In response to a recent presentation of the gospel, someone responded, “That was good, but I’ve never heard it explained that way before.” You might find it surprising that on the one hand I value presenting nothing more than the original message, while on the other hand his comment did not surprise me.
The typical gospel presentation is clear, concise and accurate. We learn Jesus can save us. It instructs us how we need to respond to Christ. People need to hear this message.
When it also provides explanatory power, it can resolve the questions of the curious and dissolve the harpoons of its detractors. When Jesus established a memorial for his death, why did he speak of a covenant? What does Jesus’ story have to do with the rest of scripture? Why are we called to respond to Christ with baptism?
For starters, what is the gospel? It is the good news that God loved us, even when we were alienated from him, by sending his Son to die for us thereby rescuing us from our sins. Jesus did die, was buried and by God’s power rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. Furthermore, many eyewitnesses saw him raised (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). Thus, when people repent of their sins and rely upon Christ, God claims them as his people and saves them (Luke 24:46,47; Acts 15:11; 2:38-47). Good news indeed!
While this constitutes the gospel’s highlights, the good news incorporates more. For example, when Jesus announced freedom to the captives, when he revealed God’s power to overcome all of the adversary’s crippling tools, as well as when he proclaimed God’s coming kingdom, all of these details are part of the good news (Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:18; Mark 1:1). Furthermore, Paul wrote that his gospel included proclaiming the coming day when God would judge the secrets within human hearts (Romans 2:16; Acts 17:30-31). These are all aspects about “what” the gospel is and can mean for our lives.
Less familiar are some of the reasons “why.” Embarking on this larger story, we discover God has been consistent throughout scripture. Jesus fits into a much larger narrative regarding how God in his grace has chosen to bring people into relationship with himself.
In Genesis we learn God used a covenant to establish a relationship with Abram. Through this covenant, God promised Abram that he would be his God and the God of his descendants (Genesis 17:7).
Fast forward hundreds of years to Mount Sinai, Moses and a newly freed Israel. God offered these descendants of Abraham, a very special relationship. Through covenant God promised to take the nation Israel to be his “special possession out of all the nations, … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (Exodus 19:5,6).
The sacrificial blood of the covenant ratified this relationship between God and Israel (Exodus 24:3-8). God’s promised relationship became a reality as covenantal blood was physically sprinkled upon Israel.
Later God commanded Moses to renew God’s covenant relationship with Israel before they crossed over the Jordan into Canaan (Deuteronomy 29:1,10-15). Consistently God has entered into relationship with people on the basis of a covenant.
Accordingly, when God’s people got off track we should not be surprised what the prophets taught. They reminded Israel and Judah that their relationship with God was based upon covenant (Jeremiah 11:1-5; Ezekiel 16:8). They would call Israel to return to God’s ways.
Eventually, God announced he would create the basis for a new relationship with people. In the future he would offer a new covenant differing from the earlier one. The earlier covenant contained a weakness – the failings of humanity. So God announced a new covenant in which he promised not only to claim a people for himself, but to also forgive their sins remembering them no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The gospel fits into this larger narrative. Jesus, realizing that his death would inaugurate God’s new covenant relationship toward humanity, established the Lord’s Supper to memorialize his death’s significance (Luke 22:19-20). In fact, Jesus highlighted God’s new promise, namely to forgive sins (Matthew 26:28).
The author of Hebrews also pointed out this significance and superiority of Jesus’ death in bringing a new covenant with better promises (Hebrews 8:6-13). He even contrasted the role of the earlier sprinkled physical blood with the metaphorical sprinkling of Christ’s blood upon our hearts during baptism (Hebrews 9:13-21; 10:22).
Why does the gospel call people to rely upon Christ with baptism? When people trust in Christ crucified and risen by being immersed and raised, two wonderful things occur. They encounter Christ’s saving blood and they receive the new covenant’s promises: forgiveness and becoming reborn as God’s people.
This is why baptism is associated with the forgiveness of sins and becoming sons of God. With baptism, people are entering into the new covenant relationship and receiving God’s promises.
The story of Jesus fits into a much larger story. It recounts what God has achieved through Christ to create a relationship with people. Jesus understood his role and memorialized his death that we might remember its significance.
The gospel instructs us to be baptized. If we will rely upon Christ by being baptized, we receive forgiveness and become God’s people. It is helpful to not only know what, but some of the why.