The Gospel and Reformed Theology

J. I. PackerWhen I was in seminary, a friend once told me that J. I. Packer’s introductory essay in John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ was worth the price of the whole book. My friend was right. Packer’s essay has become somewhat of a classic among reformed evangelicals in North America and beyond. It puts in sharp relief the God-centered vision of classic reformed theology as it stands against the ever popular, man-centered Arminian point of view.

One passage, however, from this otherwise outstanding essay raises a question in my mind about the gospel. Let me share the passage and then my question. Packer writes:

According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:

(1.) that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;

(2.) that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Saviour for sinners, even the worst;

(3.) that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Saviour shall be received into favour, and none cast out (which promise is “a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever [few or more] it be intended”);

(4.) that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Saviour, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”

The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ.

My question is this. In this passage where Packer sets forth the sum and substance of gospel-proclamation, has Packer really even said what the gospel is? In other words, isn’t the essence of the biblical gospel something along the lines of what the apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5?

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Isn’t the essence of the apostolic gospel a proclamation of the kingdom of God coming to it’s climax and fulfillment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Yes, this message is at it’s heart a proclamation of what God has done for sinners. And yes, this proclamation requires and invitation for all people to repent and believe in what God has done through Christ. But isn’t it a confusion of categories to say that the gospel is anything other than a kingdom-oriented, Christ-centered, cross-resurrection themed message?

The reason I pose the question is because often times I see reformed people (and I count myself among them) confusing what the gospel is on precisely this point. For instance, it’s not quite right to say that the heart of Paul’s gospel is justification by faith (as reformed people are often wont to do). It’s not that justification by faith is a small point to Paul (for it is not) or that reformed theology has misunderstood Paul teaching on justification (for it has not). Rather, what I am saying is that the heart of Paul’s gospel was “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The very center of Paul’s message was Christ crucified and raised for sinners.

When Paul talks about the gospel being the “power of God” (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:24) is it not true that he was talking about a cross-resurrection message, not justification by faith? Is it not true that justification by faith is the result of that proclamation, not the content of it?

I look forward to your feedback.


12 thoughts on “The Gospel and Reformed Theology”

  1. Right on, Denny. I think Packer might be guilty of something I see a lot of Reformed folks do, that is, forget the essence of the gospel because he is trying to so clearly trying to express the part of gospel proclamation that the Arminian side so frequently jettisons: repentance and faith. I’ve heard Arminian brethren leave out the cross also as they heavily emphasize the decision to be made or the sinner’s prayer.

    It could also be that Packer is so familiar with the theology of the cross that he unwittingly assumes its presence in his thought without expressing it specifically. He uses the word Gospel as a synonym for the facts of Christ’s sinless life, substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection.

  2. Yes, Denny, thanks for seeing this. I love how Paul so clearly defines the gospel in Romans 1:16, “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” So then, the task seems to be set out what Paul means by salvation. Most certainly, salvation from the clutches of sin and death, which should always be seen together.

    I can tell you, I feel powerless to live the gospel-life. I don’t have the power to love others who hurt me. I don’t have the power to resist the earthly pleasures for the pleasures of God. I don’t have the power to wait and hold out for God’s provisions when it seems that I can provide for myself. I feel so powerless to live as God has called me to live. So to hear that the power of God is supplied to all who believe truly is good news to me.

  3. Denny,

    I think you’re right, and I think it’s representative of the tradition. The other day I was planning our worship service for the day that I preach Luke 24, and I was looking for a statement from the Baptist Confession of 1689 on the resurrection of Jesus for us to recite together that day. But there isn’t a statement about the resurrection of Jesus in the 1689. I think this is an unfortunate oversight. . .


  4. Altogether too much obfuscation. Christ died
    for the ungodly (which in-
    cludes EVERYONE). ANYONE
    who repents and receives
    Christ as Saviour will be
    saved. Why nitpick at the
    Calvinist/Armenian and the
    Fundamentalist/Liberal details while the world goes to Hell? Keep it simple!

  5. I agree, the problem I think is that we have come to confuse the Gospel as proclamation with the intended result, which is faith unto justification. The Gospel calls to faith and justification but those are not the Gospel. I’ve noticed many popular tracts do this, I don’t think it is only a reformed flaw though, I think Christians form several camps will equate the Gospel with what people must do to be saved as opposed to the proclamation of Christ. Perhaps it is more rooted in our pragmatic-results oriented revival tradition? Ones where we are more concerned with the bare minimum of salvation to seek conversions as opposed to preaching Christ and making disciples to follow the risen Lord?

  6. The gospel must be so simple an uneducated farmer can understand it and not so easy so that demons can believe it. Sometimes Calvanists make it intellectual and Armenians make it placid. One must believe in such a way he becomes a follower. Without that the sinner is just auditing the course. PTL-Rick

  7. Yes– “Christ died for our sins… and was raised” is really the center of it. Most (all?) heresies undermine one aspect of that or another: Arianism undermines “Christ”; Pelagianism undermines “for our sins”; and the failure to repent ignores that our sins are serious enough that Christ died for them.

    Packer’s emphasis is understandable, I think, in that we live in a world where lots of people would affirm it as a fact that “Christ died for our sins, and was raised,” but nevertheless keep working for their salvation, or show no interest in turning from a sinful lifestyle. But I agree that it would have made more sense to start with either 1 Cor. 15 or some similar apostolic statement, and work from there through whatever details needed to be emphasized.

  8. For me it is all about the difference is between content and application. The content of the gospel is the death, burial and resurrection. How the gospel is received by the individual is the application, namely faith and repentance, imputation, justification,etc. Cheap grace people often stress the brute facts (1 Cor. 15:3-5) without stressing the application (1 Cor. 15:1, 2). Really, it is all the gospel.

  9. Henry said:
    “The gospel must be so simple an uneducated farmer can understand it and not so easy so that demons can believe it. Sometimes Calvanists make it intellectual and Armenians make it placid. One must believe in such a way he becomes a follower. Without that the sinner is just auditing the course. PTL-Rick”

    Its not that the gospel(good news) must be so simple an uneducated farmer can understand it. It, it is so simple that the uneducated anybody understands it. It’s so simple many of the educated cannot see it. They think they see because of their education. John 9:39-41

    I don’t know if this is the point of your post, but I will offer it anyway; I think too much religious education over simply being a human being that has a Creator is what causes any of us including Mr. Packer to confuse how simple the message of Christ crucified for sinners is. Education is fine and growing in the GRACE and knowledge of our Lord is commanded, but it should never change the simple foundation by where each us has entered into this most Holy Faith.

    And Henry, I do think demons believe the gospel, its just not good news for them and they are committed to lies to keep the unbelieving blinded to it.

  10. Denny,

    I think you are dead on. There is a good deal of category confusion when it comes to the gospel, and as much as Reformed guys (rightly) bash the evangelical-light minority, sometimes the Reformed folks are just as guilty. The gospel is not a positive decision or the acceptance of (even true)information, but we are always tempted to make it one or the other.

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