The Gospel and Reformed Theology

J. I. PackerWhen I was in seminary, a friend once told me that J. I. Packer’s introductory essay in John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ was worth the price of the whole book. My friend was right. Packer’s essay has become somewhat of a classic among reformed evangelicals in North America and beyond. It puts in sharp relief the God-centered vision of classic reformed theology as it stands against the ever popular, man-centered Arminian point of view.

One passage, however, from this otherwise outstanding essay raises a question in my mind about the gospel. Let me share the passage and then my question. Packer writes:

According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:

(1.) that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;

(2.) that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Saviour for sinners, even the worst;

(3.) that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Saviour shall be received into favour, and none cast out (which promise is “a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever [few or more] it be intended”);

(4.) that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Saviour, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”

The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ.

My question is this. In this passage where Packer sets forth the sum and substance of gospel-proclamation, has Packer really even said what the gospel is? In other words, isn’t the essence of the biblical gospel something along the lines of what the apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5?

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Isn’t the essence of the apostolic gospel a proclamation of the kingdom of God coming to it’s climax and fulfillment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Yes, this message is at it’s heart a proclamation of what God has done for sinners. And yes, this proclamation requires and invitation for all people to repent and believe in what God has done through Christ. But isn’t it a confusion of categories to say that the gospel is anything other than a kingdom-oriented, Christ-centered, cross-resurrection themed message?

The reason I pose the question is because often times I see reformed people (and I count myself among them) confusing what the gospel is on precisely this point. For instance, it’s not quite right to say that the heart of Paul’s gospel is justification by faith (as reformed people are often wont to do). It’s not that justification by faith is a small point to Paul (for it is not) or that reformed theology has misunderstood Paul teaching on justification (for it has not). Rather, what I am saying is that the heart of Paul’s gospel was “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The very center of Paul’s message was Christ crucified and raised for sinners.

When Paul talks about the gospel being the “power of God” (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:24) is it not true that he was talking about a cross-resurrection message, not justification by faith? Is it not true that justification by faith is the result of that proclamation, not the content of it?

I look forward to your feedback.

One Comment

  • winnen

    Hi, I read your comments above. Justification by Faith NOT the contents of the gospel? IMO, the only good news that has existed since the fall of man is Justification by Faith. IOW, since God demands that which owing to your Total Depravity, you are totally unable to give, and since you are infinitely in need of a perfect righteousness which you do not have, sincy you are under the condemnation of God, your only hope is in the perfect righteousness of Christ which is imputed to sinners through faith. If this is not the good news, please tell me specifically how this is NOT the good news and what could possibly replace it. Thanks, Winnen

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