God's Holy Word is much simpler than we generally suppose and allow it to be in our expositions. In fact, we ourselves manufacture most of the problems and puzzles we find in it. One might think that in view of our mortality, of the intense effort it costs us to make any progress at all in knowledge and understanding and insight, we would all seek simplicity with single-minded enthusiasm, if only to save ourselves unnecessary work. No doubt we would, if we could; but it is actually our weakness that hinders us from sweeping away all lumber from our minds. When my house was burnt down over three years ago, I was astonished at the work and expense involved in clearing away the mess and preparing new foundations before any fresh start could be made.
That weakness is, I think, the main cause of confusion, and it takes several forms. There is the muddled thinker, who just lacks strength of mind to train himself to think clearly. He is perhaps the greatest nuisance of all, for he confuses the issues for everyone else just as a pailful of muddy water will cloud a stream for a long distance. Then there is the traditionalist, who cannot shake his mind free from the idol traditions he has inherited from others. He, too, is a serious nuisance, for almost invariably he is pugnacious in the defence of his idols and often he is as well vindictive towards those who have received more light than he has. Then there is the kind of person who seeks simplicity by clinging to a few favourite passages of Scripture and ignoring everything else. Anything like thoroughness is abhorrent to him. Then there is the man for whom nothing in Scripture may be permitted to mean what it says. He is both a ludicrous and a pathetic object, but often one can at least ignore his follies and pass him by in silence. Lastly there is the pedant, who loves to embroider, to systematize and to codify everything, even before he is able to distinguish between what is fact and what is fable.
All these types make their appearance whenever anyone comes to examine the question: "What is the Evangel? "
The muddler may perceive that the Greek Scriptures speak of several evangels, those for instance of the Kingdom, of the grace of God, of the uncircumcision, of the circumcision and the eonian evangel; in which case he may either mix them up, separate them under dispensational labels, or, if he is a simplicity-seeker as well, allege that they all mean the same thing, even though Scripture has given them different names. The traditionalist will point out that the words "gospel" and "evangel" mean the same thing, and he will point to the four Gospels as "the Gospel" and ignore every reference to the Evangel elsewhere except as if it referred to the Gospels. The pedant will work out elaborate "dispensational" details in an endeavour to fit each "evangel" into a "dispensation" of its own. The more of the facts his system covers, the more complex it becomes; but as he can never manage to fit in all the facts he never attains his goal, but merely reaches such a pitch of complexity that no mind, not even his own, can view his system whole and entire. It then becomes the central tenet of a sect.
This was pretty much what happened with the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory, only it added to the complexity by including other matters besides the evangels. The whole affair became a veritable labyrinth of ideas, so the problem of destroying it became very complex too. It was rather similar to the old-fashioned type of fort with embrasures all round connected by a maze of corridors. Such a fort gives an illusion of security to its defenders; but, as with the ill fated Maginot Line, it was of little eventual avail against determined attack. The theory broke down under effective and persistent criticism.
Yet in one respect it still retains victory of a sort. It has confused all our thinking that, even now, we are all apt to take an unbalanced and over-complex view of matters associated with it. For instance, it was recently suggested that we should undertake the task of explaining the Prison epistles. That sort of request is unhelpful unless accompanied some statement of the matters to be explained. I admit that the activities of the extreme dispensationalists have carried over some confusion into the Prison Epistles; but I think that once we clear up all the errors of this type that rust Paul's earlier epistles there will be little left to explain the Prison Epistles, so far as this aspect of them is concerned.
The matter of the evangels affords a striking instance of, residue of confusion. In clearing up, it has proved extraordinary difficult to write about them without conveying an unbalanced idea. This has been brought home to me recently in writing about the Evangel as it exists at present. I said, for instance, that no person who does not come into the evangel, at the very start, as one of the Gentiles, can have any part or lot in the Secret of Eph. 3:6-12 (Vol. 21; p. 130). It is true, but it does not mean that, some day, the Evangel will not become "of the circumcision." Again, in the August, 1959, issue (Vol. 21; p. 167) I wrote: "All that is true in 'dispensational truth' centres round a clear understanding of various evangels. Once we clearly grasp that the evangel at present is of the uncircumcision (akrobustia) and that after we are caught away the evangel is to be of the circumcision (peritome), we hold the key to complete understanding of everything in Scripture which is commonly described as 'dispensational.' But I had just said, less than a page before, that "the bare essential of saving faith on Him now is different to what it was" during Peter's ministry. "The differences are in what accompany that faith." It is in those differences that the form of the Evangel will in days to come differ from what it is now.
