Ministry Matters: The Gospel - Part 2

Some time ago I started this series to explain where I stand on various issues. The most fundamental question for a Christian is: What is the gospel we believe? In that article I spent most of my time explaining why it was important to be sure of the answer to that question. I then gave a brief outline of an answer:

  1. God – our loving creator, who we are accountable to.
  2. Us – we have sinned against our creator and face judgement.
  3. Jesus – God sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross taking for our sins.
  4. Us – we need to trust in Jesus and his death for us to be saved.

In this article and the following three, I'm going to take each of those points in turn and expand on them a little. So we start with God.

It may seem an obvious thing to say, but Christians believe in God, although recently a survey of clergy in the Church of England revealed that 2% of clergy don't believe in God, so perhaps it isn't so obvious these days. Furthermore, we live in a society where belief in God is under pressure. When Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins can write a book called The God Delusion and it tops the bestsellers list at Christmas (of all times!), we do need to assert that we believe in God.

However, for us to understand the gospel, we need to say rather more than we believe in God. Lots of people have lots of ideas about God, so what does the Bible focus in on when explaining the core message? I want to suggest at least three things:

1. God is in charge

The Bible starts with God creating the world and as his creation we are under his authority, which is why he gets to set the rules and why, when Adam, Eve and the serpent break them, they are punished by God (Gen. 1-3). The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy give us a clear picture of the God who sets the rules.

Similarly in Paul's extended explanation of the gospel in Romans, he starts in Romans 1:18-32 by showing how people are under God's authority and judgement. Again this is linked to the fact that we are created and he is the Creator: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." (Romans 1:20 NIV)

In many contexts in the Bible and in history it was safe to assume that most people believed in something like the Christian God, who was in charge. It's interesting that in contexts where belief in this kind of God wasn't so clear, we find the apostles taking the time to make it explicit as they explain the gospel. For example, in Athens, where Paul saw all kinds of different gods, he makes an effort to make this point very clear, emphasising primarily that God made them and they are responsible to him and will be judged (Acts 17:22-31).

I suspect Athens is quite similar to where we are in the UK today! The idea of anyone being in charge is pretty unpopular, let alone there being a God in charge of everything. But this is the good news of Christianity. And it's good news because of what the one in charge is really like.

2. God is Holy

If God is in charge, it's important to know what kind of character he has. If he is the one who will judge us and who we are responsible to, then we want to know if he is fair. The Bible is totally clear that God is holy - which means he is pure and perfect, totally separated from anything that is wrong or evil. Both Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 say "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord," (NIV) which is a Hebrew way of saying that the Lord is the holiest. Similarly, Hannah prays to the Lord and says "There is no-one holy like the Lord" (1 Samuel 2:2 NIV).

A related word that the Bible uses is that God is righteous - which means he always does the right thing according to his holy standards. So when Paul is explaining the gospel to the Christians in Rome, he explains that God is righteous, or just, in his judgement (Romans 2:5) and he tells the Athenians that "he will judge the world with justice" (Acts 17:31 NIV).

This is both a good thing (we want someone who is fair and just in charge not just of us, but also in charge of the whole world) and a frightening thing (so what about the things we've done wrong then?). We'll come back to both of these things again!

3. God is Loving

As the Bible explains the message of Christianity, we frequently find God's love at the forefront. Perhaps most famously, it's there in John's summary: "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). Paul emphasizes God's love with respect to the gospel when he writes: "But God demonstrates his love for us in this..." and "because of his great love for us..." (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4 NIV). And John writes in his first letter that "God is love," "God showed his love among us" and "this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us." (1 John 4:8-10).

This is clearly a wonderful thing. For the God of the universe to love us is really quite something when you think of it, especially as that love must be a perfect and holy love. However, one of the conundrums as we read the Bible is: how does the God who is holy and who is love deal with very imperfect people like us? That's the subject of the next couple of articles!

Conclusion

Let me draw some brief conclusions here. God is not quite who many of us think. Of course he's not what an atheist like Richard Dawkins thinks - some sort of evolved construct of mind. However, many of us like to think of God as uninvolved and not very relevant - maybe a kindly grandfather, but not much more. However, the reality is that God is in charge and we will be called before him to give account of ourselves. He is very relevant to every person!

However, even those who are believers in God tend to have a rather distorted view. In Christian circles, it may have been that at some times, there was so much judgement preached that God was viewed as a stern and distant headteacher, ready and waiting to punish people. This has some similarities with the Muslim view of God. Such a view tends to leave out the love of God.

On the other hand, in recent times, God's love has sometimes been the sole focus. Perhaps because we have a society that has bought into the idea that "All you need is love," it's natural that we talk a lot about God's love. Think how many recent Christian songs you know about God's love and how many you know about his holiness and justice. But if we so emphasize love that we forget holiness then we end up with God as a kindly grandfather again, who will never say boo to a goose! And if that happens, then we lose any hope of justice and righteousness winning out in the world.


 So at the heart of the Christian gospel we have a God who is in charge and it's good that he is in charge because he is both holy and loving. In the next article we will turn to ourselves and our relationship with this God.

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