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Where is the Gospel?

 

 

 

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ...

Ephesians 3:8

 

 

By Scripture alone?

Some time ago I received a letter which made the following observation...

"You know, one problem with having various denominations is that they put their "slant" on the Bible. While this is well intentioned, the Bible addresses this exact issue (I don't have the actual verse at my disposal, but it does state that the Bible is full and complete as is.)... Why not believe what is written, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, then share with others?"

This view is held many Christians. However, such an opinion contradicts the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I must say the reason the author of the above letter didn't have the "actual verse" at his disposal is that no such verse exists in the Bible! However, the belief that the "Bible is full and complete as is" is pervasive within fundamentalist circles.

Dating from the Reformation, the Protestant doctrine "sola scriptura" holds that the entirety of ‘essential’ Christian truth is found within the Bible, and consequently the Bible must be our sole rule of faith. Sola scriptura is a basic tenet held almost universally by fundamentalists and evangelical Protestants. Ironically, however, the belief is non-scriptural! An honest search the Scriptures reveals no evidence to substantiate this belief. In fact, Scripture itself clearly disproves it.

Those who profess "sola scriptura" often point to certain verses that uphold the divine inspiration and enduring value of the Holy Scriptures:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30-31 RSV

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4

Indeed, God's word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates and divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Revelation 22:18-19

...that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written... 1 Corinthians 4:6

But none of these verses make any claim that the holy writings are complete and encompass the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s take a brief look at each one.

• The first verse, John 20:30-31, merely says that the Scriptures contain testimony that can lead us to believe in Christ, not that Christ is fully revealed within Scripture. (What is more, it points out that there are many signs that Christ performed that were not written down.)

• 2 Timothy 3:16-17 upholds the inspiration and usefulness of Scripture, but says nothing to support sola scriptura.

• Romans 15:4 and Hebrews 4:12 affirm the incisive power of Scripture, but again, in no way defend sola scriptura.

• Revelation 22:18-19 refers specifically to the apocalyptic vision given Saint John by Jesus, and warns all not to detract from or add to the meaning of that vision. The context of the warning specifically is that of the vision recorded in the book of Revelation itself.

• The verse from 1 Corinthians 4:6 at first glance may seem to suggest that we should consider Scripture as our only reliable reference of spiritual knowledge. However, the fact that this is but a fragment of a passage should alert us to consider its context. The extensive section of Paul's letter containing this verse addresses a specific problem dividing the Corinthian church into factions: Christians were giving undue emphasis to Paul and Apollos. Parties loyal to these ministers of the Gospel were harming the unity of the Church and forgetting that the Church belongs to God, not to its human leaders. Paul condemned this ecclesial splintering and insisted that the Apostles are not to be glorified as kings, but seen merely as faithful servants:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:5-7

As is evident from the context, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:6, is refocusing the attention of the Corinthians upon the authentic Gospel message they had already received and away from the bearers of that message. Even the King James Version, widely respected particularly among Protestants, recognizes and emphasizes this meaning:

And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. 1 Corinthians 4:6 KJV

Sola scriptura has nothing to do with these passages. Scripture does not fully encompass God's Revelation of Himself and Scripture teaches that it does not.

 

The Word became flesh... John 1:14

The Bible shows that in His earthly ministry Jesus proclaimed His Good News, the Gospel, through His preaching, miracles, His whole way of life, His death and resurrection, and through the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures bear true witness to the God Man and to His Gospel, but He Himself is that living message, the Word of life:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son... Hebrews 1:1-2

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John 1:14

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us... 1 John 1:1-3

Where, then, can we find the true Gospel message? We can determine this by addressing the question, "How and to whom did Jesus deliver His message?"

Christ, the Word made flesh, gave the message of Himself to the world not on tablets of stone or leafs of paper, but through the His life and preaching, His dying and rising. Every aspect of His life was a delivering of the Good News and an unveiling of the Father He came to make known.

 

I have called you friends... John 15:15

Therefore, He revealed Himself most intimately to those whom He had personally selected to be His disciples. He lived and ate with them, and prepared them to take on an essential part of His mission.

To them He gave the ability and authority to rightly interpret and proclaim His Good News, and the special assistance of the Holy Spirit to protect them in their knowledge of the truth. And He gave them the authority to appoint men to faithfully take up this task after they themselves no longer were able.

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!" Romans 10:14-15

In order for people to be able to respond to the truth of the message, they must first hear this authentic Gospel. In our century mankind has as great a need of the Gospel as when Jesus "dwelt among us".

