If you’ve not seen Monty Williams at his wife’s funeral, this is worth 7 minutes of time.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
What was the gospel that Jesus preached?
As far back as Irenaeus, Christians have suggested that the best way to interpret scripture is by finding other passages or verses that fill in the blanks or clarify the confusing bits.
By such a method, we might wonder what the “good news” is that Jesus preached and go looking through the New Testament for more elaborate explanations of the gospel. Doing so would likely bring us to 1 Corinthians 15, which Paul helpfully labels as the good news.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor 15:3-8)
By the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we might conclude that what Jesus meant by “the gospel” in Mark 1 was some version of what Paul described as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a story, but it is a story most centrally about Jesus dying for our sins and being raised to life.
Such a definition of the good news seems to inform what John Wesley does in a sermon such as “The Way to the Kingdom.” When he comes to describe the gospel, he casts in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
Believe this and the kingdom is yours, Wesley preached. In preaching this, Wesley understood the gospel through the lens of Pietism. In the same sermon, he tells us that the “kingdom” is an inner experience of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Here again he uses scripture to explain scripture. He finds the definition of the word “kingdom” — as Jesus used it — in the words of Paul, in this case from Romans 14.
In our day, this kind of preaching would get low marks in a New Testament class. The professor would point out, no doubt, that Jesus’ audience in Mark 1 could not have possibly understood the call to believe the good news as a call to believe that Jesus — who was very much not yet crucified — was going to die for their sins.
These kinds of observations lead people ask whether Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. Those who say they did not preach the same gospel — or at least that the word “gospel” in Mark 1:15 does not mean that Jesus died for our sins — tend to argue that the good news means to Jesus the declaration that kingdom is now present in Jesus himself. (See N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight for more on this.)
And so, I wonder if that means we should discard Wesley’s sermon on Mark 1:15 as a case of bad exegesis. Or is there some way that the “gospel” of Mark 1:15 is both what it meant to Jesus and the first readers of Mark and what it means to us as we read in light of what Paul and Peter and others have taught us.
Can we do bad historical-critical exegesis and yet still do good biblical theology?
By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.
In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.
In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.
Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:
From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory. So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.
I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.
As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.
The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.