The Gospel

“Paul had always believed that the One God would at the last put the whole world right.  The Psalms had said it; the prophets had predicted it; Jesus had announced that it was happening (though in a way nobody had seen coming). Paul declared that it had happened in Jesus–and that it would happen at his return. In between those two, the accomplishment of the putting-right project first in cross and resurrection and then in the final fulfillment at Jesus’s return, God had given his own spirit in the powerful and life-transforming word of the gospel. The gospel, incomprehensibly foolish to Greeks and blasphemously scandalous to Jews, nevertheless worked powerfully in hearts and minds. Listeners discovered that it made sense and that the sense it made transformed them from the inside out. This is the great ‘evangelical’ reality for which Paul and his letters are famous.

Our problem has been that we have set that powerful gospel reality in the wrong framework. The Western churches have, by and large, put Paul’s message within a medieval notion that rejected the biblical vision of heaven and earth coming together at last.  The Middle Ages changed the focus of attention away from ‘earth’ and toward two radically different ideas instead ‘heaven’ and ‘hell,’ often with a temporary stage (‘purgatory’) before ‘heaven.’ Paul’s life-changing and world-transforming gospel was then made to serve this quite different agenda, that is, that believing the gospel was the way to escape all that and ‘go to heaven.’ But that was not Paul’s point. ‘You have been saved by grace through faith,’ he writes in Ephesians. ‘This doens’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast.’ As it stands, that statement can easily be fitted into the going-to-heaven scheme of thought, but a glance at the wider context will show that Paul has very different ideas…”

NT Wright, Paul: A Biography

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