Adapted from Hugh Whelchel’s book All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.
A powerful scene at the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was not in the movie. After the ring is destroyed at Mount Doom and the eagles rescue Sam and Frodo, Sam wakes up from his sleep in Rivendell, surprised he is alive and surprised to see Gandalf standing at the foot of his bed.
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”[i]
We all recognize how deeply Sam’s question resonates in the hearts of men and women worldwide, particularly in the midst of the COVID pandemic. For many, the world today does not make sense. Even with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the reality of sin makes it plain that things are not as they should be. Pain, suffering, and destruction plague the earth. As Christians, we struggle to find purpose in our work. We face conflict in relationships. We have trouble applying our faith to every area of life. We get stuck in the rut of mundane life, unable to see how the stories in the Bible connect to our day-to-day lives.
The good news is the answer to Sam’s question can be found in the historical redemptive narrative of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”[ii] This is not only the beginning of the creation story but also the beginning of the “universal story that will ultimately embrace the whole of creation, time, and humanity within its scope.”[iii] The story only ends with the last verse of Revelation.
One helpful way of describing how the Bible is organized is commonly called the four-chapter gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.
- Creation explains the way things were
- The Fall explains the way things are
- Redemption shows the way things could be
- Restoration shows the way things will be
All of human life is told and interpreted through this narrative. The story of the Bible seen in this four-chapter gospel context gives meaning to all people, places, and things. It answers the questions that plague our hearts: Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for my life? Why is the world so broken?
This four-chapter gospel is not just a way to read the Bible. It’s the framework through which we live our lives. Everyone sees the world through a unique view or perspective, a worldview. As Christians, we see the world through the perspective of the Bible. Think of the four-chapter gospel like a set of prescription glasses that helps us focus our actions and decisions on God’s great story of his creation. When we live with a blurry prescription for a long time, our eyes adjust. Life out of focus becomes routine, and we struggle to realize we could be seeing something more. With a new set of glasses, everything becomes clearer. The four-chapter gospel is just that – the sharpest, most complete view of life that is true for all of humanity. It serves as the most accurate prescription to view and understand the world.
Reading the Bible as one comprehensive story enables us to understand our identity as God’s people and identify our role in his story. From this perspective, we recognize our call to participate in God’s redemptive mission. Our identity as God’s people comes from our missional role in the biblical story, which is not merely in the future but also in the here and now. By recovering Scripture’s grand narrative, we fully understand how God calls us to steward all he has given us in every relationship and aspect of our lives. God calls us to himself, but he also calls us to our family, community, vocation, and church. The four-chapter gospel helps explain why we are called to these areas and how we can live out our response to them in light of our love for God. It’s the ultimate story of significance for all of humanity.
Stories universally give context and meaning to all people in all cultures. Today, many narratives compete to explain why we are here. In a crowded arena of worldviews and perspectives, the Bible is the ultimate story of significance that applies to all generations in every era. It’s an evergreen explanation of truth.
Scripture opens with the Creation account in Genesis, explaining the beginning of all things. It ends in Revelation with an account of the total renewal and restoration of all creation. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible explains all of history. N. T. Wright, a well-known New Testament scholar, says that the divine drama told in Scripture “offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.”[iv] The biblical metanarrative, or the larger over-arching story of Scripture, makes a universal claim of truth for all humanity, calling each one of us to find our place in God’s story.[v]
Despite the greatness of the larger biblical narrative, the church in the Western world has often looked at the Bible from a different and more limited perspective for the past 150 years. We have truncated the four-chapter gospel into two chapters: the Fall and Redemption.
While sin and salvation are undeniable realities, they are not the complete gospel. This abridged version of the gospel leaves out God’s original, good creation and God’s future restoration of creation in its entirety. It is an incomplete story with several problems:
- It does not tell us why we were created.
- It does not tell us about our true destiny.
- It overemphasizes the individualistic aspects of salvation, and that salvation is all about us.
- It leads to an escapist view of redemption.
- It turns the biblical gospel into a gospel of sin management.
This two-chapter gospel leads Christians to see our salvation only as a bus ticket to heaven, to believe what we do while waiting for the bus doesn’t matter. This is the important, practical reason to read the Bible as one narrative, as the four-chapter gospel: it enables us to understand our identity as God’s people as we see our role in his story.
From this four-chapter perspective, we see our call to participate in God’s redemptive mission. Our identity as God’s people comes from our missional role in the biblical story, which is in the here and now. We rediscover our true identity by recovering this storyline of Scripture. This gospel is not solely about individual happiness and fulfillment; it is not all about me. Pastor Tim Keller writes: [The gospel] is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world; it is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew all things.[vi]
Only with this bigger picture in view can we understand how our story fits into God’s story and begin to fulfill his call on our lives.
