Good News which is also True News
(Delivered at Anglican Connection Conference, Dallas, June 12-14, 2017)
Gospel means ‘good news’ because its message is that Jesus the Son of God has saved us from the penalty of our sin and blessed us with his life-changing Spirit.
This ‘good news’ is no less true news’ ? true historically. If the gospel is not historically true, then its message is not ‘good’, but ‘bad’, misleading and a cruel mockery.
But the ‘good news’ is no less ‘true news’.
There have many attacks on the truth of the gospel, especially from the New Atheists who have carpet bombed the integrity of the four Gospels.
Please see my response, Gospel Truth published by IVP/UK
An earlier and potent attacker was William Wrede who in 1908 claimed that Paul not Jesus was the true inventor of Christianity. Jesus was a teacher whom Paul re-fashioned as a crucified and resurrected redeemer, a Greek dying and rising god. This was the inspiration of the novel The Last Temptation of Christ and the Martin Scorcese movie of the same name.
But solid evidence rejects this. In 50, when Paul came to Corinth, he ‘delivered’ a pre-formatted body of teaching, which he had ‘received’ ? almost certainly from the Jerusalem apostles, and almost certainly when he stayed with Peter in 37 ? which was within 4 years of Jesus’ resurrection.
Christ died for our sins
Christ was buried
Christ was raised on the 3rd day
Christ was seen alive by hundreds of mostly living witnesses
This is what Paul and the apostles preached
This ‘tradition’ had been created within 3 years of Jesus, far too early for a ‘myth’ to arise. This was the view of A.D. Nock the doyen of scholars of religion in the Greco-Roman world. It is a matter of fact that Jesus Christ was a crucified and resurrected saviour. The redeemer whom Wrede, Bultmann and others denied proves to be true ? true historically.
Let me mention some reasons to trust the gospel message historically.
Reasons to trust the gospel message historically:
1. Between AD 80-200 we have strong evidence of the genuine fourfold gospel. By 200 we have the codex P45 with 4 gospels bound together.
Moving backwards from 200 we have the fourfold gospel witnessed by the Diatessaron, the Muratorian Canon, and by Irenaeus.
Marcion had claimed there was but one gospel (as reconstructed by him) and Basilides had claimed the existence of additional gospels.
But there were four.
And these four were in circulation from AD 80 if not earlier.
They were quoted to or alluded to soon afterward by Clement, the Didache, Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp.
2. The Gospels were historically close to Jesus ? a mere 30 years by my reckoning in the case of Mark and 45 for Matthew, Luke, and John.
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries would have been alive when the gospels were published, and therefore able to refute them.
By contrast about 80 years separated Tiberius Caesar from Suetonius’ biography of him.
These Gospels were the written up versions of the preached gospel. The gospel was a living reality during those few decades that morphed into written texts. The material contents of the gospel had been circulated ? often in written form ? before the Gospels were completed.
By contrast, the 80 years between Tiberius and Suetonius’ Life of him was a dead space. There was no preaching about that emperor. No Tiberius cult.
3. Jesus’ public ministry was of about four years duration and the twelve he chose to be with him were eyewitnesses of his actions and auditors of his words throughout those four years.
After Judas died the criterion for his replacement as an apostle was one who had been with Jesus throughout that period, from John the Baptist to the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore qualified to be an eyewitness.
The words of the Gospels grew out of their oral eyewitness testimony. Luke specifically attributes the authentication of his sources to these ‘eyewitnesses who were ministers of the word’ (Luke 1:1-4).
4. The New Testament texts cross-reference one another
Mark, the earliest written Gospel, closely cross references the apostolic spoken sermons in Acts 2-13 that are focused on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. These correspond closely with the early, pre-formatted statement of the gospel that is embedded in Paul’s first Corinthian letter (15:3-7).
Christianity was a movement whose message (the gospel) centred on Jesus, from his baptism to his resurrection. That message was initially oral but soon also became written. The oral and the written expressions support and cross-reference one another.
