Recently I’ve been doing my morning devotionals from Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. I know I’m supposed to be reading the Bible, but it gets confusing at times. And Bird’s book has more jokes.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bird’s goal is to present a truly gospel-centered systematic theology. So it should come as no surprise that he thinks it rather important for a theologian to define the gospel as a central part of the theological endeavor. Although you’d think this would be a fairly obvious thing to include in a systematic theology, it’s actually somewhat rare. So kudos to Bird for not only using the word “gospel” a lot, but taking the time to explain what it means and how it should shape an evangelical approach to theology.
Here are the six key things that Bird thinks are essential for understanding the gospel (pp. 47-52). And it’s in sections like this that Bird’s strengths as a biblical theologian really come to the forefront.
What Is the Gospel?
1. The gospel is the message of the kingdom of God.
Bird rightly points out that you can’t really understand the gospel without connecting it to the Kingdom, which he defines as “the reign of rule of God that breaks into the world through the dramatic intervention of Israel’s God in events like the Exodus or the future ‘day of the Lord'” (p. 47). Although the phase “kingdom of God” does not appear much in the OT, Bird points out that it really serves as a “cipher” for a whole constellation of OT hopes (e.g. the outpouring of the Spirit, the return of the people to the land, forgiveness of since, and so on). So the gospel is the good news that all of this has drawn near in Jesus.
2. The gospel includes the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and exultation
Bird is keen to emphasize that “The gospel is fundamentally a story….It narrates the story of salvation that pertains to events in the life and work of Jesus” (p. 48). Or, as he says a bit later, “the gospel is not simply an atonement theology, a system of salvation; it is news of events” (p. 49).
3. The gospel announces the status of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God, and Lord.
As good news, the gospel is basically an announcement about who Jesus was/is and what he has done. And in this announcement, the identity of Jesus is critical. For Bird, this is key: “The gospel is a royal announcement that, regardless of what the world may think of Jesus, God has validated him as Israel’s Messiah and installed him as the rightful Lord of the world” (p. 50).
4. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles is intimated in the Old Testament.
By now it should come as no surprise that Bird rightly thinks that the gospel proclaimed in the NT can only be understood on the basis of God’s actions and promises in the OT. And here he points out that the OT itself points toward the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news about Jesus is “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
5. The response that the gospel calls for is faith and repentance.
There is one potential weakness of emphasizing the gospel as a story about redemptive history and how it reaches its climax with the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. It’s easy to forget that this story is only good news if you’re included. In the NT, the gospel is good news precisely because God has invited us to participate in this redemptive story through faith and repentance.
6. Salvation is the chief benefit of the gospel.
Here Bird wants to affirm that salvation is key to understanding the gospel and that the biblical view of salvation is larger and more robust than we typically think, including things like the renewal of creation as well as forgiveness and eternal life. But the center of salvation remains the new life provided in Jesus through the Spirit.
At the end of this brief summary, then, Bird offers this as his definition of the gospel:
“The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. the gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 52)
Now, if you look back over Bird’s six key points and his definition of the gospel, you’ll notice that he says very little explicitly about negative features of the gospel like sin, wrath, punishment, and hell. Although I can’t speak for Bird, if I had to guess, I would say that this is because he sees them more as background features: things you need to know if you’re going to understand the gospel, but not things that are part of the gospel message itself. In other words, if you look at his six points, you’ll notice that he assumes the reality of sin and judgment. Otherwise things like the promises included in the Kingdom, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the call to faith and repentance, and the promises of salvation won’t make any sense.
Said differently, the bad news is the necessary background for the good news, but not something that Bird thinks should be included in the definition of the good news itself.
What do you think? Is there anything else that you think is a vital part of the gospel that Bird has overlooked? Is there anything in his summary that you would have liked to see done a little differently?