WHAT IS THE GOOD NEWS?
It would seem most appropriate to look for an answer to this question in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If we were able to ask one of them in person, he could well reply, “Why don’t you read my book?”
No one, however, was more confident that he knew the true contents of the Good News than the apostle Paul. He made it an emphatic point to tell his readers that the gospel he was teaching was not something he had learned from Peter, James, or John—or any other of the Christian leaders. “The gospel I preach is not of human origin,” he affirmed. “I did not receive it from any man, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me” (Galatians 1:11, 12, GNT).
On one occasion, when his version of the gospel was being seriously challenged, Paul was moved to make this extraordinary claim:
“If anyone, if we ourselves or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel at variance with the gospel we preached to you, he shall be held outcast. I now repeat what I have said before; if anyone preaches a gospel at variance with the gospel which you received, let him be outcast!” (Galatians 1:8, 9, NEB).
If the apostle’s language should seem too strong, the New English Bible translation of the Greek anathema esto (“let him be outcast!”) is mild compared with the Phillips (“may he be…a damned soul!”) or the Good News Translation (“may he be condemned to hell!”) or The Living Bible (“let God’s curse fall upon him”) or the King James Version (“let him be accursed”).
To say the least, Paul was profoundly convinced of the rightness of his version of the Good News and of the dire consequences of perverting the truth and turning to a different gospel. In his letter to the Romans he describes some of these disastrous consequences in considerable detail (see Romans 1:18–32).
Paul was stunned to observe the willingness of so many early Christians, recently set free by the Good News from the meaningless requirements of false religion, to return to the indignity and fear of their former bondage.
“I am astonished,” he wrote to the Galatians, “to find you turning so quickly away… and following a different gospel. Not that it is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6, 7, NEB).
“O you dear idiots of Galatia,…” Paul went on, “who has been casting a spell over you?” “At one time when you had no knowledge of God, you were under the authority of gods who had no real existence. But now that you have come to know God,… how can you revert to the weakness and poverty of such principles and consent to be under their power all over again? Your religion is beginning to be a matter of observing certain
days and months and seasons and years. You make me wonder if all my efforts over you have been wasted!” (Galatians 3:1; 4:8–11, Phillips).
But what could be expected of new converts when some of the leading Christians in Jerusalem were themselves compromising and contradicting the gospel of Christ? (See Acts 21:18–26.) Even Peter, in spite of his broadening experience with Cornelius, had reverted to some of his former narrow views, and Paul was moved to denounce him to his face and in public (Galatians 2:11–14).
This is the Paul who taught that love is never rude and that love never insists on having its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5). This is the Paul who was so respectful of the freedom of others that he could say of certain religious practices, “Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind” and “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” (see Romans 14:1–10).
But when it came to the Good News and to those who would suppress or pervert it, Paul spoke out with almost frightening conviction and power. He even went so far as to suggest that the legalistic agitators who were upsetting the new converts by urging such external requirements as circumcision “had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (Galatians 5:12, NEB).
What is this Good News about which Paul felt so sure and which through the centuries has provoked such opposition and been so misunderstood? And what did Paul consider so serious a contradiction and perversion of the Good News that he could be moved to express himself so strongly to the Galatian believers?
I have asked many Christians to state what they understand to be the essence of the Good News. The varied replies have included much of the content of the Christian faith, from grace and the Atonement to the Second Coming and eternal life.
But one reply that I believe comes especially close to the heart of the matter is this: The Good News is that God is not the kind of person Satan has made him out to be.
That the Good News should be related to the issues in the great controversy between Christ and Satan is perhaps suggested by Paul’s bold assertion that if even an angel from heaven dared to teach a different gospel, he should be held outcast. At first this seems incredibly presumptuous and dogmatic. But was it not an angel who began the circulation of misinformation about God and who still masquerades “as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) as he seeks to deceive men into rejecting the Good News?
Since the great controversy began, it has been Satan’s studied purpose to persuade angels and men that God is not worthy of their faith and love. He has pictured the Creator as a harsh, demanding tyrant who lays arbitrary requirements upon his people just to show his authority and test their willingness to obey. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible tells of Satan’s unceasing efforts to pervert the truth and blacken the character of God.
But if God were as Satan has pictured him, how easily he could have blotted out his rebellious creatures and started over again! If all God wanted was unthinking obedience, how easily he could have manipulated the minds of men and angels and forced them to obey!
But love and trust, the qualities God desires the most, are not produced by force—not even by God himself.
That is why, instead of destroying or resorting to force, God simply took his case into court. In order to prove the rightness of his cause, to demonstrate that his way of governing the universe was the best for all concerned, God humbly submitted his own character to the investigation and judgment of his creatures.
Paul understood this when he exclaimed, “God must prove true, though every man be false; as the Scripture says, ‘That you may be shown to be upright in what you say, and win your case when you go into court’” (Romans 3:4, Goodspeed).
The Good News is that God has won his case. Though all of us should let him down, God cannot lose his case. He has already won! The universe has conceded that the evidence is on his side, that the devil has lied in his charges against God.
“It is finished,” Jesus cried (John 19:30). By the life that he lived and the unique and awful way he died, Jesus has demonstrated the righteousness of his Father and answered any question about God’s character and government (see Romans 3:25, 26).