5. The Gospels dovetail into first century political and religious culture.
The Gospel writers locate the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, ministry and death within his cultural and political setting.
The birth of Jesus occurred when Augustus was Caesar (31 BC?AD 14), in the latter years of Herod the King, who died in 4 BC.
Jesus’ ministry occurred during the rule of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Caiaphas High Priest in Jerusalem.
The same holds true for the geography of the Holy Land. Jesus’ ministry was set in the towns like Capernaum, Chorazim and Bethsaida around the lake, as well as in Jericho, Bethany, and Jerusalem in Judea, to name just a few.
The Gospel writers know about topography, that one travels down from Cana to Capernaum and up from Capernaum to Jerusalem. Likewise they know of particular places in Jerusalem like the Praetorium, the Pool of Siloam, the Pool of Bethesda, Gabbatha and Golgotha.
The Gospels also cohere closely with the religious culture of Israel with its dominant groups, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the temple hierarchy of ‘chief priests’.
The Gospels’ coherence with the politics, geography, topography and religious culture of Israel in the first half of the first century provides compelling evidence for their historical reliability.
6. Radical dissimilarity confirms Jesus’ distinctness
On the other hand, however, there are many aspects of Jesus that, paradoxically, cohere with but also distinguish themselves from first century Jewish religious culture. One example relates to parables. Jesus taught in parables like the rabbis, but his message was diametrically different.
In one example, a rabbi taught a parable of two trees that were subject to a violent storm so that one fell over while the other stood firm. We are immediately reminded of Jesus’ parable of the two houses that were assailed by violent storm, where one collapsed and the other stood firm.
Despite the similarity of the story in the two parables, their respective messages are opposite in meaning. In the rabbi’s parable it was the strong root system of religious works that saved the tree whereas in Jesus’ parable the rock that gave the house its stability was adherence to Jesus’ teaching.
In another parable the story line focused on a man who worked only for the eleventh hour in a twelve-hour day but received the same wage as those who had laboured throughout the whole day. In the rabbinic parable the explanation was that the man who worked one hour achieved more that the others had for the whole day. In Jesus’ parable the owner paid the eleventh hour worker the same wage merely as an act of generosity.
In both rabbinic parables the emphasis is on works of the law as a basis for recognition by God. By contrast in Jesus’ parables the emphasis is on Jesus himself, his words and his grace.
These parables locate Jesus within the parable telling culture of the times, but his radical and distinct message emerges clearly from his story line. These parables indicate the accuracy of the Gospels in reflecting the place of parables in that culture, but his message points to his transcendence.
7. Hostile sources confirm the raw facts of the New Testament
We are fortunate that Christianity came negatively to the attention of outside observers. This means that in addition to the positive witness in the New Testament we have credible references from external figures who were not only non-Christian, but anti-Christian.
I am thinking of Flavius Josephus who referred to both Jesus and brother James. Unfortunately part of Josephus’ information about Jesus has been corrupted. Nevertheless there is enough that is uncorrupted to be useful. As well, the words of Tacitus, whose text is uncorrupted, are of special value in tracing the spread of Christianity from Judea to Rome. Finally, Pliny valuably describes the Christian meeting with glimpses of their beliefs. In 112 AD Governor Pliny reported to his emperor Trajan that the sect of the Christians sang a hymn to Christ ‘as if to a god’.
This early but hostile witness innocently confirms the testimony of the New Testament that the early Christians sang ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs making melody to the Lord’. Pliny indirectly confirms that Jesus’ followers called him ‘Lord’ and pleaded, Maran atha, ‘Lord come back’.
The cumulative effect of these positive seven arguments is that history gives a favourable verdict on the question of the historical reliability of the four Gospels. In brief, the writers of the Gospels are reproducing the imprint of Jesus on them, the things they saw him do and the words they heard him speak.
