Lamb of God, deserves the reward of His suffering” (John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad, p. 39). We go out because we love Christ, and we desire that others would love Him too (Of course we are also to desire that the lost would be saved and that they find true fulfillment in God).||Man deserves Hell. It is often difficult to develop a love for the lost world, as the lost are so unlovely. To love the sinner who hates God and Christians is very difficult.|
|Worship||Worship of the Triune God is both the fuel and the goal of missions. Missions exist because worship does not. In Heaven there will be no need for missions, but we will be worshipping God for eternity (Rev. 5:8-14).||In man-centered missions, worship is often seen as only a secondary activity, not as important as missions.|
|Missions? Or Mission?||There is only ONE mission of the Church: to bring glory to God by proclaiming the Gospel and reaping the harvest of souls which will worship and delight in God forever.||There are numerous missions’ (plural), because there are numerous souls to save.|
|Bricks or Cathedrals?||The big-picture’ bricklayer constantly envisions the cathedral that he has a privilege to play a part in building. So the God-centered missionary envisions the Kingdom of God which he is engaged in building.||The little-picture’ bricklayer only sees the bricks and the mortar. So it is with the man-centered missionary, who when he is rejected or encounters trials or failures, cannot look beyond to see the hand of God in it all.|
|Work with or for Christ||We are not working for Christ as much as we are working with Christ (Matthew 28:20b)||In this view, we focus on our job, what we can, focus on our job, what we can do for Christ.|
|Human Worth||Human worth is not diminished by being God-centered. Instead, it is established. That is, when we focus on God who alone has worth in Himself, and we understand that we are created in His image, this brings us great worth.||Man has no worth in and of himself, and being man-centered in one’s approach to anything is ultimately futile.|
|Humility Vs. Pride||Though he thanks God for the opportunity to serve Him and desires to accomplish great things for God, the God-centered missionary knows that he is replaceable. He is a tool in God’s hand, and God can choose to discard him when God pleases. This brings about humility.||Again, the man-centered missionary is on his own mission or various missions, and without him the venture would fall apart. The tendency is toward a Lone Ranger’ mentality. This fosters pride.|
|Prayer||Colossians 4:2-4. Only God can open man’s hearts, so we must ever be in prayer when we are engaged in mission work. Methods are important, but only after you pray and get the message straight.||Man is pursued with any method or technique that will get him to listen, to ‘open his heart’. The problem, only God can open man’s heart.Prayer takes a back seat so the methods, and the message is often compromised.|
|Evangelism||We focus on our faithfulness to the message, allowing God to change hearts (1 Cor. 3:5-8). We have no reason to boast for our successes’ except to boast in the Lord. Those who reject the Gospel are not rejecting us, but God.A side note: though we must allow the Gospel to be offensive (the innocent God-man dying for wretched sinners), we must not add our own offensiveness to the mix.||The focus is on persuasion & results, because anyone’s heart can be opened ‘if we have the right key’. We are seen as failures if the person doesn’t choose Christ. Method and delivery are exalted above content. Offensive doctrines like ‘eternal judgment’ and ‘total depravity’ are avoided, so as not to drive away seekers. (Obviously there is no true gospel where sin and judgment aren’t preached).|
|Success & Failure||Success is guaranteed, because it is God who will build the church.(1 Cor. 3:4-6, Matt. 16:18)This is not to say that man has no role in God’s mission. Man is used as an instrument in the hands of God.Isaiah 18:6; 2 Corinthians 4:7)Even our failures are used by God as successes (Genesis 50:20; Romans 11:33-36)||Success is questionable, since in missions it is seen as man’s mission, and humans make mistakes.With a man-centered viewpoint, when we succeed, we tend to become prideful, and when we fail, we tend to get defeated.|
|How Great a Sacrifice?||Though to the word it appears as if you have made a great sacrifice, when we focus on the sacrifice that Christ paid for us and the benefits that He gave to us, our sacrifice is minimal (See Matthew 13:44-46).||With the wrong perspective, the sacrifice becomes unbearable, and when too much rejection, and too much hardship comes, the man-centered missionary is more likely to give up.|
Why Jesus Died on the Cross
By Mark Dricoll
It was the ultimate sacrifice.
While on a mission in Baghdad to find an area suitable for housing a generator to provide power to local residents, Army Spc. Ross McGinnis saved the lives of at least four of his fellow soldiers by smothering a grenade thrown into their Humvee with his body. This act of bravery cost him his life, but saved the lives of everyone else inside the Humvee.
Recollecting Spc. McGinnis’ courage, Army Staff Sgt. Newland said that Spc. McGinnis sacrificed his life, “Because we were his brothers. He loved us.” McGinnis was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his act of bravery on the battlefield.
Such acts of valor are uncommon. People typically don’t sacrifice their lives for others, even their loved ones.
While We Were Still Enemies
Though it’s uncommon for someone to sacrifice his or her life for a friend, as we see with the story of Spc. McGinnis, it does happen. But it would be nearly impossible to find examples of people sacrificing their life for an enemy.
Amazingly enough, Jesus made such a sacrifice. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote the following in Romans:
For while were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Regardless if we admit it or not, as sinners, we’re all enemies of God, deserving death and God’s wrath. Yet, Jesus died for us. He made the ultimate sacrifice with his life for you and me.
The Implications of the Cross
Why did Jesus die? Why did he sacrifice his life for his enemies? What did his death on the cross accomplish for you and me?
To understand the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, also known as the atonement, we must connect it to the doctrines of God’s character, God’s creation, human sin, and God’s responses to sin and sinners. To do this, we need to briefly examine eight truths that are absolutely essential to understanding why Jesus died on the cross and what his death means for us.
8 Truths about Jesus and the Cross
1. God is holy and without any sin.
God is holy, without sin, and altogether good. As such, he can’t be in the presence of sin, and as a just God, must judge sin and sinners (Leviticus 11:44; Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:15–16).
2. God made the world and us as good.
Not only is God good, but also everything he made was originally good, including human beings, who were made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:31; Ecclesiastes 7:29).
3. We rebelled against God.
Though God made the world and us as good, our first father and mother rebelled against God, bringing sin into the world. This first sin was trying to become the God of our own lives by doing the one thing we were asked not to do. Ever since, we have sought to remove God from his throne and place ourselves on the throne instead (Genesis 3:1–7; Romans 3:10–12; 5:12).
4. We are sinful.
Despite the fact that God made humans sinless, we’re now sinners both by nature and by choice due to the actions of our first parents. Anyone who says they’re not a sinner is in fact proud, and according to the church father Augustine, pride is the worst of sins and was the cause of Satan’s fall from heaven. Even non-Christians tend to agree that everyone is sinful when they declare often, “Nobody is perfect,” which agrees with Scripture (Psalm 53:3, 6; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8).
5. Sin results in death.
God is the source of all life, and our sin results in our separation from him and death. Just as a piece of technology unplugged from its power source continues to exist but is functionally dead, so are we dead in our sin. The Bible says that because of sin we are physically alive but spiritually dead (Genesis 2:16–17; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13).
6. Jesus is sinless.
Jesus is the only person who has or will ever live without sin (John 8:46; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22).
7. Jesus became our sin.
On the cross as our substitute, Jesus willfully became the worst of what we are. This does not mean that Jesus sinned. Rather, it means that he took our sins on as his responsibility and paid the price for them that we should have paid—death. Martin Luther is one of the few theologians who does not lessen the blow of this truth and calls it the “great exchange.”
Scripture declares that on the cross Jesus exchanged his perfection for our imperfection, his obedience for our disobedience, his intimacy with God the Father for our distance from God the Father, his blessing for our cursing, and his life for our death (Isaiah 53:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
8. Jesus died for us.
The Bible teaches that in perfect justice, because Jesus was made to be our sin, he died for us. The little word “for” has big implications.
In theological terms, it means that Jesus’ death was substitutionary. His death was in our place, solely for our benefit, and without benefit for himself. He took the penalty for our sins so that we don’t have to suffer that penalty. The wrath of God that should’ve fallen on us and the death that our sins merit instead fell on Jesus.
This wasn’t something forced on him. Rather, he took it willingly (John 10:18; Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 12:2). And Scripture repeatedly stresses this point, which theologians call “penal substitutionary atonement” (Isaiah 53:5, 12; Romans 4:25; 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 2:2). The sinless Jesus literally stood in our place to suffer and die for us.
A Final Word
Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for you and me.
Jesus is our Savior who alone can take away the punishment we deserve because of our sin. Jesus is our Savior who died in our place, bearing our punishment and taking away our sin—past, present, and future.
Though we will have consequences for committing sin on earth, Jesus has completely, once and for all, bore the eternal penalty for our sins. This means that through Jesus there are no more penalties that need to be paid for sins we commit. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30; Hebrews 9:25–28).
Jesus has paid the penalty for your sins regardless of what you’ve done. There’s nothing more you have to do on top of what he has already done for you.
Stop working to try and earn God’s love, and start living out of thankfulness that God already loves you and paid the ultimate sacrifice to draw you near to him. Trust Jesus with your life.
SOURCE: pastormark.tv (March 27, 2012)
Eight Summarizing Words on the Gospel
By Dr. D.A. Carson
The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-19)
Many have commented on the fact that the church in the western world is going through a time of remarkable fragmentation. This fragmentation extends to our understanding of the gospel. For some Christians, “the gospel” is a narrow set of teachings about Jesus and his death and resurrection which, rightly believed, tip people into the kingdom. After that, real discipleship and personal transformation begin, but none of that is integrally related to “the gospel.” This is a far cry from the dominant New Testament emphasis that understands “the gospel” to be the embracing category that holds much of the Bible together, and takes Christians from lostness and alienation from God all the way through conversion and discipleship to the consummation, to resurrection bodies, and to the new heaven and the new earth.
Other voices identify the gospel with the first and second commandments—the commandments to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. These commandments are so central that Jesus himself insists that all the prophets and the law hang on them (Matthew 22:34-40)—but most emphatically they are not the gospel.
A third option today is to treat the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels as the gospel— yet it is the ethical teaching of Jesus abstracted from the passion and resurrection narrative found in each Gospel. This approach depends on two disastrous mistakes. First, it overlooks the fact that in the first century, there was no “Gospel of Matthew,” “Gospel of Mark,” and so forth. Our four Gospels were called, respectively, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” and so forth. In other words, there was only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus
Christ, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This one gospel, this message of news that was simultaneously threatening and promising, concerned the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the long-awaited King, and included something about his origins, the ministry of his forerunner, his brief ministry of teaching and miraculous transformation, climaxing in his death and resurrection. These elements are not independent pearls on a string that constitutes the life and times of Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they are elements tightly tied together. Accounts of Jesus’ teaching cannot be rightly understood unless we discern how they flow toward and point toward Jesus’ death and resurrection. All of this together is the one gospel of Jesus Christ, to which the canonical Gospels bear witness. To study the teaching of Jesus without simultaneously reflecting on his passion and resurrection is far worse than assessing the life and times of George Washington without reflecting on the American Revolution, or than evaluating Hitler’s Mein Kampf without thinking about what he did and how he died.
