If you had to sum up the core message that we had to proclaim in one idea, what would it be?
My feeling is that, reflecting on things I have read and conversations that I have been involved in, there is a pretty strong consensus amongst Christians and Christian leaders in the UK at the moment that it would be something around ‘God is love’ or ‘God loves you’. The more developed version, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’, developed by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, has been widely criticised, not least in the wonderful Adam cartoon that explores the fate of Jesus’ first followers. So we might well have dropped the ‘wonderful plan’ bit, but we hold on to the ‘love’. God might have a demanding plan for your life, but the main ‘offer’ of the gospel is to discover the love of God, which will both bless you when times are good and sustain you when things are more challenging.
And there are some pretty good reasons for holding on to this core message. Quite apart from its pragmatic appeal (it doesn’t sound too hard as a thing to share with my friends and neighbours), there are some pretty good theological reasons for thinking that this was at the centre of the proclamation of the early church. The best known verse in the New Testament, and probably the whole Bible, John 3.16, focusses on the way that ‘God loved the world, sending his only Son’. Good Anglicans (like me!) are reminded of this every week in the introduction to confession. As I have explored previously, there are serious problems in communicating what the love of God really means, but that need not discourage us from trying to communicate it. After all, the experience of the love of God appears to have been pretty central for Paul. The Spirit is the end-times gift for all who follow Jesus, who makes him real to us, and our primary experience of the Spirit is that he ‘pours the love of God into our hearts’ (Rom 5.5) and enables us to relate to God, as Jesus did, as ‘Abba, father’ (Rom 8.15). Paul is clear that what God has done in Jesus is a manifestation of God’s love; Christ dying for us while we were still sinners ‘demonstrates God’s love for us’ (Rom 5.8), and Paul being the ‘chief of sinners’ must have felt this demonstration particularly personally. Similarly, God made us alive in Christ when we were spiritually dead ‘because of his great love’ (Eph 2.4–5). Not surprising, then, that the centre-piece of Paul’s letter to the warring Corinthians is a eulogy to love—embedded in an exposition of the work of the Spirit. Love is the first of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ in Gal 5.22.
So if all that is the case, how come we never once hear the proclamation of God’s love as the content of the preaching of the first followers of Jesus? Or indeed of Jesus himself?
(Take time to pause for a moment, as I did, and wonder why you never noticed that before!)
You might want to argue that the NT documents are written for insiders (John 20.31 notwithstanding) and so might not give a clear impression of what ‘outsiders’ would have heard—and there has indeed been a lively academic debate over the years on the content of the early kerygma, the preached message that was proclaimed so effectively. Perhaps the best short example of this message can be found in 1 Cor 15.3–8, which doesn’t mention God’s love at all, but recounts a series of events; it might be protested that Paul is here talking to people who already know him, but he is clear that what he repeats is the ‘gospel I preached to you, by which you are saved’ (1 Cor 15.1–2). And in fact we do have a document whose aim appears to be, at least in part, to tell us exactly what is was that the apostles and other leaders of the Jesus movement did actually proclaim—the Acts of the Apostles (the clue is in the title), and specifically the numerous speeches in Acts.
There is quite a variety in the speeches in Acts, and even in the evangelistic speeches—but it is not hard to see how these variations arise as a result of different contexts in which the speeches are given by different people. They are not formulaic. But if you read them and compare them, there is a remarkable consistency in their core message—something that John Stevens highlighted in his blog post responding to debate about Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding.
So what is the irreducible content of the gospel preaching of the apostles? A number of common features stand out in all of the major sermons recorded in Acts. These provide the measure by which we judge whether preaching is truly “gospel” preaching:
Jesus is the Risen Lord
The heart of all the preaching in the book of Acts is the declaration that Jesus has risen from the dead and is now ruling and reigning at the right hand of God. He is Lord. In Jewish contexts it is also highlighted that he is the Christ. This message is inherently confrontational as it declares that all other “lords” are false lords, including the false gods of paganism and the Roman Emperor, who declared himself to be divine.
In Jewish contexts, which were steeped in the monotheistic theology of the Old Testament, this claim inevitable meant that Jesus was himself God, and identified him with Yahweh. The apostolic preaching to Jews exposits Scripture and applies to Jesus texts that, in their original context, indisputably spoke of Yahweh. Whilst a full Trinitarian theology is not spelt out, the apostolic preaching presupposes that the only God is the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Progressive revelation means that “God talk” that is not thoroughly Christological in content fails to speak of the true God.
You are guilty of sin
The apostolic preaching also always declares the sinfulness of the audience, and therefore of the need for personal salvation. Sin is not just something abstract, structural or corporate, but deeply individual. The way that sin is explained varies depending on the cultural context. In Jewish contexts it is conceptualised as rejecting God by breaking his covenant law, supremely in the rejection and execution of Jesus himself. In a pagan context it is conceptualised as the stupidity of idolatry and worshipping “gods” made by human hands and living in temples. The reality of sin is almost invariably declared in the direct address of the second person (“You,”) though sometimes in a Jewish context a corporate national participation in sin is expressed by the use of “We”.