The ‘good’ message’’ about Jesus is no less the ‘true’ message. The Gospels are able to satisfy the most demanding historical tests.
But equally one must acknowledge and submit to the inner witness of the Spirit to know the authentication of God.
We need to stress that historically based faith is not gullibility.
It is not irrational.
Having confirmed the reliability of the apostolic tradition for a rational faith let me now turn to its focal figure, Jesus, and to gospel-based faith in him.
History-based faith is the prelude to Jesus based faith.
In particular, what does the New Testament tell us about Sola Christo, ‘Christ alone’?
Think with me as I address that question first, in regard to the four Gospels, and secondly in the thought of the Apostle Paul?
We are so familiar with the Gospels that we miss a critical detail. The Gospels focus on Jesus effectively to the exclusion of others. It is Jesus who acts; it is Jesus who speaks.
True, there are the disciples, chiefly Peter. But he is a foil to Jesus. Where Jesus is strong, Peter is weak.
Where Jesus is dignified, Peter is erratic.
Where Jesus is measured, Peter is impulsive.
Where Jesus is unwavering in the face of hatred, Peter crumbled in the face of a servant maid.
Altarpieces and stained glass windows place the disciples alongside Jesus as if near equals. But they are not.
Also, saints, martyrs, angels. As if Jesus needs them.
But he is the all-sufficient Saviour.
Thus one of the ‘solas’ ? the Bible alone.
The altarpieces present the Bible plus.
They are frequently works of great skill and beauty.
But the Reformers recognised: the Bible alone.
Each Gospel directs the eyes of faith to Jesus alone.
It is his words we hear.
It is his deeds we watch.
Jesus is the focal figure. Jesus alone
From the apostolic times until now a great question has been is Christ, and our trust in Christ, sufficient to save us, or must we add our own contribution for God to pronounce us saved?
This was a huge issue for St Paul and it was a great issue for Martin Luther; and it remains critical.
In Erfurt the Augustinian friar had believed that the ‘justice of God’ engaged with him in judgement and condemnation, which had led him into spiritual slavery to fear and to endless fasts, vigils, confessionals and a painful pilgrimage to Rome. But in Wittenberg through his study of Romans the young professor discovered that the ‘justice of God’ engages with us not in judgment and condemnation but in grace and forgiveness through faith in the crucified Son of God.
As a result of this revolutionary discovery he changed his surname from Luder to Luther, based on the Greek word eleutheros, meaning ‘free’. He now signed letters as ‘Martin the free’. Secondly, he wrote his most famous pamphlet, Of the Freedom of the Christian. Freedom before God was everything.
Luther greatly loved Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, which he called his ‘wife’. Paul’s words, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (5:1) sum up the deepest feelings of St Paul and Martin Luther.
A key text for Paul and for Luther was Galatians 2:16:
we know that a person is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ,
so we also have believed in Christ Jesus,
in order to be justified by faith in Christ
and not by works of the law,
because by works of the law no one will be justified.
If Galatians is Paul’s first letter, as I believe it to be, it means that historically this is Paul’s earliest reference to that keyword, ‘justified’.
Three times he affirms ‘faith in Christ’ as the only basis for being ‘justified’, that is, deemed to be ‘in the right’ with God and, as the Passive Voice teaches, declared to right by God. We are right with God by God by one means, Christ alone and faith in him.
In the same letter Paul pronounces God’s curse on law-breakers
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse;
for it is written,
‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’,
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law,
for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.
It is God who justifies the guilty. It is God’s work, because with man it is impossible. To nail the point, in Galatians 2:16 Paul three times denied any role to ‘works of the law’. ‘Faith’ in Jesus Christ is the only basis for one’s justified relationship with God.
Back in the First Century Paul was rejecting such ‘works of the law’ as the necessity for male circumcision, obedience to Jewish food laws, and the observation of the feasts in the Jewish Calendar (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles).
