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What is the gospel? (part I)

March 21, 2010
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I was looking at this question a while ago because of topics that my church was covering, and I realized that I understood this question less than I would like. I suspect that this question, as asked in evangelical (or Reformed) churches does not quite mean “what does the word ‘gospel’ refer to in the New Testament?”.   But, what do evangelicals mean, if not that?

The answer is 42. But what is the question?

One angle on the gospel is to note that the right answer to the question in my tradition is some variant of “the four spiritual laws”:

  1. God loves you and offers you life with Him.
  2. People are sinful and therefore separated from God and His life for them.
  3. Jesus paid the penalty for our sin by dying on the cross.
  4. You need to accept this payment by “receiving” Jesus.

This is somewhat reduced from the “four spiritual laws” and, in practice, often further reduced to the fact that we are sinners, and that Christ’s death accomplished our forgiveness, if you “receive” him. But what questions could this be the answer to?

the gospel: the minimal message that you can believe and be saved

One meaning that “the question” has is (I think) related to salvation and evangelism. Since the evangelical church has emphasized “getting saved” as in “getting to heaven”, and has emphasized the “intellectual assent” part of faith, a natural question is “how little can you believe and go to heaven?”

But in evangelism, another concern can be, how little can a convert believe and be “saved”? This comes naturally from our focus on evangelism – how small can we make them message, and have it still accomplish its intended effect? Additionally, evangelicals often tell people that they should begin “evangelizing” as soon as they become a Christian – when they in fact know very little about Jesus, let alone the Biblical narrative. This might also tend to make us minimize or compress the saving message so that people who have just come to believe in this message can immediately begin proclaiming it again. Or it might be a side effect of doing so.

the gospel: the essential core of the christian message

In a related fashion, this question can also be used to identify the core of the Christian message. We find it important to distinguish the “essentials” from the non-essentials. This is important in living out the faith, but the whole idea of essentials seems to hark back to the first question – how little can you get away with?

Also the idea of “the essentials” was really aimed at determining if a group is orthodox. But there is more to life than being orthodox. For example, one can grasp “the essentials” without a good understanding of the Bible, but this doesn’t mean that learning the Bible isn’t “essential” to growing in relationship with God.

the gospel: a theory of how justification actually works

As Mark Noll  (who wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”) says, evangelicalism is cruci-centric. We focus on Jesus’s atoning death in a way that makes it extremely important – perhaps more important than the resurrection, sometimes :P So, one idea of the gospel is that it is an mechanistic explanation of how exactly Jesus’s death could have accomplished our forgiveness. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree.”  That’s the gospel.

the gospel: justified by grace through faith, not by works

Alternatively, we might focus on the fact that nothing we can do will earn God’s favor or forgiveness. Because (as above) Jesus accomplished our forgiveness on the cross, we don’t need to do anything, nor could we. That’s the gospel.

What to make of all this?

Well, I am definitely sympathetic to those who want to present the gospel, but I don’t think condensing it is the way to go.  First, I find nothing in scripture to suggest that “gospel” means either “the essential core of the Christian message” or “what you have to believe to be saved”.  Second, I see a disturbing tendency to distill the “gospel” down to such an extent that understanding Scripture is neglected in favor of two or three “essential points about God”.  I’ve seen this happen even where the Bible is (one might say) revered as a icon.

Third, the gospel is not a presentation.  Just like all news, it can be (and should  be) presented, but that doesn’t make it a kind of sales-pitch to potential converts.  It is an announcement.  And it is an announcement of all the grace that God has given.  When new Christians “repent and believe the gospel”, we need to be honest and say: “You’ve got the basics of the gospel, but you don’t know the whole thing.”  And we need to do a good job teaching them the rest.

But, by condensing the gospel, we are instead whittling away some of the news.  Isn’t the pouring out of the Spirit part of the news?    Isn’t the promise of a renewed heart part of the news?  Isn’t it part of the news that God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ? Frequently, all of these are left out of definitions of “the gospel”.  But, if the gospel is “good news”, then isn’t more news better?

P.S. Take a look at the parallel post “Occurrences of ευαγγελιον & ευαγγελιζω” to see all occurrences of “gospel” in the Old and New Testaments.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    March 27, 2010 6:54 am

    Yeah, I know what you mean. Once or twice every hour on my local Christian station they give “the core message,” endlessly re-packaging the words they use but all essentially asking people to call 1-888-NEED-HIM to “get saved.” Now I think that’s better than not preaching the “gospel” at all, but every time I hear it, I think to myself, “Is that really the best we can do?” We have succeeded at putting the gospel into a sound bite, but how many people actually grow into the largeness of the new life in God that we are given after we come to know Him? That IS the purpose of Christianity, isn’t it — to know God? And to know God better we have to know ourselves better, so that we may submit more and more of our inner self to His Lordship. That takes time, fear, and trembling, and a whole lot of grace.

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