While I’m not a fan of simplistic faith or anti-intellectualism, I do have a high value for discerning central themes or what some have described as the “simple” gospel, though sometimes I’m confused by what people mean by that term! Confusion aside, I think it is valuable to understand the foundational claims of Christianity and be able to have a helpful response to the question, “How can I be saved?”
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul seemed to share this similar concern and helps clarify a bit about what is “central” or “foundational” or of primary importance. He writes to the Corinthians:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.”1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NLT
Some important words here — “what was most important and what had also been passed onto me.” What does Paul consider “most important,” you may ask? Simple… Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised from the dead… and was seen.
If we’re honest, it’s actually not as simple as we may think, but far more simple than some would acknowledge. Oh the tension of the “gospel”!
Within the Christian tradition(s), the Cross of Christ is both central and also complex due to its attachment to the theological subject of the Atonement.
“Atonement refers to God’s act of dealing with the primary human problem, sin. Both OT and NT affirm that sin has broken the relationship between God and humankind. According to Christian theology, God accomplished the way of restoration through Christ’s death.Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 17.
Theologians often speak of atonement “theories” and many seem to suggest that one particular “theory” best summarizes what the Bible means when it talks about Jesus dying “for our sins.” Some advocate Substitutionary Atonement and others point to the Ransom Theory or Christus Victor. Under the Substitutionary Atonement banner, there’s a subset known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement that has often been very popular in certain circles of Evangelicalism.
So which one is the best “theory” and which one is the one we should emphasize in the Vineyard? The answer is… “Yes.”
The language of “theory” is actually terrible because each of these perspectives is simply built on one of the numerous metaphors used in Scripture to describe the theology of the Cross. While space prevents me from fleshing out the numerous texts that indicate that the Atonement should be understood through each of these lenses, I want to highlight a magnificiant point that Fleming Rutledge makes:
“… the cross itself is not a metaphor. The purpose of the metaphors and images used in the New Testament is to help us to understand, and above all to respond to, the historical event…”Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 212.
The biblical metaphors must all be valued, taught, and embraced. Each helps us understand the whole. So when it comes to the Atonement and how we should understand what was accomplished at the Cross, I think the most biblical answer is “all of it!” That, after all, is often the Vineyard way of “both/and” when it comes to questions of embracing the tensions found in the Kingdom.
The Resurrection is central too
Certain Christian circles seem to spend all their time on the Cross of Christ, often pointing to Paul’s words to the Galatians:
“… may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”Galatians 6:14 NLT
One can hardly disagree with centering one’s ecclesiological identity on the Cross of Christ, yet the Cross is not a historical event in and of itself, for it’s attached to the Resurrection! This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15… if there’s no resurrection we are all wasting our time or, to use Paul’s own words, “your faith is useless” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14, 17).
So yes, we are Easter people, but we are Easter people 24-7, 365. The Cross and the resurrection matter for us and are primary doctrines that were delivered to Paul and which were, over time and through the centuries, delivered to us through the Scriptures and teachings of the Church.
In other words, this stuff matters!
What do you think? Do you think the “gospel” is as simple as what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15? How would you describe and define it? What about the historicity of the Resurrection? Do you feel comfortable defending it? How so?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.