The Revelation of the Gospel A Revelation of God
Tom J. Nettles
Though the gospel is clearly defined in specific terms of ransom, redemption, substitution, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation, its revelation of the wisdom of God, the riches of Christ, and the surpassing love of God can never exhaust the infinite reality of God’s glory. Thus, Paul wrote of preaching “the unfathomable riches of God.” When he preached the gospel, his knew that within it the endless unfolding of the infinite perfections of God would give that same gospel that he preached a heavenly relevance. Paul shows the irony of the gospel’s simplicity in relation to its unsurpassed excellence in writing to the church at Corinth: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through its wisdom, God was pleased through the apparent foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. … We are preaching Christ as having been crucified … to those who are called, both Jew and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than the greatest wisdom among men, and the weakness of God is stronger than the greatest strength among men” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25 my paraphrase).
This stewardship of preaching the unfathomable riches of Christ brings “to light” how God managed the mystery which had been hidden. It, the mystery, was hidden because it resides in God himself, in an eternal propensity of his nature to know and be known, infinitely manifest in his triune being. It was always known fully by God himself (what classical theologians call ad intra) but now will be made known (ad extra) in unending waves of revelation to other rational “knowers” that were created by God for that very purpose—to know him. They will never know him fully, for the finite never can experience exhaustively the infinite, but the revelation ad extra fully conforms to God’s purpose and character ad intra. Nothing has happened by accident or by a fortuitous concatenation of events. Rather, salvation history has happened according to “the rules of the house,” a regulated administration of God in the present fully conforming to eternal purpose. God set forth a plan with a definite purpose; it would unfold according to specific principles embedded within the triune God himself and consistent with the final purpose. In fact, God “created all things” with this particular unfolding of events and their revealed meaning set within himself by covenantal arrangement. This entire plan has that strange and tension-filled quality of expressing God’s radical freedom—a sovereign choice absolutely independent of any force or influence outside of himself—and yet in perfect conformity with the eternal “demands” of his own nature.
The “now” is an unfolding of eternity (10-12). This passage has elements within it that are inexhaustible in their signification and set the stage for Paul’s prayer in 3:14-19. I will use the sentence order as written by Paul.
We have mentioned “purpose” several times for that is the way Paul reports it. Paul’s preaching (8) in the process of bringing to light a mystery according to “house rules” was done with a peculiar purpose – hina in order that “It might be made known” – a plan already present in fullness of detail already known to God would be unfolded to men. That which is now being made known to men (and to angelic powers) already was known and complete to God. Its being made known does not differ from its eternal reality. It is necessarily done partitively but nevertheless truthfully, each part being consistent with the past revelation and serving as a foundation for future revelation.
“Now” – Paul affirms that his task of preaching revealed truth gives a maturity of understanding into God’s purpose in this present post resurrection age that had not been set forth before. The prophets testified to it but were held in mystery until Christ himself would come; even at the appearing of Christ much about his life and ministry were hidden until clarity would be given through his selected apostles. But “now” this revelation will give all that we can know or need to know until his glorious appearing. Peter gives an exposition of this truth in 1 Peter 1:10-12: “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (NKJV). Angels have longed to look into the things that are unloaded in the gospel, so that NOW the rulers and authorities in heavenly places may see more of the sum of God’s attributes than had been present to their gaze before.
Paul and Peter see by revelation the same reality that angels see only in the gospel. Even angelic beings find the circumstance surrounding the gospel a matter of great expansion of knowledge and truth concerning the eternal purpose of God—“to the authorities and the powers in the heavenlies.” Though angels in all their variety of glory and designated power surround the throne and view the glory of God, they too are dependent on God’s revelation for their knowledge of the depths of God’s own being and internal relations that he has set forth in the gospel events and disclosed in words and propositions to his apostles.
When Paul says, “through the church,” he refers to the elect people of God who were saved and seated with Christ in heavenly places by his death, burial, and resurrection (Ephesians 1:20-2:7). Paul affirms that all that Christ has done in his redemptive work, underneath the affirmation that it is done that we might “be to the praise of his glory,” (1:12) is that he has done it “to the church which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” Because the operation of all three persons of the Trinity (1:3, 7, 13) manifested the divine glory and grace in their particular functions in the covenant of grace, and that this has been done specifically in relation to the church, then it is “through the church” that we grasp “the manifold wisdom of God.”