Second, we shall soon see that to focus on Jesus’ teaching while making the cross peripheral reduces the glorious good news to mere religion, the joy of forgiveness to mere ethical conformity, the highest motives for obedience to mere duty. The price is catastrophic.
Perhaps more common yet is the tendency to assume the gospel, whatever that is, while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless. This overlooks the fact that our hearers inevitably are drawn toward that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher knows that.
My students are unlikely to learn all that I teach them; they are most likely to learn that about which I am most excited. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery. It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center. What is to be feared, in the famous words of W. B. Yeats in “The Second Coming,” is that “the centre does not hold.” Moreover, if in fact we focus on the gospel, we shall soon see that this gospel, rightly understood, directs us how to think about, and what to do about, a substantial array of other issues. These issues, if they are analyzed on their own, as important as they are, remain relatively peripheral; ironically, if the gospel itself is deeply pondered and remains at the center of our thinking and living, it powerfully addresses and wrestles with all these other issues.
There are many biblical texts and themes we could usefully explore to think more clearly about the gospel. But for our purposes we shall focus primarily on 1 Cor 15:1-19.
I shall try to bring things to clarity by focusing on eight summarizing words (six of which were first suggested by John Stott), five clarifying sentences, and one evocative summary.
Eight summarizing words:
What Paul is going to talk about in these verses, he says, is “the gospel”: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you” (v. 1). “By this gospel you were saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you” (v. 2). Indeed, what Paul had passed on to them was “of first importance”—a rhetorically powerful way of telling his readers to pay attention, for what he is going to say about the gospel lies at its very center. These prefatory remarks completed, the first word that appears in Paul’s summary is “Christ”: “I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins” and so forth. That brings me to the first of my eight summarizing words.
The gospel is Christological; it is Christ-centered. The gospel is not a bland theism, still less an impersonal pantheism. The gospel is irrevocably Christ-centered. The point is powerfully articulated in every major New Testament book and corpus. In Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, Christ himself is Emmanuel, God with us; he is the long-promised Davidic king who will bring in the kingdom of God. By his death and resurrection he becomes the mediatorial monarch who insists that all authority in heaven and earth is his alone. In John, Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through him, for it is the Father’s solemn intent that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father. In the sermons reported in Acts, there is no name but Jesus given under heaven by which we must be saved. In Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, Jesus is the last Adam, the one to whom the law and the prophets bear witness, the one who by God’s own design propitiates God’s wrath and reconciles Jews and Gentiles to his heavenly Father and thus also to each other. In the great vision of Revelation 4-5, the Son alone, emerging from the very throne of God Almighty, is simultaneously the lion and the lamb, and he alone is qualified to open the seals of the scroll in the right hand of God, and thus bring about all of God’s matchless purposes for judgment and blessing. So also here: the gospel is Christological. John Stott is right: “The gospel is not preached if Christ is not preached.”
Yet this Christological stance does not focus exclusively on Christ’s person; it embraces with equal fervor his death and resurrection. As a matter of first importance, Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins” (15:3). Earlier in this letter, Paul does not tell his readers, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ”; rather, he says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Moreover, Paul here ties Jesus’ death to his resurrection, as the rest of the chapter makes clear. This is the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again.
In other words, it is not enough to make a splash of Christmas, and downplay Good Friday and Easter. When we insist that as a matter of first importance, the gospel is Christological, we are not thinking of Christ as a cypher, or simply as the God-man who comes along and helps us like a nice insurance agent: “Jesus is a nice God-man, he’s a very, very nice God-man, and when you break down, he comes along and fixes you.” The gospel is Christological in a more robust sense: Jesus is the promised Messiah who died and rose again.
(2) The gospel is theological. This is a short-hand way of affirming two things. First, as 1 Corinthians 15 repeatedly affirms, God raised Christ Jesus from the dead (e.g. 5:15). More broadly, New Testament documents insist that God sent the Son into the world, and the Son obediently went to the cross because this was his Father’s will. It makes no sense to pit the mission of the Son against the sovereign purpose of the Father. If the gospel is centrally Christological, it is no less centrally theological.
Second, the text does not simply say that Christ died and rose again; rather, it asserts that “Christ died for our sins” and rose again. The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events; they are historical events with the deepest theological weight. We can glimpse the power of this claim only if we remind ourselves how sin and death are related to God in Scripture. In recent years it has become popular to sketch the Bible’s story-line something like this: Ever since the fall, God has been active to reverse the effects of sin. He takes action to limit sin’s damage; he calls out a new nation, the Israelites, to mediate his teaching and his grace to others; he promises that one day he will send the promised Davidic king to overthrow sin and death and all their wretched effects. This is what Jesus does: he conquers death, inaugurates the kingdom of righteousness, and calls his followers to live out that righteousness now in prospect of the consummation still to come.
Much of this description of the Bible’s story-line, of course, is true. Yet it is so painfully reductionistic that it introduces a major distortion. It collapses human rebellion, God’s wrath, and assorted disasters into one construct, namely, the degradation of human life, while depersonalizing the wrath of God. It thus fails to wrestle with the fact that from the beginning, sin is an offense against God. God himself pronounces the sentence of death (Gen 2-3). This is scarcely surprising, since God is the source of all life, so if his image bearers spit in his face and insist on going their own way and becoming their own gods, they cut themselves off from their Maker, from the One who gives life. What is there, then, but death? Moreover, when we sin in any way, God himself is invariably the most offended party. That is made clear from David’s experience.
After he has sinned by seducing Bathsheba and arranging the execution of her husband, David is confronted by the prophet Nathan. In deep contrition, he pens Psalm 51. There he addresses God and says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). At one level, of course, that is a load of codswollop. After all, David has certainly sinned against Bathsheba. He has sinned horribly against her husband. He has sinned against the military high command by corrupting it, against his own family, against the baby in Bathsheba’s womb, against the nation as a whole, which expects him to act with integrity. In fact, it is difficult to think of anyone against whom David did not sin. Yet here he says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” In the most profound sense, that is exactly right. What makes sin sin, what makes it so vile, what gives it its horrific transcendental vileness, is that it is sin against God. In all our sinning, God is invariably the most offended party. That is why we must have his forgiveness, or we have nothing. The God the Bible portrays as resolved to intervene and save is also the God portrayed as full of wrath because of our sustained idolatry. As much as he intervenes to save us, he stands over against us as Judge, an offended Judge with fearsome jealousy.
Nor is this a matter of Old Testament theology alone. When Jesus announced the imminence of the dawning of the kingdom, like John the Baptist he cried, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 4:17; cf. Mark 1:15). Repentance is necessary, because the coming of the King promises judgment as well as blessing. The Sermon on the Mount, which encourages Jesus’ disciples to turn the other cheek, repeatedly warns them to flee the condemnation to the gehenna of fire. The sermon warns the hearers not to follow the broad road that leads to destruction, and pictures Jesus pronouncing final judgment with the words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (7:23). The parables are replete with warnings of final judgment; a significant percentage of them demonstrate the essential divisiveness of the dawning of the kingdom.
Images of hell—outer darkness, furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, undying worms, eternal fire—are too ghastly to contemplate long, but we must not avoid the fact that Jesus himself uses all of them. After Jesus’ resurrection, when Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost, he aims to convince his hearers that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of Scripture, and that God “has made this Jesus, whom you crucified [he tells them], both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). That is every bit as much a threat as it is a promise: the hearers are “cut to the heart” and cry, “What shall we do?” (2:37). That is what elicits Peter’s “Repent and believe” (3:38).
When Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the climax of his moving address is that in fulfillment of Scripture God appointed Jesus “as judge of the living and the dead”—and thus not of Jews only. Those who believe in him receive “forgiveness of sins through his name”: transparently, that is what is essential if we are to face the judge and emerge unscathed. When he preaches to the Athenian pagan intellectuals, Paul, as we all know, fills in some of the great truths that constitute the matrix in which alone Jesus makes sense: monotheism, creation, who human beings are, God’s aseity and providential sovereignty, the wretchedness and danger of idolatry. Before he is interrupted, however, Paul gets to the place in his argument where he insists that God has set a day “when he will judge the world with justice”—and his appointed judge is Jesus, whose authoritative status is established by his resurrection from the dead. When Felix invites the apostle to speak “about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24), Paul, we are told, discourses “on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (24:15): apparently such themes are an irreducible part of faithful gospel preaching. Small wonder, then, that Felix was terrified (24:25).
How often when we preach the gospel are people terrified? The Letter to the Romans, which many rightly take to be, at the very least, a core summary of the apostle’s understanding of the gospel, finds Paul insisting that judgment takes place “on the day when God will judge everyone’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom 2:16). Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds us that Jesus “rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess 1:10). This Jesus will be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thess 1:7-10). We await “a Savior from [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ”—and what this Savior saves us from (the context of Philippians 3:19-20 shows) is the destiny of destruction. “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Eph 2:3), for we gratified “the cravings of our sinful nature . . . following its desires and thoughts” (2:3)—but now we have been saved by grace through faith, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph 2:8-10). This grace thus saves us both from sins and from their otherwise inevitable result, the wrath to come. Jesus himself is our peace (Eph 2; Acts 10:36). “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). But God “presented Christ as a propitiation in his blood” (3:25), and now “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (5:1-2).
Time and space fail to reflect on how the sacrifice of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews is what alone enables us to escape the terror of those who fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire, or on how the Apocalypse presents the Lamb as the slaughtered sacrifice, even while warning of the danger of falling under the wrath of the Lamb.
This nexus of themes—God, sin, wrath, death, judgment—is what makes the simple words of 1 Corinthians 15:3 so profoundly theological: as a matter of first importance, “Christ died for our sins.” Parallel texts instantly leap to mind: “[Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). The Lord Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). Or, as Paul puts it here in 1 Corinthians 15:2, “By this gospel you are saved.” To be saved from our sins is to be saved not only from their chaining power but from their consequences— and the consequences are profoundly bound up with God’s solemn sentence, with God’s holy wrath. Once you see this, you cannot fail to see that whatever else the cross achieves, it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing. The gospel is theological.
(3) The gospel is biblical. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, . . . he was buried, . . . he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (15:3-4). What biblical texts Paul has in mind, he does not say. He may have had the kind of thing Jesus himself taught, after his resurrection, when “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself ” (Luke 24:27; cf. vv. 44-46). Perhaps he was thinking of texts such as Psalm 16 and Isaiah 53, used by Peter on the day of Pentecost, or Ps 2, used by Paul himself in Pisidian Antioch, whose interpretation depends on a deeply evocative but quite traceable typology. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians Paul alludes to Christ as “our Passover . . . sacrificed for us” (5:5)— so perhaps he could have replicated the reasoning of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who elegantly traces out some of the ways in which the Old Testament Scriptures, laid out in a salvation-historical grid, announce the obsolescence of the old covenant and the dawning of the new covenant, complete with a better tabernacle, a better priesthood, and a better sacrifice. What is in any case very striking is that the apostle grounds the gospel, the matters of first importance, in the Scriptures—and of course he has what we call the Old Testament in mind—and then in the witness of the apostles—and thus what we call the New Testament. The gospel is biblical.
