Sunday, August 8, 2010

The First Things of the Gospel

Free Grace theologian William R. Newell has stated that "it is of the very first and final importance that the preacher or teacher of the gospel believe in the bottom of his soul that the simple story, Christ died for our sins, was buried, hath been raised from the dead the third day, and was seen, IS THE POWER OF GOD to salvation to everyone who rests in it, who believes!"1 Unfortunately, Newell's fervor for the first things of the gospel is not shared by some in the Free Grace movement of today. For example, a few years ago one fundamentalist Free Grace blogger wrote to me saying that he didn't want his blog turned into a sounding board or battle ground over Christ's burial and resurrection appearances because he felt there were "bigger fish to fry". Maybe this blogger took a cue from Tom Stegall who several years ago told his congregation that it was merely a "slight change"2 to remove Christ's burial from the church's doctrinal statement on the "SOLE CONDITION FOR SALVATION".3 Others have argued that this new teaching is merely "a crack in the window" of orthodoxy, as if this provides any reassurance or justification for this new groundless gospel (a.k.a. "the burial is not really part of the gospel" interpretation of the gospel). In contrast to the new groundless gospel, when the apostle Paul declared the gospel tradition he received, he included Christ's burial in the things "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3ff).4 In a gospel creed where words are used sparingly, where whole areas of doctrine are either assumed or passed over in silence, where the whole of Christ's teaching ministry and all of his miracles are not even mentioned, Paul says that Christ "was buried" (1 Cor. 15:4).5 So which is it? Is Christ's burial something "of first importance" or something of secondary importance - maybe not even part of the gospel at all?6

There are grave dangers in saying that Christ's burial is not part of the gospel and not "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3). To some well-meaning but misguided Christians it might seem like a little thing, a "slight change," or merely "a crack in the window" of orthodoxy to remove Christ's burial from the gospel of salvation. (The implication is that a little error or a slight change to the gospel is nothing to worry about!) But King Solomon warned about "the little foxes that ruin the vineyards" (Song of Solomon 2:15), and similarly the apostle Paul emphasizes that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6; cf. Gal. 5:9). Leaven is anything that lightens, softens, or modifies the finished product. For example, in bread, leaven is a substance that produces air pockets or holes in the dough. Paul uses the metaphor of leaven to refer to impurity and that which is opposed to "truth" (1 Cor. 5:8). Whether the issue is moral or doctrinal impurity the principle is the same: "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 15:6).

The Lord Jesus also speaks of leaven as impurity, saying to His disciples, "Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:6). Jesus explains that He is not referring to the leaven of bread, but instead to "the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:11-12). Amazingly, the very teaching Jesus is discussing is their refusal to believe the sign of Jonah the prophet (Matt. 16:4; cf. Matt. 12:38-41, 27:62-64)! In other words, in speaking of "the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:6), Jesus is referring to their outspoken unbelief in the fact that He would be "3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). Some may wonder what the phrase "3 days and 3 nights" in Matthew 12:40 is all about? The phrase "3 days and 3 nights" was simply a common Jewish idiom or expression meaning any part of 3 days, not necessarily a full 72 hour period of time. Jesus knew the Pharisees and Sadducees wouldn't believe in His resurrection on the third day (Matt. 27:62-64).

Tragically, this leaven of unbelief has crept into the new groundless gospel. Tom Stegall of Word of Grace Bible Church has said: "His being buried was not a work which accomplished our eternal redemption, and it is therefore not absolutely essential for someone to know about it and believe it in order to go to heaven".7 Similarly, Stegall indicates that "a person is saved" even though he "is vociferously denying the truth of 1 Corinthians 15:4 that Christ's resurrection occurred on 'the third day.'"8 Greg Schliesmann, a vocal member of Stegall's congregation, further clarifies the extreme nature of the groundless gospel position when he states: "In terms of salvation, there is no distinction between not believing and denying".9 While Stegall and other groundless gospel advocates promise salvation ("heaven") to those who don't believe the sign of Jonah that the Son of Man will "be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40, i.e. "that He was buried and that He was raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures," 1 Cor. 15:4), Jesus only promises such unbelievers condemnation (see Matt. 12:38-41; Lk. 11:29-32). Some years ago Robert Lightner wrote a book about those who die before the age of accountability, called "Heaven for Those Who Can't Believe". To borrow the phrase, Stegall's teaching could be labeled: "Heaven for Those Who Don't Believe". No wonder it's been said that "there are lots of holes" in the groundless gospel!10

