What We’ve Got Here is a Math Problem: Paul, the Gospel, and those Galatians

Recently David Williams posted an interesting piece on what Paul told the Galatians about the gospel.

As alert readers of the New Testament know, Paul was not happy with the Galatians, no not one bit. It seems that they forgot what the gospel was, and so Paul goes all ballistic on them, saying things like “if you disagree with me, you are under God’s curse” and “why don’t you just go castrate yourself.”

Yeah, that’s in the Bible (Galatians 5:12).

Anyway, Williams points out that when Paul reminds them of the gospel that they lost sight of, he doesn’t say,  “Ok, ok…let’s try this again: So the gospel is X.  Got that?  Ok, moving on….”

The problem with these people isn’t that they forgot what the gospel is. Their problem, according to Williams, is that the Galatians have forgotten what the implications of the gospel are.

Specifically, they have not connected two dots that desperately needed to be connected at that time: “gospel” implies that the Jewish followers of Jesus and the Gentile followers will be able to break new ground and actually get along with each other, to see themselves as one people united by Jesus, not divided by ethnicity. Instead, the Jewish Christians were telling the Gentiles that they had to become Jewish first by getting circumcised.

Paul said, “If you think that way, you’re not getting a seriously major implication of the gospel,” which led to the “go castrate yourself” comment mentioned above.

Another way of putting this is that the Galatians didn’t get that the gospel has a “logic”: the gospel presupposes things, entails things, and implies things.

OK. So what?

Here’s the so what.

Williams says evangelicals also tend to forget this “gospel-logic” and focus on “gospel-math.” The common equation is: “gospel = the doctrine of justification.” Williams suggests that the gospel, the good news, is that the messiah has come (he’s blogged about this previously–you can get the links on his website). If there is a math equation, there it is: gospel = Jesus is here.

Everything else is an implication of the good news, including justification by faith.

Remembering this keeps us from doing yet even more math when we talk about the gospel, such as: gospel = doctrine of justification + the kingdom of God + social action + whatever.  Williams summarizes it this way:

 A lot of us Evangelicals are waking up to the fact that the New Testament gospel is the gospel of the Kingdom, but we’re still stuck on this idea that “the gospel = the doctrine of justification.”  The most common solution I’ve seen is to add the Kingdom to the formula, saying “the gospel = the doctrine of justification + the Kingdom.”  More socially conscious evangelicals want to throw in even more things: “the gospel = the doctrine of justification + the Kingdom + social justice + being eco-friendly +….”

I don’t think the gospel-math approach is serving us very well, both because it does not fit well with the thought of the New Testament writers and because it dulls our capacity for thinking Christianly.  The gospel-math approach does not really encourage a close reading of the arguments in Paul’s letters or anything else, and it allows us to just assume that our old “the gospel = justification” formula can by salvaged simply by tacking on a few more items.  Perhaps more problematic, however, is the fact that the gospel-math approach is a great way to turn the gospel into a grab-bag of our own pet-projects, and thus a great way of tailoring the gospel to suit our own personal and political preferences.  But it’s not a good or a biblical way of thinking about the difference Jesus makes for our lives and our world.

All of this is good, because I never liked math anyway. Especially in theology.

 

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    Perhaps the gospel was justification given the questions and concerns of those living in Luther’s day. We do see a change in the preaching in Acts when it moves out into the gentile world. So the question is what should we preach today? To answer that question we need to listen to those around us. To be clear, I do believe in justification by faith. My doubt is over the value of convincing people of their sins so that this doctrine reaches them. We in effect in up creating the questions we want to answer.

    • peteenns

      “Creating the questions we want to answer.” In a way, the history of interpretation is thus summarized.

  • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

    Well, while granting that the gospel is the Messiah has come, that would in itself be a rather pointless statement unless it includes the implications. For what it’s worth, I have no problem with saying that the gospel is justification. The real question is What is justification?

    • peteenns

      According Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, it meant liberation from Romans oppressors.

      • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

        Liberation from Romans? Is that a way of saying we have had enough of the Lutheran Procrustean bed? Perhaps we should be liberated from Galatians as well?

  • http://thinktheology.org/ disableme

    Peter what are the practical and pastoral implications of Gospel= Jesus is here?
    or maybe to clarify…
    How do you see this changing what happens within a church dynamic? How we reach people? How we interact with people?

    I ask because as a pastor I see the incarnation drawing all kinds of people to Jesus in scripture and today it seems like certain kinds of people cannot be justified because of their sinful lifestyles while others can be (at least among conservatives). I see Jesus loving lepers and interacting with them but today we don’t know what to do with people who do icky sins (like homosexuals for example) coming to Jesus. Am I correct to think that “gospel = Jesus is here” provides me theological permission as a pastor to acknowledge that if a ANY person proclaims Christ as Lord and is turning to Him that Jesus must be here working in them?

    • http://thegospelaccordingtoscripture.blogspot.com Jason

      I know you’re asking Peter, but I anticipate he’ll say that when someone proclaims Jesus as Lord the way to tell if Jesus is working in them (by which we both mean the Spirit’s transforming power and not the way he draws all people) is still by the evidence of their incremental change to being like Jesus. The main three things in my mind would be repentance, obedient faith, and baptism. If anyone has these three we ought to include them as part of the body. From that point on it gets tricky because most NA church culture often confronts sin without gentleness or not at all (at every level), but I hope this helps as a starting point. “Making disciples” and “teaching them to obey” is always harder than baptizing them into the faith.

      • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

        I suspect ‘obedient faith’ is tautology.

        • http://resurrectingraleigh.wordpress.com/ David

          John, I think you’re right. N.B., Paul’s phrase “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1 and 16. Cheers.

    • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

      I see Jesus loving lepers and interacting with them and cleansing them.

  • Jeff

    John,

    That is odd…you have no problem saying that the gospel is justification, yet you do not know what it is! The active aspect of justification is “doing right towards someone” or “acting right”, the passive idea in Romans and Galatians esp is the idea of “being pardoned”, all these things an Ancient Near East King had the power and the responsibility to do if that is what justice called for. Hence, it is more proper and Biblical to state the Gospel is “Jesus is Lord..now!” because when a King is enthroned he is responsible before God to act justly. Justification is an outgrowth of an honorable King

    • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

      I know very well what justification is. It was a rhetorical question. My understanding of justification is rather different from that which is promoted by the Protestant Evangelical consensus.

      • Jeff

        John,

        You said you have no problem defining the gospel as justification, and if this is your take on it then you are actually in the mainstream of the Protestant consensus. So I am confused.

        • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

          I think you are assuming a meaning of justification to which I do not subscribe. I think you are missing my point completely, Probably I am being less than clear. I do not believe that justification is what the Reformers and their successors thought it to be. So, no; I am certainly not in the mainstream of the Protestant consensus.

  • Leigh Copeland

    For me, it is the growing awareness and acceptance of Gospel as kingdom announcement that makes the issue of Creationism and Theistic Evolution such an avoidable topic. Try to imagine Christianity spreading to the whole word holding onto an anti-science insistence on 6000 year old universe!

  • drew smith

    If Gospel = Jesus is here then prayer = Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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  • http://thesacredgrove-nathair.blogspot.com Sam Smith

    13 Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.

    14 And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—

    15 And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.

    16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.

    17 And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father.

    18 And this is the word which he hath given unto the children of men. And for this cause he fulfilleth the words which he hath given, and he lieth not, but fulfilleth all his words.

    19 And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.

    20 Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.

    21 Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do;

    22 Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day.
    –Jesus to the people of Nephi quoted in 3 Nephi 27


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