This series is called “Recovering the good news proclaimed in the book of Romans,” however.
The idea that we need to “recover the gospel” implies that there is a problem with the current understanding of the gospel message in the book of Romans, and I would like to explicitly argue for that in this post.
My primary target audience is Protestant Christians, as I am going to try and show what I believe to be flaws in the traditional Protestant understanding of the gospel, however, I hope that this would be of interest to Catholic or any other Christian or to non-Christian that are interested in knowing what the gospel is for that matter.
Also, my goal is not to bash Protestant Christianity. That is the branch that I most find myself aligned to. My goal is to provoke a constructive conversation that will lead to a gospel message being proclaimed that is more faithful to Scripture and I believe that the very spirit of Protestantism (i.e. sola Scriptura) should compel us to be open to engaging in such conversations.
What is the Gospel?
Protestantism may have a lot of variety of debates on secondary matters of faith, and many critique others of teaching “distortions of the gospel”, or not properly “keeping the gospel central”, but I believe that there is a general consensus as to what “the gospel” is, that has not changed much since the Reformation.
For example, 9 Marks summarizes the gospel by the following 4 points:
- God. God is the creator of all things (Gen. 1:1). He is perfectly holy, worthy of all worship, and will punish sin (1 John 1:5, Rev. 4:11, Rom. 2:5-8).
- Man. All people, though created good, have become sinful by nature (Gen. 1:26-28, Ps. 51:5, Rom. 3:23). From birth, all people are alienated from God, hostile to God, and subject to the wrath of God (Eph. 2:1-3).
- Christ. Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to bear God’s wrath in the place of all who would believe in him, and rose from the grave in order to give his people eternal life (John 1:1, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 7:26, Rom. 3:21-26, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 15:20-22).
- Response. God calls everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and trust in Christ in order to be saved (Mark 1:15, Acts 20:21, Rom. 10:9-10).
I believe this to be pretty consistent with how most within Protestant Christianity would summarize the gospel, although inevitably there would be slight variations:
For example, the top 5 google hits I got when typing in ‘What is the Gospel?’ are the following, and I believe you will see them to give essentially the same summary, as 9 marks, with perhaps very slight variations:
I list none of these in order to critique or scrutinize the particular organization or person who wrote the articles (I personally think highly of all of these organizations and am thankfully for the work they do to advance the gospel message), I only list these to back up the claim that what I provided above is the general way in which the Protestant gospel is presented.
In other words, I don’t believe I am providing a straw man argument and critiquing one bad summary of the gospel which doesn’t represent the majority of Protestants view of the gospel.
With that said, here is 8 Problems I see with Protestant understanding of “the gospel” (and I am by no means trying to say that all of these problems are things that Proteanism doesn’t at all teach or address, I am particularly focusing on what most would consider “the gospel” or the core message of Christianity.):
Now, this may sound like a harsh critique, and perhaps many would likely find it absurd and audacious, that I would accuse Protestants of preaching a man-centered gospel. For starters point 1 is about God and his holiness and justice isn’t it!
Let me clarify what I mean by this, though, and why I believe it’s a valid critique:
The 4 point Protestant gospel, is primarily a problem to solution gospel. The problem is that God is holy and just and punishes sin, yet man is sinful and thus destined to be punished. The solution then is that a way was provided through Jesus for us to escape this problem.
In other words it’s hard to get around the fact that the primary focus of this message is “how to get out of hell and instead go to heaven when you die,” and try as you may to present this gospel as “God-centered” and to not make it sound like a sales pitch, but it seems unavoidable that it would not be heard as “here’s how you can go to heaven when you die”. I mean that is actually one of the most common lines used to begin a gospel presentation (do you know where you’re going when you die?).
Of course, this is not the entirety of what Protestant Christianity teaches, it’s only a SUMMARY of the gospel. But again this is a very typical summary, thus I would take it to mean this is the most important points, and if the gospel is also the core message of Christianity, then I believe it’s valid to see this summary as telling us where the central focus is being placed, and what is being emphasized and stressed.
Not only is this gospel message man-centered, but it is centered on one particular man, YOU! It is an essentially individualistic message.
Now, of course, you could argue that this is an offer for all of the humanity and not just for one person, and that might be true, but it’s hard to see how the church or the people of God in any way relates to this message.
Perhaps you could say that Scripture instructs us to be part of a church and thus you’d be in sin if you don’t join a church. Perhaps you could say that it’s essential to you growing in your understanding and relationship with God to be part of a church community, but it would be hard to argue that a community is at the very heart of this gospel message and that it is obvious that a logical response to the gospel message is to join a Christian community.