So what are some of the holes in the groundless gospel? What are some of the air pockets, the leaven, in the groundless gospel? The holes in the groundless gospel are numerous. It's missing vital elements such as:
  • Christ's burial in the heart of the earth (1 Cor. 15:4; cf. Deut. 21:22-23; Ps. 16:10 NIV,11 Ps. 22:15, 40:2; Isa. 53:9; Matt. 12:38-41, 27:57-66; Mk. 15:43-46; Lk. 23:50-53; Jn. 12:23-24, 19:38-42; Acts 2:27 NIV, Acts 2:31 NIV, Acts 10:40, 13:29; Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12, etc.)
  • The fact of the third day (1 Cor. 15:4; cf. Gen. 22:4-5; Heb. 11:17-19; Hosea 6:1-2; Jonah 1:17; Matt. 12:38-41, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 27:63; Mk. 9:31, 10:34; Lk. 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19-21; Acts 10:40, etc.)
  • Christ's resurrection appearances to His disciples (1 Cor. 15:5; cf. Ps. 22:22, 40:3; Isa. 53:10; Matt. 28:10, 17; Mk. 16:7; Lk. 24:34, 36-39, 48; Jn. 14:19, 16:16, 20:19-21:14; Acts 1:3, 22, 2:32, 3:15, 4:19-20, 5:32, 10:40-41, 13:31, etc.)
Sadly, Stegall believes that these gospel truths are something like "excess baggage"12 in evangelism. In fact, Stegall actually calls them "extra details".13 He teaches that "they are not technically part of the gospel or the contents of saving faith"14 but only "growth-truth for every child of God."15 This is the leaven of the groundless gospel.

Stegall's gutted gospel can be compared to the processed foods and white breads of the modern American diet. These foods have been so stripped of essential nutrients that they must be artificially "enriched" and "fortified" with synthetic vitamins, minerals, and preservatives. No wonder people say: "The whiter the bread the quicker you're dead!" In stripping the gospel of Christ's burial and other vital truths, Stegall has ironically "become like a person who is initially intent on becoming healthier through diet and exercise but somewhere along the line becomes manically obsessed with getting leaner. Initially, he does become healthier as he burns off unnecessary excess fat, but then by obsessive diet and exercise he actually becomes unhealthy as his body begins to metabolize muscle instead of fat...[he has] gone to an unhealthy extreme, and [he is] consuming muscle off the bone - the precious contents of the Gospel itself, namely our Lord's [burial, resurrection specifically on the third day, resurrection appearances, and the fact that all this happened "according to the Scriptures"]...This is the terrible tragedy of the new [groundless] gospel."16

Christians must be on their guard against the leaven of the new groundless gospel which proclaims a modified message lacking vital truths "of first importance". We must continue to "hold fast the word" which Paul preached (1 Cor. 15:2), and include the things "of first importance" in the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-5). Commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5, Bible scholar Gordon Fee states: "Among all the things [Paul] proclaimed and taught while he was with them, these are the matters of 'first importance.' Here is the 'bare bones' content of the gospel that saves...In it's present form it has four lines...Thus: 1) that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; 2) and that he was buried; 3) and that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures; 4) and that he was seen by Cephas [and] the Twelve."17 S. Lewis Johnson concurs saying, "First of all (lit., among the first things) refers to importance, not time. The substance of Paul's message is contained in the four that's following received, and it includes Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearances. These things make up the Gospel."18 Similarly, and in conclusion, the words of F. F. Bruce are appropriate: "The things of first importance are four in number: (a) Christ died, (b) he was buried, (c) he was raised, (d) he appeared in resurrection to many. Whatever differences there might be in primitive Christian faith and preaching, there was evidently unanimity on these fundamental data."19


