This guest post was written by Dr. Marcus Johnson, assistant professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (excerpt).
Can “the Gospel” Do All that We Say it Can?
The gospel saves. The gospel transforms. The gospel heals. The gospel renews. The gospel liberates. Such are the familiar refrains that issue forth from our faithful preachers and teachers. But are they right? Can the gospel do all this?
The answer is, of course . . . no, it cannot. Only Jesus himself can.
Wait a Second…
But, it seems right to ask, isn’t the gospel “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes …” (Romans 1:16)? Yes, of course it is. But surely it makes all the difference what we mean when we so echo the Apostle Paul, especially given that his own experience of salvation was an encounter with the crucified, resurrected Lord himself (Acts 9). So, which would be more accurate to say: that Paul was saved by the gospel (it), or by Jesus Christ (he)?
If it is the former – that Paul was indeed saved by his experience of the risen Lord – then how shall we think of his assertion that the gospel is the “power of God” for salvation? Are we to think of the gospel as intrinsically able to save us, that is, apart from the presence of the Savior himself?
Although questions such as these might strike some as mere theological semantics, I submit that the way we conceive of the relationship between Jesus Christ himself, and the good news regarding him, is crucial for how we understand salvation. In our faithful insistence that the gospel (it) is the power of God for salvation we must be careful never to lose sight of the One who alone can save us (he).
In other words, there may be a danger in how we speak which suggests that something rather than someone is the proper subject of our salvation.
The Gospel and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ
The danger for many Christians – who no longer think of salvation as constituted by a union with the crucified, resurrected, incarnate Son of God – is that the living presence of the Savior becomes unnecessary to the good news about him. In such a case, the gospel about Jesus Christ may begin to assume a role in our language and thought that only Christ can and should bear. As our evangelical forefathers knew well, we must be able to distinguish between the gospel, which bears witness to Christ, and Christ who is the living reality of that gospel. “To preach the gospel,” Martin Luther once wrote, “is nothing else than Christ’s coming to us or bringing us to him.” Similarly, John Calvin noted that God ordained the preaching of his Word “as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, and all his benefits, is dispensed to us.” Thus, while the preaching of the gospel is never less than revelation about Christ and his saving work, it always involved much more.
That much more was the self-giving of Christ in and through his gospel; his real presence mediated through the proclamation of the good news. The Reformers knew that unless Christ was truly present through the gospel, preaching would be but an exercise in spiritual reflection or religious instruction, as opposed to the medium of his saving presence. Given our present cultural milieu, in which knowledge is essentially reducible to information—suffering as we do from the hangover of post-enlightenment rationalism—the distinction between knowledge about Christ in his gospel (mental appropriation or assent) and knowing Christ himself through the gospel (experiential intimacy) seems well worth marking.
In the Bible, “knowledge” is characterized by personal and life-giving union, not informational data (though it certainly includes the latter). Think here of Adam’s knowledge of his wife, Eve; or, more importantly, the Son’s knowledge of his Father. So too, to have saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is to experience intimate union with him, not merely to know about him. Thus, knowledge about the gospel, imperative as it is, can no more save us than can its preacher, unless Jesus Christ is himself present to be experienced as the living reality of that very good news.
The Confusion of Means and Ends
The failure to emphasize the real presence of Christ in his gospel is often characterized by a resultant confusion of means and ends. The gospel is a divinely-ordained means for which Jesus Christ, and union with him, is the end (or goal). Thus, the gospel can only be called “saving” because it functions as a means through which the Savior is present to bring us into his existence as the crucified, resurrected Lord (e.g., Colossians 1:24-29; Galatians 2:20).
To make the gospel an end rather than a means would be to lose the significance (literally, “the signifying purpose”) of that gospel: to bring us to partake of the One whose gospel it is. As the Apostle Paul proclaimed it, the gospel ushers us into mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), the mystery of Christ’s union with his Bride (Ephesians 5:32).
The gospel is the gloriously good news about what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to reconcile us to God and recreate the world. The offer of the gospel, however, is not enlightened data about what he has done. The offer of the gospel is none other than Jesus Christ himself, who (through faith and by the Spirit) brings us into his very life as the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended Savior. To say or suggest otherwise leaves the sinner (and the church!) without her only comfort.
By all means, then, let us proclaim the saving significance of the gospel, but may we never forget that “it” is not very good news at all unless “he” is truly present to save.
Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church.
One with Christ is currently on sale for 40% at Crossway.org.