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What exactly is the gospel?

Popular author and biblical scholar Tom Wright here tackles the key question ‘What exactly is the gospel?’ It is Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good by N.T. Wright (SPCK, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-281-07303-0).  

What usually passes for ‘the gospel’ in evangelical circles today is a weak and watered-down version of the robust, exciting message that motivated the early church. That message was the news that something life-changing had happened: Jesus had been raised from death and thus vindicated as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord!

The implications of that — past, present and future — are, of course, enormous and Wright spells them out in detail, showing how so much that passes for ‘the gospel’ today fails to grasp them and thus ends up settling for something far less than the real thing.

Inevitably, the subject requires him to touch on related issues such as the nature of God, the nature of the atonement, and our hopes for the future, since all are bound up with the good news itself. He tackles them all with characteristic warmth and clarity.

Every sincere Christian will benefit from Wright’s insights. But if you consider yourself an evangelist this book, I would say, is required reading.

[The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

In many churches, the good news has subtly changed into good advice: here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. And in particular, here’s how to make sure you’re on the right track for what happens after death. Take this advice: say this prayer and you’ll be saved. You won’t go to hell; you’ll go to heaven. Here’s how to do it. This is advice, not news. (78)

…the enormity of Paul’s challenge. He is announcing that a world-changing event has happened, and he is announcing it to an audience composed of people who assume they would have heard of a world-changing event if one had really occurred. And they hadn’t. (235)

Paul was telling them that something had happened which had changed the world, that the world was now a different place, and that he was summoning them to be part of that new, different reality. He was telling them about an event that would cause them to adjust their entire lives in order to come into line with the way things now were. (278)

For something to qualify as news, there has to be (1) an announcement of an event that has happened; (2) a larger context, a back story, within which this makes sense; (3) a sudden unveiling of the new future that lies ahead; and (4) a transformation of the present moment, sitting between the event that has happened and the further event that therefore will happen. That is how news works. It is certainly how the early Christian good news worked. (324)

Once people grasp that the events of the Messiah’s death and resurrection have transformed everything and that they are now living between that initial explosive event and God’s final setting right of the world (when God is ‘all in all’), then everything will change: belief, behaviour, attitudes, expectations, and not least a new love, a real sense of belonging, which springs up among those who share all this. (373)

Throughout Jesus’s public career, he talked about the good news of God’s kingdom, redefining the idea of God’s kingdom as he went along. God was coming back to take charge, he said. But it didn’t look like what people had imagined. (516)

The kingdoms of the world run on violence. The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love. That is the good news. (611)

Though Paul very clearly sees Jesus’s death here as both penal (this was a judicial sentence) and substitutionary (Jesus dies, therefore we do not die), he does not say that God punished Jesus. That would be an oversimplification, and it lends itself to distortion. (635)

The four Gospels in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were originally written precisely to say, ‘This is what just happened, and everything is forever different as a result.’ (886)

The God who masterminds both creation and covenant is a God of love – utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love. You would never know this from listening to the story of the angry God who is determined to punish someone and just happens to pick on his own son. There is a famous verse in John’s Gospel that says, ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only son.’ Not, please note, ‘God so hated the world’. If we give the wrong impression at that point, we distort the whole picture. (951)

When we say, ‘Jesus died for our sins’ within a message about how to escape this nasty old world and go to heaven, it means one thing. When we say, ‘Jesus died for our sins’ within a message about God the creator rescuing his creation from corruption, decay, and death, and rescuing us to be part of that, it means something significantly different. (998)

Many are deeply shocked if you suggest that when Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Matt. 28:18), he meant what he said and we should work it out in practice. (1061)

The good news is not simply, ‘Look, I can prove these abstract truths’ nor yet ‘Your heart can be filled with joy’ but ‘The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible.’ Something has happened that has made all the difference. (1139)

Creation was supposed to be brought to flourishing harmony, to a fruitful fulfilment, through the work of humans. So creation itself is frustrated, all because the humans got it wrong. The problem is not ‘Oh dear, humans sinned, so they will now go to hell.’ The problem is ‘Humans sinned, so the whole creation will fail to attain its proper goal.’ Perhaps that failure, if not dealt with, is part of what we should mean by hell. (1359)

Somehow, in ways we cannot at present discern, what is done in the present out of love for God and in the power of the Spirit will be part of God’s new world when it finally arrives. (1574)

In the life of every believer, constantly looking back to the original good news prevents any sense of merely human achievement, and constantly looking forward to the future good news prevents any sense of merely human ambition. (1730)

The first followers of Jesus (Paul and many others) went out into the wider world with what they insisted was good news: there is a God, but he’s not like the gods you know already. He is like – well, he’s like Jesus. (1804)

The good news is that the living God is indeed establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, through the finished work of Jesus, and is inviting people of all sorts to share not only in the benefits of this kingdom but also in the work through which it will come to its ultimate completion. (2239)

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