What is the Gospel?

On the The Gospel Coalition website is a short explanation of the gospel by D.A. Carson.  In his concise chapter on “The Biblical Gospel” from For Such a Time as This: Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present and Future (p. 75-85), Carson defines the gospel by its connection to the entire corpus of the biblical narrative.  He writes,

Thus the gospel is integrally tied to the Bible’s story-line. Indeed, [the gospel] is incomprehensible without understanding that story-line. God is the sovereign, transcendent and personal God who has made the universe, including us, his image-bearers. Our misery lies in our rebellion, our alienation from God, which, despite his forbearance, attracts his implacable wrath. But God, precisely because love is of the very essence of his character, takes the initiative and prepared for the coming of his own Son by raising up a people who, by covenantal stipulations, temple worship, systems of sacrifice and of priesthood, by kings and by prophets, are taught something of what God is planning and what he expects. In the fullness of time his Son comes and takes on human nature. He comes not, in the first instance, to judge but to save: he dies the death of his people, rises from the grave and, in returning to his heavenly Father, bequeaths the Holy Spirit as the down payment and guarantee of the ultimate gift he has secured for them—an eternity of bliss in the presence of God himself, in a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. The only alternative is to be shut out from the presence of this God forever, in the torments of hell.6 What men and women must do, before it is too late, is repent and trust Christ; the alternative is to disobey the gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17).

As usual, Carson hits the nail on the head, and helps us see that the “simple gospel” can only be understood and proclaimed against the backdrop of the whole counsel of Scripture. This has import for personal evangelism, preaching, counseling, and everyday decision-making.

In his chapter, Carson also shows that the gospel not only presents a positive message about Jesus Christ; it also denies any and all pseudo-gospels that plague our churches today (and throughout church history for that matter).  He cites the ‘evangelical’ trend towards psychology as one of the greatest causes for distorting the gospel.

A litany of devices designed to make us more spiritual or mature or productive or emotionally whole threatens to relegate the gospel to irrelevance, or at least to the realm of the boring and the primitive. The gospel may introduce you to the church, as it were, but from that point on assorted counseling techniques and therapy sessions will change your life and make you happy and fruitful. The gospel may help you make some sort of decision for God, but ‘rebirthing’ techniques—in which in silent meditation you imagine Jesus catching you as you are born from your mother’s womb, imagine him hugging you and holding you—will generate a wonderful cathartic experience that will make you feel whole again, especially if you have been abused in the past. The gospel may enable you to be right with God, but if you really want to pursue spirituality you must find a spiritual director, or practise asceticism, or discipline yourself with journalling, or spend two weeks in silence in a Trappist monastery.

Tomorrow I will preach on Galatians 1:6-9: What the gospel is and what the gospel is not.  Carson’s short essay, like Paul’s excited admonition to the Galatians, reminds me that the gospel is something that is easily distorted and too often assumed.  Consequently, there are dozens of half-gospels that are tempting us to turn from the pure gospel of Jesus Christ.  So, I am praying that for our church and for myself, that we will trade in our own personal narratives for the gospel-narrative of Jesus Christ and that we will eschew any vision of Jesus that makes him less than the eternal Son of God, sent to earth to be the bleeding sacrifice, who takes away the sin of the world, and delivers all those who trust in him from this evil age.

I am praying that we will know what the gospel is and what the gospel is not!

(For more on this subject see Greg Gilbert’s new book: What is the Gospel?)

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Thinking about the Atonement?!

Currently, I am taking a hiatus from my doctoral studies.  Having recently moved to a new city, with a baby on the way, and learning what the daily life of a pastor looks like, I thought it best to ‘interrupt’ my studies for one semester.  Which means I have less assigned reading, but more opportunity to prepare for the messages at Calvary BC and to read up on the subject that I hope to eventually consider in my dissertation–the power of the cross and the covenantal application of Jesus blood.

With that in mind, I came across a helpful reminder from D.A. Carson on the subject in the introduction to Graham Cole’s new book, God the Peacemaker: How atonement brings shalom — I love that subtitle, by the way!  If you are thinking about the cross of Christ, especially at a level where you are trying to explain it to others, Carson’s words are worth remembering.

