Not That There Is Another Gospel, But…

Cursed Angel

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-9).

What is the Gospel? I am in an interesting situation. I am preaching June 2 at Hope Church in Holland MI. This is my home church. It is a great place! These are the people that have taken care of our family over the last two years during my often agonizing search process. It is my first time preaching there. It is also the 4 year anniversary of our family joining Hope and of my finally picking a denomination and coming under care for ordination in the Reformed Church in America (another long arduous process that took place during seminary). So this is also de facto my 4 year anniversary as a member of the RCA. Oh… I digress.

See I have a bit of a conundrum. For multiple reasons, I want to do a great job and knock their socks off. I also want to preach the gospel. I believe this is the first and most important task of any preaching event. But what is the gospel? I also have a knack for opening up the Lectionary and picking the most difficult text for my preaching text on any given week. I guess I like to push myself.

The week of June 2 the Lectionary passage I am focusing on is Galatians 2:1-12 where Paul says more than once: if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! ‘Even if it’s a flippin’ Angel,’ says Paul! (my paraphrase). This is not very nice stuff! Is this the same Paul who so eloquently described love as patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude and then concluded without love I am nothing? Perhaps a little historical  critical insight will allow me to point out that Paul could be a bit of an old curmudgeon at times, when rebuking folks who disagreed with him.  And perhaps in my sermon some historical context can help explain Paul’s seemingly excessively harsh tone.  See some Jewish followers of Jesus were insisting that Gentile followers of Jesus had to be circumcised and observe Jewish feast days, holidays and other customs: essentially become Jewish. But drawing focus on such cultural distinctiveness – even if it was deeply religious in origin – did not dovetail to well with Paul’s message that there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. While this might help explain Paul’s visceral response, no amount of politeness could get us around the exclusivity in Paul’s proclamation. And yet…

The Sunday that I will be preaching on this passage, Hope Church is also observing  a community wide effort to bear witness to our unity in Christ called: One Lord. One Church. I am preaching on this exclusivity filled text on a Sunday intended to draw focus to the catholicity (or universality) of the church. This is a day to effectively say: ‘Despite our differences in belief and practices we are one in Christ.’ We will be participating with Christians from various denominations and non-denominational groups with different emphases and yes I would be willing to bet Christians who would sum up the Gospel differently than me or the staff or consistory at Hope church. In fact, I would even be willing to wager that if you took 10 people from Hope and 10 People from the church across the road that is participating we could probably come up with 20 different summations of the Gospel. Not that there is another Gospel, but…

What is the Gospel? Is trying to offer a brief summation futile? Is it even possible (wise or practical) to offer a brief summary when we are talking about a God communal in nature, dwelling among us, for our sake and for the sake of all things that God is pleased to be reconciling to God’s self in Christ?

What say you?

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28 thoughts on “Not That There Is Another Gospel, But…

  1. I have a little trouble with the word “gospel” (although, of course, not the concept!) Obviously I can capably translate it into “good news.” It’s just that the word is sooooo baggage-laden. In the concept of biblical studies it means one thing; in Pentecostal settings, it means another; in theologically liberal settings, still another; I use it one way; it seems to mean something completely different in most (so-called) “Christian” tracts, etc. etc.

    To make matters worse, I think there’s a distinction between eschatological good news and here-&-now good news. Even more confusing – what’s “good news” to you and good news to me might vary dramatically depending on our situations.

    As uncomfortable as I am with the word, I’m actually REALLY comfortable with the ambiguity of it all. I guess I’d boil it down to: (1) God is good, (2) People are sinful, (3) Sin injects all sorts of problems into the world (and those problems are compounded over time and generations and because of our shared humanity, we experience the ramifications of both personal sin and others’), (4) Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and ongoing-intercession are the cure to those problems (and we are brought into that cure through the Holy Spirit), (5) the cure – though effective – is sometimes experienced now, and other times only after that great transition we call “death.”

