What is Paul’s Gospel?
As “Gospel” conversations carry on, which I am largely skimming, I have been keeping the larger questions in mind as I write my Story of God commentary on Galatians. Right now, I am writing in Galatians 3.
As I have said before, it is truly difficult to point to a center of Paul’s gospel language (aside from the person of Jesus, of course). Yes, the story of the Bible is the story of the total lordship of Jesus (Paul preferred to call Jesus “Lord” rather than “king”). Yes, Paul also firmly believed in the personal transformation involved in the redemptive work of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We could go round and round, but I find it helpful to examine particular texts to keep ourselves grounded and focused.
Galatians 3:8: The Gospel Preview
I find myself going back again and again to Galatians 3:8:
Now “Scripture,” foreseeing that God would put the Gentiles right by faith, announced the Good News ahead of time to Abraham: “All the nations will be blessed in you.” (My translation)
Three things really fascinate me about this text.
- Scripture is personified as a kind of host or narrator of God’s story. “Scripture” is not pulling the strings, per se, but engages prophetically in the story. (Luther associated “Scripture” as an actor here with the Holy Spirit)
- Scripture looks into the future and sees the Messiah and faith-righteousness. Thus, the Gospel seems to be about faith in the Messiah.
- BUT—the Gospel is deposited in the Abraham story and strangely enough it is not explicitly about the Messiah. It is about Abraham. What about Abraham? He will be the means of blessing the nations, the Gentiles.
Notice how Jesus is not really mentioned at all here. Strange.
But all along in this letter Paul has been talking about two ways of being put right with God—works of the Law (the way of knowing God mediated by the Law) and “faith,” the way of knowing God personally and intimately through the Christ-relation. This is precisely the Gospel-ed Abrahamic blessing, that Jews and Gentiles today can know God intimately and personally, apart from “works of the Law,” through faith in Jesus Christ.
So, what exactly is the “gospel” from the perspective of Gal 3:8? It is the covenantal blessing of having a personal and intimate relationship with God, just as Abraham had once upon a time. Paul was underscoring for the Galatian believers that they are welcomed into Abraham’s family and way of knowing God by “faith” and not via works of the Law. Abraham, for all intents and purposes, did not have a mediated relationship with God. He lived by simple faith with God.
Paul could talk about the era of Christ as a new “faith” era (Gal 3:23-25), but now the “glue” that binds humans to God is Jesus Christ. In order for Jesus to be that mediator to facilitate this relationship with God for all people (Jews and gentiles), he must be true Lord of all.
So, what does this mean for the language of “gospel”? Here it is not necessarily a storyline that focuses on Jesus as King, although the lordship of Jesus is presumed (Gal 1:3, 19; 5:10; 6:14, 18). So, is “gospel” about “justification by faith”? This is closer, but not if we interpret “JF” as “salvation by belief vs. works.” Gal 3:8 focuses on “faith” insofar as being right with God happens through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
How would I define the “gospel” according to Galatians 3:8?
Anyone and everyone can put their life right with God by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They can have access to all the blessings promised to Abraham.
Keep in Mind
The Good News is not just a “New Testament” reality. It is about the way God has been working to redeem humanity and his world from the beginning. Yes, it comes to fruition in Jesus Christ, but it was “previewed” in Abraham and in many key moments in the life of Israel
For Paul, the Good News focuses on Jesus (and what I call the “Christ-relation”). It is not enough to talk about “justification by faith.” Paul’s Gospel is not about a formula or method of salvation, but about a person (Jesus Christ) and a free, grace-filled and empowering relationship with God through this person. “Faith” is not the opposite of doing or works, it is Paul’s code-word for a relationship of mutuality and goodwill with Jesus.
From the perspective of Paul’s mission, the Good News is that one does not have to be a “special person” (whether Jewish, or elite, or wealthy, or powerful) to be right with God. Because Jesus is Lord of all, he can give access and obtain rightness for all people, “from the least to the greatest,” so to speak.