1 William R. Newell, Romans Verse-By-Verse, p. 19. Newell was a gospel man, a great Bible expositor of the past century and former superintendent of the Moody Bible Institute. Newell was a strong proponent of the first things of the gospel, as evidenced by the following statements from his classic evangelical commentary on the book of Romans: "The gospel is all about Christ. Apart from Him, there is no news from heaven but that of coming woe! Read that passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: 'I make known unto you the gospel which I preached unto you: that Christ died, Christ was buried; Christ hath been raised; Christ was seen.' It is all about the Son of God!" (Ibid., p. 6.) "[Romans Chapter 1] Verse 16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel...For it is the power of God unto salvation - The second 'For' gives the reason for Paul's boldness: this good news concerning Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearing, 'is the power of God unto salvation unto every one that believeth.' There is no fact for a preacher or teacher to hold more consistently in his mind than this." (Ibid., p. 19.) "Paul's preaching was not, as is so much today, general disquisition on some subject, but definite statements about the crucified One, as he himself so insistently tells us in I Corinthians 15.3-5." (Ibid., p. 20.) "This story of Christ's dying for our sins, buried, raised, manifested, is the great wire along which runs God's mighty current of saving power. Beware lest you be putting up some little wire of your own, unconnected with the Divine throne, and therefore non-saving to those to whom you speak." (Ibid., p. 21.) "Therefore, in this good news, (1) Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (2) He was buried, (3) He hath been raised the third day according to the Scriptures, (4) He was manifested (I Cor. 15.3 ff), - in this good news there is revealed, now openly for the first time, God's righteousness on the principles of faith. We simply hear and believe: and, as we shall find, God reckons us righteous; our guilt having been put away by the blood of Christ forever, and we ourselves declared to be the righteousness of God in Him!" (Ibid., p. 24.)
     Referring to Romans Verse-By-Verse, Stegall states that Newell's book is a "fine commentary on Romans" (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61). But one is baffled at how Stegall can describe Newell's book in such glowing terms in light of the two men's divergent positions on the gospel. While Newell clearly includes Christ's burial and appearances in the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5), Stegall excludes them from the gospel. To be consistent, Stegall should be warning readers about the tragedy of Newell's glorious gospel! Stegall admits that "Newell in his fine commentary on Romans (William R. Newell, Romans Verse-By-Verse [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994]) written from a grace perspective states variously that the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 includes Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearances (Ibid., pp. 5-6, 21) but that the great facts of the gospel concern Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (Ibid., pp. 6, 19-20, 49)." (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61.) This written admission by Stegall is interesting because in personal dialogue with me he has seemed reluctant to admit that Newell and I hold to the same position on the gospel.
     But notice that there are several inaccuracies in Stegall's statement. First, he inaccurately references several pages in Newell's book. Stegall claims that on pages 6, 19, 20, and 49 of Romans Verse-By-Verse that Newell limits the "great facts of the gospel" (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61) to only Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. However, after looking up these pages in Newell's commentary the only place he makes any reference to the "great facts...of the gospel" is on page 6, when he states: "These great facts concerning Christ's death, burial, and resurrection are the beginning of the gospel; as Paul says: 'I delivered unto you (these) first of all." (Newell, Romans Verse-By-Verse, p. 6.) Besides the inaccurate page references, Stegall also inaccurately summarizes Newell's statement about the great facts of the gospel (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61). On page 6 of Romans Verse-By-Verse Newell is specifically talking about "the great facts concerning...the beginning of the gospel," he's not talking about the gospel in it's entirety or completeness as Stegall would have us believe! Admittedly Stegall doesn't use the word "entirety" or "completeness" but that is the implication since he doesn't specify otherwise. There is one last inaccuracy to be noted in Stegall's statement. Notice the false dichotomy he attempts to create in Newell's position by pitting the four facts of the gospel against the three great facts of the gospel (which in reality are the three great facts concerning "the beginning of the gospel"). Stegall creates this false dichotomy using the contrasting conjunction "but" (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61). However, in actuality there is no such contrast in Newell's position because instead of limiting the great facts of the gospel, he's simply pointing out that the great facts of the gospel begin with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. The two truths that Stegall seeks to contrast are not contradictory (much less mutually exclusive), but are instead complimentary and parallel. Correcting these three inaccuracies in Stegall's statement, notice how it should read and how the meaning is changed: "Even Newell in his fine commentary on Romans (William R. Newell, Romans Verse-By-Verse [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994]) written from a grace perspective states variously that the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 includes Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearances (ibid., 5-6, 21) but [and] that the great facts ['concerning...the beginning'] of the gospel concern Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (ibid., 6, 19-20, 49)." (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 561, note 61, lines added.) When the inaccuracies in Stegall's statement are corrected it becomes clear that if there are any distinctions to be noted in Newell's position it is not between some supposed less important facts of the gospel and the "great facts" (Newell, Romans Verse-By-Verse, p. 6) of the gospel, but instead between the great facts at "the beginning of the gospel" (Ibid., p. 6) and "the whole story of the gospel: that Jesus was the Christ, that he had come, died for sin, been buried, been raised, and been seen by many witnesses after His resurrection" (Ibid., p. 397). Thus, when Newell talks about "the beginning of the gospel" (Ibid., p. 6) he is drawing attention to the chronology of the great facts of the gospel story. Newell affirms such a chronology when he writes: "Therefore, in this good news, (1) Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (2) He was buried, (3) He hath been raised the third day according to the Scriptures, (4) He was manifested (ICor. 15.3 ff)" (Ibid., p. 24).
     There is one last point that needs to be made in this whole discussion. Even if Newell hypothetically does make a contrast between the less important facts of the gospel and the "great facts" of the gospel, he still includes all four facts in the gospel. This goes back to what I said in my article "Getting the Gospel Right" (the title being a parody of Hixson's Getting the Gospel Wrong), where I pointed out that even if two of the four facts of the gospel are to be understood in a subordinate sense they are still divinely included in the content of the gospel. This exegetical point continues to be problematic for the groundless gospel. So however Stegall tries to slice it, he must concede that Newell does indeed include all four facts in the gospel (Ibid., pp. 5, 6, 19, 20, 21, 24, 397) and in the contents of saving faith (Ibid., pp. 19, 20, 24, 397). Stegall must also concede something about his own beliefs, namely that his groundless gospel is at odds with Newell's understanding of the gospel.

