A few years ago I was at a men's retreat sponsored by the Lutheran congregation I belonged to at the time. One of the guest speakers was a self-identified Lutheran with a Ph.D. from U. of Tubingen who is now involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. Naturally, his talk had to do with the Four Spiritual Laws as an evangelism tool, and how he had become a Christian through a friend sharing said laws with him.
I sought him out afterward and said that I didn't find the 4 Laws to square very well with Lutheran theology. He agreed. So I asked him what he does with that. He talked about how Lutheran theology sees people meeting God through Word and Sacrament. I agreed. Then he asked, what do you do about people who don't belong to a church? Immediately, he answered his own question: You have to share the Gospel with them.
I wasn't satisfied, but I let it go at the time. Now I wish I had followed up. (Like St. Paul, my letters are weighty and strong, but my presence is weak and my speech is contemptible.)
My chief concern with this man's answer was that he seemed to be distinguishing between preaching the Word and sharing the Gospel, though that may have just been a misunderstanding. Beyond that, I would have liked to have discussed just what is meant by "sharing the Gospel."
It seems to me that this is the elephant in the room of modern ecclesiastical differences. We squabble over things like the historic episcopate and human sexuality, but these are red herrings compared to the question of what, exactly, constitutes the Gospel.
It would be helpful, but still not bulletproof, if somewhere in the New Testament someone said, "This is the Gospel...." The fact that this wasn't done should tip us off to a certain depth in the concept that is often underappreciated.
The closest thing we have to a Biblical definition is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where he says, "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Co. 15:3-4).
Now many people are tempted to grab this and say, "Case closed. The Gospel is 'Christ died for our sins.'" I don't think this is wrong, but I do think it is too simple. You may remember my quotation from Abraham Heschel, "In the realm of theology, shallowness is treason." This is nowhere more true than in defining the Gospel. Mark 1:1, to cite one example, speaks against a simple understanding of what the first Christians meant by the Gospel.
But in many, many churches, it is treated as being just that simple. Jesus died for your sins. That is the whole Gospel. Now we can move on to talking about morality. Yikes!
And yet, we must have a concise way of sharing the Gospel. This also came up in comments discussion with p. softly on another topic. I am convinced that this is why mainline churches, including Lutheran churches, resort to the "evangelical"/conservative methods and materials like the Four Spiritual Laws. It's what's available.
But I think we need to do better.
So I ask myself, "What is the Gospel?" I think we need to begin, not with 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 but with Matthew 4:23, "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people."
To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth.
Now, yes, the Crucifixion of Christ is an important part of this, but so is his Incarnation, his Resurrection, and his earthly ministry. And, not to be overlooked, so is the continuing work of the Christian Church in the world. We aren't just hanging around waiting for part 2. We're here to bring in the kingdom!
Now I'm keanly aware of having now fallen somewhat short of the task I set out for myself. I'm still left with a presentation of the Gospel that, while clear to me, may be opaque to those not in the know, but what can I do in so short a space?
Quick, somebody print some catchy marketing materials.