This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Western Magazine (article begins on page 17).
By Dr. Jeff Louie
When I went to seminary, the emphasis of the school I attended was on exegetical method and an understanding of the biblical text within the context of a particular passage or a given book. While I give thanks for my training, one area that was lacking was an integration of the gospel with what we learned.
When the gospel was discussed, it was tied in mostly with evangelism and not with other aspects of seminary training. While there may have been a broader understanding of the gospel, my perception of its role was that it just served as the initial gate for salvation. This shortcoming has left me with a great burden to make sure that the theological center of Christ and His work is fully integrated into my instruction methods.
THEMES OF THE GOSPEL
Often times, people speak of the gospel without describing it, leaving it vague. Other times, it is thought of as the concept one needs to believe in to have eternal life. In its fullest sense though, the gospel is anything but vague. And while it includes the important benefit of eternal life, to keep it only focused on the afterlife is too limiting.
From a developmental perspective, the gospel is based upon the foundation of the Old Testament, which emphasizes the historical journey and cyclical failure of Israel in addition to the covenantal hope and promise of deliverance for a failed people. But in the midst of the historical narrative lies a theological separation between God and man. This separation begins with the presence of death and develops into the growing revelation of the coming Day of the Lord, with its impending judgment upon the world.
From a personal response theme, the gospel is clearly by faith alone, through Christ alone, through grace alone. A transformational aspect follows based upon our regeneration, the indwelling Spirit, and our intentional desire to grow as we fellowship with the living God through our union with Christ.
A program perspective is seen in Christ’s teaching, a program that often revolves around the understanding of the Kingdom of God. Satan is decisively defeated at the cross and believers in Christ become citizens of a new Kingdom. There is a task (or program) that includes the expansion of the people of God to the nations of the world, in preparation for the return of our Lord.
Though there are many aspects to the gospel, the above themes are set in motion through the catalytic event of the cross and resurrection of the Son of God. This is critical. For at the heart of the gospel is what Jesus did, what He solely accomplished. This accomplishment begins and continues to empower all the above themes.
THE GOSPEL AND SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
When I first started teaching systematic theology at Western, I asked D.A. Carson how the gospel could be incorporated into this discipline. He did not give a direct answer, but made the observation that we teach too much systematic theology in seminary. The answer surprised me at the time, but I have since come to realize a shortcoming of systematic theology: this important discipline tends to take verses out of their natural biblical context and out of the redemptive narrative. As a result, the connection between the overarching story of the gospel is lost.
Over the years, I have adapted the primacy of the gospel into systematics by drawing the traditional categories of prolegomena, inspiration, theology proper, the Trinity, sin, man, Christ, soteriology, and sanctification into the redemptive narrative.
In teaching the attributes of God, I always explain them progressively through the biblical narrative of the Old Testament. This is important, as the Old Testament narrative not only reveals God, but also contains unresolved tension in His dealing with mankind. How does an omnipotent, righteous, just, holy, loving, and merciful God deal with the issue of sin that dominates the Old Testament, not only among the nations, but also among His own people? A gospel perspective of the attributes of God not only describes God, but paves the way for the redemptive work of Christ that will resolve the tension.
When discussing the Trinity, time is spent on showing the critical need of the concept of the Trinity in understanding the fuller ramifications of the gospel. Without the deity of Christ, how could an atonement for the fallen world be possible? Without Jesus being the Son of God whom the Father sacrifices, how can love ever be fully understood as the motivation behind the cross? Without the full deity of the Spirit that abides in the believer, how can we appreciate our giftedness, our intimacy with God, and our ongoing transformation within? The Trinity not only defines Christian orthodoxy, but it is important for a healthy understanding of the gospel.
ADDING AN OLD TESTAMENT SEQUENCE
In addition to teaching systematic theology, I also teach the Old Testament sequence. We survey each book, give dates and historical background, cover major problem passages, and give a brief summary – and I make sure that Christ is seen in each Old Testament book.
In the Pentateuch, canonical themes of creation, sin, the fall, grace, faith, righteousness, holiness, and sacrifices are covered. A covenantal understanding of the Pentateuch is important, as is the historical development of Israel. But by placing an emphasis on the limitation of the heroes (who can neither sustain their own integrity or pass on their passion to the next generation), and the general failing of Israel and the nations (who demonstrate the chronic deficiency in mankind), the major canonical themes that are foundational to the gospel and work of Christ present in the books of Moses are easily surfaced. It quickly becomes clear that a better deliverer was needed; for, if judgment were to come, who would survive?
Through the wisdom literature, the need for Christ is further demonstrated. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are tied together, yielding the conclusion that though wisdom is beneficial in this life, it does not resolve the dilemma of injustice or the afterlife. Job is presented as being an extremely righteous person (an unusual attribute), who is attacked by Satan to crush his faith, though not allowed to be killed. Though many personal lessons can be applied from Job, the reality is that Job foreshadows Christ, the completely righteous man, who will be attacked by Satan to the point of death.
The Prophets show the major prophetic passages fulfilled by Christ. There is also an awareness that many of the experiences of the individual prophets point to Christ: the suffering of Jeremiah, the “Son of Man” title of Ezekiel with his temple focus, and the odd Gentile journey of Jonah. The servant songs in Isaiah and the continual failure and the growing fear of worldwide judgment found in the Day of the Lord are also studied. The major pieces of the plan of God are present in the Old Testament, but there are a few critical pieces missing. If survival of the Day of the Lord involves righteousness, and the history of the Old Testament continually recycles the theme of human failure, who can survive the judgment of God? The stage is set for Christ to come as deliverer to reign, but before this can happen, Jesus, the Son of the living God, must atone and redeem.
IN THE CLASSROOM
In an elective course I teach, entitled “Preaching Gospel-Centered Transformation,” I make sure that the student knows that the gospel not only saves, but it is the basis of our ongoing spiritual growth. The gospel not only justifies, it sanctifies. To help students begin to practically incorporate a gospel-centered focus, I assign four sermonic outlines. Three of the four sermons must be from the Old Testament. This forces the student to make ties with canonical themes into the New Testament. Since the Old Testament is foundational, needing the coming and work of Christ to complete and fulfill, it would be amiss to preach the Old Testament as if its principles were complete within itself.
By refocusing traditional seminary education so that the centrality of the gospel can be seen throughout the Bible, it is my prayer and conviction that this path will equip students in a sound manner, allowing them to see Christ’s triumph and redemption throughout biblical revelation.
Jeff Louie is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary San Jose campus. His previous ministry roles include serving as Senior Pastor at Sunset Church and Associate Pastor at the Chinese Bible Church of Oak Park.