God is going to judge you
The apostolic preaching almost invariably comes with an explicit warning of judgement. God is going to take action against human sin at some point in future history. He is going to hold every single individual accountable. He has appointed the risen Lord Jesus to execute his judgement. It is interesting that the apostolic preaching never makes mention of the love of God. It is entirely absent from their proclamation of the gospel message. Their message is primarily a warning of the wrath to come because of human sin, and salvation means escape from this wrath. It is not love that will put the world right but justice. God will do justice and eliminate sinners.
You need to repent
The reality of coming judgement leads to great urgency in the apostolic preaching. The hearers are called, commanded, and urged to repent, by which it is meant that they are to turn away from their sin and back to God. They are to put their faith and trust in Jesus, recognising him as Lord and depending on him alone for rescue. Their repentance and new life in Christ is to be marked by baptism, which symbolises their own death and resurrection, alongside their cleansing and covenant membership of the people of God.
You will be forgiven and blessed
The apostolic preaching usually, but not always, includes promises of blessing for those who repent and call on the name of the Lord. The primary blessings offered to those who respond are the forgiveness of their sins and the receipt of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from calling people to bring about a new creation and change the world by their efforts, the apostolic preaching announces that Jesus has inaugurated the new covenant and begun the new creation, and invites individual to enter into the enjoyment of this new reality, which will fully experienced only when Jesus returns.
These elements of the apostolic preaching in Acts make up the irreducible content of gospel proclamation, and ought to provide the framework for authentic gospel preaching for as long as the “day of salvation” lasts. They summarise a rubric, or grammar, of the gospel, by which preaching ought to be assessed for its faithfulness to the one true gospel.
I don’t think I can fault John for his analysis of the speeches in Acts, or his assessment their importance—but for me it raises two major questions, which I put to John in an online discussion.
The first is personal. As far as I can recollect, I came to faith through discovering God’s love and acceptance of me by means of a group of Christians who loved and accepted me. I am not entirely convinced that I would have come to faith if I had heard one of the sermons recorded by Luke in Acts—though I cannot be sure of that. But my pastoral observation is that this is also true for a lot of people I know. Most responded (it seems to me) to a message of love, rather than repenting in response to a message of judgement. John entitles his blog post ‘Evangelicalism divided’, and I think he is right: whether or not we prioritise a message of God’s love is quite divisive, and appears to divide churches very neatly into two quite contrasting groups, with little middle ground in between.
But the second is more theological, or rather exegetical. The accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels contain many different elements, but Jesus’ boundary-crossing love in healing and teaching those who are wounded and lost is prominent. Luke goes so far as to put Jesus’ compassion at the centre of several of his miracle accounts, so that we can be clear of his motivation and his response to seeing people in distress. In Jesus’ teaching and healing, people encountered the love of God—so shouldn’t we make this clear? John responded:
Both Jesus’ kingdom proclamation and the apostolic gospel message have the same basic call to “repent and believe” ahead of the coming judgement. Both Jesus and the apostles perform signs and wonders of healing and deliverance from demons which reveal the liberating power of the in-breaking kingdom, and in both cases the new community of the church (nascent in the gospels and inaugurated in Acts) is a hermeneutic for the gospel in the care for the poor and needy. The apostolic preaching in Acts is not in a vacuum but against this broader background. Even when he performs miracles of compassion and deliverance he turns back to challenge personal sin and the need for forgiveness (eg Mark 2.5; John 5.14).
Much of Jesus ministry is amongst people who already know that the are “unclean” and unacceptable to God and are outsiders to Jewish society (eg skin diseases, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Canaanites), so his focus with them is the unexpected possibility of God’s compassion in mercy/cleansing/salvation, whereas his message to the self-righteous religious people is a warning of judgement. Overall it is striking that Jesus does not seem to speak of the love of God as the basis of his proclamation – I can’t find any verses where this is directly the case.
I think John is here highlighting an important dynamic between motivation and message. Jesus’ motivation in his ministry to individuals and crowds was compassion, but his message was of the coming kingdom and the need to respond to it. We find the same dynamic in Paul. In his extended (and most personal) reflection on ministry in 2 Cor 3–5, his motivation is love (‘the love of God compels us’, 2 Cor 5.14) but the message is about the need to respond and turn from sin (‘We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord’ 2 Cor 4.5). We are used to making a different alignment: we often think that loving people will proclaim God’s love, and only grumpy people will talk about judgement and the need to respond! And because we want to be loving, we align our message accordingly.
I am still left feeling challenged and needing to wrestle further with my own agenda in sharing good news, both more formally in ministry contexts and more personally in conversation. One way of beginning to resolve this dilemma of the gap between most preaching today and what we find in the New Testament might be to consider the nature of the lordship of Jesus—that those around us are subject to the ‘lordship’ of powers that are anything but loving, and the invitation is to submit to the lordship of one who loves us.
And I am not sure if all of this makes me sound like a theological numpty! Thoughts, observations, and suggestions for therapy all welcome below…
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