For example, I have often heard people say that even if you were the only person that would accept the gospel, Jesus still would have died for you. Now that’s obviously a hypothetical situation that we have no way of knowing whether it is true or not, but I believe it highlights that the Protestant gospel message is fundamentally understood as an individualistic message, disconnected from the church.
3)Impersonal and Formulaic
Here’s what I mean by saying the Protestant gospel message is impersonal and formulaic:
Again, the primary problem is said to be how God is going to punish our sins and send us to hell, and the solution, or the way we get out of this sentence, is that God pulls off the equivalent of accounting fraud by crediting Jesus with our bad record, and giving Him our punishment, and crediting us with Jesus perfect obedience, and giving us his reward (heaven).
The theological term for what I tongue in cheek referred to as accounting fraud is “double imputation”, and is fundamental to Protestant’s understanding of the gospel. It is also very much stressed that we receive “an alien righteousness*”, that is to say, that the righteousness is a legal record, not something internal to us, or not something that fundamentally makes us less sinful (although most would imply that out of gratitude it will compel us to live less sinfully, and most would generally add sanctification and glorification to say that eventually we will be made righteous).
Also to be fair some will rightly emphasize that we are separated from God and need to be reconciled, so at least it places an emphasis on God being a relational God and the goal being to be restored into relationship with God, but even with all those qualifiers, I can’t help but see that the gospel is presented primarily as taking places through a purely legal/accounting type transaction (and actually Protestants will generally fight hard to say justification is purely a legal matter). What this implies is that God still deep down knows that we are sinners that deserve his punishment and that Jesus is actually the one that meets his standards of acceptability, yet he is only choosing to look at us favorably. It is almost as if he is pretending we are someone we are not.
*Side Note: I did some research after writing this to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting Protestantism in the way I described how the term “alien righteousness” is used (ie in a completely legal/forensic way or purely as a credit that benefits our legal standing before God).
What I determined is that it overwhelmingly IS the way it used, however, it is most certainly NOT the way Martin Luther (the reformer who actually coined this term) actually used this term.
For example consider the following exert from Martin Luther’s sermon, “Two Kinds of Righteousness”:
 Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone. Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.
Here you can see that Luther uses the term “alien righteousness” to refer to something that comes inside us, driving out our old sinful nature and transforming us, and sets in in contrast to original sin, which is the fallen human condition that we are born with.
4)Disconnected from the story of Israel (and the Hebrew scriptures)
The next problem I see with the 4 points Protestant gospel, is that it is hard to see how there is really any connection between the gospel message and the story of Israel told in what is generally referred to as “The Old Testament”.
Now I understand the concept of contextualization, for example, in the book of Acts we see Paul would appeal to Old Testament Scripture much more when preaching to Jews than when preaching to Gentiles, so perhaps you might say this is a “gospel to the gentiles.” In other words, it’s a gospel for someone who doesn’t know anything about the Bible, and that is why it doesn’t include anything about Israel or the Old Testament. However, by “being connected to the story of Israel” I do not mean to say that for someone to understand the gospel they must know the entire Old Testament storyline in detail, I’m simply saying that the message should be primarily continuous and connected to that story line.
I also realize there are various views within Christianity (generally related to one’s eschatology) of how Israel relates to the church and if it still has a place in God’s plans, so I also am not saying that the gospel presentation needs to be presented according to my particular view on this matter.
What I am trying to say, however, is simply that you could just literally remove the Old Testament Scriptures and it wouldn’t take away much from the Protestant gospel and this is verified by the fact that very often we actually give people Bibles that only contain the New Testament, and preaching within Protestantism is overwhelmingly centered on the New Testament.
I realize that what I listed was a “summary of the gospel” and thus it would be unfair to expect it to be long enough to explain all of the major themes in the Old Testament and how that relates to the gospel message, but I am merely trying to show that it’s presenting a gospel message that is in now way connected to the main themes of the Old Testament storyline.
For example, let me highlight what I believe to be some key themes revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures:
1)Freedom From the curse of sin and death that entered into humanity and into God’s good creation when Adam and Even sinned, return to the Garden of Eden, and victory over the serpent.
For the next 5, I realize Christians have widely varying beliefs about what exactly the fulfillment looks like, but I did my best to reduce it to the bare minimum that I believe most Christians would agree upon.
2)The formation of a “people of God” that began with Abraham.
3)The promise of “circumcision of the heart” given through Moses (Deut 30).
4)Temple and sacrifice – Atonement being made for sin, acceptable worship being offered to God, and God’s presence dwelling among his people, like he did in Eden.
5)The promise of a king and given to David who will restore God’s good rule over creation.