(4) The gospel is thus apostolic. Of course, Paul cheerfully insists that there were more than five hundred eyewitnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless he repeatedly draws attention to the apostles: Jesus “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (15:5); “he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me” (15:8), “the least of the apostles” (15:9). Listen carefully to the sequence of pronouns in 15:11: “Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (15:11). The sequence of pronouns, I, they, we, you, becomes a powerful way of connecting the witness and teaching of the apostles with the faith of all subsequent Christians. The gospel is apostolic.
(5) The gospel is historical. Here four things must be said.
First, 1 Corinthians 15 specifies both Jesus’ burial and his resurrection. The burial testifies to Jesus’ death, since (normally!) we bury only those who have died; the appearances testify to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ death and his resurrection are tied together in history: the one who was crucified is the one who was resurrected; the body that came out of the tomb, as Thomas wanted to have demonstrated, had the wounds of the body that went into the tomb. This resurrection took place on the third day: it is in datable sequence from the death. The cross and the resurrection are irrefragably tied together. Any approach, theological or evangelistic, that attempts to pit Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection against each other, is not much more than silly. Perhaps one or the other might have to be especially emphasized to combat some particular denial or need, but to sacrifice one on the altar of the other is to step away from the manner in which both the cross and resurrection are historically tied together.
Second, the manner by which we have access to the historical events of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, is exactly the same as that by which we have access to almost any historical event: through the witness and remains of those who were there, by means of the records they left behind. That is why Paul enumerates the witnesses, mentions that many of them are still alive at his time of writing and therefore could still be checked out, and recognizes the importance of their reliability. In God’s mercy, this Bible is, among many other things, a written record, an inscripturation, of those first witnesses.
Third, we must see that, unlike other religions, the central Christian claims are irreducibly historical. If somehow—I have no idea how—you could prove that Gautama the Buddha never lived, would you destroy the credibility of Buddhism? No, of course not. The plausibility and credibility of Buddhism depends on the internal coherence and attractiveness of Buddhism as a system with all its variations. It depends not a whit on any historical claim. If somehow—I have no idea how—you could prove that the great Hindu god Krishna never existed, would you destroy Hinduism? No, of course not. If the ancient Greeks had thousands of gods, Hindus have millions, and the complex vision of Hinduism in which all reality is enmeshed in one truth with its infinite variations and its karmic system of retribution and cyclic advance and falling away depends in no way on the existence of any one of them. If Krishna were to disappear from the Hindu pantheon, you could always go down the street to a Shiva temple instead. Suppose, then, that you approach your friendly neighborhood mullah and seek to explore how tightly Islam is tied to historical claims. You will discover that history is important in Islam, but not the same way in which it is important in biblically faithful Christianity. You might ask the mullah, “Could Allah, had he chosen to do so, given his final revelation to someone other than Muhammed?” Perhaps the mullah will initially misunderstand your question. He might reply, “We believe that God gave great revelation to his prophet Abraham, and great revelation to his prophet Moses, and great revelation to his prophet Jesus. But we believe Allah gave his greatest and final revelation to Muhammed.” You might reply, “With respect, sir, I understand that that is what Islam teaches; and of course you will understand that I as a Christian do not see things quite that way. But that is not my question. I am not asking if Muslims believe that God gave his greatest and final revelation to Muhammed: of course you believe that. I am asking, rather, a hypothetical question: Could God have given his greatest and final revelation to someone other than Muhammed, had he chosen to do so?” Your thoughtful Mullah will doubtless say, “Of course! Allah, blessed be he, is sovereign. He can do whatever he wishes. The revelation is not Muhammed! Revelation is entirely in the gift of Allah. Allah could have given it to anyone to whom he chose to give it. But we believe that in fact Allah gave it to Muhammed.”
In other words, although it is important to Muslims to believe and teach that the ultimate revelation of Allah was given, in history, to Muhammed, and Islam’s historical claims regarding Muhammed are part and parcel of its apologetic to justify Muhammed’s crucial place as the final prophet, there is nothing intrinsic to Muhammed himself that is bound up with the theological vision of Islam. Otherwise put, a Muslim must confess that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammed is his prophet, but Muhammed’s historical existence does not, in itself, determine the Muslim’s understanding of God.
But suppose you were to ask a similar question of an informed Christian pastor: “Do you believe that the God of the Bible might have given his final revelation to someone other than Jesus of Nazareth?” The question is not even coherent—for Jesus is the revelation, the revelation that entered history in the incarnation. As John puts it in his first Letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it” (1 John 1:1-2). This is an historical revelation. Moreover, there are specific historical events in Jesus’ life that are essential to the most elementary grasp of Christianity—and here, pride of place goes to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A little over two years ago, a reporter put a crucial question to the then Anglican Archbishop of Perth, at the time the Anglican Primate of Australia. The reporter asked, “If we discovered the tomb of Jesus, and could somehow prove that the remains in the tomb were Jesus’ remains, what would that do to your faith?” The Archbishop replied that it wouldn’t do anything to his faith: Jesus Christ has risen in his heart. The apostle Paul understands the issues with much more straightforward clarity: if Christ has not risen, your faith is futile (1 Cor 15:17). In other words, part of the validation of faith is the truthfulness of faith’s object—in this case, Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus has not risen, they can believe it ‘till the cows come home, but it is still a futile belief that makes them look silly: they “are to be pitied more than all men” (15:17). There is no point getting angry with the former Archbishop of Perth: he and his opinions on this matter are painfully pitiful.
Many in our culture believe that the word “faith” is either a synonym for “religion” (e.g. “there are many faiths” means “there are many religions“), or it refers to a personal, subjective, religious choice. It has nothing to do with truth. But in this passage, Paul insists that if Christ is not risen, then faith that believes Christ is risen is merely futile. Part of the validation of genuine faith is the reliability, the truthfulness, of faith’s object. If you believe something is true when in reality it is not true, your faith is not commendable; rather, it is futile, valueless, worthless, and you yourself are to be pitied. Part of the validation of faith is the truthfulness of faith’s object— and in this case, the object is an historical event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible never asks us to believe what is not true. By the same token, one of the principal ways the Bible has of increasing and strengthening faith is by articulating and defending the truth.
There is another way of clarifying the relationship between a biblically faithful Christianity and history. Not too long ago, the members of the New Testament Department here at Trinity were interviewing a possible addition to our Department. The candidate was a fine man with years of fruitful pastoral ministry behind him, and an excellent theological education. A problem came to light, however, when we inquired how he would respond to students raising questions about a variety of perceived historical difficulties in the Gospels. In every case, he thought the way forward was to talk about the theological themes of Matthew, or the biblical theology of Mark, or the literary structure of Luke, and so forth. He simply set aside the historical questions; he ignored them, preferring to talk exclusively in terms of literary and theological themes. In due course we told him that he did not have a ghost of a chance of joining our Department as long as he held to such an approach. For although it is entirely right to work out the theology of Matthew’s Gospel, that must not be at the expense of refusing to talk about the historical person of Jesus Christ. The candidate’s procedure gives the impression we are saved by theological ideas about Christ; it is an intellectualist approach, almost a gnostic approach, to salvation. But we are not saved by theological ideas about Christ; we are saved by Christ himself. The Christ who saves us is certainly characterized by the theological realities embraced by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but this Christ is extra-textual; he is the historical God-man to whom the text bears witness.
Fourth, we must face the fact that in contemporary discussion the word “historical” is sometimes invested with a number of slippery assumptions. For some who are heavily invested in philosophical naturalism, the word “historical” can be applied only to those events that have causes and effects entirely located in the ordinary or “natural” or time-based stream of sequence of events. If that is the definition of “historical,” then Jesus’ resurrection was not historical, for such a definition excludes the miraculous, the spectacular intervention of the power of God. But it is far better to think that “historical” rightly refers to events that take place within the continuum of space and time, regardless of whether God has brought about those events by ordinary causes, or by a supernatural explosion of power. We insist that in this sense, the resurrection is historical: it takes place in history, even if it was caused by God’s spectacular power when he raised the man Christ Jesus from the dead, giving him a resurrection body that had genuine continuity with the body that went into the tomb. This resurrection body could be seen, touched, handled; it could eat ordinary food. Nevertheless, it is a body that could suddenly appear in a locked room, a body that Paul finds hard to describe, ultimately calling it a spiritual body or a heavenly body (1 Cor 15:35-44). And that body was raised from the tomb by the spectacular, supernatural, power of God—operating in history. In short, the gospel is historical.
(6) The gospel is personal. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not merely historical events; the gospel is not merely theological in the sense that it organizes a lot of theological precepts. It sets out the way of individual salvation, of personal salvation. “Now, brothers,” Paul writes at the beginning of this chapters, “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved” (1 Cor 15:1-2). An historical gospel that is not personal and powerful is merely antiquarian; a theological gospel that is not received by faith and found to be transforming is merely abstract. In reality, the gospel is personal.
(7) The gospel is universal. If we step farther into 1 Corinthians 15, we find Paul demonstrating that Christ is the new Adam (vv. 22, 47-50). In this context, Paul does not develop the move from Jew to Gentile, or from the Israelites as a national locus of the people of God to the church as in international community of the elect. Nevertheless, Christ as the new Adam alludes to a comprehensive vision. The new humanity in him draws in people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. The gospel is universal in this sense. It is not universal in the sense that it transforms and saves everyone without exception, for in reality, those whose existence is connected exclusively to the old Adam are not included. Yet this gospel is gloriously universal in its comprehensive sweep. There is not a trace of racism here. The gospel is universal.
(8) The gospel is eschatological. This could be teased out in many ways, for the gospel is eschatological in more ways than one. For instance, some of the blessings Christians receive today are essentially eschatological blessings, blessings belonging to the end, even if they have been brought back into time and are already ours. Already God declares his blood-bought, Spirit-regenerated people to be justified: the final declarative sentence from the end of the age has already been pronounced on Christ’s people, because of what Jesus Christ has done. We are already justified—and so the gospel is in that sense eschatological. Yet there is another sense in which this gospel is eschatological. In the chapter before us, Paul focuses on the final transformation: “I declare to you, brothers,” he says in vv. 50 and following, “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.” It is not enough to focus narrowly on the blessings Christians enjoy in Christ in this age: the gospel is eschatological.
So what Paul preaches, as a matter of first importance, is that the gospel is Christological, theological, biblical, apostolic, historical, personal, universal, and eschatological.
Now the passage in front of us includes several wonderful truths that further unpack this gospel before our eyes. I can summarize them in five clarifying sentences.