Even to do justice to this theme [atonement] one must attempt at least five things: (1) The way the theme of sacrifice and atonement develops in the Bible’s storyline must be laid out. (2) Equally, the way this theme is intertwined with related themes (the holiness of God, the nature of sin, what salvation consists of, the promise of what is to come, and much more) must be delinated, along with (3) more probing reflection on a selection of crucial passages.  These first three items belong rather tightly to biblical theology.  Of course, (4) how therse themse have been handled in the history of the church’s theology must not be ignored.  (5) Equally, if [any volume on the cross] is to speak to our generation, it must engage some of the more important current discussion (p.12).

May we labor together to better know, love, and tell the message of the cross.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Extra- “Ordinary Pastors”

This week I had the privilege of spending four days with more than 1000 pastors at Moody’s Pastor’s Conference.  It was a joy to get to know just a couple of these faithful shepherds as I manned the SBTS booth and talked to brothers, young and old, about ministry and on-going equipping for ministry.

At the same time, in the off hours of the conference, I had the chance to read through D.A. Carson’s inspiring tribute to his father, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflection of Tom Carson. It was a fitting book to read at a pastor’s conference and it reminded me why no faithful pastor is ‘ordinary,’ and why the ‘ordinary pastors’ that I have come to know in my life are my heroes.  They are the ones I look at and say, “I want to be like them.”  “Ordinary pastors”  long to see Christ glorified at the expense of their own reputations; they sacrifice  time, money, personal leisure, and even ministerial advancement for the sake of soul-winning and commitment to their local flock; they put everything else down so they can pick up their cross and follow their savior.

Most pastors, like Tom Carson and the ones I met this week, will never be known in the world as great, powerful, respectable, or extraordinary, but at the day of judgment they will be the ones whom the Lord Christ honors as those who served his church well–with hearts filled with Christ-adoring faithfulness and not crowd-pleasing fanfare.  They will be the ones who will receive an unfading crown of glory when the chief Shepherd appears (1 Pet. 5:4).  Until then, they may be overshadowed, marginalized, and/or rejected by the men and machinations of this world, but when Christ comes and sets the record straight, any ordinariness will replaced with unreserved and undeserved glory–for the first will be last, and the last shall be first.  This point was brought home this week and gave me a greater appreciation for and desire to be an ordinary pastor.   Consider this moving quote and ask yourself how God might make you more faithful  as a servant of Christ (cf. Heb. 13:7),

Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people in the Outanouais and beyond testify how much he loved them.  He never wrote a book, but he loved the Book.  He was never wealthy or powerful, but he kept growing as a Christian: yesterday’s grace was never enough.  He was not a far-sighted visionary, but he looked forward to eternity.  He was not a gifted administrator, but there is no text that says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you are good administrators.”  His journals have many, many entries bathed in tears of contrition, but his children and grandchildren remember his laughter.  Only rarely did be break through his pattern of reserve and speak deeply and intimately with his children, but he modeled Christian virtues to them.  He much preferred to avoid controversy than to stir things up, but his own commitments to historic confessionalism were unyielding, and in ethics he was a man of principle.  His own ecclesiastical circles were rather small and narrow, but his reading was correspondingly large and expansive.  He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer list (D.A. Carson, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor [Wheaton, IL: Crossway,  2008], 147-48).

Men like Tom Carson and the brothers I met with this week, challenge me to serve our Lord more faithfully and remind me what really matters in life–God, God’s Word, Christ’s church, and telling lost souls the Good News of Jesus Christ.  May we who are in or about to enter the ministry, aspire to such faithful service, and may those who are not called to pastoral ministry pray for their pastor that he would have such a zeal for souls, energy for service, and freedom from pleasing this world.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

The Trinity in Biblical Theological Perspective: A Mystery without mysterion

(This is an excerpt from a recent paper I wrote, “The Trinity in the Old Testament: A Present But Elusive Mystery.” It suggests that the development of the Trinity in the Bible follows a mystery-revelation pattern.)

Mystery without mysterion

In his essay entitled “Mystery and Fulfillment” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2, D. A. Carson includes a section called “Mystery without mysterion,” where he asserts that the idea of mystery—something hidden now revealed (cf. Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35)—can occur in NT literature in places where the word, mysterion, is not used explicitly.  He suggests this to be the case in fourth gospel where “although John never uses the term mysterion he sometimes provides fresh revelation that has clearly been hidden in time past, but which is some how said to be connected to the very Scriptures in which it has been hidden (e.g. John 2:19-22).”[1]  From this general description, Carson references Philip Kramer’s 2004 dissertation on the subject,[2] and produces four criteria to evaluate mystery-language:  “(1) [the] referent mysterion is the gospel or some part of it; (2) the disclosure of this mystery may be traced, at least in part, to the Christophany Paul experienced on the Damascus Road; (3) the text makes it clear that this mysterion was once hidden but is now revealed; (4) the Old Testament Scriptures constitute the medium in which the mysterion was hidden and by which it is revealed.”[3]  This taxonomy fits very well when applied to the Trinity’s development from the Old Testament into the New Testament. 

