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The Gospel Inside Out
I’m afraid the title is more ambitious than my few paragraphs offer. To make my task more manageable, I offer a few idea-starters about the gospel as taught by Jesus, Paul, and the early church bishop, Athanasius.
The gospel Jesus taught
In contrast to Matthew’s and Mark’s summary of Jesus’s “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14), Luke 4:18–19 depicts Jesus preaching selectively from Isaiah 61:1–2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me
to evangelize the poor.
He has sent me
to declare liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the broke(n) with a full release,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (my translation).
When Jesus omits “and the day of our God’s vengeance” (Isa 61:2b) and rehearses God’s blessing of a foreign widow and an enemy general, he turns the gospel of God his hearers expect inside out. “He isn’t just our God and he blesses our enemies,” Jesus reveals. Their reaction, like their “God,” is one of deadly vengeance.
Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his evangelizing with the word “repent.” Apparently, even John the Baptist missed it, as Matthew 11:1–15 makes clear. Jesus says those who even barely grasp his message have far greater insight than John. John’s gospel of violent, fiery judgment, it seems, put him at odds with Jesus’s view of the nature of the kingdom of the heavens. “Repent,” then, as Jesus uses it, retains its core meaning of “shift your paradigm” with reference to God and God’s kingdom. For John, repentance focused on the personal sacrifices required for holiness; for Jesus, repentance kept its eyes on the merciful nature of God toward all persons (Exod. 34:5–7; Jonah 4:2b). “For I delight in mercy but not sacrifice; and in knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6, my translation).
Jesus’s gospel is about his Father and his Father’s nature. The Father’s nature was so misunderstood, Jesus claims no one but he knows the Father (Matt. 11:27). He then immediately invites those wearied and burdened by compromised gospels of God to come to him for rest, to take on the easy, restful yoke of learning as a disciple of his gentle humility and light burden. “No one knows the Father except the Son”: not John the Baptist, not the Pharisees or the scribes, not Moses or Elijah, not Jesus’s disciples, no one except he … and his post-resurrection disciples. The Father is known rightly and fully only through his Son (Heb. 1:1–3b).
The gospel Paul taught
Jesus’s gospel reframed a self-serving view of his Father’s compassion; Paul’s gospel applied Jesus’s message more widely. Two passages are especially rich: 2 Cor. 5:11–21 and Eph. 2:1–10.
In 2 Cor. 5:14, Paul claims that Christ’s death universally incorporates humanity. In his death, all died. When this insight becomes clear, a whole new world comes into focus. Paul knows this from his own experience: before he embraced it, he viewed Jesus as a renegade false prophet whose death was just. Once the scales fell from Saul’s eyes, he saw the new creation. He no longer saw through Adam’s blind, fearful, ashamed, sin-focused eyes. Jesus Messiah incarnated into the old, blinded, fearful, ashamed, sin-wracked Adamic humanity, embraced it and us fully and carried it and us into Death. And by God’s own unilateral act of cosmic justice, Jesus (and it and us) were raised to newness.
Paul makes a parallel point in Ephesians 2, but goes farther. In 2:1–3, Paul sets the cosmic stage: we were all dead in our sins, naturally characterized by impulsive anger, like the rest of humanity. The “we” in 2:1–3 is undoubtedly all Adamic humanity. “But,” Paul contrasts, “God, being rich in mercy, because of his abundant love with which he loved us — even while we were dead in our sins — co-enlivened us with Christ: you are rescued by [God’s] favor!” Not only did we all die with Christ, God raised us all up and seated us all with Christ. This rescue from Death is anchored in God’s favor, accomplished by God’s faithfulness, given as unconditional gift, and integral to God’s (new) creation-act.
Paul extends Jesus’s gospel to include Jesus’s cooperation with the Father in rescuing Adamic humanity from its errant view of God and the self-caused alienation “in our own minds” (Col 1:21). The rescue for all humanity has been a fait accompli since Jesus’s resurrection. The message of what God has done in Christ is proclaimed so that, by awakening to its truth, all persons can dwell in the present blessings of the new creation.
The gospel Athanasius taught
Just as Paul authoritatively interpreted Jesus’s gospel in scripture, Athanasius’s views both reflected and influenced the understanding of the early church (ca. 200–400). In contrast, Augustine’s perspectives (post-400) dominated the Latin church and, through it, the Reformers and most of contemporary Evangelicalism.
In his On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius explains that humanity, brought to life out of nothing, maintained life by keeping a clear knowledge of God’s nature (i.e., the Logos) within them. Humanity’s existence depended on an uncompromised trust and dependence on God. Once the devil deceived humanity into mistrust, humanity cut itself off from its source of life and knowledge. Thus, by degrees, humanity not only lost its ability for clear reason, it began to disintegrate into physical death and, beyond that, into the corruption of utter nothingness; that is, into Death. Return to nothingness was not a God-imposed punishment, but a God-warned natural consequence of cutting our own umbilical cord.
It was both intolerable to and unworthy of God that he would do nothing to rescue those created in his own likeness, especially because they had been tricked by falsehood, and because a neglect to rescue them would demonstrate weakness. Thus, a rescue by the Logos that had created humanity was needed. The incarnated Logos fully incorporated all humanity into his own body, joining corruptible to incorruptible, and sacrificed himself (and us in him) to death to settle Death’s claim. Since Christ is the incorruptible Logos, Death could not contain him. By Christ’s death, Death died. Because we died his death and he ours, physical death is no punishment and Death-as-annihilation is no possibility. Moreover, once Death died, Christ then offered himself (and us in him) to the Father, who raised him as firstfruits and will raise us-in-him at the final resurrection.
The Gospel inside out
The gospel of God is not an invitation. It has no steps for us to climb to seek and gain God’s favor. It is not an offer that, by accepting, we activate its benefits. No, the gospel is far greater.
The gospel is the astounding declaration that, despite having gotten God all wrong in our thinking, having mischaracterized, misrepresented, maligned, mistreated, and had malice toward him, God has never been against us. To be sure, God has been against all our fearful, ignorant, misguided, vengeful characterizations of him and their effects, but he has endured them to be with us so that we might truly glimpse him and repent. He did not leave the glimpses to chance, but manifested himself entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ and the new creation life in which we participate. The basis of the gospel has always been God’s compassionate nature toward all creation; its benefits have always been active for all persons, but its enjoyment is possible only to those whose eyes see. Repent, and believe the gospel of God!
Peace and all good to all, always.
(©2016, Brandon L. Fredenburg. Permission granted to reprint with the original title and byline. For non-profit use only.)
Brandon L. Fredenburg is a professor of Biblical Studies and assistant dean for the College of Biblical Studies and Behavioral Sciences at Lubbock Christian University. He lives, ministers, and teaches in Lubbock, Texas.