This word “manifold” means many colored, highly variegated, layer upon layer of nuanced beauty. We may look upon the “wisdom of God” as an attribute of God or we may see it as the sum of his attributes displayed in the consummation of redemption. Rational beings rejoice in God as he reveals himself in creation; rational beings marvel at the intricacies of God’s governing power as displayed in providence; rational beings have the superlative display of God’s good and holy perfections in the redemption of sinners, in which the purpose of creation and the perfection of providential control are brought into their brightest light. Though it is tempting to make the administrative operations of God external to his intrinsic attributes, passages like Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 3 give such a close alignment of economic outcome and revelation of internal attributes and interpersonal relations that it is hard not to deduce the ad intra relations of God from the ad extra operations. Especially when this is accomplished “according to his eternal purpose.” – The combination of these two phrases—manifold wisdom and eternal purpose—sows that the manifestation of God’s unending and inexhaustible wisdom is at the heart of his eternal purpose. A God without purpose is no god at all. His eternal purpose, therefore, sums up the dynamic end-oriented propensity of his internal relations. The word means to put a thing in place beforehand.
Paul used in Romans 8:28 explaining that all the events in the lives of those who love God, he works together for their good. They are “the called according to his purpose.” Of what does this purpose consist? God’s purpose is all inclusive as demonstrating the Father’s love for the Son and the exertion of the Spirit’s power in pursuit of this intratrinitarian love–to be loved in eternity, to be predestined to live eternally conformed to the likeness of his Son in order to his being the firstborn among many brethren, and on the basis of this predestination to be called by the work of the Spirit in conjunction with truth, and linked to this calling we find justification (the Father’s acceptance and pleasure in the righteousness of his Son), and linked to justification we find glorification (the conformity of those so loved and predestined to the perfection of the human nature of the incarnate Lord).
Paul used the blessing of Jacob over Esau as an example of sovereign election operating according to the purpose of God in Romans 9:11. God’s election of Jacob in eternity, apart from works either good or bad, was according to a governing purpose.
In Ephesians 1:7- 9 Paul explains that the riches of God’s grace are granted “in all wisdom and insight.” Whose wisdom and insight? God’s own wisdom and insight as if his saving grace is in itself the concrete manifestation of the unchangeable character and omniscience of God in eternity. Then Paul says that the “mystery” of God’s will has been made known as a matter of divine pleasure which, in eternity, he “set forth” (the verb form that expresses purpose) in Christ. The things that please God in eternity, the things that express his wisdom and insight, operate truly and as a matter of revelation in the economy of redemption.
In Ephesians 1:11, Paul again sees predestination to receive the benefits of Christ’s work as a matter emerging from the “purpose of him who effectually works all things according to the counsel of his will.” “Counsel” is used in Hebrews 6:17—“the unchangeableness of his counsel (or purpose).” This word implies agreement after thorough consultation. The divine purpose, therefore, arises from the perfect concord that exists in intratrinitarian expressions of love, wisdom, knowledge, and will.
We learn more of the precise character, immutable certainty, and interpersonal operation of God’s purpose in 2 Timothy 1:9. Note the order and arrangement of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to be willing to suffer for the gospel.
God has saved us. This is a summation of God’s eternal intention toward his elect creatures. Toward this end, God consulted within himself.
In that salvation he has called us with a holy calling. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, called “in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” in 1 Thessalonians 1: 5 and “sanctification of the Spirit” in 2 Thessalonians 2:13.
This is done not according to our works. Titus 3:5 adds, not by works of righteousness which we have done. God was influenced by nothing outside of himself in the bestowal of salvation.
Rather, this salvation comes according to his own purpose, even his grace. This salvation expresses the fullness of God’s grace in that it arises solely from divine purpose and employs all the means necessary for it to magnify the sum total of his eternal attributes from holiness and justice to mercy, patience, and lovingkindness.
This gracious purpose found perfect fulfillment in Christ Jesus. The eternal Son of God demonstrated in our nature the undefiled obedience to the moral law and the preceptive will of God in demonstration of how eternal filial love finds its joy and most natural expression in doing the will of the Father.
“Before the beginning chronological time” shows that these temporal expressions of saving grace, these present extensions of eternal purpose are the most robust, clearest, and expressive manifestation we have of God ad intra. That which he reveals himself to be in the economy of redemption he is within himself. God’s economy is a true revelation of his immanent being.
In summary: God’s purpose is an unchangeable manifestation of the perfect wisdom that operates within the godhead as an expression of the intrinsic unity and harmony of interpersonal relations within the Trinity. The salvation he gives to sinners in time in an external expression of grace and wisdom is in itself a revelation of the internal concord and pleasure existing eternally within God.
Dr. Tom Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was professor of Church History and chairman of that department. Previously, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from Mississippi College and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern. In addition to writing numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles has authored or edited nine books including By His Grace and For His Glory, Baptists and the Bible, and Why I Am a Baptist.
Courses taught: Historical Theology of the Baptists, Historical Theology Overview, Jonathan Edwards & Andrew Fuller.