It is common knowledge that the word “gospel” means “good news,” but the nature of that news and what, exactly, makes it good are not always a matter of agreement. Is the good news the hope that we might go to Heaven when we die? Is it that we will be raised from the dead with Christ? Is it that God is creating a new world? Is it that, through Jesus Christ, God has triumphed over the devil? Is it that God has formed a new society of reconciled humanity through the cross work of his Son? Is it the forgiveness of sins? Is it liberty to the oppressed? Is it victory over evil?
In fact, the gospel is about all of the above and more. God’s redemptive work is both individual and global, microcosmic and macrocosmic, eternally salvific and socially transformational. However, the recognition of Scripture’s rich diversity of perspectives on God’s salvation through Christ does not eliminate the need for careful understanding of the order and logic of the gospel. It is entirely possible to proclaim gospel truths in a manner that distorts the biblical shape of the good news and, consequently, tends to lead people astray from the true gospel of Christ. And so, if we are going to proclaim the gospel rightly, we must ask the question: what is the primary orientation of the good news of Christ’s redeeming work?
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets the stage for the conflict, which unfolds throughout the middle, leading to resolution at the end. The Bible is a diverse collection of literary genres, but it is ultimately one story. In fact, it is The Story, the Grand Narrative gives coherence to our perception of reality. As we read this story, we see conflict at multiple levels: God vs. Satan, Satan vs. humanity, Israel vs. the nations, the church vs. the world, etc. What is the central conflict? What is the greatest threat that we face and from which the gospel delivers us? If we can rightly discern the central conflict of the story, we can rightly trace the shape of the good news that delivers us from it.
I would argue that the fundamental conflict of the biblical story is the conflict of God vs. humanity. The greatest threat we face as human beings is the threat of the looming judgment of God over this world. Yes, there are conflicts at multiple levels, and the gospel ultimately addresses them all. But the fundamental achievement of the saving work of Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of a holy God to a guilty humanity.
We can see this conflict play out in the biblical testimony to the defeat of death through Jesus Christ. Death is the last enemy Christ will subdue (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55). It is the power that reigns over us in Adam, overthrown by Jesus Christ (Rom 5:12-21). It is the enemy faced down at the cross, where God-in-the-flesh willingly gave himself up to its power, only to rise again on the third day and undo death forever. In Scripture, death is not merely a biological reality. It is a spiritual condition of alienation from God, culminating in eternal exile from his presence, which the book of Revelation calls “the second death” (Rev. 21:8). There is no greater threat that hangs over humanity, and thus no greater target for the redeeming work of Christ announced in the gospel.
But to say that death, in all of its dimensions, is our greatest threat is to say that God is our greatest threat. Death is not a power independent of God. It is the wrath of God in action. It is divine condemnation. It is first threatened against humanity in Genesis 2:17 by God himself as a penalty for sin. When our first parents transgressed the boundary set for them by God, he carried out his threatened sentence by banishing them from the holy place, separating them (and their posterity) from his life-giving presence mediated by the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22-24). As we follow the story along, we see the wrath of God threatening at every turn:
- God condemns all of Noah’s generation, save eight, to a watery grave (Gen 6-9).
- God graciously elects Israel to be the people among whom he will dwell, and yet in doing so gives them a complex system of priesthood/sacrifices/tabernacle to mediate his presence, drawing clear boundaries that hold them at a distance. Violators of the divinely set boundaries are swiftly sentence to a supernaturally imposed death (see Leviticus 10; 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
- God warns his covenant people of the sanctions of divine wrath for their disobedience, declaring curses of unimaginable suffering and death to the nation if they prove disobedient to his Law (Deut. 28).
- Over centuries, God sends prophets as covenant enforcers to declare the coming judgment of God upon Israel and the godless nations, culminating in a final judgment of all humanity (Isaiah–Malachi).
In the New Testament, that looming final judgment becomes the focus of apostolic proclamation of the cross, which we will explore in the next installment.