Explaining My Gospel Summary

In a previous post, I shared a summary of the gospel which I constructed based of another summary written by New Testament scholar Dr Matthew Bates, which you can find here as a well as a revision which you can also read here. The original summary was from his Dr Bates excellent 2017 book Salvation by Allegiance Alone which made a great impression on me. I was particularly impressed with the care and nuance he showed in outlining what the gospel precisely is according to the New Testament (NT.) The minor differences in my summary from his were inspired by his commitment to precision, which I followed to try and craft an even more finely tuned summary. In this post, I will explain some of the more significant differences between our summaries.

Perhaps the most significant difference is I do not include any explicit reference to Christ’s pre-existence. Now the NT quite clearly teaches his pre-existence however, I do not think it is fundamental to the gospel message. Now Bates makes his argument for it based on the oddness of the Greek phrase used for “becoming” in Romans 1:2 where Paul says Christ “became the seed of David according to the flesh.” He argues the phrase means Christ came into [1]“[human] existence by means of the seed of David” implying he had a pre-human existence. This line is part of Romans 1:1-4 where Paul explicitly outlines the gospel he preaches, citing what is considered by many NT scholars to be an early Christian creed summarising the gospel. Since Bates wishes to provide a biblically faithful summary of the gospel, his summary mainly references what most scholars recognise as early creedal summaries of the good news in the NT. Assuming his interpretation of “becoming” in Romans 1:2 is correct, it would be the only reference to the pre-existence of Christ in NT creedal summaries of the gospel. Now there is the scholarly argument against his translation, which I am not qualified to properly evaluate but you can read it here. However, even if we assume he is right, it is at best a very subtle allusion to the incarnation and not an explicit statement of Christ’s pre-existence.

[2]To support his argument, Bates primarily relies on how the Greek phrase for “becoming” in Romans 1:2 is used in a similar manner in Philippians 2:6-11, an early Christian hymn that does explicitly talk about the Messiah Jesus’ pre-existence. Even though the Philippian hymn, like Romans 1:1-4, contains early Christian traditions about Jesus, unlike the beginning of Romans the hymn is not a summary of the gospel, something [3]Bates himself acknowledges. In fact, explicit references to Christ’s pre-existence in the NT tend to be found in these early Christian hymns like the one in Philippians and others such as Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20. Even if we expand our survey to include the canonical gospels, the only explicit references to pre-existence in them are in John, which is the most distinctive gospel we have. (The virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke subtly hint at pre-existence but do not outright state it.) The most important reference to pre-existence in John is in the famous opening lines, which are part of 1:1-18, which is also considered early hymnic material. This indicates Christ’s pre-existence was rather a common feature of early Christian hymns and not their preaching to non-believers.

It bears saying that Christ’s pre-existence is an important aspect of his identity that cannot be ignored. It is also not unrelated to the gospel since belief in it probably emerged as an explanation of Christ’s exaltation that is, he went back to where he came from (see Hurtado on pre-existence). With all that being said, from what we have seen it is not an essential component of the gospel message, especially a summary of it. This is not all too surprising when you consider the good news is news, which means it is about events that happen in the world. By definition, Christ’s pre-existence is not something that happened in the world.

Now the more critical argument against including pre-existence in the gospel, is that Bates’ specifically assumes [4]Christ pre-existed as the Son of God. This a Trinitarian interpretation of the text and not what it says in historical context. Even NT scholars who believe in the Trinity recognise the doctrine is not found in the NT (even though they will argue in various ways that it is somehow implicit and a necessary development of what the NT says about God, Jesus and the Spirit.) So the specific proposition that Jesus pre-existed as the Son of God is certainly not part of how the NT summarises the gospel.

The other major differences between Dr Bates summary and my own are in terms of structure. I largely maintained the narrative pattern of Dr Bates, which became the body of my summary, but I added to it an introduction and a conclusion. These additions make my summary more representative of the gospel according to the NT while still being concise. Now the scope of what constitutes the body is that it deals with the past. It summarises what has already happened in the story of Jesus in keeping with the core idea of the gospel as news, a report about significant events. I therefore moved the line about Jesus’ return, which is yet to happen, to the conclusion, which I wanted to be about the implications of the events that have happened.

I added the appeal to believe and be saved because it is common feature of gospel presentations and summaries in the NT (Mark 16:15-16, Romans 1:16, 10:9-10 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Ephesians 1:13.) The gospel is a message of salvation. While the gospel is indeed news about what has happened, it is apparent in the NT its purpose is also to persuade people to take the gift of eternal life given to those who submit to the rule of the one who has conquered death. The appeal to be saved is indeed a fitting conclusion to the summary. In fact, both concluding lines tend to appear at the end of gospel presentations and summaries in the NT.  It is also an offer that has been made available to all people due to the event of Christ’s exaltation to come under his righteous rule. That offer is the gift of salvation to those who give their allegiance to him as their rightful king because when he comes as judge he will destroy all opposition to his righteous reign. The gospel is a message of salvation which is another reason why I included the appeal to believe and be saved in my summary.

Now the two introductory lines of my summary are completely absent from Bates’ original. They not only clearly state who and what the gospel message is about, that it is about God’s kingdom and king, both lines reference the shortest explicit summaries of the gospel in the NT (Mark 1:1, Matthew 4:23, Luke 8:1, Acts 5:42.) Moreover, my opening line references a key phrase from the synoptic gospels about the gospel that Jesus himself is reported to have preached. These reasons make them worthy inclusions in any attempt at summarising the gospel. The other reason why I began my summary with kingdom-talk is that [5]Bates’ himself repeatedly stresses that the climax of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ enthronement as king, seated at the right hand of God in heaven. One of the senses of the Greek word for gospel is a royal message. So in keeping with Bates’ gospel theology, my introduction explicitly highlights the royal theme. Beyond this, the kingdom language plugs into what I perceive as an underlying royal narrative that undergirds all of Scripture.

Even though I have just offered a very light critique of Dr Bates’ excellent work, I certainly do not think my summary is perfect or even better necessarily. There are a few things I could legitimately add but I have not for very minor reasons. There are also probably things I just have not considered. The important thing to recognise is that the New Testament shows us there is more than one way to articulate the gospel. As Prof Graham Twelftree insightfully points out in his 2019 book The Gospel According to Paul: A Reappraisal, the gospel cannot be narrowly be defined or we risk losing sight of the full richness of what it is, which goes beyond words alone. The lasting value of attempting this exercise in summarising the gospel according to the NT is that it gets you to think more carefully and precisely about the gospel. Regardless of whether you agree with Bates or myself or neither of us, it is always important to better our understanding of the gospel.

[1] Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegianace Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King (e-book version), p. 108, Baker Academic, 2017.

[2] Ibid., pp. 105-110.

[3] Ibid., p. 105.

[4] Ibid., pp. 109, 130, 137

[5] Ibid., pp. 47, 95, 135, 200.

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