What is the Gospel?: Gospel-Logic in the Letter to the Galatians

Over these last few weeks I have been re-posting some of my old blogs exploring what the New Testament writers say about “the gospel,” testing the hypothesis that fundamentally the NT gospel is the proclamation the Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah and therefore the world’s true Lord.  Initially I argued (here) that in Greco-Roman parlance euangelion/euangelizomai-language typically referred to the accession of a ruler, and so we should expect it to do so in the NT as well.  I have further argued that that expectation is borne out in extraordinary ways both by looking at the gospel preached by Jesus within the Gospels (here) and by reading the Gospels themselves as articulations of the gospel (here).  Now I turn to the letters of the Apostle Paul.

4.  The good news of (the accession of) the (crucified and risen) Messiah is one thing, what that good news implies is another.

Just what is the gospel that Paul preached to the Galatians?  For the would-be biblical Christian, it’s hard to imagine a more important question.  The Apostle Paul says to the Galatians, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (anathema).” (1:9)  Harsh words.  How do we avoid falling afoul of them?

The first thing to be noticed is that in this letter Paul never just flat-out says to the Galatians, “The gospel is X.”

Paul: “These Galatians are giving me a headache.”

That’s because the letter to the Galatians is addressed to a community that has already heard and received the gospel.  Paul does have to remind them of certain aspects of his basic message, but he assumes that they basically remember what he preached to them.  He never says, “Ok, ok…let’s try this again: So the gospel is X.  Got that?  Ok, moving on….”  The closest he comes to such a statement is in 3:1 when he incredulously says, “O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”  Here Paul refers back to the gospel he preached to the Galatians, essentially saying, “Look, I told you that Jesus the Messiah was crucified, didn’t I?”  And, of course, it’s hard to imagine that the Galatians could have forgotten that Jesus had been crucified.  That’s not really the sort of thing that just slips one’s mind.  So what are the Galatians missing exactly?

Here’s my suggestion: The problem with the Galatians seems not so much to be their gospel-memory, but their gospel-logic: they have mis-apprehended what the gospel does and does not imply.  Paul’s gospel to the Galatians seems to have been the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and raised from the dead, is Israel’s Messiah and therefore the world’s (and therefore the Galatians’) true lord (1:7; 3:1).  Apparently upon believing this message, the Galatians without further ado received God’s Spirit–the same Spirit which Jewish Christians had received upon believing the same good news.  Paul took God’s granting the Spirit to the Galatians to imply that God had already fully accepted these Gentile believers into His eschatologically redeemed people, putting them on a par with full-blooded sons of Abraham (3:7, 28-29).  The Galatians didn’t need to keep the Torah–didn’t need to be circumcised or to keep a Kosher diet or anything like that–in order to be counted as fully paid-up, card-carrying members of “the Israel of God.”  In other words, Gentiles don’t need to “live like Jews” to be heirs to the Kingdom (2:14), much less have table fellowship with Jewish Christians.  They need only to follow Jesus and be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul wanted to give the Galatians a copies of the Torah and this book.

Paul was disappointed, indeed, angry to find out that the Galatians had apparently not connected those dots, that their gospel-logic had failed them, and that some of them were getting circumcised.  So Paul exasperatedly proceeds to connect the dots for them between their reception of the Spirit and the crucifixion of Jesus:  Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, which makes him Israel’s representative before God.  Deuteronomy 27-28 (which Paul cites in 3:10) threatens Israel with dreadful curses if they should fail to “abide by all things written in the Book of the Torah,” and so it is understandable that the Galatians could be concerned about or talked into keeping the Torah. But, says Paul, the curses threatened in Deuteronomy fell and were utterly spent upon Jesus, Israel’s representative, when he was crucified.  If Jesus is your king, you need not fear those curses any more.  The Torah is no longer binding for you, its threats having been exhausted in the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. Through his death Jesus has opened the way for all those who are “in” him, whether Jew or Gentile, to receive the blessings–not least the Spirit–which God had promised to Israel’s forefather Abraham so very long ago (3:8, 14) and the final restoration of Israel promised in Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31, and many other texts.