6)Resurrection of the dead where the wicked will be judged and the righteous will be given eternal life in God’s kingdom
This was only a short list and I obviously left a lot out, but I hope I have successfully demonstrated that it would be inconceivable to view the Old Testament storyline as primarily building up to “how to go escape hell and go to heaven when you die”, or to view the story of Israel as “an experiment to show people that they need to be saved by grace instead of works”.
Again certainly there will be some disagreements about exactly how it all connects, but Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and return can not be faithfully understood apart from this story line.
5)Doesn’t connect with the gospel narratives
Other than the passion narrative part of the gospels (i.e. the crucifixion), the Protestant gospel doesn’t seem to have much connection to the rest of the gospel narratives either.
For example, consider the Apostles Creed:
Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontious Pilate…wait a minute, what about his life and ministry?
Jesus began his ministry by announcing:
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:14)
And by far (particularly in the synoptic gospels) the biggest focus of his ministry was teaching about, proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God (i.e. the sermon on the mount, the Lord’s prayer, parables, his numerous miracles).
In other words, the gospel narratives make clear that the kingdom of God is the good news!
And what is the Kingdom of God?
In short, it is heaven invading earth. It is a return to the garden of Eden where God is retaking his rule over creation and restoring things to how they were created to be. It is God’s where God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. It is the culmination of all of the things spoken of in the Old Testament Scriptures. It’s the fruition of a process that began with God calling Abraham, was inaugurated by Jesus’ incarnation, resurrection from the dead, (and ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit that we are told about in the gospels but don’t see until Acts), and it will be fully consummated during Jesus’ second coming.
It’s hard to read the gospel narratives from start to finish and get that the primary focus was about how we need to have our sins forgiven so we can avoid hell and go to heaven when we die.
Unfortunately, sometimes the entire gospel is even read with this narrow focus, Jesus’ life is reduced to nothing more than him obeying the law on our behalf, Jesus’ teaching is twisted to be him “upping the Law’s requirements so we know for sure we have to be saved by grace, not works”, and Jesus’ miracles as merely “proving he was God.”
6)Doesn’t connect with the book of Acts
An exercise that I like to do from time to time is to read the book of Acts from beginning to end and pay careful attention to every time there is a “gospel presentation” and see what points are highlighted, and how it lines up with how I usually hear the gospel presented in church (for example, Peter’s speech on Pentecost, or Paul’s gospel proclamation in the synagogues or on Mars Hill when he was in Athens.)
One thing that stuck out to me the last time I did this, was how much more a focus the resurrection gets than in Protestantism. In the Protestant gospel it is by far the crucifixion that is highlighted, and in fact, in my opinion, it is generally unclear what the implications of the resurrection actually are (since all the elements of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and double imputation actually took place purely in the crucifixion).
For example, in the links, I looked at for “What is the Gospel?”, 3 out of 5 did not mention the resurrection (although 2 of the 3 did quote 1 Cor 15:4, yet still failed to mention anything about the resurrection in their summary/description), the other 2 listed the resurrection as “proving God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for sin”, and 1 also added it was “so we could have eternal life.”
In Acts, however, the resurrection seems to have a very clear implication. Jesus’ resurrection was proof that God had declared him to be the promised king (of Israel and all the nations) and that God’s kingdom had been inaugurated, thus the people were called to repent and join his kingdom (which naturally means joining his kingdom community).
In other words, the gospel is about a king a kingdom and a call to join the kingdom.
It’s also hard to read Acts and not see how central the Holy Spirit is to this kingdom community as well is the radical communally oriented the response to the gospel message was (for example Acts 2:42-47 tells of how they all sold all their possessions and starting living communally, devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and sharing meals and fellowship together, and that there was ‘signs and wonders’ being done among them on a daily basis).
I already talked about how the church is not included in the Protestant gospel, but it is also of note that the Holy Spirit is generally not even mentioned in the gospel.
7)Doesn’t line up with Romans 5-8
This is a huge debate in New Testament scholarship, but if you read Romans 5-8, it seems strikingly different than the Protestant gospel (which I believe is, in general, overwhelmingly drawn from the traditional interpretation of Romans 1-4).
For example, for one moment allow yourself to construct your very own Thomas Jefferson Bible and pretend that Romans 5-8 was its own book and that the rest of Romans doesn’t exist.
What would you see as the general focus of thrust of the gospel?
Here are a few things that stuck out to me when I did that exercise:
1)God’s disposition towards sinners
Being saved from “the wrath” is mentioned, so it certainly doesn’t eliminate the concept of a future judgment of wrath towards sin, and certainly God is complex and can’t be described by a single attribute, but if just reading Romans 5-8, by far the dominant disposition of God towards sinners seems to be one of love and benevolence. For example, he loved us “while we were yet sinners”.
