Most people understand the gospel today along the following lines: God created us and that God is loving and holy; we are made as image bearers and sinned; God is therefore both for us and against us; God resolved our dilemma by sending his Son, Jesus, into the world to die in our place, suffer our punishment, and to forgive us of our sins; if we believe (some add repent) we will be reconciled to God, can experience a transformed life now and will spend eternity with God.
In my recent book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, I call the above paragraph the “soterian” gospel. The Greek word for salvation is soteria and, because that gospel is framed as the plan for personal salvation, I call it the “soterian” gospel. Before I take another step into this sticky wicket I want to say that those statements are biblically justifiable and they are part of what the Bible says about salvation but …
My big contention today is that the soterian gospel is not what the New Testament means by “gospel.” It is only a part of the New Testament gospel, and it ends up swallowing the Story. Let me explain.
In reading the New Testament texts that actually tell us what the gospel is, we discover that the soterian gospel is not what the Bible means by gospel. The fundamental biblical texts are 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul overtly tells us he is passing on the one and only apostolic gospel; the second set of texts is the gospel as found in the gospeling sermons in Acts. There are seven of them (Acts 2, 3, 4, 10-11, 13, 14, 17) and I would emphasize two of them as the fullest examples (Act 2, 10-11, one to Jews and one to a Gentile). The third place to find the meaning of the “gospel” is The Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. They were called “The Gospel [not Gospels] according to…” because they were the only gospel anyone knew.
The soterian gospel and the apostolic gospel are framed differently; the soterian gospel frames everything by elements by elements in the doctrine of salvation. The apostolic gospel frames the gospel as Israel’s Story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as King (Messiah) and Lord who saves. Hence, one frames things as the plan for personal salvation; the other frames things as a Story come to its completion/fulfillment in Jesus who saves. So, let’s speak of the Soterian gospel and the Story gospel.
This difference before us is not a choice between Salvation or Story. Some have suggested that in the King Jesus Gospel book I need to be more balanced. Really? There is a profound imbalance in the soterian gospel because it is only salvation and no Story and it is a gospel that is not the same as found in 1 Cor 15 etc, while the Story gospel of King Jesus has both Story and salvation and fits with 1 Cor 15 etc.. The balance of the Bible can only be recovered by re-framing the gospel around the Story that finds its way to Jesus.
So let’s be clear here: the options are (1) the soterian gospel of Salvation without Israel’s Story framing it or (2) the Story gospel that saves. Or, salvation with no story or Story with salvation. Which one is more biblical? That’s the only question that really matters. All I’m asking is to look at your gospel and look at 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts, and the Gospels and see if it is the same as that gospel.
My contention is that the soterian gospel’s reduction to four or five points cannot be found in the Bible as the gospel and eliminates or ruins the Bible’s Story as central to the gospel. Perhaps some of that Story comes up in passing and in discussion by the evangelist, but the soterian gospel is not shaped by the Bible’s Story but by the need for an individual sinner to be saved in order to escape God’s wrath.
A point then of emphasis: we are not talking about simply tweaking or upgrading or improving the soterian gospel by adding Story. We are not saying the soterian gospel just happened to forget the Story. We are talking about a massive reorientation by rethinking all we do through the Story gospel — through 1 Cor 15, Acts and the Gospels. We are talking about a revolutionary way of reading the Bible and doing theology and church through the lens of the original gospel. We are contending the soterian gospel is not what the NT means by gospel.
Yes, I’m fully aware how disorienting this can be to some, but what is more healthy for the church? To recover and to feast on the Bible’s gospel, which is the Story of King Jesus, Lord and Savior, or the soterian gospel that doesn’t even need the Bible’s Story to hold it together?
The soterian gospel is everywhere, and I see it in Evangelism Explosion and in Cru’s four spiritual laws and in the Bridge Illustration, and sometimes there’s more about the love of God et al, and I see it most articulately in Greg Gilbert’s book, What Is the Gospel? (9Marks). Gilbert’s four major themes in his gospel are: God as the righteous creator, Man as sinner, Christ as Savior, and the human response in faith and repentance. From this flows the kingdom and sanctification, etc. But I’m convinced this soterian gospel is not what the NT means by gospel. Salvation, yes, flows out of the Story gospel but the plan for personal salvation and the gospel are not one and the same thing. How one frames the gospel is what matters most because it reveals God and God’s intent for this world.
Here’s a chart that shows the differences between these two, and the only real question is this: Which one fits what 1 Cor 15 and Acts say? I have chosen to use (last line) the term “Salvation” vs. “Kingdom” to emphasize the bigness of life under Jesus the King vs. personal salvation, but I’d be more than happy to say the Kingdom entails a robust Salvation. So, I’ll avoid that discussion today. I want to emphasize that the soterian gospel aims at personal salvation while the Story gospel aims at kingdom and it includes personal, individual salvation. This is not the false choice of individual vs. corporate, but individual vs. individual/corporate. The difference between the two is substantial, even revolutionary.
My belief is that the soterian gospel takes one clause of 1 Corinthians 15 and re-frames the whole in light of that one clause.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
Thus, for our sins is used to re-shape the Story of Jesus into the plan for personal salvation. Thus …
He died for our sins according to the Scriptures
he was buried
he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
and he appeared…
Humans as sinners
Christ as Savior
Humans respond in faith and repentance.
Here’s what we need to think about: Is the Story gospel that saves more faithful to the NT than the soterian gospel? If so, we need to be reformed and always reforming. We can begin today.