The Original Christian Gospel
It may surprise you to hear that the original Gospel—the Good News preached by Jesus Christ and His disciples—is quite different from what is prominently presented today by the vast majority of Christians in America. For many Christians, hearing this original Gospel will involve a major paradigm shift—a radical change in assumptions about God and about salvation, which is at the core of the Gospel.
The original Christian Gospel begins with—love.
John 3:16, 17 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Furthermore, the Apostle John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
What Is God’s Love?
The original Christian understanding of love and salvation are shockingly different from what we are often presented with in non-Orthodox Christian churches.
First of all: God is love—even before He creates; His love is not just an expression of His will towards creation, or simply an attribute, but rather God loves by nature—because of who He is. Love is intrinsic to His Unknowable Essence.
But how is it that One God, who is perfect and lacks nothing, can be love, when love necessitates a relation to another? The issue of whom God loves before the creation of the universe is resolved in Trinitarian Orthodoxy. God is understood to be not an absolute unity or monad, but a composite unity, a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Blessed Trinity is fully divine and for eternity loves the other two. The Trinity is an eternal union of love, existing before the creation of the universe.
This understanding of what God’s love is differs from the predominant non-Orthodox Christian understanding, which tends to see love as a created attribute of God and not essential to His Being or essence. For the Orthodox biblical Christian, God’s love is uncreated. Love, more than any other quality—more than justice, mercy, knowledge, or power—uniquely communicates to us something essential of who God is.
God’s love is manifest in His creating the universe, and in so doing condescending to make creatures that have authentic free will—and can even choose to resist His love. To create a universe that is capable of resisting His will, God had, to some degree, to withdraw His omnipotence—that is, to forbear from forcing His control over His creatures. This kind of distancing provides room in which His creatures, having free will, are able to respond to His love without being forced. Why is this essential? Forced love—which some Calvinist Protestants call irresistible grace—is not true love, because it is not given freely.
Is God Humble?
Is God’s condescension in love—in creating the universe and in His Incarnation as a man, Jesus Christ—the same as humility?
Here is the heart and crux of the original Gospel. Because God is love and loves His Creation, to which He imparts authentic free will, and condescends even further by becoming incarnate as a man, Jesus Christ, God’s love is a manifestation of humility. That is: God is humble!
The renowned author and lecturer Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware expresses it this way: “It is as natural for God to be humble as it is to be Almighty.” He also says: “God is as humble as He is Almighty.” That is, God is both almighty and humble.
We have often heard that Jesus is humble. But we have always understood that it was only in His humanity that He was humble, not in His Divinity. The original Gospel and Metropolitan Kallistos are saying that God Himself—the Divine Creator of heaven and earth—is humble.
On one hand, God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator of the universe, eternal and in need of nothing. On the other hand, God is humble! Not only God in Christ, but also the other two Persons of the Trinity—God the Father Himself, and the Holy Spirit of God.
The Scriptures speak of God’s humility:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery [or something to be held onto] to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation [lit. “emptied Himself”], taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)
Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble [lowly] in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28, 29). In fact, Christ’s Passion—His last week prior to His Crucifixion—is called in the Orthodox Church His “extreme humility.”
Christ’s humility was viewed by the original Orthodox Christians not as moral weakness but as moral strength. God’s humility is not an expression of fault or inadequacy, but a manifestation of perfection. That is, because God is perfect love, He is humble. God does not cease being humble after the Resurrection, as if humility has no eternal reality—as if it were merely a created, utilitarian, temporary quality needed to save man. Rather, God never ceases to be humble because He loves, nurtures, and sustains us without end. And this is one reason the original Christians believed that Jesus’ glorified human body retained its wounds after the Resurrection (as Thomas saw): because they are an everlasting visual reminder of His condescending humility.
That the Christian God is a God of love, who is love and manifests His love in humility, has implications for us that are staggering. This means, to begin with, that because God loves, we should love; because God is humble, we should be humble. It also means that God unconditionally loves all—the just and the unjust, now and forever—because it is only in God’s nature to love, not to hate.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies . . . that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). Jesus is telling us that we should love our enemies because God the Father loves His enemies. Indeed, even from the Cross the crucified God-Man prayed for His enemies, saying, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” And in loving our enemies, Jesus says that we become sons of our Father in heaven—that is, we become godlike (truly children of God). Then the concluding verse says, “for He (i.e. the Father) makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good.”
This understanding of the sun shining upon all alike was used by the early Christians as an example of the unconditional nature of God’s love. That is, the sun always shines light—never darkness. So then where does the darkness come from? The darkness we experience is not due to the sun withholding light; it is only due to our hiding from the light, our closing our eyes to the light. Our darkness is only due to our own blindness.
St. Anthony the Great of Egypt, founder of monasticism (fourth century), states this perfectly: “To say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”
Then what is the cause of suffering for those who reject the light of God in their lives? Their suffering is due to the impossibility of escaping light. The light and love of God is omnipresent; it pervades the universe, much like the Divine Light of God in the Burning Bush—the bush burned but was not consumed. And this is why David says in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in hell, behold—You are there.”
This all-pervasive love of God was the main theme of the original Gospel. But in time, the understanding of this love became greatly distorted and perverted by unbiblical, un-Orthodox teachings.
Let us examine one such distortion of the original Gospel that pervades Roman Catholicism and Protestantism: the view that death is from God. This mistaken view is an outgrowth of the false doctrine prevalent among non-Orthodox churches that the guilt of Adam’s sin committed at the Fall is passed on from generation to generation to all mankind. This is called “the inheritance of the guilt of original sin.” This is a non-biblical teaching that neither the Jews nor the Orthodox Christian Church have ever held, either in biblical times or today.
Is Death from God?
The Scriptures say, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16, 17). Regardless of how the passage is interpreted—whether literally or figuratively—all interpretations assume that man turned away from God, and as a result fell from a position of intimacy with God to a state of confusion and death. This is called “The Fall.” Sin, mortality, and death, both spiritual and physical, were the direct result of man’s disobedience.
So far so good—until the next major assumption is made: that death was the direct result of a punitive sentence pronounced by God. That is, God made a law—“you shall not eat of the fruit, for if you do you will surely die”—and when Adam and Eve broke that law, death resulted from God’s punitive proclamation. That is, God Himself then made them mortal—made them die. The action and resultant punishment are understood as being of a juridical nature. In this non-Orthodox understanding of the Fall, God had no choice but to declare that Adam and Eve would die. The punitive action was demanded by a necessity to which God Himself was bound—the necessity of being just.
In contrast to this juridical view of the Fall, the biblical Orthodox view holds that when God told Adam he would die if he ate the forbidden fruit, it was a simple statement of fact. The Lord was essentially saying, “If you turn from Me, the only source of life, then death will be the outcome.” God did not say, “I will kill you,” but rather, “you will die.