(1) This gospel is normally disseminated in proclamation. This gospel, Paul says, “I preached to you” (1 Cor 15:1), and then adds that it is “the word I preached to you” (15:2). This way of describing the dissemination of the gospel is typical of the New Testament. The gospel that was preached was what the Corinthians believed (15:11). Look up every instance of the word “gospel” and discover how often, how overwhelmingly often, this news of Jesus Christ is made known through proclamation, through preaching. Earlier in this same letter Paul insists that in God’s unfathomable wisdom “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1:21). The content was “what was preached”; the mode of delivery was “what was preached.” There are plenty of texts that talk about the importance of being salt and light, of course, or of doing good to all people, especially those of the household of God, or of seeking the good of the city. Yet when dissemination of the gospel is in view, overwhelmingly the Bible specifies proclamation. The good news must be announced, heralded, explained; God himself visits and revisits human beings through his word. This gospel is normally disseminated in proclamation.
(2) This gospel is fruitfully received in authentic, persevering faith. “[T]his is what we preach,” Paul writes, “and this is what you believed” (1 Cor 15:11). Toward the beginning of the chapter, Paul tells the Corinthians, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (15:2). In other words, their faith in the word Paul preached, in the gospel, must be of the persevering type. Many other passages carry the same emphasis. For instance, Paul tells the Colossians, “[God] has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col 1:22-23). This gospel is fruitfully received in authentic, persevering faith.
(3) This gospel is properly disclosed in personal self-humiliation. When the gospel is properly understood and received in persevering faith, people properly respond the way the apostle does. Yes, the risen Christ appeared last of all to him (15:8). Yet far from becoming a source of pride, this final resurrection appearance evokes in Paul a sense of his own unworthiness: “For I am the least of the apostles,” he writes, “and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (15:9-10). How could it be otherwise? Jesus had purchased Paul’s redemption at the cost of his own blood, he had graciously forgiven him of his sins, including the sin of persecuting the church of God, he had confronted the apostle on the Damascus Road and revealed himself to him at the very moment Paul was expanding his efforts to damage Christ’s people! Even if in the wake of his conversion, Paul confesses he has worked harder than the other apostles, he insists that this can only be true because of the grace of God that was with him (15:10). Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted, the matrix out of which Christians experience joy and love. When the gospel truly does its work, “proud Christian” is an unthinkable oxymoron. This gospel is properly disclosed in personal self-humiliation.
(4) This gospel is rightly asserted to be the central confession of the whole church. At numerous points in 1 Corinthians Paul reminds his readers that the Corinthian church is not the only church–or, better put, that there are many other churches with common beliefs and practices, such that at some point the independence of the Corinthians, far from being a virtue, is merely evidence that they are out of step. In 4:17, Paul tells them that Timothy will remind the Corinthians of Paul’s way of life, “which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” When he is dealing with marriage and divorce, Paul stipulates, “This is the rule I lay down in every church” (7:17). After laying down what believers are to think about headship and relationships between men and women, Paul closes his discussion with the words, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God” (11:16).
However we understand the restriction found in 14:34, Paul introduces it with the words, “As in all the congregations of the saints” (14:33). There is no explicit formula of this sort in 1 Corinthians 15. Nevertheless, Paul repeatedly alludes to what he preaches everywhere, not just in Corinth. Passive expressions like “if it is preached” (15:11) give the impression that this is the common content, not something that was reserved for Corinth—as also Paul’s reference to his service in Ephesus for the sake of this same gospel (15:32), and his many earlier references to his common practices in preaching the gospel (esp. chaps. 1-2).
Of course, what “the whole church” or “all the churches” are doing is not necessarily right: just ask Athansius or Luther. One must test everything by Scripture. Moreover, one must grimly admit that there is a kind of traditionalism that loses its way, that preserves form while sacrificing authenticity and power. In Corinth, however, that does not seem to have been the problem. Corinth speaks to the lust for endless innovation that casually cuts a swath away from the practices and beliefs of other churches, while quietly side-stepping the careful instruction of the apostle. Paul insists that the gospel is rightly asserted to be the central confession of the whole church. Always be suspicious of churches that proudly flaunt how different they are from what has gone before.
(5) The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the king. This side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of God’s sovereignty is mediated exclusively through King Jesus. That is amply taught elsewhere in the New Testament, of course. Matthew concludes with Jesus’ claim, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:20). Philippians rejoices that “the name that is above every name” has been given to him (Phil 2:9-11). So also—and dramatically—here: Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (15:25). That presupposes the reign is still contested, and still advances. This is of a piece with Jesus’ claim, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). But one day, the final enemy, death itself, will die, and Jesus’ mediatorial kingship will end. God will be all in all (15:28).
It is in the light of this gospel—all that the death and resurrection of Jesus have achieved, all that the advancing kingdom of King Jesus is accomplishing, all that we will inherit in resurrection existence on the last day—that Paul writes to these Corinthian believers, and to us, and says, “Therefore my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58). The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the king.
It is time to take stock. One of the striking results of this summary of the gospel—eight defining words and five clarifying sentences, all emerging from one New Testament chapter—is how cognitive the gospel is. Here is what is to be understood, believed, obeyed; here is what is promised, taught, explained. All of this must be said, loudly and repeatedly, in a generation that feels slightly embarrassed when it has to deal with the cognitive and the propositional.
Yet something else must also be said. This chapter comes at the end of a book that repeatedly shows how the gospel rightly works out in the massive transformation of attitudes, morals, relationships, and cultural interactions. As everyone knows, Calvin insists that justification is by faith alone, but genuine faith is never alone; we might add that the gospel focuses on a message of what God has done and is doing, and must be cast in cognitive truths to be believed and obeyed, but this gospel never properly remains exclusively cognitive.
Thus in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, the gospel, the word of the cross, is not only God’s wisdom which the world judges to be folly, but it is God’s power which the world judges to be weakness. The first four chapters find Paul pained at the divisions in the Corinthian church, different factions associating themselves exclusively with one hero or another—Peter, Apollos, Paul, and, probably the most sanctimonious of the lot, the “I follow Christ” party. What the apostle works out is how this is a betrayal of the gospel, a misunderstanding of the nature of Christian leadership, a tragic and bitter diminution of the exclusive place of Christ, the crucified Christ who is the focus of the gospel. Chapter four shows in a spectacular way that there is no place for triumphalism in the church of the blood-bought, in the church led by apostles who eat everyone’s dirt at the end of the procession. In chapters 5 and 6, the gospel of Christ the Passover lamb prescribes that believers must, in line with Passover, get rid of all “yeast”—and this works out in terms of church discipline were there is grievous sexual sin. Where the gospel triumphs, relationships are transformed, with the result that lawsuits bringing brothers into conflict with each other before pagan courts becomes almost unthinkable, and casual sex is recognized as a massive denial of Christ’s lordship. In chap. 7, complex questions about divorce and remarriage are worked out in the context of the priorities of the gospel and the transformed vision brought about by the dawning of the eschatological age and the anticipation of the end.
Chapters 8-10 wrestle with how believers must interact with the broader pagan culture over the matter of food offered to idols, with the central example of the apostle Paul himself demonstrating in dramatic fashion what cheerful and voluntary self-restraint for the sake of the advance of the gospel actually looks like—and even how such a stance is tied to a proper understanding of the relationship between the new covenant and the old. Relationships between men and women are tied, in 1 Cor 11:2-16, not only to relationships in the Godhead, but also to what it means to live “in the Lord”—and thus in the gospel. The blistering condemnation of Corinthian practices at the Lord’s Supper (“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good,” 11:17) is tied not only to the barbarous insensitivity some Christians were displaying toward other Christians, but also to the massive failure to take the cross seriously and use this Christ-given rite as an occasion for self-examination and repentance. The ways in which the charismata or pneumatika of 1 Cor 12-14 are to be exercised is finally predicated on the fact that all believers confess that Jesus is Lord, all believers have been baptized in one Spirit into one body, and above all that the most excellent “way” mandated of all believers without exception is the way of love. Love is the most important member of the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love—this triplet of virtues that are deeply intrinsic to the working out of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. What does this say, in concrete terms, about the communion of saints, the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural? What will this say about inter-generational relationships? About race? About how we treat one another in the local church? About how we think of brothers and sisters in highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?
Just as Paul found it necessary to hammer away at the outworking of the gospel in every domain of the lives of the Corinthians, so we must do the same today. Recently at Trinity, a very wise worker on an Ivy League campus told us what, in her experience, drives most of the young women whom she disciples every week. She mentioned three things. First, from parents, never get less than an A. Of course, this is an Ivy League campus! Still, even on an Ivy League campus, grades are distributed on a bell curve, so this expectation introduces competition among the students. Second, partly from parents, partly from the ambient culture, be yourself, enjoy yourself, live a rich and full life, and include in this some altruism such as helping victims of Katrina. Third, from peers, from Madison avenue, from the media, be hot—and this, too, is competitive, and affects dress, relationships, what you look for in the opposite sex, what you want them to look for in you. These demands drum away incessantly. There is no margin, no room for letting up; there is only room for failure. The result is that about 80% of women during their undergraduate years will suffer eating disorders; close to the same percentage will at some point be clinically depressed. The world keeps telling them that they can do anything, and soon this is transmuted into the demand that they must do everything, or be a failure both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Even when they become Christians, it is not long before they feel the pressure to become the best Christians, as measured by attendance at Bible studies, leading prayer meetings, faithfully recording their daily devotions.
But where is the human flourishing that springs from the gospel of grace, God’s image-bearers happily justified before God on the ground of what Christ has done, powerfully regenerated so that they respond in faith, obedience, joy, and gratitude? The conventions and expectations of the world are pervasive and enslaving. The gospel must be worked out for these women, and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that it issues in liberation from the wretched chains of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape, apart from the powerful word of the cross.
Of course, I have picked on one small demographic. It does not take much to think through how the gospel must also transform the business practices and priorities of Christians in commerce, the priorities of young men steeped in indecisive but relentless narcissism, the lonely anguish and often the guilty pleasures of single folk who pursue pleasure but who cannot find happiness, the tired despair of those living on the margins, and much more. And this must be done, not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, still less by endless focus on the periphery in a vain effort to sound prophetic, but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious gospel of our blessed Redeemer.
“Therefore my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58).
Donald A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois where he has served since 1978.
Carson received the Bachelor of Science in chemistry from McGill University, the Master of Divinity from Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto, and the Doctor of Philosophy in New Testament from the University of Cambridge. Carson is an active guest lecturer in academic and church settings around the world. He is a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and The Gospel Coalition. Among his many books are Christ and Culture Revisited, Commentary on the New Testament Us of the Old Testament and The Gospel of John: An Introduction and Commentary.
Carson and his wife, Joy, reside in Libertyville, Illinois. They have two children. In his spare time, Carson enjoys reading, hiking, and woodworking.
By Ernest C. Resinger
Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them — that they are ‘Carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.
