For the Bible to be coherent, then, it follows that the gospel must resolve the problem of sin. What is the gospel? In recent years that question has been answered in numerous books, essays, and blogs. Like the word “sin,” the word “gospel” can be accurately but rather fuzzily defined in a few words, or it can be unpacked at many levels after one undertakes very careful exegetical study of εὐαγγέλιον4 and its cognates and adjacent themes.5 We could begin with a simple formulation such as “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” Then one could adopt an obvious improvement: “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ, especially in his death and resurrection” (cf. 1 Cor 15). Or we could take several quantum leaps forward, and try again:
The gospel is the great news of what God has graciously done in Jesus Christ, especially in his atoning death and vindicating resurrection, his ascension, session, and high priestly ministry, to reconcile sinful human beings to himself, justifying them by the penal substitute of his Son, and regenerating and sanctifying them by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, who is given to them as the down payment of their ultimate inheritance. God will save them if they repent and trust in Jesus.
The proper response to this gospel, then, is that people repent, believe, and receive God’s grace by faith alone.
The entailment of this received gospel, that is, the inevitable result, is that those who believe experience forgiveness of sins, are joined together spiritually in the body of Christ, the church, being so transformed that, in measure as they become more Christ-like, they delight to learn obedience to King Jesus and joyfully proclaim the good news that has saved them, and they do good to all men, especially to the household of faith, eager to be good stewards of the grace of God in all the world, in anticipation of the culminating transformation that issues in resurrection existence in the new heaven and the new earth, to the glory of God and the good of his blood-bought people.
Once again, as in our brief treatment of sin, much more could be said to flesh out this potted summary. But observe three things:
1. The gospel is, first and foremost, news—great news, momentous news. That is why it must be announced, proclaimed—that’s what one does with news. Silent proclamation of the gospel is an oxymoron. Godly and generous behavior may bear a kind of witness to the transformed life, but if those who observe such a life hear nothing of the substance of the gospel, it may evoke admiration but cannot call forth faith because in the Bible faith demands faith’s true object, which remains unknown where there is no proclamation of the news.
2. The gospel is, first and foremost, news about what God has done in Christ. It is not law, an ethical system, or a list of human obligations; it is not a code of conduct telling us what we must do: it is news about what God has done in Christ.
3. On the other hand, the gospel has both purposes and entailments in human conduct. The entailments must be preached. But if you preach the entailments as if they were the gospel itself, pretty soon you lose sight of the reality of the gospel—that it is the good news of what God has done, not a description of what we ought to do in consequence. Pretty soon the gospel descends to mere moralism. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.
So now I come to the fairly recent and certainly very moving book by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?6 This frank and appealing book surveys worldwide poverty and argues that the American failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is “the hole in our gospel.” Without wanting to diminish the obligation Christians have to help the poor, and with nothing but admiration for Mr Stearns’s personal pilgrimage, his argument would have been far more helpful and compelling had he observed three things:
First, “what God expects of us” (his subtitle) is, by definition, not the gospel. This is not the great news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Had Mr Stearns cast his treatment of poverty as one of the things to be addressed by the second greatest commandment, or as one of several entailments of the gospel, I could have recommended his book with much greater confidence. As it is, the book will contribute to declining clarity as to what the gospel is.
Second, even while acknowledging—indeed, insisting on the importance of highlighting—the genuine needs that Mr Stearns depicts in his book, it is disturbing not to hear similar anguish over human alienation from God. The focus of his book is so narrowly poverty that the sweep of what the gospel addresses is lost to view. Men and women stand under God’s judgment, and this God of love mandates that by the means of heralding the gospel they will be saved not only in this life but in the life to come. Where is the anguish that contemplates a Christ-less eternity, that cries, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses. . . . Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:30–32). The analysis of the problem is too small, and the gospel is correspondingly reduced.
Third, some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.
All Christian blessings and resources are grounded in the blood of the Lamb.
Do you find yourself accepted before this holy God? If so, it is because of the blood of the Lamb. Have you received the blessed Holy Spirit? He has been poured out because of the blood of the Lamb. Do you have the prospect of consummated eternal life in glory? It was secured by the blood of the Lamb.
