The Heart of the Gospel

In 1971 the Sydney Anglicans produced a report that revolutionised my understanding of the gospel. Now out of print, Move in for Action, a report of the Commission on Evangelism, contained a chapter by Paul Barnett that examined the preaching of the gospel by Paul and Peter as recorded in the book of Acts. He showed that not once do Paul or Peter focus their “evangelistic” preaching on the death of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins. Rather they focus on the resurrection of Jesus and its implications for us.

To adherents of Judaism in Antioch Paul identified God as the One who had entered into covenant relationship with Israel, and Jesus as the long awaited Messiah figure to whom people ought to turn. To Gentiles in Athens Paul began with God as a transcendent yet immanent Creator whom people rejected in favour of false gods. By raising Jesus from the dead God made him Lord of all, and all humankind should turn to him.

Until I read that report I had always assumed the death of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins was the gospel.   This report  blew me out of the water. I read and re-read the chapter, read and re-read the relevant texts in the Bible. There was no mistaking it. Barnett was right.

The implications were profound. The gospel I had always preached was one dimensional. Human beings were guilty of sin and the death of Christ was God’s solution to that guilt. Sharing the good news focussed on helping people understand the big switch that had taken place, Christ experiencing the death they deserved that they might be forgiven and have eternal life.

A gospel that focuses on a risen Christ is multidimensional and multilayered. It is a declaration that under the leadership of the risen Christ God is renewing and healing the entire created order, making everything right, and an invitation to be part of that. So yes, it is a call to find forgiveness of sin, but it is so much more. It shifts the focus from what we’re not to what we and the world can be and are called to be.

The job of the church is to unpack this news in a way that speaks to the issues of its age. For example, in an age where we are unsustainably using the environment’s services, the gospel includes the news that the risen Christ is the One through whom all things were created, the Lord who loves all his creation and calls us to do the same; the one whose resurrection is the pattern for what will happen to the creation, that it will be made new; and the one who will hold us to account for how we treat the creation.

This is but one example of a gospel focused on the risen Christ. The permutations are endless, but ultimately all variations on the glorious news that Christ is risen from the dead to craft a new humanity and a new creation and that we can be part of that. This is good news indeed.

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