Project Canterbury


What We Believe and Why

Plain Talks on Religion


No. 4.

The True Story
The Gospels



Published by
Trinity Parish

New York


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The True Story of the Gospels

Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.—S. Luke xxiv :49.

Let me begin by a simile or parable. In many, if not most, human undertakings there are two stages: the first, preparatory; the second, operative. First, plans are made, material gathered, ground broken, equipment put in place, the "plant" set-up: all is made ready for the start of the new enterprise. That is preparation. Then comes the next stage. A button is pushed, a sign hung out, doors are opened, wheels turn, goods are exposed for sale; operation has begun.

A good example would be the work of supplying a community with water, or better still, with electricity. In either case, there will come a moment when preparation is completed and fulfilled in operation: [1/2] a moment when in your home and at your will, you may draw water from the reservoir, or turn on light by virtue of your connection with the dynamo.

This very simple reminder of familiar process, of routine experience, will serve to give the main thesis which underlies all I shall have to say. You will find little or nothing new. Indeed my chief contention is quite elemental, and I think self-evident. The plain facts of history, and no less the conclusions of a genuine science of religion, amply justify it. Yet, perhaps, just because it is elemental and self-evidencing, it needs reiteration in these present days. For it seems to be the self-evident and elemental truths about religion which the modern mind finds peculiarly elusive. Many self-styled "Modernists" appear more easily at home in playing on the surface, than in digging deep into the soil, of the spiritual life: more concerned to pluck off flowers and fruits of faith than to strengthen and fertilize the roots, whence the sap flows.

[3] Coming back then to our parable, I would point out, as the crucial fact, both for scientific criticism and Christian faith, that, as it is with our water supply and our electric system, so it is with our holy religion. It has had two stages: the preparatory and the operative. There was a moment when preparation passed over into operation; when the water of the new grace, and the light of the new truth, became available. That moment was the Day of Pentecost.

First, as to the preparatory stage. This may be identified with the whole term of our Lord's life and ministry: the period, that is, covered by the Gospels. Everything therein contained, of His doings, of His sayings, of His character and example, of His way of life, is, in a literal sense, preliminary. The whole presentation of the "Gospel in the Gospels," so to say, is from a religious viewpoint, static, not dynamic: preparatory, not operative. Nothing can be there discovered of Christianity [3/4] as a religion: nothing, that is, of a religion characterized or dominated by Christ: nothing to which His Name may be applied for purposes of definition. I am not afraid of putting this too strongly. The extant records seem to prove it without question.

It is of course true that through all the Gospel story we move in the very atmosphere of spiritual crisis. Our Lord is kept before us not so much as Teacher, but as Creator of religion. Religion through Him is to have a fresh start, a new beginning. He is to minister a new spiritual birth. He brings fulfillment, not only of Jewish promises and prophecies, but of all human religious hopes and needs. He calls all men to come to Him for spiritual satisfaction. He has power to control and order life, to forgive sins, to dispense judgment. According to S. John, He is unequivocally named the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father. No man cometh to the Father but by Him. He has, and is, the full, and therefore the final, revelation.

[5] All this is there, and plainly said. It is the cumulative and irresistable impression which the record makes if read apart from prejudice and presupposition. But just because it is all there, surely it is the more remarkable that nowhere in the Gospels is our Lord represented as organizing or establishing a new religion: or as setting up new religious institutions. Quite clearly, for all four Evangelists, He marks the beginning of a new religious era, but no one of them gives the least hint of a desire or intention on His part to found a new religion during His life on earth. Briefly review the facts in order to gain a fresh impression.

1. First, remember not only that our Lord's teaching was given orally but that nothing was written by Him, or ordered to be written. And this in spite of the fact that the Jews were the people of a sacred book, which book our Lord, as a true Jew, reverenced and taught His followers to reverence. We find Him claiming the [5/6] right to supersede the Scriptures. Indeed a great part of his teaching consists in setting them aside or at least in showing their inadequacy and insufficiency: in putting forth His own new rules and sanctions which shall have the authority of Scripture. And yet He makes no provision for a substitute: for any permanent embodiment of His new Law which may guide His followers in dealing with the old.

2. Secondly, consider that He formed no association of believers with prescribed rules and ordinances to give them cohesion and to mark their corporate life. Instead He is content to give Himself more and more exclusively to the training of twelve men in ways of personal intimacy and understanding; so that, in any case, His own views and plans and purposes could have had no outlet or expression save through them. As to what are sometimes called the Gospel Sacraments, whatever doubt there may be as to the exact time and mode of their institution, it is clear that they were [6/7] not, and were not meant to be, characteristic of His personal ministry. Rather they were instructions for the future: waiting like all else for the coming of the Holy Spirit to take their place in the life and worship of the Church.

