In seeking to see how the gospel relates to culture, it is important to answer the question “what is the gospel?” We cannot assume that this question is easily answered. My experience on the mission field has shown that while many say that they know and believe the gospel, they are not always able to explain what it is. This raises the question of the authenticity of one’s faith if he cannot put in plain words the content of the gospel.
Why is it necessary to talk about what the gospel is before talking about its relation to culture? It is necessary as a way of reminding us, as Peter rightly says:
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (2 Peter 1:12-15).
Although we know the truth of the gospel and are established in it, we need to be reminded over and over so that we will not forget and we will be sure to pass it on. The following is an explanation of the gospel. It is not meant to be detailed but simply to lay out the most basic content. We cannot relate the gospel to any culture without knowledge of its content.
What is the Gospel?
The Gospel is about God
The gospel message begins with God and is the revelation of God to man. In the gospel, we see how God works to save sinners (Rom. 1:16). The gospel message assumes certain truths about God. These truths about God provide a better understanding of what God did and why He did it. Depending on your context, different truths about God could be explicated but here are just a few that set the ground for the gospel message:
God is holy. God does not sin, do evil or make mistakes (Num. 23:19a; James 1:13b). Because God is holy, he wants us also to be holy since without holiness, no one will see God (Lev. 19:2; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). The holiness of God means that God is totally separated from sin, because the two cannot co-exist. This is why Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of God when they sinned (Gen. 3:8). In the OT, the “holy of holies” in the tabernacle and temple was a reminder to the Israelites that God was separated from them because he was holy.
God is committed to his glory. All that God has done, is doing, and will do is all for his glory alone (Ps. 102:15; Ex. 9:16). Jesus came for the glory of God, prayed for the glory of God, and he healed for the glory of God (John 17:5, 24; 11:4). In the end, God’s goal is for the whole earth to be filled with his glory (Hab. 2:14; Mal. 1:11). He created us for his glory (Is. 43:6-7) and as those created by God; we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).
God loves us and has a plan for us. God, who is holy and cannot sin or do evil, loves us who are sinful. Because He loved the sinful world, he sent his only Son to save the world through his death on the cross (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16). God, from the very beginning, made a plan to bring salvation to sinful mankind. He chose us before the world was created to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4). God planned our salvation. He made a promise to Abraham that through his offspring, the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3). This plan or promise of God unfolded throughout the OT and was fulfilled in the NT. This offspring of Abraham is Jesus Christ and the promise is the gift of salvation to those who believe in Jesus (Gal. 3:7-7, 13-14, 16).
Summary. We see then that God is holy and separated from sin and that he is committed to his glory in all things. He loved a sinful world and made a plan to bring us salvation through his Son Jesus Christ. Now, how do we see God bringing about this salvation through his Son?
The Gospel is about Jesus Christ
Jesus is the content of the gospel. Jesus Christ is the good news of salvation. Scriptures teach that Jesus is the content of the gospel. For example, Peter’s first word in his sermon in Acts 2:22 are “Jesus, the Nazarene.” In Acts 5:42, the apostles were “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” After Paul’s conversion, “he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20). Philip preached Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:5, 35). After the persecution of Stephen, some people went to Antioch preaching “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). Paul says that the gospel is about Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:4) and in another place he says “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 4:5). It is apparent that to preach the gospel is to preach Christ, but how is this done? What is emphasized in the preaching of Christ? Again we look to Scripture to see how the apostles preached Christ. We find that in preaching Christ, they emphasized certain truths about him.
The gospel centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul explains that the things of “first importance” in the gospel he received and preached are the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The words “of first importance” mean that the gospel must necessarily be about these two facts, without which there is no gospel. Any serious student of the Bible quickly learns that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the height of God’s plan to bring us salvation. Any preaching of the gospel that excludes or minimizes these historical facts is no gospel at all. Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day. This is good news, in that Jesus’ death and resurrection are a demonstration of God’s love for us sinners (Rom. 5:8).
Paul is not alone in emphasizing the death and resurrection of Jesus as the key points of the gospel. At the heart of Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts we find the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 5:29-32; 10:39-40). During his first missionary journey, Paul emphasized the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 13:26-39). Jesus himself placed great significance on the fact that he was going to die and be raised on the third day (Mark 8:31-32. See also Mark 9:31; 10:33-34).
