Distinctions in New Testament Discourse

In a previous post I proposed the gospel message (or the kerygmatic traditions) as the center of New Testament theology, not as a theme but as the historical reality behind the rhetoric and theological reasoning found in our New Testament. Now I propose a helpful distinction within the New Testament itself:

Gospel Saying vs Gospel Describing

In our New Testaments we have the four gospels, the sermons in Acts, and the brief allusions to the gospel’s actual content in Paul’s letters. But we also have sections wherein the gospel is not referred to by name, but is nevertheless the referent.

  1. The word of life (Philippians 2:16 and 1 John 1:1)
  2. The word of God (Acts 6:2, 1 Thessalonians 4:13, and Hebrews 4:12
  3. Treasure in Earthen Vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7)
  4. The gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4)
  5. The gospel of salvation (Ephesians 1:13)
  6. The message of God having no darkness in him at all (1 John 1:1-5)
  7. The message that God wants us to love one another (1 John 3:11)

These descriptions of the message of the apostles are very important because they show us what the gospel is like, what the gospel entails, what the gospel means, and what the gospel includes. But these phrases are more like descriptions of a a favorite song or novel. They are not the novel, but they may be important for understanding the novel. If I say, “‘A Study in Scarlet’ by Conan Doyle is an important introduction to the most compelling fictional friendship of all time,” I have given you important information about the book, but that is not the book. What I have said is thematically significant, but it is not even the main plot line. So, when the gospel is called “the word of life,” we might be tempted to think, “Ah, the content of gospel is that God gives us significance, saves us from death, and teaches us how to live.” When in reality, what that phrase means is that, “The message about the Jesus that we preach is the message that God uses to give you significance, save you from death, and teach you how to live.” The gospel narrative/history can be told, described, and applied with various emphases, but these emphases are not the same as the message. For instance, telling about how God is good the maximal sense (1John 1:5) is very important, but neglecting to show how that fact is demonstrated by the Jesus story (which John goes on to do) is not quite the same as saying the gospel.

Why point this out? Because in modern evangelical though we often mistake trees for the forest or the other way around.

We might reason:

  1. The gospel is the gospel of our salvation, I’m pretty sure that’s what happens when Jesus dies, so that’s the part that’s the gospel.
  2. The gospel is the word of life. Jesus preaches about life in the Sermon on the Mount, that should be the main part I preach about.
  3. John the Baptist preached about the Holy Spirit when he preached the gospel, therefore when I preach about the Spirit, I’m preaching the gospel.
  4. Jesus said that his good news was about freedom for the captives, therefore when I preach about political causes, I am proclaiming the gospel.
  5. The gospel message fulfills the Old Testament, therefore I am discharging my evangelical duties when I talk about prophecy.
  6. The gospel is contrary to certain philosophies, therefore when I refute them, I am doing none other than preaching the gospel.
  7. The gospel is about eternal life, so when I tell people that if they want to go to heaven instead of hell, they can, I am preaching the gospel.

All of these descriptions are caricatured except maybe for the first one. But it seems to me that the whole gospel can be proclaimed, explained, and applied from any of the vantage points used in the New Testament and perhaps from many vantage points used in church history. But let it be remembered that gospel descriptions are lenses, they are not the thing itself.


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