In the sixteenth century Luther saw a parallel to these in the Old Church’s demands for pilgrimages, fasts, candles, worship of relics and religious statues, and the use of indulgences as accruing counterbalancing merit.
In Luther’s day, as in St Paul’s, people were saying that ‘Christ alone’ is not sufficient to bridge the gap between the holy God and sinful man. They were advocating ‘Christ Plus’ ? ‘works of the law’ (1st century) and Christ plus ‘religious works’ (16th century). But the apostle Paul, followed by Luther insisted: Christ Alone.
Paul admonished the Galatians for their short memories ? Galatians 3:1-6
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?
It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ
was publicly portrayed as crucified.
Let me ask you only this:
Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law
or by hearing with faith?
Are you so foolish?
Having begun by the Spirit,
are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Did you suffer so many things in vain ? if indeed it was in vain?
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you
and works miracles among you
do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith ?
just as Abraham “believed God,
and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
When Paul presented the Galatians with the verbal picture of Christ crucified they heard that message, believed in Christ and were given the Spirit of God to become God’s children (Galatians 3:1-2; 4:6). So how can they now be looking to and believing in ‘works of the law’ ? to circumcision, the food laws and the religious calendar? The hearing about and the believing in the crucified Christ is the one and only way to receiving God’s forgiveness and his Spirit.
This great truth was expressed in the architecture of Lutheran churches. The pulpit was on the side of the congregation, not the front. In the front was Christ crucified ? a crucifix, or a painting of the Crucified. From alongside them the preacher directed the eyes of faith of the congregation and the preacher to the crucified Christ, who was front and centre. The preacher and the people together looked with the eyes of faith to the crucified Saviour.
Paul and Luther understood the terrible existential reality of our lost-ness due to Sin, but equally the glorious love of the Crucified who meets us with his sacrifice at our point of greatest need. He bore our Sin and gave us his righteousness.
Luther’s insight is so powerful, so immediate.
There was a painful setting to Paul’s words in Galatians 2:11-3:6. It involved a serious dispute between Paul and Peter in Antioch over one of the ‘works of the law’, the Jewish food code. Jews would not eat with Gentiles because of their scruples regarding ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food, which Gentiles did not recognise.
The Lord had delivered Peter from this scruple in Joppa making the way for him to enter the house of the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea, to eating with him, and to preaching to him. But later in Antioch, under the pressure from the recently arrived ‘circumcision’ faction from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile believers in Antioch, and was followed by the whole body of Jewish believers, including even Barnabas.
Paul records his stern words to Peter (about themselves as Jews) which we have already quoted:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus,
in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Note the threefold repeated ‘we’, referring to the Jews, Paul and Peter. ‘Even we Jews are not justified by works of the law (like the food laws), but we are only justified by faith in Christ’.
Twice in Galatians Paul speaks of ‘the truth of the gospel’ (2:5, 14). What is this ‘truth of the gospel’? Some identify the ‘truth’ as the experience of spiritual liberation. We believe in spiritual liberation, but this is not what Paul meant. Others suggest it refers to the historical truth of the gospel. Once more this is something we affirm ? and emphatically ? but this is not the meaning here.
Neither of these is what Paul is referring to in Gal. 2:1-14.
The exegetical key to the meaning is found in the words ‘forced’ or ‘compelled’ (anagkaz? ? 2:3, 14; 6:12). Once the element of necessity or coercion enters the ‘truth of the gospel’ flies out the window. The ‘truth of the gospel’ is its basis in ‘grace’, the sheer grace of God that God displays to those who do not keep what is ‘written in the book of the law’ (3:10). That grace was demonstrated in the accursed one who hung on the tree, who bore the curse against us law-breakers vicariously, as our substitute.
One of the ‘new perspectives’ on Paul of recent times states that Jews are already ‘in’ the covenant, already saved, unless they renounce it. Thus, according to this view, faith in Christ for justification is only applicable to the Gentiles. In other words, it teaches two different routes to divine righteousness ? for Jews by the Law, for Gentiles by faith. It is to say that the Old Covenant still stands, unabrogated, unfulfilled.
