The gospel has been, is, and will always be powerful in every culture—including our secular age.
Through the gospel, God still turns antagonists into his children. And through the gospel, he still forms communities who display and communicate the realities of his grace. Indeed, this gospel-powered transformation will lead in time to a life of attractive holiness and compelling love.
The gospel was at work in Paul’s diverse first-century context, and the gospel is at work in our multiple 21st-century contexts. But Paul makes clear that the gospel is more than historical data about Jesus. Even if all accept every fact—that Jesus lived, died, was raised, and appeared to a wide range of valid eyewitnesses—that alone would not mean all believe the gospel in the full scriptural sense of that term.
Thus, Paul’s listing of the historical facts of Christ’s death in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 includes the small but significant phrase, “for our sins.” The inclusion of “for our sins” draws attention to the inherently theological nature of the gospel. The apostle is stressing that Christ’s death is central to his saving work, particularly declaring that Christ’s death is an atoning death (cf. Rom. 3:21–26).
Through his Corinthian correspondence, Paul explains that the gospel is the good news for an already existing biblical story, centered on the person and saving work of Jesus. The message explodes with power through the work of Christ and the Spirit. Such power is most clearly seen in the conversion of sinners and the establishment of the community of Jesus, the church.
The church bears witness to God and his power through the faithful proclamation of the gospel as well as the community demonstration of unity, holiness, and love.
Power in Weaklings
Further, God has chosen “not many” who are powerful or wise but mostly those who are weak and insignificant (1 Cor. 1:26). In doing so, he undercuts all human boasting and spotlights his power and wisdom. Because of this, Paul thinks, it would be foolish to base his ministry practices on human power and wisdom. Instead, his ministry flows from confidence in God’s unstoppable gospel. Clinton Arnold explains:
Paul endeavored to root the faith of his converts in God and his power. The Corinthian Christians, however, were tempted to be more impressed with the form and style of delivery . . . rather than the content of the message. Paul thus calls them to focus on the content of the preaching—Jesus Christ and him crucified—and the demonstration of the Spirit’s power in his preaching, evident in the transformed lives of the converts.
These believers weren’t naturally wise or powerful or noble people (1:26). In fact, they were regarded as weak, foolish, and despised (1:27–28). Yet they were the chosen objects of God’s effective grace. Therefore, the actual and plain proof of God’s power “lies with the Corinthians themselves and their own experience of the Spirit as they responded to the message of the gospel.”
Gospel power is demonstrated in the conversion of the Corinthians, so it’s likewise demonstrated in the church itself. Christ’s saving work defines the nature of his new community. His life calls for a loving and holy community, his death redeems them into his people, and his resurrection inaugurates a community presently (even if partially) living out the realities of God’s kingdom.
Gospel Made Visible
Living out the realities of God’s inaugurated kingdom, this new community of Jesus both verbalizes and embodies the good news and its power. The church is not a collection of individuals who occasionally congregate, but a gospel-empowered entity called out of the world and into fellowship for gospel mission. Just as an individual part of a human body cannot visit a prostitute without the entire body being present, so also the individual member of the church body does not live unto himself. The body is an organic whole, a corporate entity.
Thus, 1 Corinthians 6 reminds us that a gospel community—marked by unity, holiness, and love—distinguishes itself from the surrounding society and its norms. A gospel community follows a higher ethic, one rooted in God’s character and truth. And a gospel community urges its members to live out this ethic, holding them accountable to it and helping them find ways to embody it.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds us that the gospel community is particularly distinguished from the surrounding society by love—its genuine desire for the good of others and practical, day-to-day prioritizing of the good of others—even at the expense of personal agendas and cultural values. Though the forms of love are as wide-ranging as the contexts, Paul demonstrates that love desires the good of and gives oneself for the sake of others.
And a gospel community marked by such love is itself an apologetic for the gospel, as it demonstrates the goals of the gospel (reconciliation, new life, new humanity, etc.) as well as its life-giving power. As such, the church is “the gospel made visible,” a new display of people in which God’s reign has begun. No wonder Francis Schaeffer referred to the church’s love as the “final apologetic.”
The more we’re marked by unity, holiness, and love, the more our lives can ably paint the picture of how life ought to be, and the more our countercultural kingdom community can effect change in one another and in the broader society as salt and light (Matt. 5:3–16).
These gospel realities ground our confidence in all situations. And these realities ground our confidence in a secular age because Christ has defeated the biggest challenge—sin and death (1 Cor. 15). Everything else pales in comparison.
This is an excerpt from the book Ministry in the New Marriage Culture (B&H, 2015).