First, as John Piper has proclaimed, “God is the Gospel!”[4]  There is no part of the gospel that is not Trinitarian, and each member of the Trinity functions in their unique role to call, atone, and regenerate (cf. Eph. 1:3-14).  Moreover, in the Old Testament, the characteristics ascribed to the Father, the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the coming Messiah are consistent with the Incarnation and Pentecost.  In other words, what was foretold through types, shadows, and veiled allusions, is now manifest in Jesus and the Spirit.

Second, the Trinity is defined and explained by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the arrival of his Spirit.  In fact, without these, the verbal expressions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are incomplete, at best.  For instance, the union of three persons is most clear in passages like John 14:16-17 where Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another [of the same kind] Helper…the Spirit of Truth” (cf. John 15:26).  Though Kramer’s criterion delimits the disclosure of the mystery to Paul’s Damascus road experience, this restriction is too narrow.  While it fits his specific subject in Galatians, it should be broadened across the New Testament.  It should be remembered, Paul had a Damascus road experience because he was lacking the necessary apostolic ‘credentials’ that all the other disciples received (cf. Mark 3: 13-14; Acts 1:21-22).[5]  Consequently, the corroborating NT evidence is not isolated to one man’s encounter with Jesus, it is the composite person and work of Jesus Christ that makes sense of the Old Testament in general, and the Trinity, in particular.  In this Augustine was right, “[God’s] grace hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament according to the most perfectly ordered dispensation of the ages.”[6]  Therefore, recognizing the Trinity in the OT depends upon NT Christology.[7]

Third, the doctrine of the Trinity was hidden in the OT and revealed in the NT.  While the component parts were scattered throughout the OT, the necessary historical events (i.e. Incarnation and Pentecost) were lacking to make sense of the mysterious pluralities, theophanies, and eschatological promises.  Even into the church age, it took over three centuries to sort out the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and its ontological entailments.  Yet, this should not be surprising.  It is the natural state of affairs with biblical mysteries.  Proverbs 25:2 enlightens us, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”  Likewise, 1 Corinthians 2:7 says, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”  It is the wisdom and glory of God to hide his Triune nature from those without the Spirit, and to reveal himself to those united to Christ—it should not be forgotten that these are NT realities.[8]

Fourth, New Testament authors consistently appeal to the Old Testament to explain the rise of Trinitarian thought, thus proving the mysterious nature of God’s hiddenness and revelation in the OT.  Moreover, traces of the Trinity in the OT are not scant.  Rather, the most illustrious Trinitarian passages in the NT are often dependent upon or giving explanation to OT passages (cf. Matt. 28:18-20 –> Dan. 7:13-14; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Num. 6:22-26; John 1:1-18 –> Gen. 1:1; Ex. 19-20; 1 Cor. 8:1-6 –> Deut. 6:4).  Thus it seems that in God’s wise providence he has revealed his Triune nature perfectly and progressively, and as we study his Scripture we have the blessed privilege of seeing his mystery and revelation, ultimately revealed in and through Jesus Christ (John 1:18; Heb. 1:1-2).

Tomorrow, I will post a reflection on these intertextual considerations.    Until then, may we take this Lord’s Day to worship the God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] D.A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment” in Justification and Varigated Nominianism: The Paradoxes of Paul, vol. 2, ed. D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 424. 

 

[2] Philip Kramer, “Mystery without mystery in Galatians: An examination of the relationship between revelatory language in Galatians 1:11–17 and scriptural references in Galatians 3:6–18, 4:21–31” Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2004

 

[3] Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment,” 425, footnote 91.

 

[4] John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).  

 

[5] The requirements outlined by Peter in Acts 1 make more sense in light of this mysterion discussion, that the mysteries of the OT, which foretold the gospel (Gal. 3:8), could only be understood through a comprehensive knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-49).  This is complicit with Paul’s apostolic ministry which faithfully expounded the OT Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2).