3. This brings us to another piece of evidence, more far reaching and convincing: namely, the place assigned by the Evangelists, in our Lord's ministry and teaching, to the Holy Spirit. The relation of the Spirit to our Lord Himself, particularly in His birth, baptism, temptation, and, by very definite implication, in His whole Ministry, is described with great simplicity and naturalness. The writers make use of ideas and phrases which were quite familiar to Jewish ears and on Jewish lips. There is nothing in the narrative, as distinguished from the teaching, that is not entirely congenial to, and characteristic of, the faith of the Old Testament. There is nothing I think that goes beyond it. Even in the story of the Virginal Conception of our Lord [7/8] the operation of the Holy Spirit is not considered so abnormal or unique as to call for special emphasis or explanation. The phrase "full of the Holy Spirit," which is applied to our Lord at the beginning of his Ministry, is used also of Zacharias, of S. John Baptist, and its equivalent of the aged Simeon. [S. Luke iv: 1; Cf. S. Luke i: 67; i:15; ii: 25.] All this seems to make it clear that the actual period of our Lord's life and ministry was not associated, in the minds of eye-witnesses and contemporaries, with any singular or unexpected outpouring or manifestation of the Spirit. Any such notion would be quite foreign to the Gospel atmosphere.

On the other hand, it is no less clear that our Lord in His teaching left, and meant to leave, with His disciples, a definite expectation of a new relationship to the Holy Spirit, through and because of Him. He deepened and intensified their inherited belief. The Spirit was to come upon them, and to be known by them, in new reality [8/9] and power. He tells them that the Spirit's inspiration is to be so intimate and dominant that their spoken words of witness will be not theirs, but His: [S. Mark xiii: 11; Cf. S. Matt. x: 20.] that the Spirit's presence in them is to be so dynamic that they will have power to cast out demons, as they have seen Him do. [S. Matt. x: 8; Cf. S. Luke x: 17 ff.] He assures them that the Spirit is to be, among them, so personal, so vital, so intensely real that He can be sinned against by blasphemy and that sin against Him will be the most fatal of all sins. [S. Mark iii: 29; Cf. S. Matt. xii: 31, 32; S. Luke xii: 10.] He teaches them to reckon God's giving of His Spirit the chief and crowning sign and proof of His true and perfect Fatherhood; the best gift He has to give. [S. Luke xi: 13.]

I have so far taken nothing out of the Fourth Gospel. For the moment I reserve its evidence. The Synoptists give us all we really need to show how central in our Lord's religious teaching was the assurance [9/10] that a new endowment of the Spirit was to come through Him. And yet, as I have pointed out, it did not happen in the Gospel period. It was not a contemporary benefit. There is no sign of permanent spiritual quickening. The Lord's outward presence was strong to uphold and reassure the disciples. But when He was absent, even while He slept, their faith and courage ebbed. They became helpless and afraid. Apparently they were even weaker spiritually at the last than at the first. It was at the end, not at the beginning, of their discipleship and training: when their knowledge of the Lord was fullest and His need of them was greatest; it was in the Garden, at the Palace, in the Judgment Hall, at the Cross, that they most miserably failed. It is not too much I think to say that our Lord's earthly ministry, taken by itself, as reported in the Gospels, seems not to have borne convincing spiritual fruit in other lives: not to have led, that is, to what in later days came to be called "growth in grace." [10/11] The brilliant light of our Lord's own spiritual perfection is thrown against a dark background, almost wholly unrelieved, of spiritual weakness and incompetence even in those who had been in closest contact with Him. The Spirit in Him was not communicated. It seems not to have been communicable.

This sets a problem which remains, I think, without any real solution unless we accept the clarifying and startling explanation offered by S. John. You remember how terse and clear-cut His explanation is: "The Holy Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified." [S. John vii: 39.] In S. John's narrative our Lord has just been speaking of the Spirit welling up in His disciples like springs of living water. And S. John sees a difficulty. This did not seem to correspond to fact. There was at that time nothing like it in experience. It might easily be misunderstood and so discredited. So he makes haste to add a foot-note. It really [11/12] was quite true. There was no mistake, no overstatement. But the Lord was speaking not of what was then but of what was to be afterwards. As a matter of fact it could not be true then. It was not spiritually possible. For the Holy Ghost simply was not yet because Jesus was not yet glorified.

At this point I would remind you how much fuller our Lord's teaching about the Holy Spirit is in the Fourth Gospel than in the three Synoptists. He tells Nicodemus that new birth by the Spirit is, for each individual believer, not only his chief personal privilege but his only way of entrance to God's Kingdom. [S. John iii: 5.] This is tantamount to saying that to bring this new spiritual birth within men's reach was the chief purpose of His coming: the aim and goal of all He said and did and suffered. The new birth by the Spirit thus becomes the very core and centre of the Gospel according to S. John.