Are you in the fellowship of saints, brothers and sisters who love Christ, the church of the living God, a new body, the body of Christ on earth? This is bought, secured, and constituted by the blood of the Lamb. Are you grateful for the spiritual armaments that Paul tells us to deploy (Ephesians 6)? The entire arsenal is at our disposal because of the blood of the Lamb. May we go to God in prayer? It is because of the blood of the Lamb. Do we find our wills strengthened by the Spirit? That incalculable benefit was secured by the blood of the Lamb.
Every whiff of victory over the principalities and powers of this dark age has been secured by the blood of the Lamb.
— D. A. Carson Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 99
(HT: Of First Importance)
Sound theology should shape everything we do in corporate worship. But what does that mean for music in particular? Don Carson recently sat down with worship leaders Keith Getty and Matt Boswell to discuss the relationship between the truth we believe and the songs we sing.
D. A. Carson argues that polemical theology is biblical but can also be dangerous:
. . . any robust theology that wounds and heals, that bites and edifies and clarifies, is implicitly or explicitly engaging with alternative stances.
In a world of finite human beings who are absorbed in themselves and characterized by rebellion against God, polemical theology is an unavoidable component of any serious theological stance, as the Bible itself makes clear.
But then he points to the dangers:
Nevertheless there is something wrong-headed about making polemical theology the focus of one’s theological identity.
This can be done in many ways.
There are well-known scholars whose every publication has an undertone of “everyone-has-got-this-wrong-before-me-but-here-is-the-true-synthesis.”
Some become far better known for what they are against than for the overflow of their worship or for their generosity to the needy or even for their affirmation of historically confessed truth.
Still other Christians develop websites and ministries whose sole aim is to confute error. God knows there is plenty of error to confute. To make the refutation of error into a specialized “ministry,” however, is likely to diminish the joyful affirmation of truth and make every affirmation of truth sound angry, supercilious, self-righteous—in a word, polemical.
In short, while polemical theology is just about unavoidable in theory and should not, as a matter of faithfulness, be skirted, one worries about those who make it their specialism.
Carson also makes the point that “polemical theology ought to develop a wide range of ‘tones’”:
Within the space of six short chapters, Paul can be indignant with his readers, but he can also plead with them. He openly admits he wishes he could be present with them so he could better judge how he should adjust his tone. He can be scathing with respect to his opponents, precisely because he wants to protect his readers; he can devote several paragraphs to clarifying and defending his own credibility, not least in demonstrating that his core gospel is shared by the other apostles, even though he insists he is not dependent on them for getting it right. He happily connects his theological understanding to ethical conduct.
All of this suggests that a mature grasp of the potential of polemical theology wants to win and protect people, not merely win arguments.
You can read the whole thing.
“I do not know how many times I have sung the words, “O let me never, never / Outlive my love for Thee,” but I mean them.
I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel.
God knows there are many things in my past of which I am deeply ashamed; I would not want such shame to multiple and bring dishonor to Christ in years to come.
There are worse things than dying.”
—D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 120.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
Justin Taylor posts:
Daniel Darling, writing for Leadership, asks Don Carson, “You’ve often said that the Church is three generations from losing the gospel entirely. What advice would you give to pastors and church leaders to ensure that this doesn’t happen?” Here is his answer:
This question is an important one, but very difficult to answer in a few lines.
Read and meditate on the Scriptures constantly, and self-consciously place yourself under Scriptural authority.
Walk with epistemological humility—and that means carefully learning from Christian leaders in the past so we do not tumble into precisely the same mistakes.
Devote yourself to disciplined prayer. A prayerless person is a disaster waiting to happen.
Never stop evangelizing: it is much easier to get sloppy about the gospel if you are not proclaiming it and seeing men and women come to Christ.
Develop close attachments with a handful of trusted people who are experienced and discerning, and make time for edifying fellowship.
If you are a pastor, read widely—commentaries, theology, historical theology, devotional literature, and so forth. A pastor must be a general practitioner. One is far more likely to make mistakes of proportion and judgement where one sees oneself as a kind of specialist.
“Using audio from Don Carson, this short video challenges us from the Bible how we must be sharing our lives, opening up the Bible and changing generations as we point them to Jesus.”
Here’s how Don Carson recently replied to a question about suffering during a Q&A. (This is a lightly edited transcript from 13:37 to 14:40 in the audio file.)
- We grew up in some of the suffering of French Canada.
- I’ve had typhoid because I went to Africa and came within death’s door.
