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.