2)View of Jesus’ death and resurrection
Instead of being about primarily about God enacting retributive justice, Jesus’ death and resurrection are seen as something that we in some mystical way participate in. We die to our old humanity that is plagued with sin and are raised to new life with Jesus. This is seen most clearly when we participate in baptism, where we die with Christ and are raised to new life.
3Purpose of the gospel
Instead of the focus primarily being about clearing up our legal record so that we won’t face eternal judgment, the focus is primarily one of transformation and deliverance from sin and death that begins now and will be completed when Christ returns. We go from in Adam where sin and death reign, to in Christ where life and righteousness reign. We go from being enslaved to our evil master of sin and death, to being set free and bound to a new benevolent master of Christ who leads us to righteousness producing life.
4)Trinitarian and relational
Rather than portraying God as impersonal and primarily concerned about punishing sins, the whole gospel is about reconciling us to a relationship with God and restoring humanity. Christ is described as becoming our husband, and the Holy Spirit enters into our heart, pouring out God’s love to us. The Spirit makes us cry out “Abba Father” as we are given personal experience God as our Father ad are given assurance that we are children of God. The Spirit sets us free from sin and death, strengthening us in our weaknesses and helps us to endure the sufferings that we encounter on this journey. Not only is it is God’s involvement very relational, but now Jesus has become the firstborn among many “brothers”, we have become a part of God’s close-knit family.
5)Magnitude of the gospel
Instead of primarily being a message to get individuals out of a future judgment, this is a cosmic message about the creation of a new glorified incorruptible humanity, and not only that but also freeing creation itself from bondage to sin.
8)Makes God out to be unjust and angry
Lastly, the Protestant gospel claims that the central aspect of God that we need to know about is that he is just and must justly punish sin, yet he ends up punishing a guilty man, to let an innocent man go free thus acting completely unjust (imagine this scenario actually happening in a courtroom, would anyone in their right mind say the judge acted “justly?”).
Furthermore, this is complicated by the fact that Jesus didn’t actually serve our “just sentence” and he was only dead for 3 days (how does that in anyway equate to eternity in hell?).
I’ve heard numerous attempts to explain this, but I can’t help but feel that most Protestants have to perform mental gymnastics to explain away the obvious flaws in this theory.
Certainly, there are verses that express that Jesus took the judgment and wrath of God for our sin (i.e. the gospels account of Jesus saying he needs to “drink the cup of the Father”, which in the Old Testament always referred to God’s wrath and judgment). However, I believe these need to be rightly understood in a more mystical way, where sin is more a disease or evil life force that is transferred on to Jesus and destroyed by his crucifixion, to set us free from the enslaving power of sin. Also, Jesus’ heart to die for his enemies was an expression of the heart of the Father (God [The Father] showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)), you can not radically separate the Father and the Son in the crucifixion, seeing the Father as angry and vindictive and the Son as stepping in to save us from getting a beating by an angry God.
This makes much more sense of why it can be repeatedly described in Acts as something unjust done “by the hands of wicked men”, that the Father justly reversed by raising Jesus’ from the dead. In this way, the crucifixion can be seen as an ironic twist where the Father enticed Satan and the evil rulers of the world to use evil means to destroy evil itself! It is the ultimate act of God using what man meant for evil to do good.
Understanding it in the courtroom/accounting terms of God making Jesus take a punishment equal to our sins in order to balance out the justice scale on the other hands, makes God out to be an abusive child beater with anger problem
As a side note: I believe using Mathew 27:46 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to justify the claim that the Father “turned his back on Jesus” or “forsook Jesus” on the cross is badly taking that verse out of context. That is the first verse of a lament Psalm. Laments express the worshipers (in this case Jesus) suffering, agony, and raw emotions, they are not expressions of the Father’s disposition towards the worshiper. Furthermore, if you read the Psalm to the conclusion, you will see it is quite clear that neither the Psalmist nor Jesus thought God was actually forsaking them (the Psalm was known by the first verse in Jesus’ day as chapters had not been added yet so he was referencing the entire Psalm).
Maybe you agreed with some of my points, maybe you didn’t, but I hope I at least sparked enough interest to open you to examining some of the fundamental tenants of Protestantism and see if there are some foundational problems. And if these tenants are primarily derived from a traditional understanding of the book of Romans (and as I stated previously particularly chapter 1-4), then perhaps we should be open to exploring how we may have some misunderstandings there.
In the next few posts, I plan on trying to address the question as to why the book of Romans was written, and how that actually drives how we are to read the book of Romans, then, after that, we will be ready to dive into Romans.