In present-day management and leadership classes an important point is made regarding problem-solving. To properly solve a problem, one must 1) know what the problem really consists of and 2) be able to state the problem in a clear manner that invites thinking about real solutions to the real problem.
What if one were to apply this idea to preaching the gospel? What is the “problem” to which the gospel announces the solution?
Believe it or not, there is a wide variety of views about what exactly the problem is that Jesus’ death and resurrection is said to solve. Just Google “atonement theories” to see the amazing number of ways believers have understood what Jesus came to do here on earth. I studied five major theories in Bible College and Seminary, but they do not exhaust all the possibilities.
A more up-to-date example is involved in a debate between John Piper, a Reformed theologian and N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop who is a New Testament scholar. This “debate” was carried in a the June 2009 issue of Christianity Today. Each of them first states in one paragraph what they believe the problem is that the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses. Each then defines what the message of the gospel is in one paragraph, based on that problem.
We will then compare these gospel statements with Peter’s inaugural sermon in Acts 2.
1) The Problem
Piper: God created a good world that was subjected to futility because of the sinful, treasonous choice of the first human beings. Because of this offense against the glory of God, humans are alienated from their Creator and deserve his just condemnation for their sins.
Wright: God created a good world, designed to be looked after and brought to its intended purpose through his image-bearing human beings. This purpose was thwarted by the sinful choice of the first human beings. Because of human sinfulness, the world needs to be put to rights again and its original purpose taken forward to completion. God’s purpose in putting humans “right” is that through them, the world can be put to rights.
2) The Gospel
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.
Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.
- *These statements by Piper and Wright are taken from the online version of Christianity Today. We encourage you to read the entire article at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/june/29.34.html?start=2
Let’s now compare this with the Apostle Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-41.
Notice that Peter does not refer to Jesus as accomplishing a perfect righteousness, nor having suffered a perfect condemnation. While these may be theologically correct, Peter does not include them in his gospel presentation.
Peter does mention Jesus’ royal lineage through David, and Jesus’ ascension to God’s own throne. He uses passages from scripture to establish that both of these were predicted by God. He ties the visible arrival of the Holy Spirit to a prophecy of universal salvation predicted in the book of Joel.
It would seem that Wright’s version of the gospel, based on a different understanding of the problem, comes closer to what Peter preached on that fateful Pentecost day.
Further evidence that Wright may be on to something comes from a statement by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18-24. Paul notes that the entire created order is awaiting the salvation of humanity in order to be freed from the frustration that human sin has brought it to.
To be fair to John Piper, Paul also makes statements in the same chapter that seem to validate his theological understanding. In Romans 8:20 the world is subject to futility because of humankind’s sinful nature.
On the other hand, this futility seems to have come about by the will of God so that the world might be liberated through the salvation of humankind.
Paul also says that there is a condemnation of sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (v. 3), and the righteousness of Jesus Christ is now imputed to the believer who is in Christ (v. 10).
He does not seem, however, to make these theological observations a part of his gospel presentation (see Acts 13:13-43, especially v. 29-39). Oddly enough, Paul’s presentation strongly resembles Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. The only time he uses a more philosophical approach, at Mars Hill, he meets limited success (Acts 17:16-34).
Those of us who want to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ should take the time to deeply understand what the problem of humanity is, as presented by the Scriptures, and develop our gospel presentation accordingly.