    Too much? 🙂

    Grace and peace,
    `tim

    • Thanks Tim, I have trouble with the term too. As illustration of the kind of thing you are talking about with different groups each meaning something different when they say gospel, the other day I was told by a “friend” on Facebook, “Maybe instead of trying to get a ministry position in the corrupt ungodly church system in the US, you should get your butt out on the street and preach the gospel.” Having roots in the same quasi-Charismatic church, I have a pretty good idea of what she might mean. But it is certainly not what I have come to know as the gospel.

      I like your definition. I like that it starts with an affirmation about God! I struggle the fact that the first statement it offers about humanity is about sin. While I do not believe in a literal or linear creation->fall narrative, I do take what I understand to be part and parcel it’s meaning seriously: And that is that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and God declares that humanity is good. In fact very good! I think this precedes the sad reality of our sinfulness/fallenness/brokenness – if not historically in a paradisaical garden – certainly ontologically. So I would want to say something about our ontological likeness to God first. Then I would want to say something about our ontological otherness to God. We are not God and therefore not eternal nor perfect. Then I would want to talk about how sin exacerbates the problem of our otherness for a God with enough to lavish on God’s creation for an eternity. So God bridges the ontological gap that has been complicated, widened and deepened by sin – like you say over time and generations and because of our shared humanity – in the person and ongoing work of Christ.

      I also think it is near impossible to talk about the good news without talking about covenant. And covenant begs us to talk about community, because the God communal in nature always calls a community – even when calling persons, its for the sake of a people. Whether it is Abraham and his offspring called to be a blessing to all the families of the earth or a deceiver who wrestles with God only to have his name changed to one that is symbolic of a whole people wrestling with God or God dwelling among us in Christ and disseminating his followers to the ends of the earth. And I also think we have to talk about sacraments. Even if we mistake them for mere symbol, they testify to the truth revealed in Christ: Heaven and Earth have been inextricably intertwined in the person and work of Christ. And what God has joined together let no man separate.

      Sorry, I think my comment is now longer than my post. But it gets to the point of my post: both that the news is so good that it is inexhaustible and that because of perspective (and unfortunately sin) our definitions will always be incomplete; and sometimes it will be wrong in places.

      • Wayne,

        A couple of responses… I start with the sinfulness of humanity because it’s our natural, post-fall state. The problem is, I don’t think it’s possible to hang too much on the goodness of humanity’s original state without believing in an literal original state or a literal fall. (I believe in both, so that’s not a problem – many people don’t… which, I think, causes a number of problems).

        In the end, the grand scheme is pretty simple: I understand Christianity to teach a literal perfect original state (for humanity, earth and heavens). A fallen humanity which effects the earth (and perhaps the heavens). Christ (see above). Then, eventually a literal renewed state for humanity, earth and heavens (b/c of Christ’s work).

        Community is important, and I’d certainly stay away from the hyper-individualism common today, but I don’t think it’s a first-level issue to “gospel.” Covenant is, but only in as much as the current covenant is unique in placing the whole human responsibility in the person of Jesus. (unlike the previous covenants which were placed in the community of God’s people). These things are important, but secondary.

        Goodness of God…Fallenness of humanity… Newness in Christ. That’s all we need at the most basic level. If we add much more to that and it’s not “good news,” it’s “a confusing (albeit potentially hopeful) dissertation” that most people aren’t going to take the time to care about.

        Grace and peace,
        `tim

      • Tim, I am scratching my head with befuddlement that you do believe in literal original state or a literal fall. I don’t know if I want to push that conversation further in this space. But I certainly hope for the chance to have a beer or cup of coffee with you sometime in person and hear more about this. I will simply say for me the literal reading seems way more problematic, textually, morally and scientifically.

      • No sugar necessary… 😉

        All I mean by #5 is that the “Newness in Christ” (to reference my previous response), is sometimes experienced in the here-and-now, and sometimes not experienced until the so-called “here-after.”

