Last night I attended an outstanding lecture by Dr. Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California professor of systematic theology and apologetics. His topic was “The Gospel: Good News or Good Advice?” He discussed the trend in our culture to relativise the gospel message to our felt needs, and in particular, how this relativistic gospel is vastly different from the true gospel message that was recaptured by the reformers. This is a much-needed message a culture that glorifies the gospel of self-help, life-improvement, and happy feelings. Our culture is drifting closer and closer towards the empty-self, infantile, sensate narcissism depicted so marvelously in Aldous Huxley’s vision of A Brave New World. Sadly, this drifting culture has resulted in a drifting church that is creeping towards a false Christianity that is more concerned with having your best life now than it is with being restored to right relationship with God through the cross. Our drifting church desperately needs the anchor of the true Gospel, which was basic thesis of Horton’s message.
Horton began by discussing various false relativised gospels, such as the gospel of “personal relationship with Jesus,” and the gospel of “make Jesus the Lord of your life.” Horton then proceeded from discussing these relativistic gospels to a discussion of what the true gospel is. He moved throughout the book of Romans, explaining the gospel from a reformed perspective, with a particular emphasis on our need to understand and recognize our personal sinful state before God. He argued we must comprehend our sinfulness so that we can rightly see our need, and therefore understand the good news of the atoning victory that Jesus accomplished on our behalf. He did an excellent job of explaining the doctrine of justification by faith from a reformed perspective, as well as challenging the audience to stand (or maybe “fall” is a better word) in Christ’s grace alone.
I did have few minor qualms with Horton’s presentation. Most of these problems do not have to do with what he said, but rather with what he did not say:
(1) Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. For Horton, it seems that the gospel is the message that by grace through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ on the cross sinners can be made right before God. I would never want to detract from the centrality and importance of this message, but if I am trying to be faithful to the Bible, I cannot be satisfied that this is the whole of the gospel. An examination of Paul’s usage of the word gospel (euangelion) reveals that “gospel” is used much more broadly than just referring to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, it seems that when Paul uses the word “gospel,” he is referring to God’s entire plan/program of salvation thoughout history, the core and center of which is Jesus’ substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection (see Gal 3:8, Rom 1:9, 1 Cor 15:3-8; see also Mark 1:14-15). For example, in Galatians 3:8 we are told that the gospel was preached to Abraham as “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” The gospel is not simply the message of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Rather it is the movement of God throughout history that reaches it’s climax in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. This is why Paul can say in Romans 1:9 that he serves God “in the gospel of his Son.” Paul recognized that he was now part of the movement of God that has been occuring throughout history to bless all nations. The goal of this “gospel” is the creation of a single people for God from both Jews and Gentiles (see Gal 3:8 and Eph 2:14-18). It seemed strange that Horton did not mention this broad definition of the gospel after he asked the question, “Is God a supporting actor in the movie of your life, or have you taken a supporting role in God’s drama of redemption?” (This was my favorite quote of the night by the way). The gospel is God’s drama of redemption, which we are called to be part of, and of which the core and center is Jesus’ death and resurrection.
(2) Horton did not address the political dimension of the gospel. This is something that I’ve been particularly interested in partly because I’m currently reading Seyoon Kim’s new book, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Many scholars argue that Paul’s proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” necessarily implied that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” Paul lived during a time when the Caesar was elevated to the status of a god, and pax romana (peace of Rome) was hailed as Caesar’s gift to the world. It is undisputed that certain portions of Paul’s letters (and indeed the reason he was imprisoned on occassion) were influenced by this context. I am currently undecided on the way(s) and extent that this should influence our understanding of the gospel. (I certainly disagree with those who would say that this means we should be against American military actions and American multi-national corporations). But whether or not Paul was using the gospel as a polemic against the Roman imperial cult, we should certainly understand Jesus’ resurrection as a victory over sin, death, AND the evil powers/rulers of this age–and this should be understood as part of the gospel.
(3) Horton did not address the new creational aspect of the gospel. Something I’ve noticed is that people who tend to emphasize the substitutionary death of Jesus tend to recognize their forgiveness before God, but sometimes neglect the new life they have in Christ. In the same way, people who tend to emphasize the resurrection of Christ tend to focus on the new life they have in Christ, but sometimes neglect the fact that they are forgiven. (Someday I’m going to blog on this topic). Both Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection are certainly part of Paul’s definition of the gospel, but Horton emphasized Jesus’ substitutionary death. As such, it seems that he neglected Jesus’ resurrection and therefore the new life that we have in Christ that certainly should be understood as part of the gospel. Part of the good news is that we are given new lives in Christ and God’s Spirit is placed within us to help us live a radically different kind of life (see Gal 5:22). When Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, He was inviting people to a radically different kind of life–the kind of life that one can only have by being forgiven and made a new creation. This is why in Romans 8 Paul can say that “…the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us…” (8:4). This is not talking about justification, but sanctification–the context mandates this. We are given God’s Spirit, and we are thereby given the ability to live as God intends us to live. And this is part of what makes the good news good! We are not just forgiven–we’re forgiven, made new, and born to a radically different kind of life in which we are not condemned to fail in our sins (as the person does in Romans 7). Do not misunderstand me to be saying that we can attain some sort of perfection. Rather I’m saying that part of the gospel is that we are given a new Source of life, and are able to make substantial progress in personal holiness. Righteousness is not only imputed to us–it is also imparted to us in our daily experience. And this is part of Paul’s gospel and indeed, Jesus’ gospel.
These criticisms should not be understood as indicating that I substantially disagreed with Horton. On the contrary, I found myself “Amening” to 99.9% of what he said. I just would have liked the explanation of the gospel to be a bit more well-rounded. But let’s be honest… He had limited time, and maybe I’m asking too much! So let me sum up by saying that Horton did an outstanding job. He’s a sharp guy and very engaging to listen to. In any case, Horton’s message is much-needed at the present time, and I would commend it to anyone who is interested (and to those not interested). If anyone is aware of a recording of the event that is available for download, I’d appreciate it if you commented below on where it could be found. Thanks!