Evangelicals are a didactic, analytical crowd. We
love it when our preacher cuts up an epistle into bite-sized chunks,
extracts the flavor, and serves it a la carte on a platter each Sunday.
Logic, reason, argument; we readily bite the bit for these appetizing
But in his book “Reading the Gospels Wisely” Dr. Jonathon T.
Pennington argues that Evangelicals, in their obsession with the
Epistles, have missed the meat of the Word of God. The gospels, he
argues, are the main course of the Bible, and if we miss preaching
through the gospels regularly, we haven’t given our congregants a
balanced diet. Here are Pennington’s reasons – he originally gives nine,
but I’ll reduce them to 7:
1. The Gospels Take Center Stage in Church History.
From the earliest accounts we have of the church, it is clear that
these ancient disciples prized the four gospels so highly that they were
read in every church service. This is still tradition in Catholic
circles. While this isn’t an exegetical argument, it ought to make us
raise our eyebrows – why did the earliest disciples value the four
gospels so highly, but we modern Evangelicals only get around to them
once in a while?
2. The Gospels Fill in the Epistle’s Blanks. The
fact that Paul does not repeat much of the gospels (though clearly
alludes to them throughout every letter) has been perplexing for some.
Why doesn’t Paul seem to be saying the same things as Jesus? The answer
is this: Paul assumed that the knowledge of the gospels were already
deeply ingrained into the lifeblood of the churches. The lack of
repetition and many clear allusions tell us that Paul’s epistles, in
reality, don’t make sense without the gospels, for they assume a deep,
clear knowledge of them already in his writing.
3. The Gospels Were the Language of the Early Church.
Although the gospels were written after the Epistles, the gospels were
spoken and carried throughout the ends of the earth before the Epistles.
In other words, the four gospels were the first New Testament
Scriptures; these words, memorized by the apostles and handed down, were
what would have been on their lips as they taught in Philippi, Ephesus,
Rome, Etc. The oral tradition of the gospels built the foundation for
the written epistles.
4. The Gospels Clearly Plug the New Testament into the Old.
Simply put, the Gospels are the clearest bookends of the Old Testament.
They most clearly connect the redemptive themes and purposes of the Old
Testament with the life of Jesus. While this knowledge is assumed and
built upon the Epistles, nowhere is it more obvious and up front than in
the teachings of Jesus, as he comes to explicitly fulfill the role of
the coming Messiah in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If we would
understand our Old Testament, we must unlock them with the keys of the
5. The Gospels Paint a Picture of the Kingdom. The
theme of the kingdom is crucial to understanding the full scope of the
gospel. The coming kingdom is fleshed out in full between the four
gospel witnesses, and is largely assumed in the Epistles. Without the
foundational knowledge of Jesus’ coming fulfillment of the kingdom, we
tend to end up with a gospel stripped of its story – “We are sinners,
Jesus died for us, we can now have eternal life.” This is such a
bare-bones sketch of the true nature of Jesus’ ministry, it’s more like a
half-gospel. If we want to understand the true nature of Jesus’
redemptive work, we must get back to the gospels.
6. The Gospels Clothe the Epistle’s Truths. While
the Epistles have many solid, bare-boned, practical tips for daily
living, these admonitions only assume and reference the more full-bodied
teaching of Jesus. There is a difference between “we are justified in
Christ” and the parable of the justified tax-collector. There is a
difference between “love one another” and Jesus’ washing of the
disciple’s feet. The gospels put clothes on the teachings of the
Epistles, and help us to understand the teachings of the Apostles in all
their fullness and richness. The gospels most fully address us as human
beings – our imaginations, sensations, emotions, and eyes – in a way
the Epistles do not attempt. Rather, the Epistles constantly point us
back to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our Faith, to fully grasp
what it means to be a disciple.
7. The Gospels Allow Us to Experience Jesus.
Finally, the gospels help us experience Jesus. We can learn much about
Jesus from the Epistles and the Old Testament. But we cannot know Jesus
through these two mediums in the same way as through his life. Disciples
are imitators, followers, intimate allies. If we do not know the Jesus
of the gospels, then we do not know Jesus in the full, rich, life-giving
way God intended for us through the precious, four-fold gift He’s given
us through these four witnesses.