Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Apologetics 101-3 -- The Gospel

     While some may think it strange to classify "the Gospel" in the category of apologetics, I wish to do so here because if anything at all is foundational to the Christian faith, if our core beliefs must be defended in each and every contingency, we must know what the gospel is and why it plays such an important role in understanding our faith. We must, as well, be convinced that the gospel needs to permeate everything that the church does; as it is proclaimed, how it is explained, and by the way it is lived out. Without a thorough grasp of the gospel, the Christian experience rapidly disintegrates into a hollow shell, for what is vaguely known soon becomes greatly undervalued.
     The gospel is the "good news" of the Christian faith. It is the declaration that while our souls were dead in sin, Christ died on the cross to pay the debt for that sin and to bring us back into relationship with him. He was buried in a tomb, proving that his death was real and not an illusion. He came to life again on the morning of his resurrection, for he is the God who gives life and is ever alive.
     The gospel is the story of the life and work and passion of Christ the Messiah as told by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the account of his coming, or incarnation, his life of love in deed and word, and of the extraordinary events surrounding his last days on earth -- betrayal, agony, death, burial, resurrection, appearances, and ascension. It is the story of Christ and his Kingdom.
     The gospel is the eternal, present revelation of these accounts to our souls by the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he works through the Word to teach us God's truth. In Eph. 6, the gospel is described as a suit of armor that defends us against the negative onslaught of evil, which assaults us from all sides. 1Cor. 9 pictures the gospel as a message that must be proclaimed; a message that is so central and vital that preaching it must become the primary task of a believer's life. In Gal. 1, Paul begs us the preserve the purity of the gospel message. It must remain true to its original telling, for if it is changed or watered down it will lose its supernatural power. And in 1Thess.2, Paul emphasizes the fact that the gospel springs up and flows from God through us. He may appoint us to preach the message, but the mechanism that changes hearts is not what we say but what the Holy Spirit does.
    The first and primary task of the church is to proclaim the gospel, or good news of Christ. Just before his ascension, Jesus gave this charge (known as the Great Commission) to his followers: “Go [everywhere] and preach the gospel to [everyone].” The account of this commissioning is found in three New Testament passages, each one carrying a slightly different emphasis.
     Matthew 28:18-20, the focus is on teaching the gospel. The disciples were instructed to “make disciples;” to be the teacher to others that Jesus had been to them, to instruct new believers in the message and meaning of the kingdom of God. The Greek word used here (matheteuo) means to make a disciple by thoroughly and personally training someone in a way of life governed by the knowledge and information they are receiving. The instruction is rooted in the sacrament of baptism, which imprints the heart of the gospel, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, upon the Christian's soul. It is Trinitarian in its aspect, connecting us to the entirety of the work of God in our lives and in the world. It is centered on teaching that brings about obedience to the commands of Christ, not merely the accumulation of intellectual knowledge.
     In Mark 16:15, Jesus tells the disciples to preach or announce the gospel. This word means to proclaim, declare or assert a particular message publicly. We generally think of this aspect of the Great Commission as the preaching ministry of the church, as Sunday after Sunday pastors preach their sermons or homilies. This is why the sermon is so central to our worship, for in all that is said the gospel must be lifted up, woven in, or clearly delineated in each and every presentation. If a pastor neglects or minimizes the gospel in his or her sermons, a red flag must go up in our hearts, for only the gospel, not good advice, or trendy platitudes, will transform us into the people God wants us to be.
     Another New Testament word used for preaching is “euaggelizo”, from which we get our word evangelize. It means to give an explanation of the good news of salvation, particularly to those who do not yet know it -- namely, that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our redemption and that one may be saved by placing faith in him. Evangelism is done through any means that proclaims this core message; audibly in sermons, visually in media, or informally in one-on-one conversation.
     Luke’s account of the Great Commission uses the term “be my witnesses.” This Greek word is “matoes”, which is the root of the word “martyr,” and, indeed, all of the disciples gave their lives for the cause of the gospel. This word denotes a person who is a witness to an event and can thereby give a true accounting of it. The disciples were eyewitnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus, so they were commissioned to tell as many people as possible about what they had personally observed.
     It’s interesting that the gospel writer who chose to use this word (Luke) may not have been a direct observer of the actual day-to-day ministry of Jesus. We know that he gathered information from many sources when writing his two books. He also received input from Paul, who also did not directly hear and know Jesus when he lived on this earth. This teaches us that we are all witnesses about Christ through the timeless channel of his Word. We may proclaim and teach the truth about the gospel because his Word has been given to us. The Holy Spirit, who indwells us, makes the Word real and living in our hearts and lives.
     When we think about our mission to proclaim the gospel both as individuals and as the church, we need to take care that it motivates everything that we say and do. We must ask ourselves these types of questions: 1.) Does this clarify the good news of Christ? 2.) Does this help a Christian to proclaim the gospel? 3.) Are Christians learning to live the good news in their daily lives? 4. Do the activities we do other than preaching also proclaim the gospel?
     A beautiful example of the centrality of the Gospel may be found in the Anglican tradition of bringing by procession a beautifully bound copy of the four gospels to the center of the church. There, a passage from the gospels is read, in the midst of the congregation. The gospel is glorious and awe inspiring, it is true, but it is also for us and meets us right were we are. It comes from God's heart to ours, and from ours to others. In every heart, in every Church, the gospel must come into the center of all that is done and be proclaimed as the truth upon which everything else is based.