2 Tom Stegall, "Proposed Change" to the "SOLE CONDITION FOR SALVATION," Word of Grace Bible Church handout (circa 2007), emphasis his.

3 Ibid.

4 Tom Stegall writes: "When Paul states that the gospel that he received and delivered to the Corinthians is 'first of all,' he means that the gospel is in first place when it comes to importance. And this gospel message that was to be first in importance is defined specifically as the message 'that Christ died for our sins...and that He rose again.'" (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 512, ellipsis his.) It is telling that Stegall must edit Paul's declaration of the gospel by adding ellipsis after the words "Christ died for our sins" (thus removing the mention of the Scriptures and Christ's burial) and by adding an artificial period after the words "He rose again" (thus removing the mention of the third day, the Scriptures, and Christ's resurrection appearances). Notice that Stegall even omits the mention of "the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3, 4) from his new, mini-gospel! Tragically, the groundless gospel is a partial gospel lacking vital truths "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3). Ironically, Dennis Rokser has said: "[Zane] Hodges...undermines the 'core essentials' of the Gospel declared in this passage as NOT BEING OF FIRST IMPORTANCE when it comes to that which 'must be believed in order to be eternally saved.' What a strange twist!" (Rokser, "A CRITIQUE OF ZANE HODGES' ARTICLE - 'THE HYDRA'S OTHER HEAD: THEOLOGICAL LEGALISM,'" The Grace Family Journal (Special Edition 2008). What a strange twist indeed that groundless gospel advocates also undermine the core essentials of the gospel!