 

[6] Augustine, “A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter” in Anti-Pelagian Writing, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, American ed., vol. 5 (United States: Christian Literature, 1887; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004),  95.

 

[7] Alec Motyer puts it this way, “It was Jesus who came from the outside as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus who was raised from the dead as the Son of God with power, who chose to validate the Old Testament in retrospect and the New Testament in prospect, and who is himself the grand theme of the ‘story-line’ of both Testaments, the focal-point giving coherence to the total ‘picture’ in all its complexities” (Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996], 22).

 

[8] For more on the condition of the believer in the OT, see Jim Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence.

 

Top Ten Books of 2008

Studying at Southern Seminary has afforded me the gracious opportunity to read some of the choicest books on the Bible, theology, and Christian ministry.  This is a list of my Top Ten Books of 2008, books that I had the opportunity to read this year that I would commend to you for your perusal in 2009.  The list is eclectic, and intentionally so, but my hope is that each book would whet your appetite for more of Christ.  (The list is in chronological order, but I will say the best is last).

1. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben.  The most fascinating book I read all year; not one I would have picked up by myself.  Assigned for my Ethics class with Dr. Russell Moore, Enough, written by an unbelieving environmentalist, is a fascinating look at the technologically-advacning world we live in.  The book deals with nanotechnology, articificial intelligence, and gene therapy, just to name a few.  McKibben goes into painstaking detail to show what science is researching and hoping to create, and from a secular point of view he asks the question, “When will it be enough?”  It is a great read, and it will challenge your thinking about what it means to be human. 

2. God and Marriage by Geoffrey Bromiley.  Before Christian Bookstores were flooded with marriage books, historical theologian, Geoffrey Bromiley, produced a short book that traces marriage through the Bible, shows the Trinitarian-marriage connections, and shows why a good theology of marriage is so important for a healthy marriage.  For less than five dollars used, you cannot pass this up.

3. Marriage: Sex in the Service of God by Christopher Ash.  Most thorough and rigorously biblical book on marriage today.  A must read for any pastor or biblical counselor.

4. Married for God by Christopher Ash.  The follow up to Ash’s first book on marriage, this popular level book grounds marriage in biblical theology and then proceeds to practically apply the Bible to today’s marriages.  Very readable, and worthwhile for any and all married couples, or those getting ready for marriage.

5. Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons.  One of the earliest “biblical theologies” you can find.  Irenaeus was a second-century church apologist who read the Bible very well.  Challenging, but worthwhile.

6. Last Thing First by J.V. Fesko.  An edifying and stimulating look at eschatology (the study of last things) and  protology (the study of first things) in Genesis 1-3.  It ultimately is a book about Christ, as the alpha and omega.  In the spirit of Meredith Kline and William Dumbrell, it shows how God’s plan of redemption begins in the first 3 chapters of Genesis.  Very good!

7. The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar Commentary) by Douglas Moo.  Moo’s commentary was the most current and most biblical-theological commentary that I found on Colossians.  As I preached through the book in September – December, it served me well to see the OT-NT connections that Paul employed in his Christ-centered letter to the church at Colossae.

8. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale.  Tremendous resource for preachers who want to pay special attention to inter-canonical connections.

9. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Andreas Kostenberger and Scott Swain.  The latest volume in the D.A. Carson edited New Studies in Biblical Theology.  Even though this book will be finished in 2009, it is too good to leave off the list.  The attention to biblical content and the faithful Trinitarian synthesis is excellent.  This is a must have for anyone preaching or teaching in or through the Gospel of John.

10. The ESV Study BibleThe Bible is surely the best and most important book I read all year; and this year the ESV Study Bible is simply the most edition published in 2008, maybe the century–not a hyperbole.  Speaking of the notes and articles, I have not read it en toto, but in scanning its contents and contributors, it is clear that this marks the finest evangelical study Bible to date.  ( Tim Challies provides a full review; Albert Mohler gives a helpful guide to using study Bibbles).  The biggest selling point though in our tech-savvy age, however, is the unbelievable online capabilities that accompany every copy.  At The ESV Study Bible website you can listen to the Bible, record your own notes, and hyperlink to every cross-reference.  Simply amazing!  This a great feature that sets the ESV SB light years ahead of the rest.  I pray that this volume will gain a large readership as it will tremedously benefit students of the Bible to read the Scriptures better…

…Which is the hope and prayer of 2009.  Of making manny books there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh (Ecc. 12:12), but the Word of God is life-giving and enriching.  It points us to Christ and shows our wickedness and desperate need for salvation (cf. John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15).  So then, let us endeavor to read the Bible more in 2009, and to find books that will help us understand the Scriptures with greater clarity and commitment.  