        Forgiveness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation…. these are all parts of the renewal we have in Christ. Sometimes we experience them now. Sometimes we have to wait until our own resurrections (new bodies, new earth, new heavens). I don’t know why God allows them here sometimes… and sometimes not. I only know that I’ve seen and experienced that reality.

        I *do* believe that it’s the Christian’s responsibility make things as much a reality on “this side” as possible… but because of the fall, our effectiveness is limited. Nonetheless, we do so as part of our faithfulness, as an act of worship, and as a expression of our thankfulness….

        I draw practical equal signs between Eden, the OT concept of “Shalom,” Jesus’ “Kingdom of God,” and the eschatological “New Heavens and New Earth.” To some level we get glimpses and experiences of them in the midst of all the sin and falleness of the here-and-now…. to a greater degree, we will only experience them *in fullness* after the resurrection.

        Grace and peace,
        `tim

      • Tim, would I be correct to read your sentiments that some experience Forgiveness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation in this life and some do not until the “hereafter” as pointing towards universalism? I certainly have universalistic hopes. But I remain fairly convinced that lack of forgiveness and reconciliation will be the eschatological state for some. What scares me is that most of the warnings of impending judgement seem directed at those who appear to have Forgiveness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation in this life but do not.

        As for equal signs between the garden and Jesus’ kingdom, I think we gained more in Christ than we lost in Adam. We started in a garden and await a heavenly city. In fact we wait the return of one who is prophet, priest, and king. These are all images that are predicated in the post-garden human experience: the need for a liaison to communicate between God and humanity, the need for priest to make supplications on behalf of the people, the need for political leadership which God seemingly at first rejects than concedes to. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think God *really* changed God’s mind. And I certainly believe that Christ is the lamb that was slain before the foundations of the world (I am no open or process theist). But I do believe the picture painted of the end is more magnificent than that of our beginnings. But I do agree God will have the Shalom desired in the garden and throughout the Old Testament. The only way I can reconcile that with this motif of eschatological judgement is to believe in some form of annihilation, which frankly makes me sick to my stomach. So if you are a universalist, please try to convince me?!?! 🙂

      • Wayne,
        I’m not a universalist, so even though I think I could probably make a solid argument for it, I’m probably not the guy to convince you.

        I’m simply speaking experiencially. Some aspects of gospel are experienced in richness and power now, some aren’t. I hold expectant hope that those we don’t experience before our resurrections, we will experience in the new earth and/or heaven.

        Grace and peace,
        tim

      • Wayne, my previous reply was written on my phone, now that I’m back at my computer for a few seconds, I thought I’d respond to one of your other statements: I do believe the picture painted of the end is more magnificent than that of our beginnings.

        Here’s one of the places we differ. I don’t really view the end as more magnificent than the beginning. Both, it seems to my studies, are states of perfect communion with God and other uninhibited and unblemished by sin and its ramifications. With this exception: the renewed Heaven and Earth – I believe – will not have the potential for another “fall” as the original one did.

        Note: This view means that I believe there will be work after the resurrection (just as there was prior to it) rather than merely hanging around, floating on the clouds. Relationships happen in context and perfected relationships will still be contextual.

        Grace and peace,
        `tim

      • Thanks Tim! I appreciate both comments. I think we share very similar visions of what life as communion with God is and what it looks like now and in the life of the world to come. But I also think you are right that we have found one area where we differ, perhaps significantly?

        Do you think one reformer has ever said to another before: I find your reading of the biblical text too literal and your reading of history not supralapsarian enough?

  2. As far as the human part of the gospel, I summarize it this way: “The gospel is the good news that YHVH is redeeming a people to himself.” Many great things are included in this, but I think this is the umbrella-story over all of the other details.

