Part 2: Why Romans Isn’t Really the Greatest Book of the Bible After All, or Why We Should Read the Gospels More Than We Do
It happened again. I was listening to a great sermon from a godly man and then he did it—-he started talking about how Romans is the greatest book in the Bible. He got really excited and started telling us how Calvin read it every morning before doing P90X. Luther’s beer mug was in the shape of a giant “R.” Theodore Beza even had Romans 9 tattooed down his arm as a sleeve. (Let the reader understand–those were jokes.) The audience was with him; I was not. I’m always a little uneasy when people elevate one book of Scripture over another, but I do understand that some books hold more value for Christians than others. What bothers me is that I only ever hear this done with the epistles of Paul. Luke spent years researching and interviewing all the eyewitnesses who saw the actions and heard the teachings of the Son of God. He carefully compiled them into a thematically crafted and chronologically driven narrative. So why is it that I’ve never heard a preacher sing such high praises about Luke’s gospel? Why is it that the first-hand accounts of Matthew and John are also such second-class citizens? My guess is because they are about the life of Jesus and not about how one can get saved. Christianity, after all, is more about me getting saved than it is about Jesus, isn’t it?
To a large degree, this emphasis on salvation (or more specifically, justification) is a product of our Reformation heritage. For all its good, the Reformation tended to boil the Christian faith and the New Testament down to the issue of justification: How can a person be right with God? The reasons for this are understandable, but it is important for us to know that this was a reaction to very bad theology, not simply a recovery of biblical Christianity. It was indeed more biblical, but Luther and company did not by any means reproduce the first century church in the sixteenth century. A good illustration of how the reformers emphasized the doctrine of justification to the neglect of other aspects of Christianity is Luther’s attitude toward the book of James. Anyone who studies James can see that James is ripe with references to the teachings of Jesus. It is a book packed with practical advice on how to live as a Christian by applying Jesus’ teachings to daily life. Because James talks about the importance of works to go along with faith and makes no references about the saving power of Jesus’s death, Luther called this brilliant letter “an epistle of straw.” In my best Gimli the dwarf impersonation, I read James and I say, “They call it an epistle of straw!”
While the reformers tended to overemphasize justification at the expense of other doctrines, 500 years later we find ourselves in churches that have distilled the teachings of the reformers even further. The reformers produced catechisms; we generate little more than bumper stickers. “Jesus died for your sin so that you can go to heaven when you die.” This is what we are left with. We may believe it strongly, but it does little to help us understand all those parts of the New Testament that don’t fit this reductionist narrative.
What we have effectively done is create a canon within a canon. At the top of this list are the books of Romans and Galatians. Because they deal with the subject of justification, they are considered the greatest of all New Testament books. A close second behind these are the books of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. These books also make amazingly strong statements about the power of the cross of Christ. When our church is having problems, we turn to Corinthian letters to see how Paul handled these issues and to make ourselves feel better for not being so screwed up. So far we haven’t got past the writings of Paul. Does this sound like your Church? Where do the Gospels rank in this list? Somewhere in the middle of the New Testament, I would say. What about Revelation? My guess is that unless your pastor thinks he can interpret Revelation by reading the global events section of the newspaper, he probably doesn’t talk about it. What about the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus loved so much?
It is not my intention to argue that the Gospels are more important than the Pauline epistles, but rather my purpose is to assert that a strong historically rooted grasp of the life and ministry of Jesus is an essential part of being a follower of Christ. It is also essential to understanding the Jesus whom Paul spills so much ink over. In other words, we cannot understand the Gospel without understanding the Gospels and we cannot understand the Gospels if we force their story into our theological framework. When we do this we blind ourselves to the radically subversive story of God’s Kingdom their authors were telling first century people.
