Before anyone can make a distinction between the Bible and the gospel, he or she must first understand that there is a difference between the work of God in the spiritual realm in reference to our sin problem, and the Bible that was the product of the Holy Spirit on earth the record all God’s planning throughout history and eventual revelation of the gospel at the cross. It is imperative to understand that there is a difference between the redemptive plan of God and the pages of inspired documents that both recorded prophecies, as well as fulfillment of those prophecies through the incarnate Son of God. Unless one makes this distinction, he or she will never understand the power of the gospel to save and transform lives.
1. Romans 1:13-16: In the context of what Paul said in Romans 1:13-16, he revealed the difference that exists between Bible and gospel. This context was written to believing disciples, not unbelievers. It is crucial to understand this before reading the entire book of Romans that is about the gospel of God’s grace, a subject that the disciples in Rome did not fully understand. They had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but they were ignorant of all the gospel implications of what this meant (See Rm 6:3-6).
The Roman disciples were unfamiliar with all the “transactions” that took place in the heavenly realm in reference to the remission of their sins. They were baptized on earth, but they did not understand all the gospel work that took place before the throne of God. They did not understand that their baptism brought them into a covenant relationship with God when God forgave them their sins. “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rm 6:3). Before the letter of Romans was written and received, they could not answer this question.
Romans was written to disciples who had a limited understanding of the gospel of grace. If one can understand this reason for Paul writing the, then he can understand the theme of the message about which we are writing. This brings us to the context of Romans 1:13-16.
In Paul’s introductory statement he wanted the Roman disciples to understand that he had previously planned to come to Rome. Wherever he discovered that there were those who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, he desired to go to them in order to explain further the gospel that they had obeyed. His desire to teach disciples in reference to the unsearchable treasures of God’s grace is certainly an example for us to do the same (See Rm 11:33). So the reason he wanted to go to Rome was “that I might have some fruit among you [Christians] also” (Rm 1:13). Paul wanted to go to Rome in order to produce some fruit among those who had already been baptized in the name of Jesus, but understood little concerning the gospel of God’s grace. This should be the desire of every evangelist. If one discovers those who have been baptized in the name of Jesus, then it should be his desire to go to these people in order to produce some gospel fruit among then by explaining to the them more perfectly the way of the Lord (See At 18:24-26).
Paul said to his readers that he was a debtor to produce fruit among the disciples in Rome as he had produced fruit among all the Gentiles (Rm 1:14). However, in this statement he has said nothing about how the fruit was to be produced in the hearts of the Roman disciples. The word “fruit” that he used was certainly not a reference to preaching the gospel in order to produce more converts. The Roman disciples had already been baptized in the name of Jesus. They had already obeyed the gospel, though they understood little about what happened in the spiritual realm when they were baptized. Paul thus desired to go to them. He wanted to produce fruit among those who had already obeyed the gospel, but were in need of more instruction in matters concerning the gospel.
Paul then revealed the means by which he would produce fruit among those who had already obeyed the gospel. “So as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you [Christians] also who are at Rome” (Rm 1:15). It was the gospel that would produce fruit in the hearts of those who had already responded to the name of Jesus. In this context it was the gospel that would continue to produce spiritual fruit (growth) in the hearts of those who did not understand everything concerning the unsearchable riches of God’s gospel of grace. All our spiritual growth as Christians, therefore, must be attributed to the gospel. If we would claim that we have spiritually grown on our own, then we are a cult, or a member thereof.
Because Paul had been prevented in the past from making his way to Rome, he may have been somewhat apprehensive about making the journey (Rm 1:13). Therefore, in the letter of Romans he simply wrote the textbook on the gospel of grace that he wanted to share personally with the Roman disciples if he were possibly prevented again from making his way to Rome. If he eventually did make his way to Rome, then the letter of Romans would be the textbook they must study in preparation for the “Gospel Bible Class” that would be conducted upon his arrival.
This context inspires us to take another look at Romans 1:16, which we have always interpreted to refer to preaching the gospel to unbelievers. But in this context, the statement refers to preaching the gospel to believers in order that spiritual fruit might be produced and gospel living enhanced.
Our point here is that there was a difference between the message of the gospel and the message of the letter of Romans. In the letter, Paul wrote about the gospel, but the letter itself was not the gospel. He wrote in the letter that he intended to go to Rome. But the writing of his intentions was not the gospel. When we speak of the gospel of God’s grace—the theme of the letter of Romans—grace is something that is heavenly. Grace originated from the heart of God and was revealed on earth through the cross. Grace was a heavenly gift that was revealed through an earthly event, which subsequently was explained in words about thirty years after the event in the letter of Romans. Therefore, we must not confuse the gospel of grace that was revealed from heaven with a document that explains the whole gospel story.
2. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4: Though Romans speaks of the heavenly gospel of grace that originated out of heaven, in the context of 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 Paul explained the historical event that revealed this gospel on earth.
Paul reminded the Corinthians of “the gospel which I preached to you” (1 Co 15:1). The gospel was preached, received, stood within, and by which the Corinthians were saved (1 Co 15:1,2). However, in the first two verses of 1 Corinthians Paul wrote only about the Corinthians response to the gospel. They heard the gospel from Paul. They believed the gospel. They repented, and subsequently obeyed the gospel. But their hearing, believing and repenting was not the gospel. This was only their response to the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3,4 Paul recorded the historical event that stimulated the Corinthians’ response to the gospel. He recalled that “Christ died for our sins,” He was buried, and “He rose again on the third day.” All these things occurred at least twenty years before Paul inscribed the words of 1 Corinthians. Therefore, the letter of 1 Corinthians is not the gospel. The letter was composed of words that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In these words the apostle Paul wrote in order to recount the historical event that God used in order to reveal His gospel grace to humanity on earth.
But we must not miss a very important point in this record that speaks of the historical event of the gospel. The crucifixion event would have been only the execution of another Jew if it were not for the statement, “for our sins.” The revelation, “for God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16), could only be illustrated through the incarnational offering of God the Son on a cross. The offering for our sins on the cross, therefore, was God’s revelation of the gospel to humanity that had been in the plan of God since before the creation.
The Bible contains all the recorded history of this good news. It contains all the events that led up to the offering. And finally, it contains a revelation of all that is meant when we use the simple word “gospel.” Therefore, in preaching the gospel the first thing the evangelist must do is make a distinction between the gospel that was revealed from the throne of God, and the historical event of this revelation on earth. The next thing we must do is make a distinction between the historical record of the gospel event and the gospel itself. If we do not do this we will continue to hold up the Bible and erroneously proclaim, “This is the gospel.” We must understand that we teach the Bible, but we proclaim the gospel.
[Next in series: March 21]