- I’ve had two or three other diseases that have almost taken me out.
- My wife’s had cancer that has almost taken her out. She didn’t expect to live to 50; she just turned 59.
- But that’s part of the stuff of life, isn’t it? And if you’re a Christian leader, then sooner or later you go through situations in churches and relationships that are really tough.The most painful things I’ve ever borne are betrayals by Christian friends.
- Some of you will know the name Roy Clements. On the Tuesday of this particular week, we got the diagnosis of my wife’s cancer, and it was bad. On the Thursday of that week, I and five others got the letter from Roy Clemens telling us that he was leaving his wife and going to proclaim himself a homosexual. My wife and I cried much, much more over Roy than we ever did over the cancer.
(HT: Andy Naselli)
“ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS to grasp is that the God of the Bible is both personal – interacting with other persons – and transcendent (i.e., above space ant time – the domain in which all our personal interactions with God take place). As the transcendent Sovereign, he rules over everything without exception; as the personal Creator, he interacts in personal ways with those who bear his image, disclosing himself to be not only personal but flawlessly good. How to put those elements together is finally beyond us, however frequently they are simply assumed in Scripture.
When Jacob hears that Joseph is alive, he offers sacrifices to God, who graciously discloses himself to Jacob once again: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes” (Gen. 46:3-4).
The book of Genesis makes it clear that Jacob knew that God’s covenant with Abraham included the promise that the land where they were now settled would one day be given to him and to his descendants. That is why Jacob needed this direct disclosure from God to induce him to leave the land. Jacob was reassured on three fronts: (a) God would make his descendants multiply into a “great nation” during their sojourn in Egypt; (b) God would eventually bring them out of Egypt; (c) at the personal level, Jacob is comforted to learn that his long-lost son Joseph will attend his father’s death.
All of this provides personal comfort. It also discloses something of the mysteries of God’s providential sovereignty, for readers of the Pentateuch know that this sojourn in Egypt will issue in slavery, that God will then be said to “hear” the cries of his people, that in the course of time he will raise up Moses, who will be God’s agent in the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the granting of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the law, the wilderness wanderings, and the (re) entry into the Promised Land. The sovereign God who brings Joseph down to Egypt to prepare the way for this small community of seventy persons has a lot of complex plans in store. These are designed to bring his people to the next stage of redemptive history, and finally to teach them that God’s words are more important than food (Deut. 8).
One can no more detach God’s sovereign transcendence from his personhood, or vice versa, than one can safely detach one wing from an airplane and still expect it to fly.”
D.A. Carson, For the Love of God
By D. A. Carson in his outstanding book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010):
The scene is grotesque. The dragon stands in front of the woman. She is lying there in labour Her feet are in the stirrups, writhing as she pushes to give birth, and this disgusting dragon is waiting to grab the baby as it comes out of the birth canal and then eat it (12:4). The scene is meant to be grotesque: it reflects the implacable rage of Satan against the arriving Messiah.
Do we not know how this works out in historical terms? The first bloodbath in the time of Jesus takes place in the little village of Bethlehem — in the slaughter of the innocents as Herod tries to squash this baby’s perceived threat to his throne.
Jesus is saved by Joseph, who is warned by God in a dream and flees to Egypt. Herod, in a rage, “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). Satan later manifests his rage against Jesus in the temptation, and he manifests his rage against the church in every temptation. Satan’s rage manifests itself when some people try to push Jesus over a cliff, and others take up stones to stone him. Satan is after Jesus and wants to destroy him by any means possible.
Behind all these attempts to destroy Jesus is the red dragon, and behind the red dragon is God himself, bringing to pass his purposes even in the death of his Son to bring about our redemption.
But the text does not go on to talk about Jesus’ triumph here, not because this book has no interest in him but because the triumph of Jesus has already been spectacularly introduced in Revelation 4–5. The great vision of Revelation 4–5 controls the entire book. There we learn that Christ, this male child, is the only one who is fit to open the scroll in God’s right hand to bring about all of God’s purposes for judgement and blessing. He is the Lion and the Lamb, the reigning king and the bloody sacrifice, the heir to David’s throne yet the one who appears from God’s throne. Because of his struggle, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation are redeemed. Countless millions gather around him who sits on the throne and the Lamb and sing a new song of adoring, grateful, praise.