Perhaps the clearest example of ignoring the story of Jesus that is found in the Gospels is the theological model of dispensationalism. This method of interpretation sees God revealing himself and saving people through different “dispensations,” or periods of time. For example, God worked differently under the Mosaic Covenant than under New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death. There is some truth to be found in this system, but this framework also creates a host of problems. My main problem with dispensationalism is that it dispenses with the teachings of Jesus. Dispensationalist commentaries, preachers, and Internet bloggers will quickly throw out the teachings of Jesus as being “under the law” because they don’t jive with their reading of Romans or Galatians. While most of us are not as willing to openly dismiss Jesus’s words, many of us are left with a general feeling that maybe we can put Jesus teachings to the side. Yet, relegating Jesus’ teachings as peripheral to Christianity doesn’t quite sit well.
It’s hard to be a follower of Jesus if we are deaf to his voice. We don’t want to be deaf! We want a faith that celebrates everything about Jesus. We want to stand mesmerized by his miracles and sit at his feet hanging on every word from his lips. We long to put ourselves in every conversation and witness every encounter. Our heart stops at the terrible cross, not just because of what it does for us, but because of who it was that endured it. We revel in the empty tomb, not only because it’s our hope of resurrection, but also because the man whose words transformed our life in Matthew 5 is with us in chapter 28. We want, no, we need a better understanding of Jesus’s whole life. We find this by better understanding the Gospels.
How can we do this? How can we better understand these primary source accounts of Jesus? How can we better understand his teachings and his actions? In the future, I hope to lay out some more specific approaches but for now, I will focus on these two questions: What is the Gospel? And what are the Gospels?
Just about everyone with some church background has been taught that “gospel” means good news. Most of them have been further taught that by “good news” the Bible means the good news that Jesus died for our sins. In this understanding of Gospel, the story of the Cross, it is only what we learn from reading the last few chapters of the Gospels and what we learn better by reading Paul’s epistles.
Is this what the Bible means by “the Gospel?” If so, why does Mark call his entire account of Jesus’ life “the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)? Why does Jesus preach in the same chapter that, “the Kingdom of God is near, that we should repent and believe the Gospel?” Why does Jesus say that he is preaching the Gospel to the poor in Luke 4? Was Jesus telling them about his plan to die on the cross? We have no indication that was his gospel message. What we do see is that Jesus’ life, his ministry, his words, his presence is one that is bringing the Kingdom of God to the earthly scene. As the king (also known as Messiah or Christ) he is bringing his Kingdom. His teaching shows us how the kingdom works through love rather than force. His healing touch shows us how his rule will put all things right. His presence brings us in direct contact with God. His life is the gospel! Jesus is the gospel.
Understanding this reality makes the cross even greater! Everything he was about in his ministry (humility, sacrificial love, faithfulness) culminates at the cross. What’s more is that everything that is to come (end of sickness, death, and pain) is on display in his resurrection. The Gospel is much better news than getting to go to heaven and escaping hell. The Gospel is the amazing news of the invasion of heaven’s king into our world. It is the story of his victory through divine love and sacrifice. It is the story of his life, his death, and the surprise of his return to life. As his followers, it becomes the story of our life in him. It’s not just the story of our death, but of every aspect of our life.
If this is the Gospel, then the Gospels make more sense. They are the written accounts of the story of Jesus. Scholars debate whether or not they are ancient biographies and debate the definition of what that even means, but we can all safely say that people in the first century were familiar with telling the story of a person’s life. The key thing to remember is that they didn’t do it the same way modern people do. The Gospels are carefully crafted accounts of Jesus’ life arranged thematically and semi-chronologically for specific purposes. The authors sometimes even tell us the purpose. Luke’s purpose is to have the most accurate account around. John’s is so that his audience would believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The key is to remember that the content of the gospels did not get in there by random chance. The stories in each gospel complement each other thematically. The miracles often help us understand the teaching. One parable helps us understand the one before. The characters often complement or contrast each other.
The writers of the Gospels thought long and hard when they crafted their stories. They did it so that we would know the good news of Jesus deeply. Their narratives are rich. The collected teachings and sayings are deep. In them we encounter the actual Jesus of Nazareth. In them we truly find the Gospel.
Read Part 3 here.