Saturday, September 5, 2009

The power of the gospel

In my previous post I talked about an objection to Tim Keller's presentation on The Reason For God at Google, namely that he didn't present the gospel. I enumerated the arguments of Keller's defenders, but I want to return to the main reason behind the charge against Keller.

The objector(s) essentially argued:

  • reasoning with foolish man is futile

  • only the gospel is powerful to save (e.g. Romans 1:16, 10:17)

  • therefore Keller should have stopped wading through intellectual arguments and presented the gospel

This is a straight-forward and powerful argument. The argument is made even more powerful for those like me who believe in total depravity (i.e. that we are all dead in our sins and can't understand the things of God until the Spirit regenerates us).

How one deals with this objection will depend on how one defines the gospel.

If the gospel is a concise message (e.g. "Jesus is Lord") with implications for all of life then that message can be expressed in countless ways in both word and deed through our lives. Consider Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 11:26. He says that observing the Eucharist actually proclaims Christ's death. Could our lives not also proclaim the gospel in a similar way? Could we "present" the gospel to an unbelieving friend by laying down our life for them? Clearly, the gospel needs to be articulated in speech. I do not mean to deny that.

However, if the gospel can only be articulated directly from Scripture then anything less would be meaningless in regard to evangelism. Or if the gospel is a technical, theological statement then expressing that in action or through simple explanation will be difficult.

Here are my questions about the nature of the gospel. How you define it will determine your answers:

  • If only the gospel is powerful to save sinners then why do we do anything except proclaim it?

  • Does total depravity invalidate any attempt to build a logical buttress for faith as a means to eventually introduce the gospel? Why?

What is the gospel?

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Central Arkansas Theological Society (C.A.T.S.). Although it sounds fancy, it is just a group of guys (mostly from Redeemer LR) who get together, listen to a talk, and then discuss it.

We listened to Tim Keller talk about The Reason for God which was part of the Authors@Google series. I enjoyed the talk. Keller was winsome and engaged his audience appropriately. It had a Paul-in-Athens (Acts 17) feel.

However since I had already read a fair amount of his book and listened to the talk, I was more interested in the ensuing discussion. Our discussion centered mostly around a few objections that Keller did not make a clear presentation of the gospel. These reason's were offered in defense of Keller:

  1. He was being sensitive to his context (i.e. he needed to build trust and credibility with his audience - a crowd of cynics and skeptics). Thumping his Bible (so to speak) would have been counter productive.

  2. He was tilling the soil of their hearts (1 Corinthians 3:5-6 was cited).

  3. He was asked to come to speak on a specific subject (the kind of reasoning that leads to monotheism - not Christianity necessarily). Straying from that subject too much would have been disrespectful and displayed a lack of integrity.

  4. He did share the gospel (e.g. 39:50 - 41:48)

I agreed with all these sentiments, but reason #4 was the most compelling. Interestingly, it also exposed the hidden assumption that we all had the same definition of the gospel. Here's the essence of what Keller said about the gospel:

  1. God created the world.

  2. God created man.

  3. God fell in love with man.

  4. God saw man was suffering.

  5. God entered the world to save man.

Clearly, some felt that was adequate and some didn't. My question isn't so much about the merits of what Tim presented, but about the gospel in general.

What is the pure essence of the gospel without which it can no longer be called the gospel?

We know from Galatians 1:8-9 that there is a true gospel and a false gospel. Getting the gospel fundamentally wrong will have eternal consequences so we would do well to get it as right as possible to the finest detail.

For further stimulation on this topic I suggest Trevin Wax's "The Gospel of God: Personal Atonement or Christ's Kingdom?" and his fascinating series on Gospel Definitions. I also found Scot McKnight's "Is Our Gospel Too Small" interesting.

Personally, I lean toward definitions of the gospel which are very concise but have broad implications (e.g. "Jesus is Lord") which are then made truly understandable by patient explanation and personal demonstration (i.e. self-sacrificing love).

What do you think? I would love to see a whole C.A.T.S. meeting devoted to this topic.