Paul, however, insists there is only one way to righteousness for Peter and Paul as Jews: the way of faith in Christ. The repeated ‘we’ related to the Jews Paul and Peter clinches the point. One and the same way for Jews and Gentiles: faith. One way alone for all sinful men and women.
Despite this major dispute in Antioch, it appears that Peter came to agree with Paul, as he stated several years later at the Jerusalem Council:
And after there had been much debate,
Peter stood up and said to them,
‘Brothers, you know that in the early days
God made a choice among you that by my mouth
the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them [Gentiles], by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us [Jews],
and he made no distinction between us and them,
having cleansed their [the Gentiles] hearts by faith.
Now, therefore, why are you [Jews] putting God to the test
by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples
that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
But we [Jews] believe that we will be saved
through the grace of the Lord Jesus,
just as they [the Gentiles] will’.
This suggests that Peter had heeded the words Paul had spoken in Antioch, as recorded in Galatians. For Gentiles as for Jews there was but one pathway to receiving the Holy Spirit of God. It was by hearing the word of the gospel about Christ and believing that word. God cleansed the hearts of Gentiles by faith, and he cleansed the hearts of Jews by faith. Peter rightly states that there is no distinction between us (Jews) and them (the Gentiles).
There are not two routes to righteousness with God, one for Jews the other for Gentiles; on the contrary, there is but one route for both, faith in the crucified Son of God.
Luther and the Will
Luther owed much to Erasmus the peerless scholar who went behind the extant Latin versions of the Bible and as a textual critic began to recover the original Greek of the New Testament. It has been quipped with regard to the Reformation that ‘Erasmus laid the egg, but Luther hatched it’.
A woodcut portrays Erasmus as a miller for the flour that Luther baked into the bread of life. Erasmus the miller; Luther the baker.
Despite this the two men fell out over the question of the freedom of the will. Great as Luther was as the apostle of freedom he understood well that the will is ‘unfree’, under ‘bondage’.
Luther was doing nothing more than appealing to Augustine, and before him to St Paul.
Christ crucified is the only Saviour, but God must liberate the will to lay hold of the Christ. Its consequence is indeed freedom, but its prelude is the necessary Prevenient Grace of the Almighty that makes faith in Christ and its accompanying freedom possible.
Rejection of the Reformation
This brings me finally to reflect on a mystery. Why is it that Luther’s theology, so simple, self-authenticating, Bible-based (and anticipated in Augustine), yet has been set-aside even within the Protestant churches that owed their existence to this man, Martin Luther?
I do not pretend to know the answer except to say that the revelation of God’s grace has always proved vulnerable to modification, change and rejection. We me-centred humans find God’s us-centred love difficult to accept.
The narrative in the Bible reveals this.
It was by grace that God created the Universe,
by grace that he called Israel to be his people,
by grace redeemed them from slavery,
by grace gave them his covenant,
and by grace gave them the Land.
The law that God gave them in each of its parts ? moral, civil, ritual ? was to be their agreement to be his covenant people.
It was not to provide merit, since the covenant itself was based on grace.
The Macedonia invasion of the Middle East, including Israel put huge pressure on the Jews to resist being engulfed with Hellenistic culture. This was resisted by a new emphasis on Temple and Law, including the ‘works of the law’ that figure so significantly in Galatians.
By the era of the Pharisees law keeping had become a means to achieving merit and was not at all merely a ‘badge’ of covenant membership but understood to be the basis of acceptance with God.
Whoever honours his father atones for his sins,
And whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure…
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
And against your sins it will be credited (Sirach 3:3-4,14)
The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish teachings from about 100 BC to AD 200, many of which were current in the time of Paul.
