Good News! Really!
For a long time now, I have been perplexed by what is meant in Christian circles when we speak about the nature of the “good news” we have to share with the world. My questions began to emerge early in life. I remember attending a missionary conference when I was about twelve years old. A missionary reported of his experience of having brought the “good news” to a distant northern community. Many people accepted the good news of salvation and there was great rejoicing – until one of the new converts asked about his father who had passed away just before the missionary had arrived. “What about him,” he asked. “I am sure if you would have come before he died he would have accepted your message gladly. He was searching for a better way. Is he eternally lost because you came too late?” The missionary had sadly replied that that was the case. Good news had suddenly become bad news. Of course the redeeming part of this story was that all of us were motivated to contribute more to missions so this kind of scenario would not be repeated elsewhere. Even as a youngster I knew in my heart that a piece of the puzzle was missing somewhere.
Later in life I began to wonder how Christ and the early apostles could have been so confident about their proclamation of the “good news.” What I heard the church proclaiming was more of a “bad news, good news, bad news” combination. The bad news is that the whole world is damned. The good news is that there is a way of escape if one acts in time. The bad news is that most hearts are hardened and so most who hear will not act in time. And furthermore, those who never hear remain damned. Bad news, but that is how this thing-a-majig works.
In recent times I have been re-reading the Bible for further clarity around the subject of what the “good news” really is. With the help of some contemporary theologians like Thomas N. Finger and John E. Toews, I am making some amazing discoveries. Come with me for a minute to the biblical text used most frequently to support the “bad news, good news, bad news” way of understanding how salvation works – Romans 3:21-26. This text is used as the ultimate defense for the argument that nothing salvific actually happens until a person has faith to believe that Jesus died for him or her. Of course there are other passages to be considered with reference to the “good news” question, but I want to share an alternative reading of this text which I have discovered.
Through my new set of lenses I have come to understand how profound the good news actually is. As John E. Toews says in the Believers Church Commentary on Romans, “An alternative interpretation sees the thrust of the text as the revelation of God’s end-time righteousness, which is effected through the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus” (p. 100). First we should note that while the Hebrew word “tsedeg,” translated as “righteousness,” can be understood as a precise standard, most fundamentally it is a relational term. Thus human righteousness is not based on perfect adherence to a set of laws, but adherence to a relationship. For example, living by the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament is first and foremost an expression of a covenant relationship (Exodus 20:2). Secondly, the Hebrew word “aman,” translated as “faith” is also a relational term. Thomas Finger notes in Christian Theology, Volume II that, “aman means to consider something or someone as reliable, hence to entrust oneself or commit oneself to them (p. 178). Furthermore, he notes that this term is most often attributed to God in the sense that he is ultimately “faithful” in all he does.
With these understandings in mind, we can begin reading the text in question as follows: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe. As a matter of fact, the KJV uses the term by the faith of Jesus Christ, a more accurate reading than later translations falling in line with Protestant orthodoxy. Let’s get a little technical here along with Toews. “The preposition “through” is followed by the genitive form of “faith” which in turn is followed by “Messiah Jesus.” The genitive may be translated “faith in Jesus” (an objective genitive) or the “faith of Messiah Jesus” (a subjective genitive).” Toews goes on to suggest that the natural reading is the latter, as the KJV has it. “The object of the revelation is explained in a purpose clause, to all the ones believing.” To use the first reading, faith in Jesus, would create a repetition that is both unnatural and unnecessary.
Seen in this light, this whole passage is basically a vindication of God. Throughout the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul is answering the charge from Jewish believers that according to Paul’s message God could be charged with unfaithfulness. “Has God forgotten about his promises made to his chosen people, Israel? Is He going back on his promises and so proving to be unrighteous?” Paul is simply saying that God has demonstrated his righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Those who believe this find themselves caught up in a faithful response to this faithfulness of Jesus Christ. No, they are not made “perfect,” but they have begun to participate intentionally in the “already, but not yet” dynamics of God’s kingdom. With this new light we now go on to read Romans 5:1 as follows: Therefore, since we are justified by the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have peace with God.
All this to find the missing piece of the puzzle that actually makes the gospel “good news.” The good news is not so much that we have a chance to escape damnation through some mental gymnastics that most people in the world will not perform. The good news is that God has shown his righteousness by an act of faithfulness in sending Jesus to dwell among us and faithfully fulfill his mission. By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has defeated the powers of sin and opened the way for the will of God to be fully implemented in our lives and indeed in the whole world. Accepting this good news catches us up in this stream of God’s faithfulness that will be reflected in our own faithfulness to God.
If you say that I have not said anything different from what evangelicals have been saying for centuries, then you have not heard me. I see a beacon of light in this new understanding that is inviting me to change the direction of my little vessel. I wonder what I will see when I get a little closer to that beacon of light?