    • Keith, thanks for reading and interacting. Following the tradition of (at least some) of our Jewish kindred, I try never to speak or write the Tetragrammaton (unless forced to in a Hebrew paper for seminary). But I love that your definition also starts with God and God’s purposes for creation. I also appreciate that it is communal (God is calling a people to God’s self not a collection of individuals). But I am very curious as to what you mean by the phrase “as far as the human part of the gospel.” What is this human aspect in juxtaposition to? You seem to speak a good deal to the divine intent already. I am just curious.

      • I am bummed that the Jews didn’t speak the Tetragrammaton. God told them to speak it, told them to call him by it, and out of their fear of misuse they went so far as to stop using it. (The roots of Pharisaism go soooo far back!) And solely because they did not follow God’s command to call him by that name, and to take oaths by that name, we have lost our ability to pronounce it. Because we no longer know how it was pronounced – the tradition was lost.

        I specify YHVH because I wanted to be clear that I am not referring to the trinity (or to other parts of it) when I defined “gospel”. It’s all about YHVH. (And that’s where *I* have been influenced by Judaism.)

        I specified “the human part” because there is another part to the gospel: the redemption of the earth and the cosmos. The very ground we live on yearns for redemption and yearns for justice. Just as the things God made in the first five days of creation were “good” and were corrupted by the fall, so they will be redeemed and made “good” once again. (This is a bit of Reformed theology that I still affirm.)

      • Hey thanks for the clarification man. I definitely affirm what you are saying about the earth and the cosmos, etc awaiting the redemption of all things.But I don’t think that is just a Reformed thing. I think it is a proper emphasis of any theology shaped by the palpable expectation of the New Testament writers.

        I think I see where you are coming from and where you are going with your views on saying God’s name. This is probably not the time or place to have a discussion/disagreement about the merits of Nicene orthodoxy. Perhaps sometime over coffee or beer or something.This thread is already getting too long. I will only say for now that if we do disagree about the Trinity it probably stems from more than just our reading of the biblical texts, but form deeper disagreements about what the texts are and how they are to function in the first place, as well as the nature and authority of the church and the value of tradition.

  3. Your post reads more like a non-denominational problem rather than a RCA (the church you are preaching in and seeking ordination) one. Seems to me that at some point you have to pick a tradition (i.e. a set of people) and preach the gospel as defined by your community. If you don’t find that “version” of the gospel convincing, then work within the community. If the gospel is one thing it is not a popularity contest. Paul understood there is something at stake in what you believe and how you live and he was willing to pick a fight over the authentic gospel. I’ve never heard a good or even interesting “polite” sermon where one tries to erase or pretend that there are no differences and that difference do not matter. With all due respect, your closing thought reads more like a 19th century German liberal than a 21st. century RCA pastor. If the gospel does not have a shape or any defining characteristics besides “unity” then whats the point? I can find unity in a lot of places. 🙂

    • Matt, I think maybe you misread my post a bit. I do not think I have a problem really. True I say I have a bit of a conundrum. But I thought it was clear that I am being a bit playful. The purpose of this post was to draw attention to the fact that there are certainly distinct and exclusive characteristics at the heart of the gospel – that includes both truth claims and practices – and yet there are some 2 billion Christians in the world with beliefs and practices somewhat distinct from each other.

      To the degree that this is a problem, I don’t think it is a non-denominational one but simply the reality of life in the 21st century, maybe reality of life in a less than perfect world at any time or place. Perhaps this is why we see a movement from the earliest New Testament Epistles’ emphasis on the church as local body to the later Epistles’ (like Ephesians and Colossians) emphases on the church universal and the cosmic character of God’s redemptive plan, to the manifestation of bishops and chain of command very early on in the life of the post New Testament church.