That something is seriously wrong in lives which reveal such features will readily be admitted by most readers of these pages; no argument is needed to prove it. But the most serious aspect of this situation is too often not recognized at all. The chief mistake is not the carelessness of these church-goers, it is the error of their teachers who, by preaching the theory of ‘the carnal Christian’, have led them to believe that there are three groups of men, — the unconverted man, the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian’.
My purpose in this essay is to argue that this classification is wrong and to set out the positive, historic, and biblical answer to this ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. The argument from Church history is not unimportant, for it is a fact that less than two-hundred years ago this teaching was unknown in the churches of North America, but I am concerned to rest my case on an honest statement of the teaching of the Bible. I have written after study, private meditation and prayer, and after using many of the old respected commentaries of another day, but my appeal is to the Word of God and it is in the light of that authority that I ask the reader to consider all that follows.
I must also confess that I am writing as one who, for many years, held and taught the teaching which I am now convinced is erroneous and which has many dangerous implications. As one who has deep respect for many who hold this position, I am not going to attack personalities, but to deal with principles, and with the interpretation of the particular passages of Scripture on which the teaching is built.
In matters of controversy it must ever be kept in mind that a Christian’s experience may be genuine even though his understanding of divine truth is tainted with error or ignorance. The opposite is also possible — a man’s intellectual understanding may be good and his experience poor. I pray that if I am in error on this or any other doctrine I shall be corrected before I leave this world. I trust I am willing ever to be a learner of divine truth.
I know that one of my motives is the same as that of many who hold this erroneous view, namely, to advance biblical holiness and to seek to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Savior’.
To accomplish my purpose it is of the greatest importance that the whole subject should be set on a proper foundation. I do not want to make a caricature of the view of others and then demonstrate success by tearing it apart. I shall also seek to avoid disproportionate and one-sided statements. The danger that we may ‘darken counsel by words without knowledge’ is still with us. I pray that this effort will elicit truth and that the existence of varied opinions will lead us all to search the Scriptures more, to pray more, and to be diligent in our endeavors to learn what is ‘the mind of the Spirit’.
My greatest difficulty will be to achieve brevity because this subject is so closely related to, and interwoven with the main doctrine of the Bible, particularly with justification and sanctification, the chief blessings of the new covenant. The subject therefore involves a right understanding of what the gospel really is and what it does to a person when applied efficaciously by the Spirit. Our view of this matter will also affect our judgment of the relationship of the Ten Commandments to the Christian in the area of sanctification, and of the biblical doctrine of assurance.
Some of the fundamental questions which need to be faced are these:
1. Are we sanctified passively, that is, ‘by faith’ only, without obedience to the law of God and Christ? If sanctification is passive — a view represented by the slogan ‘Let go and let God’ — then how do we understand such apostolic statements as ‘I fight’, ‘I run’, ‘I keep under my body’, ‘let us cleanse ourselves’, ‘let us labor’, ‘let us lay aside every weight’? Surely these statements do not express a passive condition, nor do they indicate that by one single act we may possess the experience of ‘victory’ and thus become spiritual and mature Christians.
2. Does an appeal to the so-called ‘carnal Christian’ to become a ‘spiritual Christian’ minimize the real conversion experience by magnifying a supposed second experience, by whatever name it may be called — ‘higher life’, ‘deeper life’, ‘Spirit-filled life’, ‘triumphant living’, ‘receiving Christ as Lord, and not merely as Savior’, and so on? The words we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’, do not refer to a second experience but rather to what happens when any real conversion occurs.
3. Has the ‘spiritual Christian’ finished growing in grace? If not, what is he to be called as he continues to grow in grace? Do we need to make yet another class whose members are the ‘super-spiritual Christians’?
4. Who is to decide who the carnal Christians are, and exactly what standard is to be used in determining this? Do the ‘spiritual Christians’ decide who the ‘carnal Christians’ are? Does a church or preacher decide where the line is to be drawn that divides the two classes or categories? Since all Christians have sin remaining in them, and since they sin every day, what degree of sin or what particular sins classify a person as a ‘carnal Christian’?
5. Do not all Christians sometimes act like natural men in some area of their lives?
6. Do not the inward sins, such as envy, malice, covetousness, lasciviousness (which includes immorality on the mental level) demonstrate carnality as much as do the outward and visible manifestations of certain other sins?
In Romans 8:1-9 there is a division stated, but it is not between carnal and spiritual Christians. It is a division between those who walk after the flesh (the unregenerate) and those who walk after the Spirit (they that are Christ’s). There is no third category.
Again, in Galatians 5:17-24 we have only two classes or categories — those that do the works of the flesh and those that are led by the Spirit. There is no third or fourth class or group.
My purpose, then, in these pages is to contend that the division of Christians into two groups or classes is unbiblical. I want also to show the dangerous implications and present-day results of this teaching.
The interpretation that I will seek to establish is a result of studying the proven and respected commentators of former days, such as, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, John Gill, and John Calvin; and theologians such as Charles Hodge (of the old Princeton Seminary), James P. Boyce (founder of the first Southern Baptist Seminary), Robert L. Dabney (the great theologian of old Union Seminary, Virginia) and James H. Thornwell (distinguished Southern theologian who was Professor of Theology at Columbia, South Carolina). I have also examined the writings of John Bunyan and searched the old Confessions and Catechisms, such as The Heidelberg Catechism, and Westminster Confession (that mother of all Confessions), the Baptist Confession of 1689 (The London Confession, later known as the Philadelphia Confession), and the Declaration of Faith of the Southern Baptist Church.
In all these sources there is not one trace of the belief that there are three classes of men. All of them have much to say about carnality in Christians, and about the biblical doctrine of sanctification and its relationship to justification, but there is no hint of the possibility of dividing men into ‘unregenerate’, ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ categories. If the sources I have named had come across the ‘carnal Christian’ theory, I believe that with one voice they would have warned their readers, ‘Be not carried away with divers and strange doctrines’ (Hebrews 13: 9).
I confess that I take up my pen in this controversy with deep sorrow. Although the teaching that I wish to expose is so relatively new in the church, it is held by so many fine Christians, and taught by so many able and respected schools of the present day, that I can only approach my present undertaking with caution and anxiety.
We live in a day when there are so many books and such a variety of teaching on the subject of the Christian life that Christians are ‘tossed to and fro’, and liable to be ‘carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Ephesians 4:14). There is also the Athenian love of novelty and a distaste for the old, well-tested, and beaten paths of our forefathers. This excessive love of the new leads to an insatiable craving after any teaching which is sensational and exciting, especially to the feelings. But the old paths lead to a ‘meek and quiet spirit’ which the apostle Peter commends: ‘But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price’ (I Peter 3: 4).
The Issue in Controversy
At a church service that I attended recently, the preacher, a sincere minister, was expounding 1 Corinthians chapter 3, and he said to a large congregation, ‘Now after you become a Christian you have another choice — either to grow in grace, follow the Lord and become a spiritual Christian, or to remain a babe in Christ and live like natural men.’ He used 1 Corinthians 3: 1 — 4 to state that there were three categories of men — the natural man, the spiritual man, and the carnal man. He described the carnal man as being like the natural man who was unconverted.
This is the essence of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. One reason why it is so widespread is that it has been popularized for many years in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. A statement from these notes will indicate the precise nature of the teaching: ‘Paul divides men into three classes: “Natural” i.e. the Adamic Man, unrenewed through the new birth; “Spiritual” i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God; “Carnal”, “fleshly”, i.e. the renewed man who, walking “after the flesh”, remains a babe in Christ.” (Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214.)
It is very important to observe the two main things in this Scofield note. First, the division of men into three classes; second, we are told that one of these classes of men comprises the ‘carnal’, the ‘fleshly’, ‘the babe(s) in Christ’, ‘who walk after the flesh’. To ‘walk’ implies the bent of their lives; their leaning or bias is in one direction, that is, towards carnality.
We ought not to miss three very salient and important facts about the teaching:
First, we note again that it divides all men into three classes or categories. With this fact none of its proponents disagree, though they may present it differently and apply it differently.
Second, one class or category is set out as containing the ‘Christian’ who ‘walks after the flesh’. The centre of his life is self, and he is the same as the unrenewed man as far as the bent of his life is concerned.
Third, all those who accept this view use 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4 to support it. Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men — regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ — the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.
Before I turn to some of the errors and dangers of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching it may be wise to indicate what I am not saying.
In this discussion of the ‘carnal Christian’ theory I am not overlooking the teaching of the Bible about sin in Christians, about babes in Christ, about growth in grace, about Christians who back-slide grievously, and about the divine chastisement which all Christians receive.
I acknowledge that there are babes in Christ. In fact there are not only babes in Christ, but there are different stages of ‘babyhood’ in understanding divine truth and in spiritual growth.
I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life. And in every Christian ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17).
All the marks of Christianity are not equally apparent in all Christians. Nor are any of these marks manifest to the same degree in every period of any Christian’s life. Love, faith, obedience, and devotion will vary in the same Christian in different periods of his Christian experience; in other words, there are many degrees of sanctification.
The Christian’s progress in growth is not constant and undisturbed. There are many hills and valleys in the process of sanctification; and there are many stumblings, falls and crooked steps in the process of growth in grace.
There are examples in the Bible of grievous falls and carnality in the lives of true believers. Thus we have the warnings and the promises of temporal judgment and of chastisement by our heavenly Father.
These truths are all acknowledged and are not the point of this present discussion. The question we have to consider is: Does the Bible divide men into three categories? This is the issue at the heart of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching.
The teaching that I am opposing involves nine serious errors:
1. The misuse of I Corinthians 3
First: This ‘carnal Christian’ doctrine depends upon a wrong interpretation and application of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ… are ye not carnal?’ To understand the true meaning of these words it should be remembered that 1 Corinthians is not primarily a doctrinal epistle. Like all Scripture it contains doctrine, but it was not written — as was the Epistle to the Romans — to lay doctrinal foundations. Paul’s immediate concern in writing this Epistle was to deal with practical problems in a young church. In the third chapter, and earlier, he is dealing with the danger of division arising out of a wrong esteem for those from whom they heard the gospel. They were looking at second causes and forgetting the God to whom alone all glory belongs. Instead of saying, ‘We are Christ’s disciples’ and recognizing their union in him, they were forming parties and saying, ‘We are Paul’s for he founded the church in our city’; or ‘Apollos is more eloquent than Paul and he edifies us more’; or, ‘We are of Peter’. Thus opposing parties were set up.
It is important to see that the whole context is dealing principally with this one problem of unwholesome division. However, it has a common root with all the other problems in 1 Corinthians — the defrauding of one by another, the disorder at the Lord’s Table, and so on. All the problems were the result of carnality, the outcome of that remaining principle of sin in all believers which Paul describes in Romans 7:2I-23: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”
In endeavoring to understand how Paul thinks of those he addresses in 1 Corinthians 3 we must bear in mind the designation he gives to them in chapter 1. He says they are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, they are recipients of ‘the grace of God’, enriched by Christ ‘in all utterance, and in all knowledge’ (1:2-5). They are rebuked in chapter 3, not for failing to attain to privileges which some Christians attain to, but for acting, despite their privileges, like babes and like the unregenerate in one area of their lives.
