Friday, October 9, 1998

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL: Biblical and Contemporary Reflections

An Address to the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion Assembly
Held at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry
by Stephen F. Noll
October 9, 1998

Since the Lambeth Conference in August, I, and I suspect other folks as well, have been monitoring the spin which returning American bishops have put on that historic meeting. Ah, to see ourselves as others see us. What has been fascinating is that we Americans – and the Third World bishops as well – have been labeled as “conservative,” “narrow-minded,” “literalists,” and “fundamentalists”; but I do not recall seeing the most obvious explanation for why the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide – voted as they did. We and they are evangelicals. Historically, most of the colonial nations were evangelized by Evangelicals or evangelical catholics. In one of the most moving speeches in the Lambeth sexuality debate, Bishop Peter Adebiyi of Nigeria held up a Bible and said:

The CMS [Church Missionary Society] brought Christianity to Western Africa about 150 years ago. And when the CMS came, they brought the Bible, telling us that what they believe is what has come from the word of God. And so, our forefathers meticulously accepted the Christian faith and religion that was tied to the word of God and the Scriptures. Therefore, we accept the Scripture as the most authentic thing we should follow, rather than our intelligence or the way we are naturalistically.

Alister McGrath, in his recent book, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, notes that in 1942, a deliberate decision was made to use the word “Evangelical” rather than “Protestant” or “fundamentalist” when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed. McGrath continues:

Evangelical is thus the term chosen by evangelicals to refer to themselves, as representing most adequately the central concern of the movement for the safeguarding and articulation of the evangel – the good news of God which has been made known and made possible in Jesus Christ. [p. 22]

Surely, the label was also chosen because it is biblical, since evangelicals look to the Bible as the prime authority for their identity. So let me begin with some biblical, even lexical, reflections on the evangelion, the Gospel. When one looks up the word in a concordance, one makes a surprising discovery: not a single entry under “Gospel” shows up for the Old Testament. Expanding the search to include the Hebrew bisser and LXX Greek euangelizomai, we begin to pick up a few, but only a few, important references to announcing the news of God’s coming salvation. Of these by far the most significant come from the final section of Isaiah:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Taken collectively, these passages tell of a glorious hope and an inscrutable mystery. Zion, the people of God, is commissioned as the messenger of the Good News that God has come. But Zion is also the recipient of the glad tidings that God has taken up his reign. The Messiah of David is now portrayed not as a reigning king but as an herald who brings the Gospel as part of the eschatological Jubilee of the Lord’s favor.

Who is this messenger who is to come? There is one final dramatic prefiguring of the Gospel as the Old Testament comes to a close. According to the prophet Malachi, God announces:

Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before my face, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

While Malachi does not use the word mebasser ‘herald of good tidings’, his “messenger of the covenant” (mal’ak ha-berit) is a very similar phrase and suggests a similar kind of figure who appears suddenly and ushers in the day of the LORD. As in Isaiah, the passage is hopeful and mysterious. The messenger is also called the “lord” (’adon) who is coming to his temple. How can the LORD of hosts send the lord as a messenger? This is the same problem that occurs in Psalm 110, where the LORD says to “my Lord” “sit at my right hand.” Both texts beg a trinitarian solution.

I have emphasized the scarcity of the idea of the Gospel and the mysteriousness of the heralds in the Old Testament. The Gospel is, I think, the great surprise announced in the New Testament, “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9). Each of the four Gospels in its own way picks up the surprise element, but Mark’s Gospel is particularly interesting.

Mark opens with the announcement “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Where in the world does this announcement occur? I think it occurs in the heavenly world (I must admit this is not the usual exegesis). Just as the other Gospels trace the descent of the Word or of an angel, so Mark begins with a divine court setting, commissioning John as herald in the presence of the eternal Son: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way… (Mark 1:2). In this citation from Isaiah and Malachi, Mark makes one significant change, from “before my face” to “before thy face.” Mark is indicating that the Old Testament herald (John the Baptist) was commissioned to announce someone else, none other than the heavenly Lord, the Son of God Almighty.