      I am not sure what you mean about a non-denominational problem, but in my experience non-denominational churches often have a much more narrow statement of what the gospel is and implicit or explicit definitions of who is “in” and who is “out” than most of the rest of the Church universal (Orthodox, Catholic or mainline denominations). While the RCA certainly has its distinctive characteristics it has always placed plenty of emphasis on the fact that it is part of something much larger than itself. And it has typically referred to its standards as “faithful and historic witnesses of the Christian faith” which is why unlike the CRC the RCA does not update the language of its confessional standards. These both stand in contrast to other more sectarian Reformed communities that place much more emphasis on distinctively Reformed reformed beliefs, especially as expressed in the 16th and 17th century.

    • I just re-read your comment and I am not sure what you mean to imply with the 19th century liberal remark. But I can clarify what I thought was clear in my closing remarks: I think the gospel is incredibly robust in the hope it offers and inexhaustible in the richness of it’s mystery and expressing the gospel concisely is complicated by our partial perspectives as well as sin. It is a testament to the richness of the gospel and the futility of endeavors to sum it up in brief pithy statements (what I would call bumper sticker theology). This seems very Reformed to me as classically anytime Reformers set out to define the gospel it takes at least a year’s worth of Lord’s days or 37 articles. I was drawing to my the words of my Orthodox fried’s priest who says, “‘Whenever someone says the main thing about the gospel or the main thing about Christianity is …’ the blank will always be something true and something when taken in isolation apart from all of the other parts of the gospel will always be heresy.” For example Jesus died for my sins to the exclusion of talking about God’s redemptive plan for all of creation. Or talking about God’s communal nature to the exclusion of talking about God being one.In my final sentence I am quoting Colossians 1:20.

  4. I was watching this funny Seinfeld episode where a few men the characters knew were trying to be macho and then getting hurt in the process. What struck me was that Jerry (I think it was him) visited these guys in the hospital multiple times. I know it’s just a show but it touched on the convention that back then hospital visitation was common, common enough that it made a plot device in a show. From what I hear it’s a lot less common for non-family to visit those in the hospital.

    So you ask what does that have to do with “the gospel”. I think things like that are the “meat and potatoes” of the gospel and when Christianity loses them they are losing legitimacy in the next generation’s eyes. To paraphrase a Thomas Edison quote, “most people miss the gospel because it is dressed up in overalls and looks like work”.

  5. intercision, thank you so much for reading and commenting! Thank you for reminding us that there is an intrinsic “go and do likewise” component to the gospel. I can’t say if things were really different in the 90’s hey day of Seinfeld, but having interned as chaplain at a hospital in recent years I can testify to the fact that people rarely get visitors beyond family, the hospital chaplain and the calling pastors of their churches.

  6. Doesn’t the Bible hand us “different” gospels? The gospel according to…

    Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all selected stories and ordered them in a way that they thought best revealed the truth that Jesus was God’s Son and that God’s kingdom began to arrive through him. Believe it!

      • Thanks Peter! Do you mean that Matthew, Mark Luke and John are not just an easily synthesized theological omelet but each writer might actually add his own unique flavor that can get lost or distorted when we throw them all in the same frying pan. *gasp* next you’ll tell me that in addition to slightly different ordering of events, each brings a unique theological perspective as well.

    • The Bible itself does not hand us “different” gospels. “The gospel according to…” were titles added by men long after these books were written. I also think calling the gospels “gospels” is a misleading title… Exodus was a “gospel” too, if you really think about it. (The story of Jesus’ life is not “the gospel”.)

      • Keith you point is well received that there are multiple good news motifs in scripture of God’s activity in the world. And surely the Exodus would be one of them!

        I think the point Peter was trying to make was less about what we call those four books and more about them each having their own theological nuances and ordering of events (at times standing in tension with each other). Yet these all point to the same truth that God has revealed in Christ: the one in whom and for whom all things were made, the lamb slain before the foundations of the earth.

  7. Wayne,

    I love how you think so deeply, but on one level, I’m wondering if your question of whether or not there is “another gospel”, or “one gospel” to phrase it differently, is a moot question. The fact is, each person will share their gospel story differently. Each denomination lives the gospel out in a different way. We will never get a consistent story across the board–although I don’t think this is what you’re trying to obtain.