But here in Revelation 12 we move from Jesus’ birth to his ascension; we run through his entire life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension in two lines: he “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre and “was snatched up to God and to his throne” (v. 5). The male child, Jesus, is born and snatched to heaven. In other words, this passage focuses not on Christ’s triumph — that is presupposed — but on what happens to the woman and her children, the ones left behind. And that is us: the messianic community, the people of God, the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ. This side of the cross they are described as “those who obey God’s commands and hold the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). The woman (the messianic community) is the focus of the passage.
(HT: Tony Reinke)
“Against those forms of Judaism that saw the law-covenant not only as lex [law] but as a hermeneutical device for interpreting the Old Testament, Paul insists that the Bible’s story line takes precedence and provides the proper hermeneutical key.”
D. A. Carson, “Reflections on Salvation and Justification in the New Testament,” JETS 40 (1997): 585.
There are two ways to read the Bible. We can read it as law or as promise.
If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by law. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the law will be conditioned by promise.
In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).
So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or grace, demand or provision, threat or promise — if we want to know how to read the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way — we can follow the plot-line of the Bible itself and see which comes first. And in fact, promise comes first, in God’s word to Abram in Genesis 12. Then the law is “added” — significant word, in Galatians 3:19 — the law is added as a sidebar later, in Exodus 20. The hermeneutical category “promise” establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.
The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God to undeserving law-breakers through his grace in Christ. This is not an arbitrary overlay forced onto the biblical text. The Bible presents itself to us this way. The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there, fulfilled in Christ and revered by us. But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole. We can and should understand them as qualified by God’s gracious promise, for all who will bank their hopes on him.
John Piper, Ligon Duncan, Russell Moore, and Greg Gilbert at a panel of the 2012 Together for the Gospel (April 2012):
Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper at the Gospel Coalition council members’ meeting (May 2012):
If you are new to this subject, here are some resources I would recommend starting with:
1. John Piper and Wayne Grudem “50 Crucial Questions About Manhood and Womanhood.” This is a free PDF that gives concise answers to 50 questions. This is the place to start.
2. If you want to hear the audio or read the notes of a weekend seminar, looking at passages and objections and application in more depth, take a look at this free seminar by John Piper.
3. For introductions written by women, consider Carrie Sandom, Different by Design: God’s Blueprint for Men and Women and Claire Smith, God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says About Men and Women.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
TGC founders Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper discus the reasons why. They are careful to distinguish the gospel from its logical and biblical implications, but maintain that such implications impact the clarity and preservation of the gospel.
D. A. Carson:
“God is the sovereign, transcendent and personal God who has made the universe, including us, his image-bearers. Our misery lies in our rebellion, our alienation from God, which, despite his forbearance, attracts his implacable wrath.
But God, precisely because love is of the very essence of his character, takes the initiative and prepared for the coming of his own Son by raising up a people who, by covenantal stipulations, temple worship, systems of sacrifice and of priesthood, by kings and by prophets, are taught something of what God is planning and what he expects.
In the fullness of time his Son comes and takes on human nature. He comes not, in the first instance, to judge but to save: he dies the death of his people, rises from the grave and, in returning to his heavenly Father, bequeaths the Holy Spirit as the down payment and guarantee of the ultimate gift he has secured for them—an eternity of bliss in the presence of God himself, in a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
The only alternative is to be shut out from the presence of this God forever, in the torments of hell. What men and women must do, before it is too late, is repent and trust Christ; the alternative is to disobey the gospel (Romans 10:16;2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17).”
For Such a Time as This: Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present and Future, ed. Steve Brady and Harold Rowdon (London, UK: Evangelical Alliance, 1986), 80.
(HT: Desiring God blog)
Earlier this year David Mathis sat down with Don Carson to discuss sanctification. In this three-minute clip, Carson talks about some simultaneous steps to take for overcoming temptation, including a deepening delight in Jesus.
Sanctification is the theme of this year’s Desiring God National Conference — “Act the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification.” Visit the event page to learn more and register.