It makes sense, then, that the apostles would emphasize these facts in their preaching of the gospel, since Jesus himself placed emphasis on them. Paul could point to Jesus’ death and resurrection as “of first importance,” and this too ought to be our approach. In preaching Christ, we proclaim first and foremost his death and resurrection.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are saving events. Preaching Christ crucified and resurrected as simple historical facts is not enough. Someone can accept objectively that Jesus died and rose from the dead and yet not be saved. They must be preached as saving events.
His death is a saving event in that he died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). He “gave himself for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). Thus, his death is not just something that happened in history. It had a purpose, to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of light (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Jesus himself saw his own death as a saving event (Mark 10:45). Without the death of Christ, there is no redemption.
The death of Jesus is good news because deliverance from sin is exactly what we need. As descendants of Adam, we are all born in sin (Rom. 5:12). The Bible teaches that we all like sheep have gone astray (Is. 53:6), and all we deserve is God’s wrath because we are all under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9-18). We deserve death and exclusion from the presence of God (Rom. 6:23). Because of our sin, we have failed to please God (Rom. 8:7-8) and to be holy (Rom. 3:10-12). We have failed to live for God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), in that we have not loved him as we should, not trusted him as we should, and not treasured Him as we should. Because of sin, God is very angry with us (Rom. 2:5, Eph. 2:1-3) and we are thus condemned to hell (John 3:18, Matt. 22:13). So, sin makes us objects of God’s wrath. It makes us hopeless because we cannot pay the penalty for sin. Because of sin, we are separated from God forever.
Yet, Jesus Christ did what we could not do to bring us into God’s kingdom. Christ became our substitute and took our place. He carried our sins instead of us carrying them. He became the object of God’s wrath instead of us. He died so that we would not die. Scriptures teach that Christ bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24), that he became a curse for us so that we will not come under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13), that Christ became our righteousness so that in him we can be holy ( 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:19). In Christ we can glorify God (John 17:10). Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
Not only his death, but also his resurrection is a saving event. His resurrection means that we will be raised from the dead. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then we cannot believe that we will be raised from the dead. The two go together (see 1 Cor. 15:12-19; cf. Romans 6:3-5). The resurrection of Jesus assures our own resurrection. It is good news because it demonstrates victory over death. Death could not keep him in the grave and death will not keep us in the grave either (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Because he rose from the dead, we are justified – made right with God (Rom. 4:25).
The death and resurrection of Jesus fulfills Scripture. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The gospel is not Paul’s invention. It is the fulfillment of God’s revealed plan to bless the nations through Christ (cf. Gen. 12:3; Gal 3:7-9, 13-14).
That his death was in fulfillment of the Scriptures indicates that it was willed and determined by God (cf. Acts 2:23). If the death of Jesus fulfills OT Scriptures, it follows that we must seek to interpret his death in light of the OT, for it shows how God has worked in history to bring salvation to us. Jesus also understood his death and resurrection to be in fulfillment of OT Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, 46).
As we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus as saving events, it is necessary to show that this gospel is in fulfillment of Scripture. The gospel has its foundation in the OT, and that needs to be explained for there to be a better grasp of the message that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.
Proper Response to the Gospel
Repentance and Faith. It is important to know what the gospel is. It is also important to know the proper response to the gospel. This is where repentance and faith come in. The gospel about the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and in fulfillment of Scripture makes a demand on those who hear. The gospel demands repentance and faith. Paul says in Acts 17:30 that God now commands repentance. We make is clear that one must repent and turn to Christ. Repentance means turning away from sin and turning to Christ, who is Lord of our life. Therefore we cannot continue to live as if nothing has happened.
The gospel also demands faith. Faith is trusting Jesus daily for the forgiveness of our sins and for the salvation of our souls. But such trust must rest on the facts of the gospel message. Faith is a gift from God, and the way we benefit from what God has done for us in Christ (Eph. 2:8). Faith is trusting in Christ alone for the forgiveness of our sins and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us (Titus 3:4-7). Faith is treasuring Christ (Matt. 6:19-21; 13:44-46; Luke 12:20-21). Those who respond in faith and turn to Christ receive a promise. Before anyone can receive the gospel message, he must understand what is promised in the gospel. What the gospel promises to those who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and affirm him as Lord, is the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of their soul and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-41; 13:38-39; Rom. 10:9).
Having explained what the gospel is, I turn now to explain culture before showing how the two relate.
To be continued in the next two posts.