I had written about various aspects of this matter a number of times, for example, Vol. 16, pp. 221, 224, 225 ; Vol. 17, pp. 54, 219, 220; Vol. 19, pp. 33, 72; Vol. 20, pp. 72-74; yet I have never thought, or knowingly attempted to teach, that, basically, there is more than one Evangel. As far back as our December, 1956, issue (Vol. 15, No.6, p. 272) I wrote: "If it be true that God will, some day, begin to bring His Covenant People to a state where He can conclude the New Covenant with them; it is inevitable that God's Evangel shall be so proclaimed to them as to lead up to this end. If it is not then 'the Evangel of the circumcision,' what will it be indeed, what can it be? To deny that the Evangel will, some day, be, 'of the circumcision' is to deny that God's graces and calling are not subject to change of mind (Rom. 11:29). ... The point is that, some day, covenant is to take the place of reigning grace; the Evangel will be characterized by covenant instead of freedom from covenant, and Israel, the Covenant People, will once again hold the centre of the stage."
I have written in a similar strain elsewhere also, yet nevertheless some doubt still exists in the minds of some of my readers.
So I would like to set out once more the conclusions I have come to about this important matter.
In the passages quoted I was insisting that the Evangel is, at present, of the uncircumcision; and that after we have been snatched away the Evangel will be of the circumcision. Yet I was careful to speak of "the Evangel" and even to say sometimes that I was referring to God's Evangel.
The Evangel is God's Evangel. It is now, it will be then. Basically it is, as the Apostle Paul declares plainly at the start of Romans "concerning His Son, Who comes out of David's seed according to flesh; Who is being designated Son of God in power, according to spirit, of holiness out of resurrection of dead ones, Jesus Christ our Lord, through Whom we obtained grace and apostleship unto obedience of faith among all the Gentiles."
This places it beyond dispute. In what is according to flesh it is anchored to David's seed and thus to Israel's promises and standing. In what is according to spirit it covers all God's plans for all God's people. Nor is this a mere deduction from the words quoted above; for Paul goes on to say (Rom. 1:16) that the Evangel "is God's power unto salvation to everyone who is believing: both to Jew, first, and to Greek; for God's righteousness is revealing in it out of faith unto faith according as has been written 'Now the righteous by faith will be getting him life.'"
A concordant study of the expression kata sarka, according to flesh will be found in our Vol. 19 (1957), pp. 37-39. It occurs 21 times in Paul's Epistles. By contrast, kata pneuma, according to spirit occurs only five times, in Rom. 1:4 already noted, Rom. 8:1, 4, 5; Gal. 4:29. In 1. Cor. 12:8 it is kata to auto pneuma, according to the same spirit. As examination of these passages will clearly show, the paucity of occurrences of this expression actually underlines its importance.
After his opening statement in Romans Paul goes on to develop his theme, proving first that all are under sin, whether Jews or Greeks; and then that what is ultimately relevant to, salvation is not such distinctions as these but faith apart from works (3:20). In v. 28 it is mankind that is in view; in 29 he insists that God is the God of Gentiles as well as of Jews; and then he goes on to one of the key statements of the Evangel, v. 30, terribly distorted in most versions. Yet here are shown the Evangel in the two aspects it assumes from the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus onwards. God "will be making circumcision righteous out of faith and uncircumcision (righteous) through the faith." This theme is developed throughout Romans 4.
