“Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?” You’ve probably heard that question. It is curious how the news often comes in this pair, especially as it is heard in the gospel.
There is a paradox in the biblical presentation of the gospel — a dichotomy, or at least a dynamic tension. On the one hand, it is the good news of God to humanity, the best news that we could hope for. But on the other hand, this gospel confronts us all with ourselves, with news we humans would rather not hear: the bad things about us. The gospel delivers both together, as a package. We can’t have the good without facing up to the bad.
Paul exposes the roots of these entangled twins in a well-known text in Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23). Here we find the problem and solution in a nutshell. The first clause summarizes the Bible’s universal witness of God’s verdict on sin: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” and “The soul who sins shall die” (Isaiah 59:2; Ezekiel 18:20). This is the bad news.
In his brilliant assessment of the human condition in Romans 3, Paul agrees with the Prophets that all the world is guilty before God: “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” (vv. 10-18; Psalm 14:3). We’re all in the same sinking boat. But the very same witnesses told the good news of God’s rescue, found in Paul’s second clause — a gift beyond earning: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”; “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Isaiah 1:18; Psalm 103:12).
The gospel story is the fateful intersection of bad news and good. This crossroad is where Jesus “was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). Here, the “Guilty!” verdict is turned to “Not guilty!” because Jesus paid our debt of death with His guiltless life. In the Resurrection, God vindicates His Son, and their loving sacrifice is the source of eternal life for all who will accept their gift in faith.
This is an intersection that everyone must pass: the crossroad of guilt and gift, of human offense and divine offering. Many will travel that road with back stiff, head high. They will pass by. The gift is freely given but only received on bended knees with head bowed, accepting the good news with the bad. Of this acknowledgment of sin and a Savior beyond self, Paul finds inspiration from David again:
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity . . . I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” . . . You forgave the iniquity of my sin (Psalm 32:1, 2, 5; Romans 4:7, 8).
But here the paradoxical nature of the gospel goes deeper still — if the good news is stubbornly rejected because we won’t contend with the bad, much less confess it. Turning the truth upside down, we are offended by the idea that our offenses made the cross of Christ necessary. We hold on to the lie that we are actually pretty good, or good enough — surely! And so the gospel of Christ is the good news of salvation for those who can accept the news, but an offensive stumbling block for those who cannot.
Notably, the Prophets revealed this divine dichotomy, and the apostles applied it to Jesus Christ:
“The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel” (Isaiah 8:13, 14).
Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; whoever believes will not act hastily” (28:16).
Blending the two texts, both Paul and Peter quote Isaiah as pointing to Christ and contrasting those who believe with those who stumble: “As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone [Greek: proskomma] and rock of offense [skandalon], and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame’” (Romans 9:33; cf. 1 Peter 2:6-8). In this inspired conflation of Scripture, Christ is both a foundation stone for one and a stumbling stone for another. The Rock of Ages and the Rock of Offense.
Using the same stone imagery, Jesus warned, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’? Whoever falls on that stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Luke 20:17, 18; cf. Psalm 118:22).
Either way, the good news breaks you. That’s not bad news if some are broken in the way of repentance, but it is bad for those who reject the news. They will be crushed in God’s judgment. Paul disclosed to the Corinthians this mysterious dichotomy of how the gospel results in these contradictory ends:
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block [skandalon] and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
Savior and scandal
For the religious and the irreligious alike, the cross is scandalous. This English word is derived from the Greek word skandalon. Often translated as “offense,” the New Testament’s usage of the term is influenced by the Old Testament and is often based on particular passages (as seen above). In its biblical context, skandalon (and the closely related word proskomma) refers to a stone or obstacle that causes one to trip and fall. A stumbling block. According to The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, the metaphor denotes something that causes a fall into sin or unbelief.
The gospel paradox is most intense here. Jesus is Savior for all who believe, but for those who reject Him, Jesus is scandal. We overlook this aspect of the gospel — the awesome fear of God’s judgment and grace. But Paul’s Jews and Greeks, the religious and the pagan, are with us still. The gospel remains a foolish scandal to many today.
The pop atheist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, is the preeminent example of the unbelieving pagan. Not limiting his biting critique to the infantile and delusional foolishness of the gospel alone, he aims his criticism against the Bible and God himself. The god in whom Dawkins disbelieves is “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomacochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Goodness! He sounds offended, indeed! While believers do not recognize in this description the grace and truth that is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, variations of Dawkins’ diatribe are found with increasing regularity on social media. But as Paul has shown us, this is nothing new. These voices simply echo the Greeks of his time, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
At the same time, for well-meaning progressive religionists, the temptation is to remove the scandal, to make the gospel more palatable to modern sensibilities. It is the way of many liberal churches. But a domesticated Christ is not the Christ of the Bible; it is one of our making — no Christ at all. This inculcates faith as therapy, not transformation. It may appeal to our felt needs, but a subjective Christ is not Savior and Lord. He is merely what we wish Him to be, rather than who He truly is.
A diluted, agreeable gospel is a false gospel all the same, because it attempts to take the good news without facing the bad. As the Christian theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once famously remarked of this liberalizing Christian tendency, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” A lesser gospel will not do.
We live in a post-Christian, postmodern nation. To a large extent, our culture has already weighed the gospel and God and found them wanting — a foolish scandal of an irrelevant Book to be rejected. We also live in a time of easy offenses. A society built upon personal rights has little tolerance for personal guilt. The gospel offends because it encroaches on our perceptions of autonomy and self-determination. The good news seems bad to some because it affronts our fears and exposes our pride.
And we must let it. We must embrace without compromise the full weight of the gospel of God, the good news with the bad news. It can’t convict or restore without breaking some and offending others. If in preaching Christ crucified, Paul refused to avoid “the offense of the cross,” then neither should we (Galatians 5:11).
Beloved, do not be offended. Be a scandal for Christ instead!