The Gospel-Centered Way Paul Starts All of His Letters

You hear a lot about the “functional centrality of the gospel” these days. The idea that the gospel ought to be central in how we function has people has given rise to organizations, conferences, books, blogs, and even rap CD’s (not that anyone buys CD’s anymore).

But is this really biblical?

I like it. It fits into my Reformed theological framework. It preaches well.

But is the functional centrality of the gospel biblical?

It is. And more than that, for Paul, it’s primary.

Each of Paul’s letters 1) contain an early appearance of the word “gospel,” (rarely just the idea of it), and 2) what Paul says about the gospel at the beginning drops hints as to how he will apply it throughout the letter.

The functional centrality of the gospel in Paul

Romans: Paul states that he is “set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1) and “eager to preach the gospel” to the church at Rome (1:15). Why? Because of its power for salvation to everyone who believes (1:16).

The entire letter explains the righteousness and salvation that the powerful gospel produces.

1 Corinthians: In 1:17 Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.”

He proceeds to ground how to live with the power of the cross throughout the letter: fleeing sexual immorality (5:7b), not causing others to stumble (8:11), not committing idolatry (10:16-17). Finally, Paul wraps up his letter on the topic of the resurrection, which is the corollary to the cross (ch. 15).

2 Corinthians: Though the term “gospel” is not present early in this letter, its functional centrality is in 1:5, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” A few verses later, Paul writes, “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you…was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes” (1:19).

These statements tee up Paul’s defense of his apostleship over against the “super apostles” and emphasize the suffering that accompanies the true gospel ministry.

Galatians: After providing a brief summary of the gospel in 1:1-5, Paul confronts the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6).

The rest of the letter calls the Galatians back to the true gospel of justification by faith alone and away from the deficient gospel of faith plus food laws and circumcision.

Ephesians: In 1:1-14, Paul outlines the Trinitarian Gospel: the Father adopts, the Son redeems, and the Spirit seals.  “When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him” (1:13).

How does the gospel ground the rest of the letter? The gospel as “the word of truth” appears in each of the “therefore walk” sections: walking in unity (4:1-16, esp. 11, 14-15), not walking as Gentiles (4:21, 25), walking in love (5:6), walking in wisdom (4:18, “filled with the Spirit,” – see 1:17, 3:5; 6:17; cf. Col. 3:16-17), and standing firm against the devil’s schemes (6:17). How we walk as believers is centered on the gospel we have believed.

Philippians: Though he is in prison, Paul is filled “with joy because of [the Philippians’] partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:4b-5).

This theme of the partnership of joyfully suffering for the gospel emerges throughout the letter (1:18, 27-30; 2:25-27; 3:10-11; 4:13-15), and Jesus is the model for suffering for the gospel (2:5-11).

Colossians: Paul thanks God that the word of truth, the gospel, has come to them and is bearing fruit in the whole world, and even them, “since the day [they] heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (1:5-6).

Paul connects the dots of hearing the gospel to understanding it in order to counter the claim that wisdom comes from “promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” (2:23). Rather, wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ (1:28; 2:3), which is central to how we become wise (3:2, 10, 16).

1 Thessalonians: In this letter, Paul’s focus shifts from the content of the gospel to the ministry of it. “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5).

The functional centrality of the gospel is evident in this letter in 4:1, where Paul transitions to practical matters. Yet, the practical stuff is not “moving beyond” the gospel, but “doing more and more” that which they “received” from Paul. Living out the gospel means diving deeper into it, not graduating from it.

2 Thessalonians: Paul assures the Thessalonians, who are targeted by persecutors and false teachers, that “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (1:8-9).

The Thessalonians, on the other hand, have been called through this gospel (2:14), the very implication of which is to stand firm in it against the persecutors and false teachers (2:15).

1 Timothy: In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul is most concerned with maintaing true doctrine. This relates to the functional centrality to the gospel because false gospels lead to false living. Paul exhorts Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1:3), and to demonstrate what is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1:11).

Everything else in the letter flows from the charge to saturate the Ephesian church with the truth that is in accordance with the gospel, whether in regard to teachers (2:12-13; 3:2, 15), piety (4:3, 7), or an appropriate view of wealth (6:5).

2 Timothy: Paul tells a battle-wearied Timothy to keep fighting false teaching and “to share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (1:8) and to “guard the good deposit entrusted to” him (1:14).

Consequently, Paul challenges Timothy to guard the good deposit by preaching the truth (2:15; 4:1-5) even though doing so will cause him to suffer (3:10-12; 4:6, 18).

Titus: Though this is the only one of Paul’s letters where the word “gospel” is does not appear, Paul’s first words provide a brief summary of it (1:1-2) and indicate his calling to preach it (1:3).

Paul’s statement, “their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (1:1) is the key to the functional centrality of the gospel in Titus. Paul’s main point in this letter is that truth believed (1:9; 2:1), must translate into truth lived through godliness and good works (1:16; 2:10, 14; 3:1, 8, 14).

Philemon: Paul, writing in the midst of “imprisonment for the gospel” (v. 13), appeals to Philemon to reconcile with his newly converted slave, Onesimus.

How will this reconciliation take place? Paul provides an example of gospel-centered living when he puts himself forth as a “substitute” to “atone” for Onesimus’ offense, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 18). Paul does this for Onesimus because Jesus has done this for him.

The gospel-centrality is not a fad

Someday this phrase will become cliche (has it already?). Someday people will get bored with it. When that day comes, rather than looking for the “next thing,” figure out a new way to communicate it. Until then, get the word out. Ground it in Scripture, not conferences, organizations, or authors. Make the functional centrality of the gospel essential to how you live.

In other words, keep it primary. After all, it was for Paul.

Comments

  1. Excellent post, Eric. It’s so easy to take something like this for granted when we hear it and it resonates with us. Well done in showing its primacy in Paul, even from just the opening of his letters.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Thanks, Brandon! I think the opening of his letters is the real key. Paul leads with the gospel because that is the center. It also shows how Paul was an expert at applying the gospel to any situation the church faced.

  2. Thanks for posting. I found this very helpful. I also posted about this exact same subject today on my blog.

    Casey Lewis

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Casey, thanks for linking to me in your post. You especially nailed the functional centrality of the gospel with this sentence in your article: “When we see that “Gospel Conduct” stems from the gospel itself, we begin to understand the power for change does not simply lie in our own power.”

      I’m glad this post helped you!

      • Thanks Eric and thanks for the encouragement as well. Keep up the good work. I have especially liked your posts on preaching. I have been implementing some of the things you have wrote about in my own sermons.
        Thanks again,
        Casey

  3. Antero D. Fontes says:

    Hi Eric, I am 39 years old and I lived in Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean near to Senegal in Africa continent. I have appreciated your blog and I will use the resources and acknowledge you. I am postoring for ten years in the Church of the Nazarene here. I am graduating in Bth at NTC south Africa. I would like to have your held. I am originally a french speaker and I have to make my Bth Thesis in English. The aim of my work turn around the “impact of the church board’s in the life of the minister and family, and the church”, as our denomination have a representative system of government. I will need some resources and ideias if you are available.

    Blessings
    Antero

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