Synopsis: Escaping from James to Find the Gospel?
The official study guide reveals, perhaps unintentionally, how powerful Luther’s argument against the book of James as been. Instead of dividing James into 13 sections, the editors divided it into 12 so that the last section could deal with the topic, “The Everlasting Gospel.”
The word Gospel simply means “Good News” and offers a wide variety of possible applications. Luther, however, and those evangelicals who follow his lead, define the word very narrowly as referring to the forensic, substitutionary atonement. Not finding that view in James, they have declared the Book of James to be bereft of the Gospel.
But given the circumstances James faced, his call to social action would have to be seen as “good news” to his listeners. And that is all the word means: “good news.” Thus in Luke 4:18 Jesus proclaims in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. That was James’ message to the poor and oppressed. It was Gospel. It need not be the narrow definition that the followers of Paul want to find.
In the Old Testament the positive appreciation for torah (the law) has led some to coin the phrase, “the law as gospel.” Certainly if one reads Ps. 119 or Deut. 4:5-8, the label fits: law is a gracious gift from God; it is good news.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Broadening the search. The word “gospel” doesn’t appear in John or James, and only once in Revelation (14:6). If we cast the net further afield, can we find other ways of defining a message as being “good news,” with or without the label?
2. Luther’s long shadow. Does the fact that the official Sabbath School study guide dedicates the last lesson to a discussion of the “everlasting gospel” and looks outside of the book of James for support, suggest that Luther has been allowed to play too strong a role even in Adventism?
3. Different perspectives on the cross. Instead of pointing the cross heavenward as key Pauline passages do (e.g. Rom. 8; 2 Cor. 5), John 14-17 points the cross earthward. In the one model (Paul), Jesus represents us to the Father; in the other (John) Jesus represents the Father to us. Why should we insist on only one view of the cross when Scripture gives more than one?
4. The best good news book. At the end of this quarter, a good exercise for a Sabbath School class is to ask each member to identify the book of the Bible that helps them most. Most classes discover a healthy diversity. That’s why we have so many different books in the Bible.