This is very different from saying that the Apostle here recognizes the existence of a distinct group of Christians who can be called ‘carnal’. When Paul comes to speak of classes, he knows only two, as is clear in chapter 2 of this same Epistle where he divides men into ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’, and says, ‘But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man’ (1 Cor. 2:14-15). Under the term natural the Apostle includes all those persons who are not partakers of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit of God has not given to them a new and higher nature then they remain what they are by their natural birth, namely, natural men.
The spiritual may be but babes in grace and babes in knowledge. Their faith may be weak. Their love may be in its early bud, their spiritual senses may be but little exercised, their faults may be many; but if ‘the root of the matter’ is in them and if they have passed from death unto life — passed out of the region of nature into that which is beyond nature — Paul puts them in another class. They are all spiritual men although in some aspects of their behavior they may temporarily fail to appear as such.
Certainly these Christians at Corinth were imperfectly sanctified, as indeed are all Christians to a greater or lesser degree. But Paul is not saying that they were characterized by carnality in every area of their lives. He is not expounding a general doctrine of carnality but reproving a specific out-cropping of carnality in one certain respect. When Paul does state a foundational truth respecting the position of all Christians it is in such words as, ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature’, and for all who are ‘in Christ’ it is also true that, ‘old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Cor. 5:17). There is no place for two classes of Christians in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, and indeed no place for it anywhere in the teaching of Scripture. To interpret 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 in such a way as to divide men into three classes is to violate a cardinal rule for the interpretation of Scripture, namely, that each single passage must be interpreted in the light of the whole. It was a wise saying of one of the church fathers, ‘If you have one Scripture only on which to base an important doctrine or teaching you are most likely to find, on close examination, that you have none’.
2. New covenant blessings are separated
Second: The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching divides the two basic blessings of the new covenant because it denies that one of them is experienced by all true Christians. Let me point out how basic the covenant is to Christianity. Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant — Hebrews 8:6-10: ‘But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises’. The New Testament preachers were ministers of the new covenant — 1 Corinthians 3:5, 6: ‘Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament (A.S.V. new covenant); not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’
Every time we come to the Lord’s table we are reminded of the blessings of the new covenant — Luke 22: 20, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood…’
These facts are enough to establish the importance of the new covenant. But what are the two blessings of the new covenant? The answer is clearly seen in many scriptural statements:
‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts … I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more'(Jeremiah 31:31-34).
‘For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them’ (Ezekiel. 36: 24-27).
‘Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more’ (Hebrews 10:15-17).
It is important to note that this is one covenant with two inseparable parts — the forgiveness of sins and a changed heart. When a sinner is reconciled to God something happens in the record of heaven, the blood of Christ covers his sins. Thus, the first blessing is the forgiveness of sins. But at the same time something happens on earth in the heart, a new nature is given.
From the above Scriptures we also learn that Christ purchased the benefits and blessings of the new covenant. And the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that the gospel which the apostles preached as the gospel of Christ was the gospel of the new covenant. Therefore, whatever else sinners may receive when they are savingly called by the gospel, they must come into the primary blessings of the new covenant, namely, the forgiveness of sins and a new heart.
Well, what is the forgiveness of sins? It is an essential part of the justification of a man before God. And what is a new heart? It is nothing less than sanctification begun. But the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching appeals to those who are supposed to be justified, as though a new heart and life are optional. Sanctification is spoken of as though it can be subsequent to the forgiveness of sins and so people are led to believe that they are justified even though they are not being sanctified!
The truth is that we have no reason to believe that Christ’s blood covers our sins in the record of heaven if the Spirit has not changed our hearts on earth. These two great blessings are joined together in the one covenant. The working of the Spirit and the cleansing of Christ’s blood are inseparably joined in the application of God’s salvation. Hence the teaching which calls for an act of submission or surrender (or whatever else it may be called) subsequent to conversion in order that the convert may live the spiritual life, cuts the living nerve of the new covenant. It separates what God has joined together.
3. Saving faith and spurious faith are not distinguished
The third major error is that this teaching does not distinguish between true, saving belief and the spurious belief which is mentioned in the following Scriptures: ‘Many believed in his name … But Jesus did not commit himself to them’ John 2:23,24. ‘Many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him’ John 12:42,43. ‘These have no root, which for a while believe’ Luke 8:13. Simon Magus ‘believed’ and was baptized but his heart was ‘not right in the sight of God’ Acts 8:12-22. In other words, it was ‘belief’ without a changed heart and because this was Simon’s condition Peter says he would perish unless he came to true repentance: he was ‘in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity’ (vs. 23). And the evidence that Simon Magus was indeed unsaved can be seen in his prayer. He, like all unregenerate people, was only concerned with the consequence of sin and made no request to be pardoned and cleansed from the impurity of sin. ‘Pray ye,’ he says to Peter, ‘to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me’. Like the so-called ‘carnal Christian’ he wanted Jesus as a kind of hell-insurance policy but he did not ask for deliverance from sin!
In all these scriptural instances men ‘believed’; they had ‘faith’, but it was not saving faith. And all ‘carnal Christians’ profess their faith but it is not always saving faith.
Charles Hodge, following the Scriptures, makes a clear distinction between the different kinds of faith, (1) Speculative or dead faith, (2) temporary faith, (3) saving faith.’ Robert Dabney differentiates, (1) Temporary faith, (2) historical faith, (3) miraculous faith, (4) saving faith.’ The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching makes no allowance for these distinctions, it gives little or no recognition to the possibility of a spurious belief, instead it implies or assumes that all who say they ‘invite Jesus into their lives’ are in possession of saving faith. If these professing believers do not live and act like Christians, their teachers may well say that it is because they are not ‘spiritual Christians’. The fact is they may not be true believers at all!
4. The omission of repentance
A fourth flaw in the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching lies in its virtual exclusion of repentance from the conversion experience. This is implied by the suggestion that the ‘carnal Christian’ has not changed in practice but lives and acts just like the natural man. This teaching is obviously set forth in the diagram given above where self is still on the throne in the case of those in the second group. But thus to suggest that repentance, including a changed attitude to sin, is not an essential part of conversion is a very grave error. It is to depart from the apostolic gospel. No one who so minimizes the necessity of repentance can say with Paul, ‘I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20: 20, 21).
John Cotton, one of the Puritan leaders of New England, was right when he wrote: ‘There is none under a covenant of grace that dare allow himself in any sin; for if a man should negligently commit any sin, the Lord will school him thoroughly and make him sadly to apprehend how he has made bold with the treasures of the grace of God. Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid: None that has a portion in the grace of God dareth therefore allow himself in sin; but if through strength of temptation he be at any time carried aside, it is his greatest burden’.
5. Wrong teaching on assurance
In the fifth place the three-class theory is prone to give assurance to those who were never really converted. When a person professes to belong to Christ and yet lives like the world, how do we know that his profession is genuine? How do we know it is not genuine? We don’t! There are always two possibilities: he may be a true Christian in a condition of back-sliding, or it is quite possible he was never savingly united to Christ. Only God knows. Therefore when we speak of a back-slider two errors must be avoided: (1) Saying unequivocally that he is not a Christian; (2) Saying unequivocally that he is a Christian. The fact is that we do not know, we cannot know
The Bible certainly teaches that to make men consider they are Christians when in reality they are not is a great evil, and insofar as the ‘carnal Christian’ theory allows for a whole category of ‘Christians’ whose hearts are not surrendered in obedience to Christ, its tendency is to promote that very evil. Nothing could be more dangerous. Lost, self-deceived souls who should be crying out to God for that supernatural change which is made known to themselves and to the world by a changed heart and life are often found hiding comfortably behind this very theory. As long as they believe it they will never seek a real salvation. Although they profess to hold evangelical truth their position is far worse than that of natural men who know that they are not converted!
The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching ignores much biblical teaching on the doctrine of assurance, especially those Scriptures which show that Christian character and conduct have a bearing on our assurance. The short First Epistle of John was written in order that those who believe may know that they have eternal life; that is, may know that they are born of God (5.13). Throughout the Epistle John stresses the marks that accompany the new birth (3:9; 5:18). He shows that a man born again is not at home in the realm of sin, and that disobedience to God’s commandments cannot be the bent of a Christian’s life, as the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would lead us to believe. ‘For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world; and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith (5:4). ‘And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him (2:3-5).
From such texts it is clear that obedience is intimately related to assurance; if we do not live and practice righteousness we have no reason to think that we are ‘born of God’.
Again, Jesus said, ‘If you love me, keep my commandments,’ (John 15.10) not, ‘To be a spiritual Christian keep my commandments’, for obedience is for all disciples. ‘Follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14). ‘Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him’ (Hebrews 5:8, 9). ‘But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation, because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy'(1 Peter 1:15, 16).
The Bible makes it crystal clear that there is a close relationship between assurance and obedience; but the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching gives assurance to those who are at home in the realm of sin. They are classed as Christians. Many times this is a false and damning assurance because such have no biblical reason to believe that they are Christians at all.
6. A low view of sin.
Sixth: The fruits of this teaching are not new to Christianity even though the teaching appears on the present scene under a new mask. It is the old doctrine of Antinomianism. Paul attacks this in Romans 6:1, 2 when he asks, ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid…’ By implication, the answer of the three-category teaching to Paul’s question is, ‘Yes, you can continue in sin and be a carnal Christian’. And that is Antinomianism!
7. A second work-of-grace made necessary
Seventh: ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is the mother of many second work-of-grace errors in that it depreciates the biblical conversion experience by implying that the change in the converted sinner may amount to little or nothing. It goes on to say that the important change which affects a man’s character and conduct is the second step which makes him a ‘spiritual Christian’.
8. A wrong view of Christ
Eighth: The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is also the mother of one of the most soul-destroying teachings of our day. It suggests that you can take Jesus as your Savior and yet treat obedience to his lordship as optional. How often is the appeal made to the so-called ‘carnal Christians’ to put Jesus on the throne and ‘make him Lord’! When they accept Jesus as Lord, they are told, they will cease to be ‘carnal Christians’. But such teaching is foreign to the New Testament. When our Lord appeared in human form in history the angel announced his coming in the words, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). He cannot be divided. The Savior and Lord are one. When the apostles preached they proclaimed Christ to be Lord. To bow to his rule was never presented in the Bible as a second step of consecration. ‘For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Corinthians 4:5).
When sinners truly receive him they do receive him as Lord. ‘As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him’ (Colossians 2:6).
Matthew Henry, in his Introduction to the Gospel according to Matthew said: ‘All the grace contained in this book is owing to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; and, unless we consent to him as our Lord we cannot expect any benefit by him as our Savior.’
