The Whole Counsel of God: What is the Gospel?

Introduction

In Acts 20 Paul calls together the elders of the church in Ephesus and has them meet him in Miletus. Among his closing remarks is this statement: “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27 NASB). Many have argued that Paul is offering a defense of his ministry in Ephesus; however, when understood within its context this is Paul’s way of handing the Ephesian elders the proverbial torch. He has fulfilled his ministry to them and now the burden rests on their shoulders.

Just three verses earlier Paul tells them, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24 NASB). At this point one must ask if there is any connection between the “gospel of the grace of God” which Paul mentions here and the “whole purpose of God” which Paul mentions three verses later.

If the ministry which Paul received from the Lord Jesus was “to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” and if, when noting the fulfillment of that ministry he notes his declaration of “the whole purpose of God” then the “gospel of the grace of God” must be included in, or be synonymous with, “the whole purpose of God.” Before drawing any conclusions, however, it would be important to examine the phrase “the whole purpose of God.”

First is the word “whole” (pasan/πᾶσαν), which emphasizes the total content of something. Second, is the word “purpose” (boulen/βουλὴν), which can be translated plan or purpose it can also be translated counsel. However, these terms do not connote counsel, as you would usually use it, namely the giving of advice or guidance. Instead, this particular word describes the resolute decision of a communal deliberation, the decision made by a council, namely the Triune God. It is as this point when the meaning of this text unfolds as it gives the sense of Paul declaring the plan of the God. Finally then, it can be concluded that Paul did not merely give them advice from God, but that he literally declared the totality of God’s plan. What then, is this plan if not the Gospel?

Beginning with the understanding that the Gospel is the message which declares the totality of God’s plan, I will now briefly outline the Gospel within this framework. As a cursory side note, the Greek word for Gospel (evangelion/εὐαγγέλιον) can be simply translated good news, and indeed all of God’s plans are good, the totality of God’s plans being the supremely good, therefore the message of the totality of the Triune God’s plan must be the greatest of all good news.

Eternity Past: Why are we here?

First, God is the Gospel. The Gospel is His plan, carried out by His power, and purposed for His glory. It only makes sense to begin here; beginning at this point reflects your theology. If man is more important in salvation, then you begin with man and his problem. If God is most important, then you will begin with Him and His purpose. Furthermore, explaining the Gospel apart from defining God is self-defeating. Man’s sin makes sense only against the backdrop of God’s holiness. Creation makes sense only against the backdrop of the Creator. Salvation makes sense only against the backdrop of God’s mercy, graciousness, and love.
We must begin by explaining the attributes and the inter-Trinitarian relationship of God, namely their infinitely perfect love, community, communication, and enjoyment [1]. Establishing who God is establishes the purpose of creation, namely, the glory of God. Within postmodernism there is ultimately no universal purpose or no universal good. That God exists and that man actually has a purpose, and that that purpose is the greatest of all good, the glory of God, is certainly good news.

Creation: How did we get here?

Secondly we must further explain God’s purpose of creation (His glory), man’s distinct position in creation, and man’s intrinsic value as the image-bearer of God. Furthermore, the intrinsic goodness of human nature must be explained; failure to do so results in individuals discounting sin as merely an aspect of human nature. Sin is an aspect of man’s sinful nature acquired at the fall.

Fall: What went wrong?

Third, and building on the last point, it now becomes clear that man is something less than fully human; man is not as he should be. He is no longer a suitable image bearer of God; he carries a distorted image and cannot glorify God, as he should, thus man is unable to fulfill his purpose.

Redemption: Can it be Fixed?

Fourth and most complexly is redemption. I hope that everyone understands the basic concept here so I will mention some of the more complex issues. Sadly, most modern Christians are under the opinion that Christian history begins at the church. This however is not the case; Christ must be understood as Israel’s Messiah, the savior of the covenant people of God. Moreover, the church must be explained as that which has been grafted into Israel so that we are now partakers in the covenants of promise, covenants originally made with Israel. This may not seem very important; however God’s expansion of the covenants to include a previously uncovenanted people depends on our understanding of God’s grace. Understanding the superiority of the new covenant also deepens our understanding of God’s grace, and understanding God’s role in the history of Israel deepens our understanding of God’s providence.