At a nuts-and-bolts level, Paul seems to be making a straightforward modus ponens argument:

If the Messiah was crucified, then the Torah is no longer binding for the Messiah’s people.

The Messiah was crucified.

Therefore, the Torah is no longer binding for the Messiah’s people.  Q.E.D.

What the Galatians have failed to realize is that by this same logic, their taking the Torah upon themselves is a tacit denial not only of the conclusion that the Torah is no longer binding, but also of the proposition that the Messiah was crucified.  Without realizing it they are living in such a way as to deny the gospel itself (see 3:1 again) by way of an implicit, embodied modus tollens.  Paul seems to be suggesting that, whatever the Galatians might say with their mouths, their actions are shouting:

 If the Messiah was crucified, then the Torah is no longer binding for the Messiah’s people.

It is not the case that the Torah is no longer binding for the Messiah’s people (hence, that is why we’re being circumcised).

Therefore, the Messiah was not crucified.

Paul walking Peter through some gospel-logic.

According to Paul, a “gospel” that requires Gentiles to keep the Torah is a “gospel” without a crucified Messiah, and so by buying into the Torah (by getting circumcised) the Galatians have unintentionally implicitly denied that Jesus (who by all accounts was crucified) is truly the Messiah.  They have tacitly denied (or at least made hash out of) the gospel they received.  “I had to tell Peter the same dang thing,” he seems to be saying in 2:11ff.

There are a few lessons for us Evangelicals in all of this:

A)  We need to learn how to do gospel-logic.  When it comes to talking about the gospel, we don’t really think in terms of logical relationships other than “is” and “is not.”  We don’t talk or think in terms of what the gospel presupposes, or entails, or implies.  We say things like “The gospel is the story of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration,” rather than saying that “The gospel presupposes Creation and Fall, enables Redemption, and implies Restoration,” which would be more accurate.  The gospel entails that we followers of Jesus are allowed eat shrimp and bacon, but the gospel is not the good news that we are allowed to eat shrimp and bacon per se, however good that news is.  The gospel entails that Jewish followers of Jesus should eat with Gentile followers of Jesus, but the gospel is not the good news that Jews and Gentiles can eat together per se.

Similarly, it is probable that the gospel entails justification by faithfulness to Jesus and not by works of (i.e., by keeping) Torah, even though the gospel itself is not the doctrine of justification per se.  And saying that in no way minimizes the importance of the doctrine of justification.  As we saw above, you can inadvertently deny the gospel by your words or deeds by way of a tacit modus tollens.  Perhaps denying justification by faith does entail a denial of the gospel of Christ’s lordship.  But entailment is not the same as equation, and we would do well to learn the difference.

B)  We need to get away from gospel-math.  A lot of us Evangelicals are waking up to the fact that the New Testament gospel is the gospel of the Kingdom, but we’re still stuck on this idea that “the gospel = the doctrine of justification.”  The most common solution I’ve seen is to add the Kingdom to the formula, saying “the gospel = the doctrine of justification + the Kingdom.”  More socially conscious evangelicals want to throw in even more things: “the gospel = the doctrine of justification + the Kingdom + social justice + being eco-friendly +….”

I don’t think the gospel-math approach is serving us very well, both because it does not fit well with the thought of the New Testament writers and because it dulls our capacity for thinking Christianly.  The gospel-math approach does not really encourage a close reading of the arguments in Paul’s letters or anything else, and it allows us to just assume that our old “the gospel = justification” formula can be salvaged simply by tacking on a few more items.  Perhaps more problematic, however, is the fact that the gospel-math approach is a great way to turn the gospel into a grab-bag of our own pet-projects, and thus a great way of tailoring the gospel to suit our own personal and political preferences.  But it’s not a good or a biblical way of thinking about the difference Jesus makes for our lives and our world.

Learning to think in terms of gospel-logic allows us to recognize that the gospel itself is the message that God is reigning over the world in and through Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, and to see that this message has massive ramifications for our thinking and our living.  It is not a sterile proposition by any means and it’s only a failure of imagination and/or logic that would lead someone hearing it to say, “So?  So what?  What’s the takeaway here?”

Next week, 1 Corinthians…

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