Paul was proud to be a bearer of this Good News, and he knew what it was all about—“in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Romans 1:16, 17).
He confessed with shame that formerly he had seriously misrepresented God, even sharing Satan’s picture of God to the extent of imprisoning and persecuting men and women in order to force them to obey (see Acts 8:3; 9:1, 2; Galatians 1:13).
But after he had accepted the Good News, Paul devoted the rest of his life to telling the truth. And who has written more eloquently about freedom, love, and grace—that faith is the only requirement for heaven, that we are not under law but under grace, and that Christ is the end of legalism as a way of being saved?
“Of course, don’t misunderstand me,” Paul seems to be saying in Romans. “Does faith abolish law? Perish the thought! Faith establishes law—by putting it in proper perspective” (see Romans 3:31). For, adopting Paul’s understanding of faith, the man who really knows, loves, trusts, and admires God for his wise and orderly ways is most willing to listen and give heed to God’s instructions on any subject.
“Let me tell you,” continued Paul, “why our gracious Lord, who wants us to feel the joy and dignity of freedom, made so much use of law.”
“Why then the law?” he wrote to the Galatians. “It was added because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). It was designed to be our guardian, our protector, to bring us back to a right relationship with God. Correctly understood, God’s laws are no threat to our freedom. They were given solely for our best good; they all make good sense and deserve to be intelligently obeyed.
But as for those meaningless traditions that have nothing to do with the purposes of God, away with them! As Paul wrote to the Colossians: “Why… do you take the slightest notice of these purely human prohibitions— ‘Don’t touch this,’ ‘Don’t taste that,’ and ‘Don’t handle the other’? ‘This,’ ‘that,’ and ‘the other’ will all pass away after use! I know that these regulations look wise with their self-inspired efforts at piety, their policy of self-humbling, and their studied neglect of the body. But in actual practice they are of no moral value, but simply pamper the flesh” (Colossians 2:20–23, Phillips).
Worse than that, taught and obeyed in the name of Christianity, they present the Christian’s God as the arbitrary deity Satan has claimed him to be—and that is not good news.
What is it today that we Christians are trying to say about our God? Is it the truth? Is it really good news? Are we using the best ways of saying it? In spite of our best efforts, what are people actually hearing? Are there perhaps better ways to say it?
I believe that these are the most important questions facing us Christians today—for our own salvation and in order to fulfill our mission to the world. History warns that there is no justification for an easy confidence. There is a certain elusiveness about the Good News. It is not something that can be summarily stated and hammered home.
It was difficult even for God to explain the subtle though vital differences between the truth and Satan’s charges. Even for him it was more effective to demonstrate the Good News than to explain it! This is why the Bible is so largely a history of God’s handling of rebellion and his firm but gracious treatment of those who have been caught up in its destructive consequences.
It cost heaven an infinite price to bring us the Good News and confirm it with evidence that would stand for eternity. No wonder Paul was moved to speak so strongly in its defense. Just like the loyal angels, Paul was jealous for the character of God. To him it was unthinkable that some of his fellow ministers would, in effect, lend their support to Satan’s charges by attributing even the slightest trace of arbitrariness to our gracious God.
It was this same perversion of the Good News that stirred Jesus most deeply. He was gentle with the worst of sinners—with Simon in his dastardly treatment of the woman who anointed Christ’s feet; with the woman taken in adultery; even with his betrayer, Judas. But when some of the religious leaders, respected teachers of the people, denied the Good News and echoed Satan’s lies about God, Christ uttered those awful words, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44).
There was no disagreement between Jesus and those teachers as to the existence of God, or the story of Creation, or the authority of the Ten Commandments, or which day was the Sabbath. Their disagreement was about the character of God. Jesus came to bring them the Good News, a picture of God that would enable them to go on doing many of the same things but for a different reason—a reason that would make it possible for them to be obedient and free at the same time. But they killed him rather than change their view of God—then hastened home to keep another Sabbath.
There is nothing more diabolic than to suppress and pervert the Good News about God. And this can be done even while apparently presenting Christian doctrine. As God is represented in some pulpits, the doctrine of the Second Coming is certainly not good news. The prospect of spending eternity with such a deity would be forbidding.
There are explanations of the death of Christ and of his intercession in our behalf that put God in a most unfavorable light, less gracious and understanding than his Son. Such subjects as sin, the law, the destruction of the wicked, the requirements for salvation, are sometimes presented in such a way—including the voice and manner of the preacher—as to leave the people with precisely the picture of God that Satan has been urging.
As followers of Christ, it is our desire to be counted among God’s loyal people, described in Revelation as obedient to his commandments and faithful to the truth revealed by Jesus.
But if in our eagerness to obey we may have left the impression that we worship a legalistic and arbitrary God, then we have not witnessed well to the Good News. And if by our teaching or our way of life we may have led some to think of God as the kind of person Satan has made him out to be, we have not shown ourselves to be trustworthy friends, either of them or of God.
There could be no greater privilege and honor than to be entrusted with the Good News about God. Surely the time has come that God’s friends everywhere who share something of Paul’s jealousy for God’s reputation should speak up with more of Paul’s pride and conviction as to what we believe the Good News really is.