Great is the law, for it gives life to them that practice it
both in this world and in the world to come… (Aboth 6:7)
The Holy One, blessed is he, was minded to grant merit to Israel; therefore hath he multiplied for them the law and commandments, as it is written, It pleased the Lord for his righteousness’ sake to magnify the law and make it honourable’ (Makkot 3.16).
This asserts that ‘life’ (i.e., eternal life) and ‘merit’ flow from the law. Clearly this is not a grace-based approach that is the narrative of the Old Testament. Between the Testaments the notion of grace and of God’s sovereign choice had been lost and replaced by a plethora of ‘works of the law’ that became self-centred, merit attracting.
Likewise the grace-based emphases of our Lord and his apostles that runs through the entire New Testament came to be replaced by the merit-attracting ritualism and legalism of the late Middle Ages, against which Luther and others protested.
Although the Reformation swept the world, its influence today is significantly diminished.
The New Perspective on Paul (Sanders, Dunn) implies that that there are two routes to righteousness ? one for Jews based on law, the other for Gentiles based on faith ? diminishing the centrality and sufficiency of Christ crucified for both Jews and Gentiles equally. Is this a Protestant counter-reformation?
This is contrary to the clear teaching of Galatians 2:16 noted above which asserted that for both Jews and Gentiles faith in Christ was the pathway to life.
In regard to the specifics about the core beliefs of Luther ? his forgiven freedom in the presence of God and the necessity for God to capture our wills ? this can be said: we are Pelagians at heart, believing that we can achieve our salvation.
The sinful Pelagian heart believes in its capacity to achieve whatever standards there are to be fulfilled. We measure ourselves positively against the evildoers and criminals that the daily TV news flashes before us. We are secure in our own goodness, relative to the evil of terrorists and criminals.
How important it is to exercise humble and dependent trust in Jesus crucified for my deliverance and to know that God has broken through my self-sufficiency to make himself known to me.
Speaking as an Anglican I am so thankful to God for Cranmer’s great Reformation triad: the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion and the Ordinal for Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
Cranmer and other future leaders studied Luther in the White Horse Inn in Cambridge. While Cranmer was closer to Calvin on the Lord’s Supper, there’s no denying the influence of Luther on Cranmer in the formulation of the BCP, Articles and Ordinal. Luther, following St Paul, lives on in the Anglican documents.
Luther also lives on in the theology of the consummate hymns of Charles Wesley. How blessed we are.
The Book of Common Prayer
sets out liturgically the Reformed Faith for Sunday Services and Occasional Services. The Articles spell out the doctrines of the English Reformation that express the great truths of the Patristic and Reformation periods. The Ordinal gives direction for the actual work of ministry.
The one instrument for ministry that is given to an ordinand is the Bible. How unhelpful it is, therefore, also to present him or her with additional instruments, for example, a chalice, or a crosier? These may add colour to the ceremony, but they shift the focus away from God and his Word, from Sola Scriptura.
The ‘Good News’ is ‘True News’. This is a matter of history. History-based faith is rational and not directed at gullibility. The Holy Spirit based, history-based gospel ‘truth’ is directed to our hearts.
This gospel tells us that our focus is on Christ, on Christ alone. This is the witness of the four Gospels. No disciple shares the spotlight with him. Altarpieces included martyrs, angels and relics that pointed to a Christ who was not alone, but a Christ surrounded by assistants, as if he needed them. But the Bible alone points conclusively to Christ alone.
For his thirty years as an apostle Paul never wavered from stating and defending the truth that Christ crucified, and personal trust in him, was the sole and exclusive route to righteousness with God.
Christ crucified exactly meets us at our point of deepest need. Paul proclaimed that message and witnessed his hearers responding by faith and receiving the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
As an Anglican not by accident but conviction I am deeply grateful for the bravery and insight of Thomas Cranmer in giving the Reformation to the English Church in the liturgy, the articles and the Ordinal. But his debt to the great Reformers Luther and Calvin is immeasurable.