Completion: What is our goal?

Finally is eschatology. The greatest news of the Gospel is that God will eventually finish what He started. What He has purposed He will ultimately bring to pass and one day we will once again enjoy a perfect relationship with Him. For many Christians their greatest joy is in absolution, the forgiveness of their sins, this; however, is not the ultimate aim of the cross. The ultimate aim of the cross is reconciliation, to the glory of God. The removal of sins is a means to an end, that end being reunion with God. This perfect relationship with God takes us back to the complete restoration of what creation was purposed towards. Sadly, many people have misunderstood heaven, and thus their man-centered heaven has led them to a man-centered perspective on life. We must restore a God-centered understanding of heaven, as the perpetual enjoyment of and rejoicing of God. Eschatology may not seem that encouraging to you, however a cursory review of the New Testament will reveal that this is a consistent source of encouragement throughout the ages.

Concluding Thoughts

In retrospect, the Gospel is the message concerning the historical events in which God created man, purposing him for His glory, in which God’s Son satisfies His Father’s wrath by His substitutionary and propitiatory death on the cross. The Son’s righteousness is imputed to sinful man, the Holy Spirit sanctifies particular individuals by conforming them to Christ likeness, and ultimately God will punish the sins of all men. God will bring those particular individuals, for whom Christ died, to whom His righteousness was imputed, and in whom the Holy Spirit abides, into a perfect and joyous relationship with Himself, for His glory.

For those of you wishing to see this concept in a more developed framework please visit Ignite USC: Biblical Worldview. Finishing this is my goal for the summer and it will, in all likelihood, be made available for download via PDF for those of you who might be interested. I look forward to reading your comments and partaking in much charitable discussion with you all.

Ultimately this is just a bare outline for sharing the Gospel, and you will need to fill in the categories with scripture and explain it in a way that fits your given context. Now you, like Paul, can say, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”

[1] Jonathan Edwards describes the inter-Trinitarian relationship as follows: “God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself . . . and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself, as it were . . . in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act . . ., which is the Divine love, complacence and joy.” Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace: And Other Posthumously Published Writings (Cambridge and London: James Clarke and Co. LTD., 1971), 99.

Addendum One (2007-3-28)

My main concern here is the five general categories in which the Gospel is divided (Eternity Past, Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Completion). The material explaining these five categories is simply an explanation of my thoughts and a justification for the divisions. I am not only concerned with the content of the message but the means by which it is shared. Most of the Gospel presentations which I have seen are in an interrogation/inquisition format; however, this is not what you find in Scripture, what you find in Scripture is individuals proclaiming/explaining the Gospel to others. More often than not, Christ is the one being interrogated and he shares the Gospel in the context of that interrogation, and not vice versa. The Gospel must be presented within the context of a conversation, not where truth is placed on equal ground with error, but where the Gospel is explained to individuals by giving honest answers to their questions. Furthermore, in asking these questions to others you will ultimately understand their entire worldview, the presuppositions with which they are entering this conversation, understanding this allows you to explain a proper understanding of the world, namely the Gospel.

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5 thoughts on “The Whole Counsel of God: What is the Gospel?

  1. I recant part of that statment. Incredulous should be credulous because incredulous means lacking belief, which would be a misnomer.

  2. Keith,

    When we were at the collegiate conference at Southern a few months ago, Dr. Mohler said that in addition to the critical themes you listed, sex (and all that goes with it) should be added. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I thought I would throw it out there.

  3. Tim, Is your monitor at 1024×768 or bigger? if it is smaller than that it will show up funny. I need to redo it with floating margins rather than fixed ones that way it will show up on all monitors.

    Can-Man
    That would be covered under creation, namely what it means to be fully human. I like what Mohler said on Larry King once that we need to express that our aim is not sexual restriction but the best that God has for man, and that is found a monogamous wedded relationship.

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