There’s more than one gospel.

Yesterday I listened to one of my most revered professors from seminary give a talk on the mission of the church in which he implored church leaders to shape congregations who live the gospel before a watching world. It’s pure Newbigin, and the kind of thing this professor has been saying for decades. It’s really hard to disagree with.

But I’ve come up against a problem since I sat at the professor’s feet 10 years ago. “The” gospel doesn’t exist. Even in the New Testament, “the” gospel means more than one thing:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the [gospel] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son . . .” (Romans 1)

The gospel is the good news that Jesus preached: “The time is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1).

The gospel is the good news proclaimed about Jesus:  “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1).

Many today urgently proclaim gospel to men and women with the aim of compelling faith, some variation of “Jesus died for your sins and you have reconciliation with God. Believe the good news and be saved.”

Many today urgently proclaim gospel to the church to compel a change of course. Last week a speaker at a national conference told the audience that “The gospel is at stake” in the church’s stance on marriage equality. Countless opponents have asserted the same thing while urging the opposite outcome.

It seems to me that step 1 in shaping a community to “live the gospel” is getting clear which one we’re talking about.

12 thoughts on “Gospel(s)

  1. as I recall, the disciples were also trying to get Jesus to nail down the gospel. I continue to be baffled with “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father except by me.”

    What is his “me”? what is he talking about? Jesus left it open ended.

    I don’t think jerusalem, Greece or Rome had a definitive answer to “me.”

    1. Right, and what does “coming to” Jesus look like for those who aren’t with him in the flesh? It’s open to lots of interpretation, which I think is exciting and fruitful. Only, I want people to be honest when they’re doing interpretation and not just assert the “truth” of “the” gospel.

  2. Rocky, your post brought to mind Galatians 1:6-9. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you into the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

    So the question is: which of us is proclaiming a different gospel? We should all seriously consider that we might be the one on the wrong side of the gospel. Our human tendency is to assume that we are the ones who are on the right track and then look for support in bible and theology. We need to ask ourselves whether we are protecting our current beliefs with a closed mind and heart, or if we are exercising enough humility to be open to our brothers and sisters points of view.

    With that caveat, what was the contrary gospel that Paul spoke about? My understanding of the issues is that Paul separated the dietary and cultic traditions clearly stated in the Law from the gospel. The new gentile converts did not only not have to submit to these biblical requirements of God’s chosen, it would be counter to the gospel for them to do so. This is a pretty radical understanding of the authority of Scripture. The gospel as Paul understood it was open to new (and previously excluded) people in ways that seemed ugly and just plain wrong to those who were abiding in the traditional interpretation of Scripture. Paul could be accused of watering down God’s requirements just so it would be easier to bring big numbers into the church. It seemed like he was giving in to the culture of the ungodly Roman Empire. Paul’s opponents had the clear reading of Scripture on their side, what did Paul have on his side?

    1. Thanks, Ron. Paul uses “gospel” to refer to a series of events concerning Jesus. The gospel (read:books) writers use “gospel” to refer to the body of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. It’s present tense: this is happening. Paul’s is past tense: in Jesus, this happened. But it’s also present: you are being saved.
      A simple rubric helps. Anything proclaimed as “gospel” that defends a status quo in which the wealthy and powerful are protected; anything proclaimed as “gospel” that depends upon human effort; anything proclaimed as “gospel” that doesn’t have God as the subject of the sentence–that gospel is different from what both Jesus and Paul had in mind.

  3. “It seems to me that step 1 in shaping a community to “live the gospel” is getting clear which one we’re talking about.”

    Many of us have felt the same way about “the essential tenets of the Reformed faith”, As soon as a church or presbytery (read: San Diego) attempts to actually define them, all Hades breaks loose with cries of legalism. I took Jack Rogers class on polity back in the late 1980’s where we used his book in trying to discern that those essential tenets are.

    For many in my circle of friends, my “tribe”, the essential tenets are more doctrinal than anything else (deity of Jesus Christ, authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, etc.). For many in other tribes, the essential tenets are more behavioral (welcoming others, a stance for justice, etc.)

    As it is hard to maintain community around the gospel without defining the gospel, isn’t it just as hard to maintain an authentic community (not the sham veneer of the “let’s just get along” variety) without defining the core values/beliefs of the community?

    Stuff like “the gospel” and “Reformed faith” have become increasingly like the old Supreme Court Justice to refused to define pornography, but concluded, “I know it when I see it.”

    Since I am currently reading through Judges (how did THAT book ever make it into the canon?!?), isn’t this closed to everyone doing what is right in their own eyes?

    You’re a good man, Rock. Keep blogging, thinking, and loving those kids at Claremont into mature Christian discipleship.

    1. Thanks Jim. I think there’s a distinction between a tenet and “the gospel” which, I think has more of a narrative ring, or at least a ring of a central organizing claim. I use “the gospel”as shorthand all the time to describe Jesus’ teaching in summary and the effect of his life for us. But I’m more and more seeing the need to illustrate it and to say what I mean. Saying something is “the gospel” and leaving it at that doesn’t really help

  4. Yes, there is a difference between a tenet and the gospel, but the point seems to be that both lose their power and effectiveness if they are not clearly defined. Of course, they can be defined narrowly or broadly, concretely or vaguely, winsomely or harshly. And yet, if there is no clarity, there is just confusion.

    Imagine going to a restaurant that features “California Cuisine”. You enter with your wife, sit down for what you expect to be a nice dinner, and you are handed a menu from In ‘n’ Out. Well, technically, In ‘n’ Out is “California Cuisine”, right? But that’s not what “California Cuisine” means in the culinary world.

    It used to be OK to say “the gospel” and have people understand it because there was a consensus. (A good or accurate consensus remains another question.) There is no longer a consensus. So I see a “good car” as one with lots of horsepower and lots of speed, and you see a “good car” with lots of MPG’s and eco-friendly, and someone else sees a “good car” as anything on wheels that is red. There is no longer a consensus about what a “good car” is, nor is there wide consensus as to what the gospel is. No wonder we have a hard time reaching people in the culture! We have this great news, but we can’t succinctly describe it.

    At a former church, the secretary was a hoarder. And the Personnel Committee for years had written her up and demanded that she clean the office. The problem was that her version of “clean” was starkly different from the Personnel Committee’s version of “clean”. What helped us, (I thought I was back in grade school), was to sit down and define “clean”.

    1. Thoughtful as always, Stochl. I guess I’m more comfortable with “gospel” as an interpretive framework than I am with “tenet,” especially if the tenet is supposedly essential. I don’t want to precisely define gospel, I just want us to be clear about our interpretive lenses and biases.

      1. So, we are to be clear on our interpretive lenses and biases but not the gospel? Isn’t that like a pharmacist reading a prescription written on white paper and blue ink but still unable to make out what it means? 😀

        We cannot be unclear about the gospel. Even if it is along the lines of, “Here’s how I read what Jesus is saying and what Jesus is about.”

        One of the internally frustrating things for me is that many of us have picked up on legitimate parts of the gospel, and made it the entire gospel.

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