None of the foregoing statement is novel. I went into the matter at great length in our Volumes 16 and 17; but I have to confess that, more recently, I have been forced to defend the thesis that the Evangel as proclaimed by Paul is "of the uncircumcision," and apparently some readers have got the impression that it is something altogether different from the evangel of the circumcision yet to be proclaimed. So I would like to repeat what I wrote in Vol. 16 (October, 1954), p. 225 :
"It is of the essence of Paul's Evangel that it is a temporary phase of God's earthly purposes. Throughout, it proclaims that Israel's privileges and expectations are in abeyance; but, throughout, it makes perfectly plain that they are no worse than this, that the day will come when they will exist again and be triumphantly vindicated and fulfilled. There is hardly any greater heresy than daring to write 'Finis' to the literal fulfilment of Hebrew Prophecy. ... The Evangel of God has two aspects, one relating to Paul's Evangel now in force, the other to the proclamation of the covenant aspect of the Evangel after the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-18."
And on p. 221 I wrote that Acts 13:38, 39 "sums-up Paul's evangel as set out in Romans and re-stated, in the face of apostasy from it, in Galatians." Later, in Vol. 17, p. 278, I summed-up Paul's Evangel and pointed out that righteousness achieved by faith and by nothing else whatsoever and that accompanying circumstances under which righteousness is achieved are governed solely by whether it is to be soughtwithin the limits imposed by covenant and its sign circumcision, or whether it is to be sought altogether apart from covenant, that is in uncircumcision.
Now to sum-up, finally I hope: Basically, in essence, there is only one Evangel—God's Evangel. But God's Evangel has to be proclaimed to mankind, so the form it takes at any particular moment of time is determined by the state of mankind at that time. At present, it has to be proclaimed in uncircumcision, so the form it takes is Paul's Evangel, the Evangel of the uncircumcision. This modifies it so that it is applicable to Gentiles only (including any Jew who, like Paul, has surrendered his Jewish standing) and is free from the limitations imposed by covenant. But present conditions are not permanent. When 1. Thess. 4:13-17 has been fulfilled, the circumcision will come into being again; and it will modify the Evangel so that it becomes applicable only within the limitations of covenant to the Covenant People Israel, and to Gentiles only as and when they seek to approach God through Israel and by obedience to the Law. Righteousness will still be by faith alone and independent in itself of law-works; but approach to God will nevertheless be (as it once was) through law-works; and the sermons in Acts will again be fully applicable to all.
The Evangel of the Kingdom is that aspect of God's Evangel that deals with the Kingdom. It merges into the main aspects according to circumstances. Other aspects must be regarded in their contexts. Even the Eonian Evangel (Rev. 14:6) is based on faith, for no man without faith can truly fear God or worship Him. It is the Evangel reduced to the most primitive elements: worship of God as Judge and as Creator.
God's Evangel is one entity. We have already seen that the Apostle Paul says that it is "concerning His Son." When he restates it briefly in 1. Cor. 15:3-7 as preliminary to his explanation of the resurrection; he bases it firmly on the death, entombment and raising of Christ according to the Scriptures. There is no other basis for it nor for any real evangel in the sense Scripture uses the word. Paul's Evangel is "Pauline," peculiar to Paul, only in the sense that it is God's Evangel as it appears when covenant and circumcision are not in operation and, indeed, not even in existence. It is the circumstance that God's Evangel is, at present, operating in conditions absolutely incompatible with covenant that causes it to take the form denoted by the expression "the evangel of the uncircumcision," which is especially associated with Paul who was Gentiles' apostle (Rom. 11:13). So, when covenant and circumcision resume their proper place on earth, God's Evangel will have to operate with circumcision in force, that is, in conditions determined by covenant. Under these conditions, there could be no "Gentiles' apostle," for gentiles will (as in the past) have to approach God through His covenant People, or not at all. God's Evangel will be "of the circumcision." It will still be "concerning His Son" but under it the uncircumcision will have no place; so the special aspects of it that enabled Paul to call it "my Evangel" will no longer be operative on earth. When, therefore, we read Gal. 2:6-10 we must not think of any clash of evangels. Instead, there is calm recognition of two mutually exclusive spheres of service of God concerning which there was not, and needed not be, any ground for quarrel.
Finally, it should be made clear that this distinction does not concern the ultimate matters when the eons have run their course. Precisely how things will turn out when that hour approaches will doubtless be explained then. We have enough to do to attend to the present time and the immediate future thereafter.
All this leads up to further consideration of the question: What is the Church? This aspect of the matter calls for fuller consideration than it has yet had, so I hope to take it in a further article. R.B.W.