Charles Haddon Spurgeon warned his students: ‘If the professed convert distinctly and deliberately declares that he knows the Lord’s will but does not mean to attend to it, you are not to pamper his presumption, but it is your duty to assure him that he is not saved. Do not suppose that the Gospel is magnified or God glorified by going to the worldlings and telling them that they may be saved at this moment by simply accepting Christ as their Savior, while they are wedded to their idols, and their hearts are still in love with sin. If I do so I tell them a lie, pervert the Gospel, insult Christ, and turn the grace of God into lasciviousness.’
It is vital in this connection to notice how the apostles preached the lordship of Christ. The word ‘Savior’ occurs only twice in the Acts of the Apostles (5:31; 13:23), on the other hand the title ‘Lord’ is mentioned 92 times, ‘Lord Jesus’ 13 times, and ‘The Lord Jesus Christ’ 6 times in the same book! The gospel is: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’
It is the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching that has given rise to this erroneous teaching of the divided Christ. When Peter preached what we might call the first sermon after our Lord’s ascension he made it abundantly clear that we do not make Christ Lord at all: ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36). God has made him Lord! ‘For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord of the dead and living’ (Romans 14: 9). And the same grace which saves brings sinners to recognize this. But the three-category teaching invites ‘carnal Christians’ to make Christ Lord and thus become spiritual Christians. Again, we see that this is treating our acceptance of his lordship as something additional to salvation, when, in fact, recognition of him as Lord is an integral and necessary part of conversion. A. A. Hodge has written:
‘You cannot take Christ for justification unless you take him for sanctification. Think of the sinner coming to Christ and saying, “I do not want to be holy;” “I do not want to be saved from sin;” “I would like to be saved in my sins;” “Do not sanctify me now, but justify me now.” What would be the answer? Could he be accepted by God? You can no more separate justification from sanctification than you can separate the circulation of the blood from the inhalation of the air. Breathing and circulation are two different things, but you cannot have the one without the other; they go together, and they constitute one life. So you have justification and sanctification; they go together, and they constitute one life. If there was ever one who attempted to receive Christ with justification and not with sanctification, he missed it, thank God! He was no more justified than he was sanctified.”
9. False spirituality
Ninth: This teaching breeds Pharisaism in the so-called ‘spiritual Christians’ who have measured up to some man-made standard of spirituality. There ought to be no professed ‘spiritual Christians’, much less ‘super-spiritual’ ones! George Whitefield, a man who lived very close to his Savior, prayed all his days, ‘Let me begin to be a Christian’. And another Christian has truly said: ‘In the life of the most perfect Christian there is every day renewed occasion for self-abhorrence, for repentance, for renewed application to the blood of Christ, for application of the rekindling of the Holy Spirit’.
The effect of believing the truth set out in these pages ought to be that we long to see more true evangelism.
The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is, after all, the consequence of a shallow, man-centered evangelism in which decisions are sought at any price and with any methods. When those pronounced to be converts do not act like Christians, do not love what Christians love, and hate what Christians hate, and do not willingly serve Christ in his church, some explanation must be found other than calling upon them to ‘decide’ for Christ. They have already done that and have already been pronounced by the preacher or personal worker to be ‘Christians’. But when they don’t act like Christians something is wrong. What is it? The teaching I have sought to answer says that the trouble is that they are just ‘carnal Christians’; they have not made Christ ‘Lord’ of their lives; they have not let him occupy the throne of their hearts. Once this explanation is seen to be unscriptural it will also be seen to be closely connected with an initial error over evangelism itself. Too often, modern evangelism has substituted a ‘decision’ in the place of repentance and saving faith. Forgiveness is preached without the equally important truth that the Spirit of God must change the heart. As a result decisions are treated as conversions even though there is no evidence of a supernatural work of God in the life.
Surely the best way to end this evil is to pray and labor for the restoration of New Testament evangelism! Whenever such evangelism exists it is certain that men will learn that it is not enough to profess to be a Christian, and not enough to call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ (Luke 6:46). The gospel preached in awakening power will summon men not to rest without biblical evidence that they are born of God. It will disturb those who, without good reason, have believed that they are already Christians. It will arouse backsliders by telling them that as long as they remain in that condition the possibility exists that they never were genuine believers at all. And to understand this will bring new depths of compassion and urgency to the hearts of God’s people in this fallen world.
One of the greatest hindrances to the recovery of such preaching is the theory we have considered. To reject that theory is to be brought back to a new starting-point in evangelism and in the understanding of the Christian life. It is to bring God’s work into the center of our thinking. It is to see afresh that there are only two alternatives — the natural life or the spiritual life, the broad way or the narrow way, the gospel ‘in word only’ or the gospel ‘in power and in the Holy Ghost’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5), the house on the sand or the house on the rock.
There is no surer certainty than the fact that an unchanged heart and a worldly life will bring men to hell. ‘Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience’ (Ephesians 5: 6)
It is not only in the world today that evangelism is needed. It is needed in the church.
The False Teachers: Creflo Dollar
By Tim Challies
Creflo Augustus Dollar, Jr. was born in College Park, Georgia on January 28, 1962. Though he was raised in a church-going home, he did not have a conversion experience until the summer following his freshmen year at West Georgia College. Even after this experience he felt no pull toward full-time ministry as his heart was set on being a professional football player. It was only after that football career was cut short by injury that he began to consider other options. In 1984 Dollar received a Bachelor of Science degree in education and soon began work as a educational therapist. The next year he married Taffi, with whom he would eventually have five children.
While recovering from his football injury, Dollar had begun to lead Bible studies among his fellow students and he gained a reputation as a skillful and charismatic teacher. He called his study “World Changers Bible Study.” By 1986 he had determined that he was not meant to be a therapist but that the Lord was calling him into full-time preaching ministry.
He and Taffi founded a church and they held its inaugural worship service in an elementary school cafeteria. Only eight people attended that service, but the congregation soon grew and was renamed World Changers Church International (WCCI). In less than ten years the church had grown exponentially and Dollar’s sermons were being broadcast over the radio through Creflo Dollar Ministries. In 1995 WCCI moved to its current location, the 8,500-seat World Dome in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
Today World Changers Church International serves nearly 30,000 members each week through the main campus, 6,000 through an affiliated congregation in New York City, and thousands more through many satellite campuses across America.
Dollar is known for his extravagant wealth which includes two multi-million dollar homes, expensive cars, and even a private jet. Creflo Dollar Ministries made headlines several years ago when it was one of six ministries audited by U.S.Senator Charles Grassley. “My goal,” he said, “is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.” The ministry was deemed uncooperative. MinistryWatch, an organization that reviews Christian ministries based on their financial accountability and transparency awarded Creflo Dollar Ministries an F rating and has added it to their Donor Alert listing. Dollar made headlines again in 2012 when his daughter called police to their home, charging that Dollar had choked and hit her. Dollar denied the charges which were dropped after he completed an anger-management program.
FALSE TEACHING: PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Creflo Dollar is one of the foremost proponents of what has become known as the prosperity gospel. This doctrine teaches that God has promised his people financial and other forms of prosperity in this life, if only God’s people will take the necessary steps to claim it. A uniquely American creation, this false teaching has since been exported across the world where it has especially taken root in the developing world. In one of his Bible studies Dollar lays it out:
As the righteousness of God, your inheritance of wealth and riches is included in the “spiritual blessings” (or spiritual things) the apostle Paul spoke of in Ephesians 1:5. Based on Psalm 112:3, righteousness, wealth and riches go hand—in—hand. You have every right to possess material wealth—clothes, jewelry, houses, cars and money—in abundance. It is that wealth that not only meets your needs, but also spreads the Gospel message and meets the needs of others.
The Bible says that wealth is stored up for the righteous (Proverbs 13:22, New American Standard). However, it will remain stored up until you claim it. Therefore, claim it now! You possess the ability to seize and command wealth and riches to come to you (Deuteronomy 8:18). Exercise that power by speaking faith-filled words daily and taking practical steps to eradicate debt. Like God, you can speak spiritual blessings into existence (Romans 4:17). Remember, doubt keeps silent, but faith speaks!”
The way such prosperity is activated is by the planting of seeds, so that the person who wants financial prosperity must plant a seed of financial prosperity. Needless to say, such seeds are usually through a donation to a ministry like Dollar’s.
You can say, “Oh, God, I need money! The rent is due. The baby needs shoes. And what about my breakthrough?” But if you haven’t sown financial seed, how can you expect a financial harvest?
If you wanted to grow apples, would you plant cucumber seeds or pumpkin seeds? You would not! So why do people expect to receive financial increase when they purposely plant anything and everything but what is needed? They will plant hope seed, shout seed, dance seed, and even “claim it” seed! All of these are good things, but alone and without the appropriate seed, they are unproductive.1
FOLLOWERS & ADHERENTS
Creflo Dollar is one of the most prominent and most successful teachers of prosperity theology. He preaches live to tens of thousands of people each weekend and his “Changing Your World” broadcast extends to nearly every country on earth. He publishes CHANGE magazine which has 100,000 subscribers, and he has written several bestselling books. His voice extends around the world and every week hundreds of thousands or even millions of people listen to him.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
- The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement. Prosperity teachers look to God’s covenant with Abraham and see its fulfillment as providing material prosperity to Christians today. Dollar’s mentor Kenneth Copeland says, “Since God’s Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now!”
- Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty. They hold that Jesus’ atoning death provided not only for our spiritual needs but also for our financial prosperity. Thus it is only sin that keeps us trapped in poverty or anything less than abundant wealth.
- Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God. Creflo Dollar and others like him teach that giving to the Lord’s work is primarily a means of gaining further compension from God.
- Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity. Many prosperity gospel preachers, Dollar among them, teach that we, like God, have the ability to speak reality into existence when we speak in faith. Thus faith becomes a force that allows us to speak prosperity into our lives.
- Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity. Dollar writes, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass. … It is a key to getting results as a Christian.” Thus prayer is little more than a means through which we bring about our desires for wealth.
Al Mohler says it well: “Prosperity theology is a False Gospel. Its message is unbiblical and its promises fail. God never assures his people of material abundance or physical health. Instead, Christians are promised the riches of Christ, the gift of eternal life, and the assurance of glory in the eternal presence of the living God. In the end, the biggest problem with prosperity theology is not that it promises too much, but that it promises far too little. The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers salvation from sin, not a platform for earthly prosperity. While we should seek to understand what drives so many into this movement, we must never for a moment fail to see its message for what it is — a false and failed gospel.”
Source: http://www.challies.com (May 29, 2014)
Errors of the Prosperity Gospel by David W. Jones
A century ago, speaking to the then-largest congregation in all Christendom, Charles Spurgeon said,
I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, “Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?” You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.
Over the years, however, the message being preached in some of the largest churches in the world has changed—indeed, a new gospel is being taught to many congregations today. This gospel has been ascribed many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “prosperity gospel,” and “positive confession theology.”