    My point is, as long as your story contains the “high points” of the story God has given us, and the story we are a part of, we’re golden. The longer I serve in this ministry context, the more I become convinced that our own personal faith journey is the most powerful outreach/discipleship/evangelism tool we have. No, we’re not going to get everything right. No, we won’t always understand everything. But thanks be to God, we are part of that gospel anyway (by the way, I also tend to not care for that word).

    For me, the gospel is that God created me in God’s image. As someone who lives in a very concrete way with a broken image of God (I live it out everyday in my body), this news is wonderfully comforting. However, it’s already been said that this image and everything else God created has been broken by sin–however it entered the world. But God, in his great love for us, created a way to reconciliation and restoration through Jesus Christ, in whom resides all hope and eternal life.

    I stand in awe of God’s ability to restore what has been lost, destroyed, broken, burned, and stolen. I’m starting my fourth rodeo of counseling as I uncover yet another layer that God wants to restore. And for the longest time, I didn’t even know that layer existed. It is hard, painful work that I wish I didn’t have to do, but I know that God, my restorer, will do something through it. More than anything else, my God is the God who restores. Others will define God with another word that reflects their own story.

    • Thanks Jill! I quite agree with you! I think the broader context of the Galatians passage that I am working with supports that as well. Paul’s whole case for his authority and the validity of his gospel rests on his experience of the risen Jesus. So sure is he of his experience that he says even “we or an angel from Heaven” proclaims something different let them be damned! Paul is so sure of his experience of Jesus that he says even if we contradict this in the future don’t believe us. We there is “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me” (Galatians 1:1-2). That might be more startling than his condemnation of an angel that dares contradict what he is preaching now. Paul spends more talk talking about his call, his journey, his relationship to the other disciples and his rebuking of Peter than he does explicating his reading of the Abraham narrative.

      And what is Paul’s gospel? By the time we get to the end of Galatians it is: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” By the time we get to Romans (only counting the 7 letters that consensus attributes to Paul) he has uses the phrase “in Christ” 165 times and the similar phrase “in the Spirit” about 20 times. It is communal no doubt! So much so that Paul rebukes Peter for going back to his Jewish roots and keeping Kosher instead of keeping common table fellowship with the Gentile believers. But it is also a deeply personal experience of Jesus, this gospel that Paul preaches: one where we die and rise again with Christ in baptism. We put on the mind of Christ. Paul even goes so far as to say that it is no longer he who lives but Christ living in him! Union! In fact since this is the angriest we see Paul get (going as far as to wish his enemies would castrate themselves) I think it is probably a fair reading to say that at least part of the reason Paul is so enraged is because a group of Jesus followers are teaching something that so starkly contradicts Paul’s experience of Christ.

      • Wayne, I love your wrap-up here:

        Paul even goes so far as to say that it is no longer he who lives but Christ living in him! Union! In fact since this is the angriest we see Paul get (going as far as to wish his enemies would castrate themselves) I think it is probably a fair reading to say that at least part of the reason Paul is so enraged is because a group of Jesus followers are teaching something that so starkly contradicts Paul’s experience of Christ.

        I think you’re absolutely right. I never thought about Paul getting so angry because of the fact that the very “Jewishness” of the outsiders’ message contradicts his salvation experience–and Paul definitely had an experience! I mean, here was this guy that was so gung-ho for his Jewish faith that he KILLED people for it! And then Jesus comes to him personally and throws everything into a tailspin. It certainly makes me look at Galatians a bit differently. So timely too, since I’ll be touching on Galatians in my Bible study today.

        I also really really appreciate how you put union with Christ so simply. I have yet to read Todd Billings’ book on the subject (I have it), but this is a concept that seems so abstract to me. Your simple statement of how Paul experiences Christ has lent me a bit more understanding. Thank you!

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