So Jesus as the divine Son is identified with the Gospel from the beginning. Yet when we meet him he is the Servant Son who has emptied himself and is now himself the messenger of the “Gospel of God,” saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15). In Jesus’ own preaching, the gospel of God unveils the kingdom of God. The Old Testament notion of the kingdom of God is, of course, incredibly rich, coupling the theme of covenant with messianic kingship. Even in Jesus’ preaching, however, the meaning of gospel remains mysterious, parabolic, and repeatedly the disciples do not get it. According to Mark, we get mere hints as to its nature: the gospel is something worth dying for (Mark 8:35; 10:39), and it is a message that must be taken out to the nations of the world (Mark 13:10; 14:9; [16:15]).

Mark presents Jesus as the messenger of the Gospel but he leaves up in the air whether the apostles will be too. The women at the tomb are perplexed as to exactly what or who the Gospel is about, and the disciples have all fled. Why does he do this? Perhaps he is simply being faithful to the record that the disciples could not receive Jesus as Son of God until his full saving work was preached after the resurrection (this may be the implication of the longer ending of Mark). Or perhaps he is suggesting that the Gospel remains a mystery at all times, because flesh and blood cannot reveal the Son of God but only the grace of the heavenly Father.

The Book of Acts opens a new period in salvation history. Now the apostles are the heralds, and Jesus is the object of Gospel preaching: “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” To be sure, it is still the gospel of God, who is mentioned alongside Jesus Christ as Lord of all (Acts 10:36), and the kingdom is now established when the Father enthrones Jesus at his right hand (Acts 13:32-33). The apostles in Acts have already made the move to identifying “one God and one Lord” as the source and content of the Gospel.

If Acts clearly identifies the Risen Jesus as the object of the Gospel proclamation, in Paul’s writings we encounter another crucial dimension of the word: the response of faith. The call to repentance and faith in the Gospel is, of course, not unique to Paul. Jesus had said: “Repent and believe the Gospel,” and people had believed in the apostles’ preaching (Acts 8:12). But Paul claims to have received an additional special insight into the Gospel, and thus he speaks of “my Gospel”. He defines this insight clearly in the introduction to Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, (Romans 1:1-5)

Paul brings themes we have already noted - the fullness of the Old Testament idea of God’s foreordained plan of salvation and of the agent of that plan, Jesus the Son of God, and the completion of his work in the resurrection – but his emphasis comes at the end. He Paul received the commission “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” The call to world mission was simultaneously a call to preach justification by grace through faith.

We can see the essence of Paul’s gospel when it is under attack in Galatia. He explodes with a series of gospel words in chapters 1-2. He asserts that the Gospel has been given to him by revelation of God’s Son. He repeatedly speaks of the truth of the Gospel as a non-negotiable mark of the Church. And in his rebuke to Peter, he makes clear what the truth of the Gospel is, repeating it twice in what is otherwise a rather awkward sentence:

We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Gal 2:15-16)

The Gospel is not just a message about Jesus Christ but a message about our receiving him by faith. The Gospel announces that we have been accounted righteous before God and incorporated into the new humanity of his Son, and therefore we are able to respond to him with faith.

The Gospel is not only about mere faith but about “the obedience of faith” or faith working through love. Paul expresses it this way:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27)

The Good News of release from sin and death in Christ is so overwhelming that Christians will seek to imitate the apostle, whether he is present or absent.

Now I would like to turn to one final aspect of the Gospel: the call to suffering as testimony (martyria). Jesus warned his disciples that “you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18) Paul also understood bearing witness to the Gospel as involving suffering when he says to Timothy: “Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God. (2 Timothy 1:8).

The Johannine writings, and the Book of Revelation in particular, substitute the word martyria for euangelion. John describes his own prophecy as a revelation of Jesus Christ and a testimony to him. At the heart of his vision in chapter 11, he sees two prophetic witnesses: “And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them” (Revelation 11:7). This is not the end of the vision, however; after a period, the witnesses are taken into heaven, and the peoples were awestruck at this miracle and give glory to God. In his important essay “The Conversion of the Nations,” (in The Climax of Prophecy) Richard Bauckham interprets the two witnesses as symbols for the suffering witness of the church. According to Bauckham, John’s unique insight is to see that through the Church’s martyria, the harvest of the nations, not just the remnant, will turn to Christ.

Let me now sum up this lexical survey of the “Gospel.” I conclude that although there is one eternal Gospel proclaimed in the Scriptures, it is manifested “in many and various ways” and over many centuries to the prophets and apostles.

