Pastor Mark, on his blog, has responded to my recent posts on “the Gospel”. As is my wont, I am replying here on my blog for the benefit of all my readers.
His “first reaction” is “sadness” for me and for the rest of you benighted souls who also belong to the “Roman Catholic Church”. Well, I can live without the pity, as I expect most of you can too. But he does agree that the question “What is the Gospel?” is the “most basic and urgent of questions”, particularly for those who seek to proclaim it.
The Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes it (Rom 1:16) and David is profoundly correct in stating that unless the Gospel is clearly defined it cannot be proclaimed. I would add that without such proclamation sinners are not being saved, no matter how many of them fill the pews at each Mass (indeed, I can’t tell you how many ex-Roman Catholics, my dear wife included, who I have heard say ‘I never heard the Gospel in the x number of years I spent in the Roman church’).
What Mark’s wife and his other “ex-Roman” friends call “the Gospel” which they “never heard” in the Catholic Church is a very specific definition of “the Gospel”, one which is attractive because (to use my former categories) it answers a real “felt bondage” to personal sin. In this regard, I have nothing but admiration for the Lutheran doctrine: it treats sin as a real phenomena, and recognises that many (if not most, or even all – certainly more than would normally admit it) people struggle under the burden of bondage to particular and deeply troubling sin, experienced as real guilt (and not to be dismissed as simply a “sense of guilt”). I would suspect that there is not one of us reading this now who could not identify such bondage in our lives. The hearing of a message which results in a real liberation from this “felt-bondage” is surely going to be a real experience of “Good News”, no less so than for the blind to regain their sight or the lame to regain the ability to walk.
So in what I say from here on in, let me say this: the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone is a very powerful statement of the Gospel, and one which should not be blithely dismissed.
Mark kindly gives us a formulation of this definition of the Gospel for us to work with (there are indeed many other variations of the Protestant “Gospel”, some less Lutheran than this one, but this will do for our purposes):
The Gospel [the Good News] is the proclamation that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, has taken upon Himself and borne the curse of the Law and has expiated and paid for all our sins by his suffering and death on the Cross. Through faith in him we enter into favour with God, our sins are forgiven and we are delivered from death and all the just punishments our sins deserved, and are eternally saved.
One might note the absence of the word “alone” after “through faith in him” above – but I am sure that Pastor Mark would want to add it. It is not very much different from the statement to be found in the 15th paragraph of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
As a statement of the meaning of “justification”, I actually have very little argument with what Pastor Mark gives us as a definition of “the Gospel”. In fact the first statement in the Catechism under the section “Justification” says as much (and, by the inclusion of baptism, just a bit more):
1987. The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.
But as Mark himself says “more could be said on the subject of the Gospel”, and it is for this reason that I am ultimately less than satisfied with a definition of “the Gospel” as such which is reduced simply to “the doctrine of justification”. This is for several reasons.
The first is that when Jesus said “Repent and believe the Gospel”, I don’t think he was saying: “Believe the doctrine of justification”. It is not by faith in the doctrine of justification that the salvation which the Gospel proclaims is received. To give Pastor Mark his credit, his definition does not say this. Rather, as his definition rightly says, it is by “faith in the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ”. The doctrine of justification is, I believe, an application of the Gospel, rather than the Gospel itself. It is an application which St Paul made in his specific context of bringing the Gospel (which was originally proclaimed in a Jewish setting) into a context that was overwhelmingly Gentile. In that Gentile context – as in our own day – there is something quite specific which we must ask: who is this “Christ” in which we are to have faith? What does it mean to say that Jesus is “the Christ”? Of course, it means “Messiah”; but that title only has meaning in the specific context of the specific story of Israel (the history of her relationship with her God) and of Israel’s specific hope as a nation for the future. It was in the context of this history and this hope that Jesus called his listeners to “believe the Gospel”.
The second thing follows from this: limiting “the Gospel” to a statement based on the Pauline epistles (specifically the letters to the Romans and the Galatians) does not do full justice to the use of the term in the rest of the New Testament. (I will leave aside for a moment whether the Lutheran tradition has actually fully or accurately grasped what St Paul was talking about in these letters – I think not.) Is this the way the term is used in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament? Oddly enough, there are only a couple cases of its use in the New Testament that are not Pauline or from the works of the Evangelists (including Acts). One of these is in 1 Peter 4:17 which speaks of “obeying the Gospel of God” (compare to Romans 10:16 and 2 Thess 1:8). How does Pastor Mark’s definition of the Gospel explain such a use? How does one “obey” the Good News that one’s sins are forgiven?
But more seriously, I don’t think it does justice to the Gospels themselves. In Luke 9:6, for example, we are told that Jesus “went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (ESV). Are we to believe that the message he proclaimed was something like this (based on Mark’s definition):
I am taking upon myself and bearing the curse of the Law and will expiate and pay for all your sins when I suffer and die on a cross. Through faith in me you will enter into favour with God, your sins will be forgiven and you will be delivered from death and all the just punishments your sins deserve, and will be eternally saved.
I am not saying that Jesus himself did not intend something very much like this to be the result of his ministry and work (in fact, for a given value of all the statements above, I believe that he certainly was conscious of just such a vocation), but I do question whether this is what he actually said when he “preached the Good News”. He certainly wasn’t proclaiming a Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. To claim that he did so would be anachronistic.
Thirdly, one of the difficulties I have with the usual Protestant definition of “the Gospel” is that it does not have within it a natural place for the Church. The Church is extraneous to the Gospel, an afterthought, an add-on (this can be seen even in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, where he first describes what the action of Holy Spirit in my own heart, and then says that this is what the Spirit does, in an analogous way, for “the whole Christian Church on earth”). The Protestant version of “the Gospel” is “Good News” for my personal “felt-bondage” – it does not explain why it was necessary for Jesus to inaugurate a community of disciples in which the Good News finds its true embodiment.
Finally, one of the reasons why I personally no longer hold to the definition of the Gospel as I came to know it in the Lutheran Church is because it doesn’t make sense of a lot of Jesus’ own preaching. Lutherans find many passages in the Gospels extraordinarily difficult to preach according their doctrine, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Judgement in Matthew 25. In part this is because of their Law/Gospel paradigm. These passages do not say anything much about how my personal sins are freely forgiven through faith in Christ, but rather appear to preach a new ethic (a new “Law”, even if it is a “Law of love”) for the new community he is constituting. I think the Law/Gospel opposition is behind Pastor Mark’s use of the phrase “the curse of the Law” in his definition. “The Gospel” is perceived to be the antithesis of “the Law” (for a given definition of both) and its antidote. Thus I find his definition of “the Gospel” to be limiting, and this is born out by what he says at the end of his post:
[I]n my estimation that is exactly how Rome has fallen into error – with what it has illegitimately added to the divinely revealed Gospel – a damnable tendency I like to call ‘the Roman and’: faith and works, Jesus and Mary and the saints, God’s will and man’s, and so on…
If Catholic theology is a “both/and” theology, Lutheran theology is an “either/or”. The Catholic “both/and” is admittedly a bit more “fuzzy” than the Lutheran “either/or”, and, I would say, as a consequence, richer. Nevertheless, in Lutheran theology, by means of the sharp limitations and exclusions of the “either/or” approach, they have achieved a definition of “the Gospel” which has a clear shape and sharp point . Can Catholic theology achieve the same clarity and pointedness, without losing the richness of the full use of the term “the Gospel” in Scripture and Tradition?