Tomorrow, I will post the 10 books I am most looking forward to in 2009…that I pray will enhance our understanding of and passion for the Bible.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss 

DA Carson on Biblical Theology and Preaching

While speaking at a conference this weekend at Omaha Bible Church on the topic of suffering, D. A. Carson gave a trenchant overview of Biblical Theology and Preaching.  His points are worth pondering and applying.

 

1. Biblical Theology directly addresses massive biblical illiteracy now prevalent in many of our hearers.  Preachers who only preach small portions of Scripture, who take “six years to preach through Matthew,” do a disservice to their congregations and deprive them of large swathes of Scripture.  BT preaching contends against biblical illiteracy.

2. Biblical Theology considers the major turning points in the Bible, not just the raw chronological story.  Preaching that highlights the covenants, the exodus, the exile, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the cross help disciples of Christ understand his story and theirs.  This is not the same thing as mere bible story telling, like in Telling God’s Story (Vang and Carter, 2006), which simply retells the bible in survey fashion.  It is rather a forward-moving, eschatological narrative that has twists, turns, all pointing to Christ.

3. Biblical Theology enriches and encourages systematic Bible reading and is in turn enriched by those who faithfully read their Bible’s.  More than just reading the Bible for an emotional pick-me-up, congregants who see redemptive storyline in Scripture will delight in reading the OT narratives, the minor prophets, and Levitical codes with greater anticipation and understanding.  They become more accessible when they are put in biblical-theological context.  To illustrate this point, Carson expounded Genesis 39 and the biblical theological ramifications of the Joseph narrative with Potipher’s wife.  More than just an admonition to avoid sexual immorality, lust, and tempting situations (though it does affirm all of those); it shows how Joseph’s sexual purity preserved the people of Israel and advanced the kingdom of God.  Consider this quote: Humanly speaking, you and I are Christians today, saved by the blood of the lamb, because Joseph kept his zipper up!!!  This perspective is reinforced and elucidated by BT.

4. Biblical Theology demands inductive rigor in preaching Biblical books and corpora.  DAC argues that preachers must do more than systematically analyze biblical data.  In doing so, God’s progressive revelation is minimized, time and space are blurred.  Rather BT preachers must ask in every passage:  What time is it?   How does this passage fit in the biblical narrative?  On what antecedent revelation/theology is the author grounding?  And concerning biblical language, how does this particular author use his language?  Different authors at different times mean different things by their words, and so it is vital to understand the language in context.

5. Biblical Theology not only keeps historical-canonical-covenantal turning points in mind, but it also keeps inner-canonical tendons/connections tied together in Scripture, and these ineluctably point to Jesus Christ.  Carson alluded to about twenty explicit themes that run through Scripture and move the storyline framework along.  Some of these he listed were: covenant, temple, sonship, marriage, to name a few.  He cited a profitable exercise of going to Revelation 21-22, listing all of the themes and images in the two chapters and then tracing them out throughout the rest of the Bible.  This is an assignment he gives incoming students at TEDS, and it is surely something that would be beneficial to any reader of the Scriptures, for Revelation 21-22 sum up all things in the Scriptures.  William Dumbrell’s book The End of the Beginning does this very well, as does GK Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission.

6. Finally, Biblical Theology helps avoid anachronism in your preaching by developing biblically warranted inter-connections. 

7. There was a seventh point in there somewhere, but I missed it.  I encourage you to listen for yourself, pick out the seventh point, and see how God would have you apply biblical theology to your preaching.

A few other resources that DA Carson names to better grasp these issues are The Unfolding Mystery by Edmund Clowney, (I would add Preaching and Biblical Theology by Clowney), Graeme Goldworthy’s Trilogy, and Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching (cf. Him We Proclaim by Dennis Johnson and Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sidney Greidanus).

May we who preach the Bible, preach the whole counsel of God, and point all of our hearers to Jesus Christ through the inspired language of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

(HT: Unashamed Workman)