First, the Gospel is the promised announcement of the mysterious plan of God’s grace to lavish the unsearchable riches of Christ on the Gentiles (Eph 3:8-9). This plan, Peter says, was intimated to the prophets and explicated by the apostles:

The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the Gospel to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10)

One implication of the hiddenness of the Gospel is that while it is the Word of God and is announced in the Scriptures, it is not simply coterminous with the Scriptures, nor can it be deduced from them. The Gospel does, it seems to me, suggest an interpretive filter, or a canon with in the canon, by which the rest of Scripture is to be centered and understood. It also suggests that the grasping of the Gospel in the reading and preaching of Scripture must include a being grasped by God, what Calvin would call the illumination of the Spirit.

Second, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the eternal Son of God, is the preeminent messenger of the Gospel, and there is no other Gospel but the one he has brought. His Gospel is “the Gospel of the Kingdom,” a revolution in the world order by which we have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13). Yet this kingdom is itself parabolic. We may not reason our way into it, work our way into it, or even pray our way into it. We must receive it by encountering Jesus anew, saying with the centurion, “Master, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Third, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, who was buried and raised on the third day, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again to judge the quick and the dead, this Jesus Christ is the content of the Good News because he accomplished our salvation by his atoning work on the Cross and glorious Resurrection on the third day. Therefore for all eternity, he has been designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:4).

Fourth, the Gospel is a work of God’s grace. The grace of the promised salvation, the grace of the preaching of Jesus Christ, this same grace operates in our receiving salvation “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5) The obedience of faith is not an addendum to the Gospel but is the Gospel. To preach Christ is to preach “his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Eph 1:6)

Finally, the Gospel comes with a price tag, the death of God’s Son. The Gospel that preaches release to the captives also calls believers to take up their cross and follow the Master. Paul put it this way towards the end of his life: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) Specifically, the Gospel to the nations will be accomplished by the missionary zeal and sacrifice of the witnessing church.


Now if I may add a personal unscientific postscript to this reflection on the Gospel, contextualizing it in the life of the Episcopal Church in 1998. I have now been a Christian for over 30 years (baptized in the Episcopal Church as a college student) and ordained for over 25. How the time flies! I feel privileged to have been part of a revival of the Gospel in the Church over these years. Just as the Gospel itself was received in various times and ways, I would like to parcel my experience as an evangelical, a Gospel person, in three decade-long dispensations.

The first dispensation (late Sixties and Seventies) I would call the dispensation of radical grace. I was baptized, confirmed, and married all within one year’s space! Needless to say, I was trying to sort out all these wonderful new things that had happened to me. I remember reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and announcing to my newlywed wife, “Peggy, you know if Christ calls me to leave you, then I’ll have to. Uh, why are you crying?” Thoughtless, yes, but there was a certain reckless abandon that many of us experienced during the early days of the renewal movement. As we grow older and find our lives more encumbered, we need to recall our Lord’s words to Peter: “when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old… another will gird you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).

And we called it primarily the renewal movement then. “Evangelicals” were, to many of us, a foreign breed who spoke with a different accent, British or Australian. Within a few years I found myself in leadership at a large church in charismatic renewal. The grace of God was manifestly apparent (how many of our lives were shaped in the crucible of those years), but there simultaneously arose questions about the balance in the Gospel between word and Spirit. Evangelicals and charismatics in England, you may remember, produced a joint statement titled “Gospel and Spirit.” While it did not clear up every difference in theology and practice, it committed the charismatic movement to the biblical Gospel and Evangelicals to the “surprise element” of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. At the end of this period, I sensed a call to pursue academic studies in order to help form a bridge between these two groups within the Church. I have always thanked God for the clarity of this call and providing a way forward to fulfill it.

The second dispensation of the Gospel in my life (the Eighties) involved the rigors of building a theological seminary from scratch. Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry emerged out of the renewal movement of the Seventies as a sign of the commitment to a full Gospel ministry in the Episcopal Church. Again, I marvel at the goodness of God in inspiring this venture, which confounded the conventional wisdom of the day. Do you realize that Trinity is the only explicitly evangelical seminary among the Protestant mainline denominations? Can you imagine where the Episcopal Church would be today if Trinity had not been formed? Not to say we have not fallen short of the call of the Gospel often and in many ways. But all in all, I thank God for the wisdom and courage of the founders and the commitment of those who have worked and prayed for the School in the years since.

