*Unless otherwise noted, quotations from Acts are from the KNT (NT Wright) translation*

If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” —St Paul, Romans 10:9 (NIVUK)

“In the prevailing climate of subjectivism the affirmation of the gospel as public truth is greeted with skepticism. “What do you mean by ‘gospel’? A great variety of religious ideas have been—at sundry times and places—offered under this title. Has not this been so from the beginning? … All religion, including the Christian religion, is an ever changing affair, and it is futile to appeal to something which lies behind the Christian religion as we now have it—’the gospel.’” What is to be said in response to this often repeated criticism?

Plainly, Christianity is a constantly changing phenomenon. The gospel, on the other hand, is news about things which have happened. What has happened has happened, and nothing can change it.” —Lesslie Newbigin, To Tell the Truth, p 5-6

“Gospel” is a word that means “good news”.  Most of us in today’s Western culture need little convincing that we are in need of good news. Hopelessness seems pervasive; yet Christians claim to have good news that gives them hope. What is it?

“The centre of our hope is nothing other than Christ Himself.” —Lesslie Newbigin, Sin and Salvation, p 117

Too often when we ask the question, “but what is the gospel?”, the answers we are given are nothing more than the answerers’ favourite atonement theory. But if we look through the accounts of the early Christians proclaiming the “gospel”, we see,

  1. that the heart of their message was Jesus’ resurrection as a fact, with eye witnesses to verify it; and
  2. that through the resurrection, God has declared that Jesus is the rightful Lord and judge of the whole world and has begun to set the world right again–this includes a call to everyone to turn from (repent of) the prevailing ideas of their culture which are opposed to justice, peace, life; the way of God.

Although not from Acts, I included the verse from Romans 10:9 at the beginning of this post because it seems to be a good, concise summary of exactly what we see preached in Acts: the resurrection, and Jesus as Lord.

We will look at some of these accounts from Acts below.

(1) To the culture that murdered “the Just One…the Prince of Life”

The first time, after Jesus’ resurrection, that St Peter stood up before the same crowd that had conspired to have Jesus killed, he told them:

“Jesus of Nazareth was a man marked out for you by God through the mighty works, signs, and portents which God performed through him right here among you, as you all know. … and you used people outside the law to nail him up and kill him. But God raised him from the dead!

This is the Jesus we’re talking about! God raised him from the dead and all of us are here witnesses to the fact!” (Acts 2:22-24, 32)

Then he called the crowd to action, saying, “Turn back! Be baptized (washed)–every single one of you–in the name of Jesus the Messiah, so that your sins can be forgiven… Let God rescue you from this wicked generation!” (38, 40)

The next time St Peter addressed the crowd, he told them:

“You denied the holy one, the Just One… and so you killed the Prince of Life. But God raised him from the dead, and we are witnesses to the fact.

You acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did. … So now repent, and turn back, so that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshment may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he will send you Jesus… He must be received in Heaven until the time…when God will restore all things.” (3:14-15, 17, 19-21)

 

(2) To those who fear God and do what is right

When St Peter taught the gospel to those who, we are told, were “devout…revered God…gave alms generously to all the people, and constantly prayed to God”, his message was:

“In every race, people who fear [God] and do what is right are acceptable to him. He sent his word … announcing peace through Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all!

God anointed this man, Jesus of Nazareth, with the holy spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were overpowered by the devil, since God was with him, We are witnesses to everything that he did… They killed him by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day, and allowed him to be seen… We ate and drank with him after he had been raised from the dead. And he commanded us to announce to the people, and to bear testimony, that he is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. … Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (10:2, 35-36, 38-43)

Although here we do not see an explicit call to repentance, when the people believed it was reported that, “God has given [them] too, the repentance that leads to life.” (11:18)

(3) To the culture that is ignorant of God

When St Paul went to the Greek city Athens, he began to dispute with some of the philosophers there.  We are told he was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”.  Part of his message was that through Jesus, God–the true God–has shown himself to us:

“…we ought not to suppose that the divinity is like gold or silver or stone, formed by human skill and ingenuity. That was just ignorance; but the time for it has passed… Now, instead, [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has established a day on which he intends to call the world to account with full and proper justice by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (17:29-31)

To the Greek city Lystra, St Paul told the crowds who brought oxen to kill as sacrifices:

“We are bringing you the wonderful message that you should turn from these foolish things to the living God, the one who made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them. In earlier generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, but even then he didn’t leave himself without witness. He has done you good, giving you rain from heaven and times of fruitfulness, filling your bodies with food and your hearts with gladness.” (14:15-17)

What is the Gospel, then?

Notice, as we observed above, each time the gospel was shared, the message centred on the resurrection of Jesus as a fact, and what it meant God was doing in our world.

