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Baltimore 1 THE GOD OF THE GOSPEL Robert W. Jenson I have a text, though I did not notice this until sometime after writing my talk. It ie from the 14th chapter of Acts. Paul and Barnabas perform a healing in the pagan city of Lystra, and are taken for the latest avatars of Zeus and Hermes. They emphatically reject the cultic honor offered them, and then say, "We are here to speak the gos pel to you, that you may turn from such barren deities to the living God." We here are - mostly at least - persons who have heard the gospel that Paul and Barnabas went out to speak, have been baptized into it, are therefore ourselves now obligated to speak it, and are trying to do that. It is a necessary question: What is the gospel sup- posed to do for its hearers? What will it mean to those who hear us, if they believe what we say? It is presently a common supposition, perhaps the common sup- position, that the gospel’s gift to us can be most compendiously stated by some religious or psychological or political or moral slogan: the gos- pel “forgives sin" or "liberates" or "justifies" or "puts to death," or "empowers" or whatever. It does this, of course, on behalf of God, but the presence and agency of God is taken as the invariable given of the event, not as itself the gift of the event. Baltimore 2 Only a little perusal of the New Testament must, however, reveal that the New Testament does not look at the matter in this way at all. Or at least, it does not look at the matter in this way with respect to gentile Christians, which is what nearly all of us here are. When a Jew confesses that Jesus is Messiah, and is baptized into this new apprehen- sion of his or her own aboriginal hope, the activity and presence of the God of Israel is indeed the invariant supposition of the event. A Jew who is baptized does not break with his or her gods, to draw near to the true God; he or she was with the true God all along. Not so, how- ever, when the gospel’s mission begins the promised ingathering of the nations ~ that is, most of us - to Zion. The author of Ephesians admonishes us gentile believers to re- member that prior to baptism we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:11-12) For us, the gospel message is what our special apostle called it, precisely a summons and permission to turn “from idols, to serve the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9) - and indeed, this very language was evidently the great slogan of the whole earliest gospel-mission. For us gentiles, the blessing of the gospel is that it un- expectedly and wonderfully identifies who the true God is, and that it newly and amazingly permits us to worship him and even explains how that is possible. Precisely being able to turn from their gods to the * Baltimore 3 true God occasioned "the joy” with which Paul’s gentile converts "received the word.” (Ibid., 1:6) Paul nor his converts needed to deny that worship of the gods may bestow all manner of good things; they simply renounced such worship as wrong because misdirected. It is doubtless true that all religions are instigated by the one God’s self-revelation, and are recognized by him as an inquietude he has himself implanted in us, It is doubtless therefore true that the word "God" and other invocations, appearing in the prayers and bless- ings of any religion at all, carry a hidden reference to the true God of Israel - that much "inclusive" I still want to be. It is doubtless true that the End will discover how the history of all the religions is con— summated in Christ. But in the act of faith itself, the singular great blessing to be known is precisely the difference between the old gods to which we ‘were bound and the true God into whose fellowship we are taken. In the act of faith, we gentile believers recognize ourselves as those who have worshipped ~ or except for the grace of infant baptism would have worshipped ~ Moloch the baby-burner or Astarte the universal whore or Deutsches Blut or the Invisible Hand of capitalist exploitation or Huit~ zelopochtli the drinker of blood, or the Great Metaphor of our gender or ethnic or class aspiration or the great Nothingness or the third tree in the forest - tyrants everyone of them, on whom we can look back only with terror and joy at our rescue.