5 Adapted from Ray Pritchard's article "God's Scapegoat: 'Buried'," (March 28, 2004).

6 See the article "First Among Equals," Free Grace Free Speech blog.

7 Tom Stegall, "Proposed Change" to the "SOLE CONDITION FOR SALVATION," Word of Grace Bible Church handout (circa 2007).

8 Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 563, italics his.

9 Greg Schliesmann, comment under the post "Zane Hodges, 'Legalism is not a very nice word.' (Part 1)," (accessed November 3, 2008).

10 Bob Wilkin, "A REVIEW OF J. B. HIXSON'S GETTING THE GOSPEL WRONG: THE EVANGELICAL CRISIS NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT," Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 2008): p. 24. Under the heading "EXEGESIS TAKES A BACK SEAT TO TRADITION," Wilkin states: "Hixson's core essentials bring to mind a scene from The Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye is singing about tradition. To an outside observer like me, it looks like Hixson is relying on some tradition to tell him what the essentials are. Then he searches the NT to find passages that talk about those essentials. While he would surely love to find one passage that lists all the essentials from his tradition, since he can't find such a passage, he makes do with a menagerie of texts which he says present the 'core essentials.' Hixson has found these [his] five essentials hither and yon in the NT and then stitched them together into a salvific quilt. But there are lots of holes in the [groundless gospel] quilt!" (Wilkin, ibid.) One of these "holes" involves the issue of Christ's burial in the gospel and in the content of saving faith. Wilkin writes: "Or, what if the burial of Jesus is part of the Biblical gospel as Paul says it is in 1 Cor 15:4? When discussing 1 Cor 15:1-8, Hixson indicates that the burial of Jesus is not part of the Biblical gospel (pp. 80-81)....Hixson does not explicitly say this. However, he says, 'Paul does not intend to include all nine of these facts [in 1 Cor 15:1-8] as part of the precise content of saving faith' (p. 80). Since one of those nine facts is Jesus' burial, and since [Hixson] never lists it as an essential truth, it's clear he doesn't consider it part of what he calls the Biblical gospel....But if Jesus' burial is part of the Biblical gospel, then Hixson's message is an altered gospel and is thus impotent to save (cf. pp. 43, 80-81)." (Wilkin, ibid., p. 18, emphasis his.)

11 Commenting on Psalm 16:8-10, Charles Ryrie states: "These verses are cited by Peter in Acts 2:25-28, 31, and verse 10 is cited by Paul in Acts 13:35 as referring to the resurrection of Christ....The language here (illustrative and predictive of Messiah) refers initially to the psalmist's own experience, but the ultimate fulfillment is only in Jesus Christ (also Ps. 22:11-18). Thus David's hyperbolic language about his own deliverance from death, or more probably about his own future resurrection, finds its complete fulfillment in Christ's deliverance out of death by resurrection, for only Christ has not seen corruption. Sheol. Here it means the grave. See note on Gen. 37:35." (Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, NASB, p. 842, bold added.) Ryrie's note on Genesis 37:35 reads as follows: "Sheol. Used 65 times in the OT, Sheol often means the grave, where the body is placed at death (cf. Num. 16:30, 33; Ps. 16:10)." (Ibid., p. 65, bold added.)

12 Zane Hodges, "How To Lead People To Christ, PART 2: Our Invitation To Respond," Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 14 (Spring 2001): p. 17.

13 Stegall, THE TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 9," The Grace Family Journal (Special Edition 2008): p. 21.

14 Tom Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, p. 589.

15 Ibid.

16 Tom Stegall, "THE TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 1," The Grace Family Journal (Spring 2007): p. 9.

17 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 722-723.

18 S. Lewis Johnson, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1255.

19 F. F. Bruce, 1 And 2 Corinthians (London: Oliphants, 1976), p. 138; cf. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982), p. 88, where he discusses 1 Corinthians 15:3 "with regard to the saving events of Christ's death, burial, resurrection and subsequent appearances".

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tree of Life (Isaiah 53)

Isaiah 53 is visually interpreted by a man who takes a pilgrimage through various urban terrains while carrying an olive tree.