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Of First Importance (part 1)

Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly

This is part one of a three-part series.

PreachingToday.com: In your session at the 2007 Gospel Coalition conference, you offered eight words that help define the gospel. Before we discuss them together, let me ask how these eight features should affect preachers as they approach their task.

D. A. Carson: We need to keep in mind that the word gospel means different things to different parts of our constituency. For some it's a bare gospel, that which gets you into the kingdom. For others the gospel is a hugely comprehensive category that embraces almost everything. That's probably the strength—and the weakness—of Scot McKnight's essay in a recent CT ("The 8 Marks of a Robust Gospel," Christianity Today [March 2008]). I like a lot of things about what he says. What's interesting about what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, however, is he stresses what he calls the matters "of first importance."

In other words, if you make the gospel too narrow, then you don't see its comprehensive power. If you make it so it sweeps up almost everything you find in the Bible, which it seems to me is what Scot is heading toward, then you cannot determine the matters of first importance. And thus, anything you do falls under the gospel rubric, and you cannot see where distortions are coming because you're losing track of what is of fundamental importance.

God stands against us both in wrath and in love.

One of my reasons for choosing the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is that Paul clearly says what he is teaching is the gospel. He says it several different times, but he also keeps rearticulating that these are the matters of most importance. That becomes a guideline for organizing things in our minds, thinking through what we're trying to do when we're preaching, what themes we've got to come back to again and again.

These eight words were not plucked out of a systematic theology. They are words that come out of the passage where Paul himself claims to be dealing with the matters of greatest importance.

First, the gospel is Christological. The passage says, "Christ died for our sins." If we retreat to mere theism, that is, belief in God or a generalized spiritual experience, we're a long way from the gospel.

There are some articulations of Christian faith today that barely mention Christ, or Christ becomes just a cipher. Some are so far outside the camp that they're not faithfully Christian at all—the Joel Osteen sort of material. Although there is a standard invitation to come to Christ at the end, the whole sermon has not articulated who Christ is or what he's done. It has all been in terms of the power of positive thinking and health, wealth, and prosperity goals. The concluding invitation to come to Christ—cliché driven as it is—seduces some people to think the gospel has been preached, but it hasn't been. The Bible's emphases about who Christ is and what he's done simply are not found.

The best preaching over the long haul will keep thinking through how best to preach Christ. It will try to do so within the framework of biblically faithful exegesis. If one is preaching through, let's say, the Psalms or Jeremiah, it's possible to preach in a way that narrowly represents the text but that somehow doesn't bring Christ in, or brings him in accidentally at the end—"And isn't that just like Jesus … ?"—a connection by flying leap. By contrast, one thing clear to Paul—articulated without being explained in 1 Corinthians 15—is that a right reading of the antecedent Scriptures drives you to Christological conclusions. There is a lot of preaching today that is generic; it is not profoundly Christian. It is merely generic theism with a few Christ-words thrown in.

How can we fix our preaching if it's generic?

Christological preaching depends on strong biblical theology, on being someone who has read and reread the whole Bible and is thinking through the canonical connections, the tendons that hold all of Scripture together. How does kingdom track out? How does priesthood track out? How does temple or sacrifice track out? There are about twenty of these huge themes that, if understood, enable the preacher to move from a particular text along the line of these canonical themes to Christ. You still preach the text, but you handle these biblical-theological tendons that tie the whole Bible together, so people can see you're not making a wild leap to get to Christ.

I don't think a lot of biblical preaching today in evangelical circles is actually worldview-forming. Many preach the Bible in too "bitty" a fashion with an instantaneous, individualistic application that does not show how the Bible hangs together. If one aims to do Christological preaching, a lot of those problems are solved.

So, gospel preaching must first be Christological. Second?

Gospel preaching is also theological. It's not less God-centered than Christ-centered. But it's also theological in the sense that it is bound up with what was historically done by Christ on the cross. "Christ died for our sins" (v. 3).

We need to understand how the Cross relates to God, which means we have to understand something about the atonement and the nature of sin. Increasingly we hear a picture of the gospel that looks like this: We human beings in the Fall made a terrible mess of ourselves, our relationships, our world. But God in his mercy has consistently intervened to change things and bring about reconciliation and forgiveness—in the call of Abraham, the giving of the Law, the sacrificial system, and ultimately in the person of his Son. By his death Christ defeated the powers of darkness and instituted a kingdom which will ultimately be consummated at the end. He invites us to participate in this kingdom through lives transformed by his power so that in works of peace and reconciliation we are participating in the work of Christ as God in his mercy reconciles the world to himself.

Now, there's a sense in which I can affirm all that. There's another sense in which it is missing dominant themes in Scripture—so much so that the picture as a whole is seriously distorted. The dominant theme that is missing is how sin is portrayed as first and foremost defiance of God, such that God is angry. The summary I gave above makes it sound as if God is sort of a compassionate onlooker but not a participant in the drama of unfolding sin and rebellion. By contrast, the notion of the wrath of God, which is so strongly articulated in both Testaments, is bound up with the fact that he is offended. In any sin we commit, God is always the most offended party: recall David's "Against you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight." Whatever else salvation means in the Old Testament or the New, it means being reconciled to him. And that is bound up with the fact that punishment is to be meted out, whether in a symbol-laden way in the Yom Kippur or ultimately in the final sacrifice of his own dear Son.

God stands against us both in wrath and in love. He stands against us in wrath because he is a holy God, and he is transcendentally offended at us for our willful, shameful, horrific rebellion. But he also stands against us in love and even in entreaty because he is that kind of God. Until you get both of those things firmly entrenched in your understanding of the Bible storyline, you will always come out with a diluted cross. You will always come out with a misunderstanding of what Christ actually achieves on the cross—always without fail!

I would argue that nowadays how expressions like "Christ died for our sins" fit in the Bible storyline is lost on people. It has to be unpacked. We need more detailed expositions of passages like 2 Corinthians 5, Romans 3, Hebrews 9 and 10, and similar passages.

The gospel is regularly presented today along lines that leave out the wrath of God and the need for reconciliation. In Acts, when Paul is preaching to Felix, he's preaching what he says is the gospel, and the result is Felix fears the judgment to come. Whereas we preach the gospel in a way that nobody fears anything.

To talk about forgiveness of sins doesn't have a lot of edge if our hearers don't understand God's wrath.

That's right, and so they don't understand the cross or what's at stake, or they don't think in terms of eternity. There's so much focus today on the gospel making us nice people and giving us a better world and our being a little more "green"—all of which are important subjects; I'm not mocking any of them—but if you sacrifice the most important things on the altar of the merely important you're losing something. It seems to me that there's a great deal of American and worldwide evangelicalism that is right on that edge now, and that concerns me.

This is part one of a three-part series.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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Of First Importance (part 2)

Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly.

Of First Importance (part 3)

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