 

He sent them out to preach... Luke 9:2

Whom did Jesus send? Jesus delivered His message in its fullness to His Apostles, and specifically gave them the mission of proclaiming it to the entire world:

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. Luke 9:1-2

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." Matthew 28:19-20

And he said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but who does not believe will be condemned." Mark 16:15

The great mission of the Apostles and their successors was —and still is— to hand on the Gospel in its full truth; to interpret its meaning and implications throughout the course of history; to protect the Church from false doctrine.

[Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered him, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Kepha), and on this rock (kepha) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Matthew 16:15-20

Jesus Christ appointed Simon Peter chief of the apostles, and gave him absolute authority in governing the Church of Christ. By this authority the truth about Christ and man would be upheld. Jesus promised the Apostles that

"...the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." John 14:26

 

He who hears you, hears me... Luke 10:16

Without Jesus' guarantee that the Church would not depart from proclaiming the true Gospel, Peter, in exercising his apostolic authority, eventually would have lead the Church into apostasy.

Although the disciples may not have expected that many centuries would pass before Jesus' glorious return, the Lord provided for the authentic preservation and proclamation of the Gospel during all future generations of history. This was crucial to the success of Christ's mission; had His message been lost or corrupted, future generations would not learn the truth about God's saving work of the Cross. It was absolutely necessary that His message be correctly interpreted by His disciples so that their successors in turn would receive this treasure and deliver it intact to future generations.

This is all well attested by Scripture.

Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given... This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Matthew 13:10-13

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me." John 13:20

"...but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." John 15:15

"Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."
John 16:7

"These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." John 14:25-26

"I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; ...he will declare to you the things that are to come. ...he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you." John 16:12-15

"I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." John 17:14

"Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth." John 17:17-19

"He who hears you, hears me. He who rejects you, rejects me. And he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me." Luke 10:16

If someone wonders whether these last few passages are directed universally to all believers, the answer is easily found to be "no": not only from the context, in which Jesus is alone with His disciples and is speaking specifically to them, but also from passages that contrast the role of His chosen disciples with that of other believers, the beneficiaries of their mission:

"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one..." John 17:20:21

"But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning." John 15:26-27

By no means does this imply that the apostles are set above their fellow believers in dignity or grace. They are simply given a unique ministry which, like other spiritual gifts, is indispensible for the good of the church. As Paul affirms,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord... 1 Corinthians 12:4-5

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:7

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 1 Corinthians 12:27-29

 

Treasure in earthen vessels... 2 Corinthians 4:7

How, then, was this message transmitted? By the preaching of the Apostles. They went from city to city, baptizing and proclaiming the Gospel they had received from Jesus, as He had commanded them. And what do the Apostles themselves say of this message and their apostolic mission?

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.
Romans 10:17

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)... Romans 10:8

For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher... 2 Timothy 1:11

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. 2 Timothy 4:17

...that you should remember... the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles. 2 Peter 3:2

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. 2 Corinthians 2:17

For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 1 Corinthians 4:15

Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 1 Corinthians 14:11

Through him we have been favored with apostleship, that we may spread his name and bring to obedient faith all the Gentiles, among whom are you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. Romans 1:5

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ... Ephesians 3:8

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 2 Corinthians 4:7

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
1 Corinthians 4:1

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:8

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship... Acts 2:42

 

But on some points I have written... Romans 15:15

In fact, the Apostles not only transmitted the Gospel personally and orally, but they themselves were the human authors of the vast majority of the New Testament. Keep in mind that at the time of the Resurrection none of the books of the New Testament existed. These were written only gradually, over the decades following Christ's commissioning of the Apostles to "make disciples of all nations".

The Apostles preached the Gospel, yet sometimes found it necessary to address certain issues through written letters to various local churches. The New Testament contains a number of these Epistles; each of these divinely inspired letters was written to supplement and clarify —not replace— the oral message which their recipients already had received from the Apostles and from those whom the Apostles had appointed.

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder... Romans 15:15

Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Jude 3

Consequently, these letters taken together do not comprise a comprehensive presentation of the Gospel. (Even the written "gospels" —Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John— were written with particular emphases and for specific audiences. All four are distinctly different from each other, and none of them contains all the material of the other three.) Therefore, the New Testament books, taken separately or together, do not contain the full message of Christ. Even taken together with the Old Testament, this stands true.

If Jesus delivered the Gospel primarily by His living and preaching, and if, likewise, the Apostles proclaimed the Gospel primarily by their own living and preaching, we should certainly not expect Scripture alone to contain the entire message.

Understanding this, we can appreciate the importance of receiving the full Gospel intact, and of understanding it in the same way it was understood by the Apostles. Neither of these objectives is possible if we restrict ourselves to the Bible. The principle sola scriptura, "by Scripture alone", denies us access to the full Gospel and denies us a sure means of understanding the portion we have.