To love God and fulfill his mandate equips us with a clearer calling in our own lives. We are specifically designed to know God and love him. In response to that love, we love others and the world in which we live. We also can faithfully pursue our callings to God’s glory with the eternal assurance we have in Christ.
Understanding the way things were, the way things are, the way things could be, and the way things will be gives us the perspective and incentive to fulfill God’s purposes – namely, to steward all our resources, talents, and gifts in love to the glory of God. This calling touches every aspect of life and all of our relationships. It frames the way we talk, think, and act.
Dr. N. T. Wright uses the helpful metaphor of a play to explain the authority of the biblical narrative.[vii] A similar metaphor helps illustrate the importance of understanding our role within God’s larger story. Imagine you uncover a lost manuscript of a Shakespearean play. Upon further reading, you quickly realize it is the greatest play Shakespeare ever wrote. It consists of four acts, each with three scenes. As you read the play, you see that Act III scene iii is missing. It has been destroyed or lost over the years. To perform the play as Shakespeare wrote it, you must rewrite scene iii. But you can’t just make up a scene inconsistent with Shakespeare’s style and what has happened in previous chapters. Instead, you must study the larger story and the playwright to understand Shakespeare’s intention. While the other acts are important, without Act III scene iii, the play does not make sense.
Today, we are living in Act III, scene iii. To live out this scene in God’s grand story, we must understand who God is and what he intended for his characters, and we must live out that understanding in every dimension of life. We are waiting for the full resolution of the story, living in Redemption, Act III of the play. This is the greatest story ever told, and we play critical characters in the story.
Author and theologian Michael Goheen reinforces the relevance of the gospel narrative:
The question is not whether the whole of our lives will be shaped by some grand story. The only question is which grand story will shape our lives. For the one who has heard Jesus’ call to follow him, the call comes with a summons to enter the story of which he was the climactic moment – the story narrated in the Bible. It is an invitation to find our place in that story.[viii]
This is why the four-chapter gospel matters imperatively. It focuses our mission within the context of God’s greater mission so that we can live lives in obedience to God. In addition, we have an everlasting, assured hope in the restoration of everything sad in this world. It will come undone in the last chapter when God will make all things new. Through our faith in Christ and the grace of God, we will experience eternal, everlasting flourishing in the presence of our creator.
The four-chapter gospel lays a foundation that provides the meaning and fulfillment we seek in life. It gives us the context of our creation, assurance in our future destination, and a picture of God’s design – flourishing. Human flourishing explains the goal of God’s redemption for us in Christ, who promises us eternal and abundant life. We can grasp, conceptually, God’s love and purpose for us. We can understand his design for flourishing.
As Christians, we are called to live lives so transformed by this four-chapter gospel that others will see in it the possibility of their transformation and the world’s. Our encounter with God changes our heart and posture toward him, others, the world, and ourselves. When we encounter the love of our Father through the life, death and resurrection of his son, our response should be faithful obedience out of love and gratitude for what he has done for us.
Sam’s question, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” recognizes that the world is a place that is filled with much sadness and cursed by sin. In the final chapter of Restoration, those sad things will be made untrue. The curse will be rolled back. The world will be forever changed. As we read in the book of Revelation:
Then I saw a “new heaven and a new earth”, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)
The grand narrative of the Bible tells of God’s plan to take mankind from the garden to the city of God. This city is the New Jerusalem where we will live forever with Christ. This was always the plan, both before and after the Fall.
When Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was asked about the most revolutionary way to change society, he answered:
Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step…If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.[ix]
The Apostle Paul declares, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” (Acts 20:27) This timeless apostolic encouragement calls to all of us to handle God’s Word and present it in its fullness, in its entirety. We have been given the greatest story ever told and been invited to be a part of it. What an exciting opportunity.
[i] Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 930.
[ii] Gen 1:1
[iii] Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006. 71.
[iv]Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. London: SPCK, 1992. 41-42.
[v] Goheen, Michael. “The Urgency of Reading the Bible as One Story in the 21st Century.” Lecture, Regent College,
Vancouver, November 2, 2006.
[vi] Tim Keller essay, “Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City- Centers.”
[vii]N.T. Wright, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm
[viii] Goheen, Michael. “The Urgency of Reading the Bible as One Story in the 21st Century.” Lecture, Regent College,
Vancouver, November 2, 2006.
[ix] “Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich,” Proclamation, Invitation, & Warning, July, 2007. https://procinwarn.com/counterfeit/storytelling.htm. Accessed June 20, 2020.