(HT: Desiring God blog)
“Redemption terminology in the NT is so bound up with Christ’s work for and in the church that to extend it to whatever good we do in the broader world risks a shift in focus. Not for a moment do I want to deny that we are to serve as salt and light, that exiles may be called to do good in the pagan cities where Providence has appointed them to live (Jer 29), that every square foot of this world is under Christ’s universal reign (even though that reign is still being contested), that the nations of the world will bring their “goods” into the Jerusalem that comes down from above. But many of those who speak easily and fluently of redeeming the culture soon focus all their energy shaping fiscal and political policies and the like, and merely assume the gospel. A gospel that is merely assumed, that does no more than perk away in the background while the focus of our attention is on the “redemption” of the culture in which we find ourselves, is lost within a generation or two. At the same time, I worry about Christians who focus their attention so narrowly on getting people “saved” that they care little about doing good to all people, even if especially to the household of God. Getting this right is not easy, and inevitably priorities will shift a little in various parts of the world, under various regimes. Part of the complexity of the discussion, I think, is bound up with what the church as church is responsible for, and what Christians as Christians are responsible for: I have argued that failure to make this distinction tends to lead toward sad conclusions.”
You can read the entire conversation with Derek Thomas here: Don Carson Talks About Culture.
The ways of destroying the church are many and colorful. Raw factionalism will do it. Rank heresy will do it. Taking your eyes off the cross and letting other, more peripheral matters dominate the agenda will do it—admittedly more slowly than frank heresy, but just as effectively over the long haul. Building the church with superficial ‘conversions’ and wonderful programs that rarely bring people into a deepening knowledge of the living God will do it. Entertaining people to death but never fostering the beauty of holiness or the centrality of self-crucifying love will build an assembling of religious people, but it will destroy the church of the living God. Gossip, prayerlessness, bitterness, sustained biblical illiteracy, self-promotion, materialism—all of these things, and many more, can destroy a church. And to do so is dangerous: ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple (1 Cor. 3:17). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Book House Company; 1993) p. 83-84.
(HT: The Cross Quoter)
This really scratches where I itch!
From The Gospel Coalition:
During the recent Together for the Gospel conference, Kevin DeYoung delivered an excellent message, “Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort.” My prolific friend and fellow Council member for The Gospel Coalition also has a book coming out on the subject, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. Anyone attuned to the reformed evangelical blogosphere will know that Kevin’s sermon and book spring in part from lively in-house discussions over the last year about the nature of sanctification: its relationship to justification, the gospel, effort, and so on. (If that’s news to you, start here.)
Those who have been tracking that ongoing discussion might be interested to know that many of these sanctification-related issues were recently addressed by D. A. Carson and Fred G. Zaspel at Clarus ’12, a TGC regional conference.
In keeping with the conference theme, ”The Cross-Shaped Christian Life,” much of the panel discussion was given to the doctrine of sanctification. Other questions addressed in the video include:
- How do you understand Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7:17-25? (Fred and Don have differing views of Rom. 7—and neither is the most popular view!)
- What is the relationship between justification and sanctification? Are they tied or separate?
- Can we see our own growth? Or is growth only the further, deeper acknowledgment of our need for the gospel?
- If we have only one nature, why do we still sin?
- What is “perfectionism”? And what is the “higher life movement”?
- Warfield wrote a work called Miserable Sinner Christianity. What is “miserable sinner Christianity”? Is that the kind of language we should use to speak of Christians?
- Concerning indicatives and imperatives, how do we avoid neglecting or distorting one or the other?
- How do we teach new believers the basics of discipleship without promoting check-list Christianity?
- What are some encouraging and concerning trends in North American Christianity?
In John 2 Jesus, having declared that his hour ‘has not yet come’ (v. 4), turns water into wine at a wedding uniting a bride and a bridegroom; a celebration, a feast.
In John 3 Jesus calls himself the bridegroom (3:29).
Conclusion: John 2 is an anticipation of the real wedding, the true celebration, the ultimate feast. That’s why Jesus told his mom, ‘My time has not yet come.’ His own wedding was yet to come. (see further D. A. Carson, p. 179 of this book)
As Edmund Clowney once put it, reflecting on Jesus’ presence at the Cana wedding:
Jesus sat amid all the joy sipping the coming sorrow, so that you and I today can sit amid all this world’s sorrow, sipping the coming joy.
So which shall we choose?
Experience or truth?
The left wing of the airplane, or the right?
Love or integrity?
Study or service?
Evangelism or discipleship?
The front wheels of a car, or the rear?
Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge?
Faith or obedience?
Damn all false antithesis to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.
—D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 234.
(HT: Justin Taylor)