Apart from the nuts and bolts of starting a new institution, one thing we at Trinity wrestled with in the Eighties was defining our Anglican identity. Between John Rodgers, Les Fairfield, myself, and Peter Moore (see his book A Church to Believe In), we have argued that true Anglican identity is fundamentally evangelical, i.e., committed to the understanding of the Gospel of the magisterial Reformation. Under that overarching label of “small-e” evangelical, we propose, there are authentic distinctives: the catholicity of Caroline divines and an Eric Mascall, the Reformed “capital E” Evangelicalism of Simeon and Packer; the Arminian pietism of the Wesleys and Dennis Bennett; and the liberal classicism of Hooker, C.S. Lewis, and O’Donovan. Each of these distinctives is represented in our faculty and student body, and I notice that you have such a representation today at this conference. We have found it possible to work together because for all our differences, we do have a common understanding of the Gospel.

The third dispensation of the Gospel in my life has been the battle for the soul of the Church. Many of us thought that the renewal of the Sixties and Seventies would overwhelm the Church with its truth, joy and power. That did not happen. Perhaps we were naïve; perhaps we were unfaithful. In any case, by the Nineties, it became apparent that we would have to wage theological and ecclesiastical warfare on behalf of the Gospel. My own engagement included papers on inclusive language liturgies, the doctrine of Scripture, same-sex marriage, and the unity of the Anglican Communion.

I have begun to learn something of the art of polemics. One thing I learned is that by opposing false gospels one can learn something new about the true Gospel. My polemical work has helped me develop a hermeneutical approach to Scripture which I continue to call “the literal sense.” It has led me, aided immensely by the work of Brevard Childs, to experiment in the field of biblical theology with a new book on angels. Finally, it has convinced me that “small-e” evangelicals must come apart theologically to restore what the locust of revisionism has eaten of the classic teaching of the Anglican tradition.

What aspect of the Gospel will the next dispensation, the decade of 2000, highlight. One thing is sure and, I think, incredibly encouraging. The Anglican Communion as a whole has reaffirmed its evangelical identity more strongly than at any time in a hundred years. The Decade of Evangelism, which was a non-event in the West, was a time of amazing growth in parts of the Communion, and it has fostered a consciousness on the part of Third World Anglicans that they are not only the numerical majority but the theological center of Anglicanism. Richard Kew commented after Lambeth:

What took place in Canterbury was the mature fruit of the vision and sacrifice of tens of thousands who risked everything to make sure the Good News was proclaimed in distant, dangerous, and inhospitable regions.  Many died seeing little fruit… We are now privileged to marvel at the mighty trees that have grown from the tiny seeds they and thousand of others planted.

We who glory in the Gospel can rejoice over the progress of the Gospel in the rest of the world. But what will the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity mean for us in the Episcopal Church. Richard Kew goes on to address this question:

The questions that the Episcopal Church must answer in the next months are many, but their essence is, “Do we want to continue as part of this Church catholic [and, I would add evangelical]?”  “Are we committed to live with the disciplines of these new realities, or are we determined to permanently change ourselves into a funny little ‘progressive’ American cult?”

If the wider Episcopal Church will own its heritage, then our denomination will have an important role to play in the culture wars that already surround us here (of which the Clinton scandal is a bellwether). Not only that but we can greatly aid the spread of the Gospel worldwide. The Third World bishops were emphatic that they need us – and not just our money. Because we have confronted the beast of modernity – and sometime lost limbs in the process – we are in a position to help them make the transition as well.

What if the leadership of the Episcopal Church does not repent? Then I fear it will be a time of sacrificial testimony for many of us who love our church. We will have to make hard choices. Patient endurance in pastoring individual congregations and dioceses, keeping them safe from the wolves. The painful decision to abandon property and to incur the label schismatic. These are unpalatable options, but the one thing we evangelicals cannot tolerate is a church without the Gospel.

I do not know what the next decade will bring for evangelicals in the Episcopal Church. One thing is clear: the God of the Gospel is a God of surprises, a God of incredible grace and mercy. Whatever earthly anxieties we may have for the future, we are called back to the immutable character of the God of the Gospel, and we can join Paul in his great doxology:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith - to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27)

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