Jesus showed us what God is really like: “doing good and healing all who were overpowered by the devil”, “the Just One… the Prince of Life”, “announcing peace”.  We see that God was always good, “giving you rain from heaven and times of fruitfulness, filling your bodies with food and your hearts with gladness”, but now through Jesus, we know God clearly.

God had promised before Jesus came that one day he would set the world right. For example:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign … over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.” (Isaiah 2:4; 9:6-7 NIVUK)

The resurrection is the beginning to this restoration of our world. But as we saw above, first comes a time when people are given the opportunity to turn to God–with an emphasis, as we saw, on turning from the corporate sins and injustices of our prevailing culture; the spirit of hatred and violence that conspired to kill the Prince of Life, and of ignorance of the true God and His way of peace (the same spirit of violence and injustice and rejection of God’s ways is active in our own culture, and of this we, too, need to repent).

On understanding corporate sin, Lesslie Newbigin has written: 

“Hitherto we have been thinking about sin in individual terms – as the sin of a single man. But our human life is lived in groups – families, tribes, nations, societies. We do not live alone, and we do not sin alone. As nations and societies we have a joint responsibility for many grievous sins. These are the sins of which we are usually unconscious. …in many of these things we cannot fix the whole responsibility on any one person. The whole society is corporately responsible. Thus we have to use the concept of ‘corporate guilt’. Many of the most terrible forms of sin are those which come under this heading – not the sins which individuals commit and which all good men condemn, but the sins in which all men are involved and about which only very few men feel a sense of guilt and responsibility. Thus for seventeen or eighteen centuries after Christ the custom of slavery was continued in Christian countries, and no one thought that it was wrong. But it was wrong, and it brought forth the harvest of sorrow, suffering, and death which sin always brings. Society was corporately guilty. Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries men began to see that it was wrong, and to rouse others to a sense of guilt, so that the sinful practice could be stopped.

We have to apply this concept of corporate guilt to the whole human race. Just as families, nations and societies are corporately guilty of many sins, so the human race as a whole is corporately guilty of sin against God.” —Lesslie Newbigin, Sin and Salvation, p 36-37

On believing the resurrection, Newbigin wrote:

“The resurrection is, of course, the point at which the question ‘What really happened?’ becomes most pressing. To believe that the crucified Jesus rose from the dead, left an empty tomb, and regrouped his scattered disciples for their world mission can only be the result of a very radical change of mind indeed. Without that change of mind, the story is too implausible to be regarded as part of real history. Indeed, the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point. 

…But we take leave of serious historical integrity if we replace the record of the first witnesses with myths about various psychological experiences as the origin of the story. There is a gospel to announce today because in the light of the resurrection the whole story of Jesus can be seen not as a series of ghastly misunderstandings and disappointments but as the supreme action of God’s holy love

And when the Christian Church affirms the gospel as public truth it is not engaged in a self-serving exercise. It is not simply promoting its own growth, though surely the Church rejoices when there are more people who are grasped by the truth as it is in Jesus and are committed to following the true and living way that Jesus is. But when the Church affirms the gospel as public truth it is challenging the whole of society to wake out of the nightmare of subjectivism and relativism, to escape from the captivity of self turned in upon itself, and to accept the calling which is addressed to every human being to seek, acknowledge, and proclaim the truth. For we are that part of God’s creation which he has equipped with the power to know the truth and to speak the praise of the whole creation in response to the truthfulness of the Creator.”—Lesslie Newbigin, To Tell the Truth, p 10-11, 12-13

And, on sharing the gospel in our culture, NT Wright has written: 

“But how can the church announce that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil, corruption, and death itself have been defeated, and that God’s new world has begun? Doesn’t this seem laughable? Well, it would be if it wasn’t happening. But if a church is working on the issues we’ve already looked at—if it’s actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption in art and music, and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community—then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense.

So what account can we give, within this theology of new creation, of what happens when the gospel takes root? It happens again and again, thank God: people discover, firing up within themselves, the sense that it does make sense, that they really believe it, that they find it transforming the way they are thinking and feeling about all sorts of other things, that the presence of Jesus is suddenly a reality for them, that reading the Bible becomes exciting, that they can’t get enough of Christian worship and fellowship.” NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p 227-228.

Finally, St Paul summarized his message–an invitation to accept the gospel–saying:

I have declared to both Jews (my own people) and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” —St Paul, Acts 20:21 (NIVUK)

 

Further reading: 

  • On the gospel as public truth, see: Newbigin, To Tell the Truth: The Gospel as Public Truth (external PDF link)
  • On the gospel generally: Newbigin, Sin and Salvation (external PDF link)
  • On the resurrection as historical fact: NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (academic)
  • On the resurrection and restored creation: Wright, Surprised by Hope
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