[13] Similarly in the so-called Last Discourses [S. John xiv, xv, xvi.] we find our Lord telling His Apostles in much detail what this new birth will mean: what will come out from it as it grows into its full development: how their endowment by the Spirit will re-enforce and energize their every natural gift of mind and heart and will. He will console, strengthen, guide, enlighten, interpret, remind, sustain, control them. He will bring them and keep them in constant living fellowship with the Father and with their Lord Himself. Their hearts need not be troubled. They will be secure against the world's hostility. They will be kept in joy and peace.

The Fourth Gospel is rightly called the spiritual Gospel because in it the Spirit takes the central place, both in the Lord's message and in the declared purpose of His mission. And this spiritual Gospel closes its record with those decisive words: "The Spirit was not yet," still in our ears.

[14] "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you." [S. Luke xxiv: 49.] The saying indeed comes from S. Luke, but the great commentator on it is S. John. "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be endued with power from on high."

4. But the Gospels give yet another kind of evidence more convincing still. There is an even deeper and more significant aspect of the preparatory nature of the Lord's Gospel ministry. Running all through the story, now implicit, now quite explicit, there is a record of, a witness to, the Lord's preparation of Himself. The roll of Messiah, Saviour, Judge and King was His indeed by right. And yet He had to grow into it; to fit Himself for it; to make good His claim to it. Like His great Apostle after Him, he had a fight to fight, a course to run, a faith to keep. [Cf. ii Tim. iv: 7.]  "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened [14/15] till it be accomplished." [S. Luke xii: 50; Cf. S. Matt. xx: 22 and S. Mark x: 38.] "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." [S. John xii:24.] So He said and more to the same purpose. The pressure of it bore more heavily as He went on. "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem and all things concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished." [S. Luke xix: 31. Cf. S. Matt. xx: 17 ff. and S. Mark x: 32 ff.] The way of the Cross was the way of preparation. The Cross itself was the final crux or test: the crown and seal. "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do." [S. John xvii: 4.] So He spoke the night before He died. And on the Cross, in dying, He repeats it, just as it comes true: "It is finished." [S. John xix: 30.]

The Epistle to the Hebrews, of all the books of the New Testament, throws the clearest light upon this mysterious and pregnant truth. In one verse it summarizes and interprets it, "Though He were Son, [15/16] yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered, and being made perfect, He became Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him." [Heb. v: 8, 9.] What is meant is I think evident though it takes us to the brink of unfathomable mystery. Clearly to be the author of salvation means more than to be the author of words or of ideas. "The Kingdom of God is not in word but in power." [1 Cor. iv: 20.] No mere teaching, no code of conduct however perfect, no pattern life however faultless, no good news, even that God is Father and that all men are brothers, will bring salvation. It costs more—much more—than all these put together to redeem men's souls. He who is saviour must have saving power and be able to communicate it, so that it may work, not from without inwardly, but from within outwardly: making us men and women right at the centre, that we may be righteous at the circumference, of our lives. [16/17] That He might accomplish this: that He might become Author of salvation, Jesus the Son of God "took not on Him the nature of angels but He took the seed of Abraham:" [Heb. ii: 16.] took, that is, human nature, that He might make it capable first in His own case, and then in ours, of inward fellowship with God and so of outward obedience to God's holy will. He took it as it was: not as God meant it to be when He created it, but as men had rendered it by their corporate and common sin. He took it weakened, disintegrated, soiled and scarred by our sinfulness. And then He made it capable of sinlessness. He made it sinless. That is not to say too much. [Cf. Rom. viii: 3.] Certainly He made it sinless in Himself. Potentially He made it sinless in us who are in Him. He brought human nature to its full perfection. He bore it and offered it to God without spot or fault or flaw. [Cf. Heb. ix: 14.] He made it victorious over all trials and temptations. In it He [17/18] conquered death itself, even the death of the Cross. That is the real story of the Gospels. "For their sakes I consecrate myself." [S. John xvii: 19.] That is the key which He puts into our hands for the interpretation of the Gospel record. That is the central theme of the whole Gospel drama. In the days of His flesh He was learning obedience by the things which He suffered; He was being made perfect; He was gathering and storing up, in the reservoir of His Humanity, poured into it by and from His Godhead, an immeasurable and exhaustless supply of saving power. So He became Author of salvation and so He was made ready and prepared to save to the uttermost those who, by faith, according to His will, seek contact with His grace and keep themselves in the current of His love.

"He became Author of eternal salvation." The Gospels tell us how He did it. They show Him doing it. Yes, but having done it: having become [18/19] Author of salvation, how, when, where, will He begin to save? Well, that will come next: that will be clear in time. Briefly, the answer is: "At Pentecost." Meanwhile remember there are two stages in the story: preparatory and operative: and we have seen so far only preparation. We have been reading our Gospels.

Now we must wait: with, God grant, a new sense of the mystery of Godliness, with a new thrill of expectant love, of kindling devotion, of adoring praise for His wise love and loving wisdom: now we must wait while we hear again His final Gospel words: "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you, but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be endued with power from on high."

Project Canterbury