25 year ago, John MacArthur published a book entitled, The Gospel according to Jesus. It had at the time a profound impact on my thinking of what exactly faith is and, as the book’s title indicates, what “the gospel” is. Its thesis and approach is actually pretty simple: what does the gospel look like according to the gospels?  And, what if we take Jesus’ message as the prototype for what “the gospel” is?

It’s amazing what a difference such an approach makes. It was shocking to me 25 years ago, and the shockwaves have reverberated through my theological thinking ever since. In the gospel according to Jesus, the invitation is not to add God to your microwave and high definition TV to make your life better, give you some added gratification “at no cost to you,” and a steal of a deal in this life and the next.  No, the gospel according to Jesus is one in which great cost is demanded, but the investment in the coming Kingdom — an investment of faith not sight — is worth it.  It will cost you everything like a “pearl of great price,” or like a tract of land that you really can’t afford, that will force you to sell everything you have to secure it, but which “you know” has a hidden treasure in it that will make the investment more than pay off.

For Jesus, Gospel 101 is: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (the one-verse summary of Jesus’ “gospel message” in all three synoptic gospels: Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). And it’s not just a hypothetical “willingness,” either — He lets the rich, young ruler walk away when he recoils at the cost; and Zaccheus who offers the material “cost” willingly and actually unsolicitedly [!], Jesus allows and commends, as one who thus demonstrates his faith.  It is in acknowledging this investment of faith that Jesus says, “For the son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:5; it is no coincidence that Luke 18 and 19 provide the stark contrast, virtually back to back, of one who recoils at the cost of faith and one who embraces the cost eagerly).

That, in a nutshell, is “the gospel according to Jesus.”  And if we then approach the epistles as letters that assume the gospel of Jesus, rather than as theological tractates that “present the gospel for the first time now that Jesus has paved the way for it,” a very different understanding of the whole New Testament really is gained.  (Hint: the best insights of “the new perspective on Paul” are contained in this relatively simple move — moving the “center of gravity” of the New Testament “gospel” to Jesus, imagine that!). 

And, while we’re in the neighborhood of what difference this all makes to reading the Bible, think of this: if the New Testament epistles are built not only on Jesus’ work but on Jesus’ teaching, and if Jesus’ message is rooted in the prophets, and if the prophets’ message is rooted in the character of God as revealed in the Law, then . . . lo and behold, one ends up with a fully unified Bible with a single consistent message that unfolds coherently from beginning to end!  Now, imagine that!

As an epilogue to my recommendation of The Gospel according to Jesus by John MacArthur — and I would still recommend it, let me also say that, in my judgment, the thesis of that book still embraces too much the revivalist assumption that “faith” consists of a single, point-in-time “decision” (see my last blog on “Is Faith a Decision?”); and, though the insights of that book I see as paving the way for a fuller understanding of how the New Testament epistles relate to the gospels, I have to observe with some sadness that Dr. MacArthur himself has since resisted some of these connections, and seen “the new perspective on Paul” as more of “a threat” than a help.  Too bad. But it’s also not too late for him to change his mind on some of these things, too.  And regardless, I’m still grateful for the positive influence his work has had on my theological thinking.

For all of us, this is a journey and we learn as we go.  And our decisions — our “taking up our cross daily” (as per the Lucan nuance) — is informed by the level of understanding and level of faith we have at the time. And the faith we have, by God’s grace, is there but it sometimes falters, sometimes is weak, sometimes is misinformed, sometimes is just less than it should be.  And yet, God prorates His judgment, and rewards excessively the faith the size of a mustard seed.

If this is God’s response to our faltering faith, then how can we be any less generous?  Reminders of that — and I need to be reminded often — help me be more charitable in my assessment of others’ faith walks.

For all of us, the walk of faith nonetheless is one that always demands courage and cost. This is the gospel according to Jesus.

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical.  He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/todd-mangum.  

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