No matter what name is used, the essence of this new gospel is the same. Simply put, this egocentric “prosperity gospel” teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy. Listen to the words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s best-known spokesmen: “I believe that it is the will of God for all to prosper because I see it in the Word, not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power to get wealth.” Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.
FIVE THEOLOGICAL ERRORS OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Recently, Russell Woodbridge and I wrote a book entitled Health, Wealth, and Happiness to examine the claims of prosperity gospel advocates. While our book is too wide-ranging to summarize here, in this article I’d like to review five doctrines we cover in our book—doctrines on which prosperity gospel advocates err. By discerning these errors regarding key doctrines, I hope readers of this article will plainly see the dangers of the prosperity gospel. The doctrines that I will cover are the Abrahamic covenant, the atonement, giving, faith, and prayer.
1. The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement.
The first error we’ll consider is that the prosperity gospel views the Abrahamic covenant as a means to material entitlement.
The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22) is one of the theological bases of the prosperity gospel. It is good that prosperity theologians recognize that much of Scripture is the record of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, but it is bad that they do not maintain an orthodox view of this covenant. They hold an incorrect view of the inception of the covenant; more significantly, they hold an erroneous view concerning the application of the covenant.
Edward Pousson best stated the prosperity view on the application of the Abrahamic covenant when he wrote, “Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the blessings of faith. . . . This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked primarily in terms of material entitlements.” In other words, the prosperity gospel teaches that the primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant was for God to bless Abraham materially. Since believers are now Abraham’s spiritual children, they have inherited these financial blessings.
Prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland wrote, “Since God’s Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now!”
To support this claim, prosperity teachers appeal to Galatians 3:14, which refers to “the blessings of Abraham [that] might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.” It is interesting, however, that in their appeals to Gal. 3:14, prosperity teachers ignore the second half of the verse, which reads, “…that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” In this verse Paul was clearly reminding the Galatians of the spiritual blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.
2. Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty.
A second theological error of the prosperity gospel is a faulty view of the atonement.
Theologian Ken Sarles writes that “the prosperity gospel claims that both physical healing and financial prosperity have been provided for in the Atonement.” This seems to be an accurate observation in light of Kenneth Copeland’s comment that “the basic principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief, and poverty on Jesus at Calvary.” This misunderstanding of the scope of the atonement stems from two errors that proponents of the prosperity gospel make.
First, many who hold to prosperity theology have a fundamental misconception of the life of Christ. For example, teacher John Avanzini proclaimed, “Jesus had a nice house, a big house,” “Jesus was handling big money,” and he even “wore designer clothes.” It is easy to see how such a warped view of the life of Christ could lead to an equally warped misconception of the death of Christ.
A second error that leads to a faulty view of the atonement is a misinterpretation of 2 Corinthians 8:9, which reads, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” While a shallow reading of this verse may lead one to believe Paul was teaching about an increase in material wealth, a contextual reading reveals Paul was actually teaching the exact opposite principle. Indeed, Paul was teaching the Corinthians that since Christ accomplished so much for them through the atonement, they should empty themselves of their riches in service of the Savior. This is why just five short verses later Paul would urge the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their needy brothers, writing “that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack” (2 Cor. 8:14).
3. Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God.
A third error of the prosperity gospel is that Christians should give in order to gain material compensation from God. One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity theologians is their seeming fixation with the act of giving. Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously and are confronted with such pious statements as, “True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life,” and, “We have been called to finance the gospel to the world.” While these statements appear to be praiseworthy, this emphasis on giving is built on motives that are anything but philanthropic. The driving force behind this teaching on giving is what prosperity teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the “Law of Compensation.” According to this law, which is purportedly based on Mark 10:30, Christians need to give generously to others because when they do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity.
As Gloria Copeland put it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000…in short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.” It is evident, then, that the prosperity gospel’s doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus taught his disciples to “give, hoping for nothing in return” (Luke 10:35), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will get a great return.
4. Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity.
A fourth error of prosperity theology is its teaching that faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity. Whereas orthodox Christianity understands faith to be trust in the person of Jesus Christ, prosperity teachers espouse quite a different doctrine. In his book The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland writes, “Faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function. . . . There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function.” This is obviously a faulty, perhaps even heretical, understanding of faith.
According to prosperity theology, faith is not a God-granted, God-centered act of the will. Rather it is a humanly wrought spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gain rather than justification before God must be judged faulty and inadequate.
5. Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity.
Finally, the prosperity gospel treats prayer as a tool to force God to grant prosperity. Prosperity gospel preachers often note that we “have not because we ask not” (Jas. 4:2). Advocates of the prosperity gospel encourage believers to pray for personal success in all areas of life. Creflo Dollar writes, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass. . . . It is a key to getting results as a Christian.”
Certainly prayers for personal blessing are not inherently wrong, but the prosperity gospel’s overemphasis upon man turns prayer into a tool believers can use to force God to grant their desires.
Within prosperity theology, man—not God—becomes the focal point of prayer. Curiously, prosperity preachers often ignore the second half of James’ teaching on prayer which reads, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3). God does not answer selfish requests that do not honor his name.
Certainly all our requests should be made known to God (cf. Phil. 4:6), but the prosperity gospel focuses so much upon man’s desires that it may lead people to pray selfish, shallow, superficial prayers that do not bring God glory. Furthermore, when coupled with the prosperity doctrine of faith, this teaching may lead people to attempt to manipulate God to get what they want—a futile task. This is far removed from praying that God’s will would be done.
A FALSE GOSPEL
In light of Scripture, the prosperity gospel is fundamentally flawed. At bottom, the prosperity gospel is actually a false gospel because of its faulty view of the relationship between God and man. Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is true, grace is obsolete, God is irrelevant, and man is the measure of all things. Whether they are talking about the Abrahamic covenant, the atonement, giving, faith, or prayer, prosperity teachers turn the relationship between God and man into a quid pro quo transaction. As James R. Goff noted, God is “reduced to a kind of ‘cosmic bellhop’ attending to the needs and desires of his creation.” This is a wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the relationship between God and man.
David W. Jones is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 Tom Carter, ed., 2,200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 216.
 Robert Tilton, God’s Word about Prosperity (Dallas, TX: Word of Faith Publications, 1983), 6.
 David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010).
 Edward Pousson, Spreading the Flame (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 158.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974), 51.
 Ken L. Sarles, “A Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (Oct.-Dec. 1986): 339.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Troublemaker (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1996), 6.
 John Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” program on TBN, 20 January 1991. Quoted in Hank Hanegraaff,Christianity in Crisis (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 381.
 Idem, “Praise the Lord,” program on TBN, 15 September 1988. Quoted in Hanegraaff, 381.
 Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory.”
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 26.
 Gloria Copeland, God’s Will is Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1973), 45.
 Other verses that the “Law of Compensation” is based upon include Eccl. 11:1, 2 Cor. 9:6, and Gal. 6:7.
 Gloria Copeland, God’s Will, 54.
 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 19.
 Creflo Dollar, “Prayer: Your Path to Success,” March 2, 2009,http://www.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329 (accessed on October 30, 2013).
 James R. Goff, Jr., “The Faith That Claims,” Christianity Today, vol. 34, February 1990, 21.
Source : http://www.9marks.org 12/5/2013
By D. A. Carson – A Synopsis.
Donald A. Carson gave the first plenary address to the Gospel Coalition conference in May 2007. Here are listener notes from his sermon available online: What is the Gospel?
The fragmentation of the church in the west has led to a fragmented understanding of the gospel.
Common Misunderstandings of the Gospel:
The gospel is said to be a narrow set of teachings about the death and resurrection of Christ, which rightly believed, “tip people into the kingdom.” After that come the real theological training and transformation, where discipleship and maturity take place. This view is much narrower than the biblical view, in which the gospel is the embracing category which holds much of the bible together, encompassing lostness and condemnation, through reconciliation and conversion, to the consummation and resurrection.
The gospel is just the first and second commandments: love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus himself insists that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. But while they are central, they are not the Gospel.
The gospel is understood to be the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the canonical gospels, separated from his passion and resurrection. However, accounts of Jesus’ teaching cannot be rightly understood without seeing how they point forward to his death and resurrection. This view reduces the glorious good news to mere religion and duty.
In the first century there was not the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, etc. It was “The Gospel” according to Matthew, “The Gospel,” according to Mark. One gospel, various perspectives.
The gospel is assumed to be, and creative energy and passion is devoted to, other issues like bioethics, politics, evangelism, the poor, etc. Our listeners are drawn to what we are most passionate about. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will teach a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus on the periphery, those matters of evangelism, justice, confronting Islam, etc.“It’s easy to sound prophetic from the margins, but harder to be prophetic from the center.”
The Right Understanding of the Gospel
The gospel by which you are saved is bound up in the fact that Christ died for our sins, was buried, raised on the third day, and appeared to many people – the apostles and others.
From 1 Corinthians 15:1-19, Carson gives a general outline of what he will say about the gospel. He will focus on eight summarizing words, five clarifying sentences, and one evocative summary.
Eight Summarizing Words:
1. The gospel is Christological. It is not bland theism or panthiesm, but Christ-centered. John Stott: “The gospel is not preached if Christ is not preached.” Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved
1. Jesus alone reconciles us to God. The gospel is not focused exclusively on Christ’s person, but also on Christ’s death and resurrection: Christ died for our sins.
2. The gospel is theological.
First, the gospel is God-centered
– God sent the son.
– the Son did the Father’s will
– God raised Christ Jesus from the dead.
Second, the cross is a historical event with theological weight.
– From the beginning, sin is an offense to God, and the one most offended by our sin is always God, and He is the One who must be appeased
– God is full of wrath against sin, and sinners stand under God’s judgment. Christ’s death propitiates that wrath so we can have peace with God: Christ died for our sins.
– God’s purpose was for Christ to die and rise, not merely die; he died for our sins, and he rose for our justification
– God’s wrath is against sin – in us. Our sin problem is personal. God pronounces the sentence of death against sin, which means death for us.
And what makes God most angry is idolatry, the “de-godding” of God, the putting of something else in God’s place. God is still jealous. Repentance is necessary, because the coming of the King brings judgment as well as blessing.
The gospel is biblical. Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; He was buried and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures. What scripture Paul has in mind is not told to us. Carson lists several possibilities for what scripture might be in Paul’s mind. Whatever it is, Paul tells us that this gospel is biblical: it is found in the Old Testament.
The gospel is apostolic. Listen to the sequence of pronouns Paul uses in 1Cor 15:11, “Whether it was I (an apostle) or they (the apostles) this is what we (the apostles) preach, and this is what you believed. I, we, they, you. This Gospel is apostolic (Carson credits J.R.W. Stott for this sequence of pronouns). As Paul lists them, there were more than 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ, but Paul repeatedly draws attention to the apostles. This resurrection gospel is what the apostles preach and what the Corinthians believed. The witness and teaching of the apostles is the gospel that all Christians throughout the ages believe.
The gospel is historical.