 

Then He opened their minds... John 24:45

Reading Scripture is extremely profitable, and in modern times increasing literacy happily makes this blessing available to more and more believers. But the Bible, like any other book, is subject to many interpretations, and not all of them can be true! Even among Christians there are many incompatible interpretations to be found —even on basic doctrine. The multitude of Christian denominations testifies to this.

It simply is not reasonable to claim, as many fundamentalists do, that "the Bible interprets itself." The Bible is a book of words; words and sentences can convey meaning, but they do not interpret each other. Forming an understanding of a text necessarily requires a process of interpretation. A right understanding of the saving truth expressed in Scripture does not leap from the printed page into the mind of the reader, nor does the Holy Spirit give every diligent student of Scripture an infallible grasp of Revelation! Readers tend to be influenced in their interpretations by their own biases, weaknesses, sin, and ignorance. Certainly it is crucial that the Gospel be understood in the sense in which God and the human authors intended it.

In no way does any of this demean the importance of Holy Scripture. To the contrary! Scripture supports the Gospel, and the two are faithful witnesses to God's revelation. Scripture and the authentic Gospel message can never contradict each other. God is Scripture's divine author, and in them He has revealed vast riches of wisdom which, when rightly understood, help us gain knowledge of Himself and our redemption!

For ever, O Lord, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Psalm 119:89

Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105

The sum of thy word is truth; and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures for ever.
Psalm 119:160

Knowing that the Bible does not fully reveal the message of Christ does help make clear that the Gospel must be and is a living message: it abides in its full integrity in the authentic faith preached by the Apostles and their successors. Despite the personal failings and shortcomings of these ministers of the Gospel, we can know that Christ's message has in fact remained undiminished: We are confident of this because Jesus ensured that His saving work faithfully would be preached to the ends of the earth.

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Matthew 24:35

"As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...."
John 17:18-20

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them... that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations...
Luke 24:45-47

...Jesus said to him (Peter), "Feed my sheep." John 21:17

...you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
Acts 1:8

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:1-4

And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Mark 16:20

And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. Acts 4:33

In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles... so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ... Romans 15:17-20

There are many more verses that could be identified to show that not only did the Apostles succeed in their mission of spreading the Gospel through their authoritative preaching, but their authentic evangelization has continued and will continue under the protection of the Holy Spirit until the end of the world.

 

The pillar and bulwark of truth... 1 Timothy 3:15

When the Bible speaks of the "gospel", then, it is referring to the "word of life" in its entirety, as given by Christ to the Apostles, as preached by the Apostles and their successors, and as definitively interpreted by the Apostles and their successors.

Therefore, brothers, stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)... Romans 10:8

If one were to deny that the Apostles' successors have the mission and authority to rightly interpret and define the content of Revelation, there would be no basis for believing that the Bible is intact and reliable, much less infallible. Nor would there be an infallible means for interpreting it.

Quite significant is the fact that it was not through the words of Christ but through the deliberations of the Apostles' successors that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to discern the canon of divinely inspired writings: the collection of those books which now we call the "Bible". During the early centuries of the Church's history, many writings dealing with the Christian faith appeared and circulated among some local churches. Controversies arose over the problem of distinguishing which writings were inspired and trustworthy in their content.

Further, Christians generally had accepted as inspired those pre-Christian books which comprised the so-called Septuagint Old Testament. (The Septuagint canon dated from the third-century B.C., although many of its books were far older.) But around A.D. 100 a Jewish rabbinical synod at Jamnia redefined the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rejecting a number of books of the Septuagint: books that Christians were citing in defense of their faith. Now even the canon of the Old Testament was thrown into question.

In order to end this controversy and uphold divine Revelation, a successor of Peter, Pope Damasus I, in A.D. 382, defined the contents of the true canon of Scriptures. In this he included all the books of the Septuagint, and rejected apocryphal writings that competed with the inspired New Testament books.

More than a thousand years later, in the fifteenth century, the Catholic Church affirmed precisely the same canon at the Council of Florence.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformers attempted to overthrow the Old Testament canon and adopt the shorter Jewish canon created at Jamnia; further, they tried to remove certain books even from the New Testament. The Catholic Church responded at the Council of Trent, refusing to alter the ancient, established canon.

So, the Word of God in its integrity is entrusted to the Church, and is transmitted to every generation in two ways: in Scripture, the written Word; and in the unwritten Tradition of the Apostles, which consists not only in the definitive interpretation of Scripture, but in the preservation and preaching of the full Gospel received by the Apostles from Jesus Christ. This is why Paul can refer to the Church as:

...God's household, the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth.
1 Timothy 3:15

For twenty centuries, the successors of Peter have steadfastly maintained what Peter himself wrote:

...that you should remember... the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles. 2 Peter 3:2

 

 

John Robin
25 June 1998
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