Friday, March 17, 2006

What Is the Gospel?

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.


Travis said...

Nice post. But I really don't think the "gospel" is all that complicated. Gospel simply means "good news." What is the good news? The good news is that even though we are born dead in our sins, separated from God, and objects of His wrath... the good news is that God demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners,Christ died for us. So that now, whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. That's the Gospel.
Are a lot of other things in Christianity complicated and deep and hard to understand? Sure.
But our great and awesome God kept the good news so simple that even children can understand and believe.

Andy said...

Well, Travis, that's the separation that I'm talking about. I think the Gospel is a lot bigger than that. I would point to something like Revelation 21:5, "The one seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new.'"

Mata H said...

Melancthon- Bravo. I think there is a distinction among "What is the Message of the Gospel?" -- "What is the Meaning of the Gospel?" -- and "What is the Impact of the Gospel?" Travis is focused on the Message, you on the Meaning. Messages always blossom into larger Meanings. Then we have the issue of Impact -- the Holy "So What" of it all. I think the "So What" is where evangelism can take place. It is surely the locus of the hymn "They will Know we are Christians by Our Love."

BTW, I like CS Lewis's description of the Kingdom in Chronicles of Narnia. They are described as a series of concentric circles, in which the closer one gets to the center, the larger the circles become.

Luthsem said...

The gospel is good news and inclusive but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says
"When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die"

The 4 Spiritual Laws just don't make it.

melissa said...

I had to write a paper earlier this semester addressing exactly this question.

The best thing that I could come up with is that the Gospel is the good news of God's ongoing participation in the salvation of the world. To me, a definition like that is inclusive of God's salvific work in the world before the incarnation, and also then speaks to the life of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit from now until the end of the world. I'm not leaving Christ out of the picture, but I prefer to think about the larger picture of the history of salvation that God initiated even before the creation of the world.

Andy said...

You raise an interesting point, Melissa. Salvation history certainly spans human history and isn't limited to the time since Christ. Even so, the first Christians, who were surely aware of this, had a distinct understanding of the Gospel as the "Gospel of Jesus Christ." Something new had happened, something decisive. I think we do need to be mindful of salvation in the broadest sense going on all around us, but at the same time an authentically Christian understanding of that salvation must somehow seek to be rooted in and inseparable from the coming of Christ.

Scooper said...

The Gospel in its shining simplicity is like a movie screen onto which we project what we want to see. Our own mental and cultural categories (our sin-blurred spiritual "eyes that do not see") show us things that are not there, and ignore things that are. You might find John P. Meier's book Mentor, Message and Miracles, the second volume of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus to be of some help. I reviewed it here.

Thomas Adams said...

I like your comment about the "depth" of the Gospel. In my experience, the Gospel is an inexhaustible and multidimensional concept, which refuses to be pinned down. No matter how much theology I read, I never feel like I’ve completely grasped its essence, and that’s probably a good thing. Just as God transcends all human constructs, the Gospel - the will of God - can never be fully contained in simplistic formulations like “The Four Spiritual Laws.”

Regardless, I’m not so sure that we have to make Christianity simple in order to get people in the door. There’s another approach, best exemplified by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Instead of distilling everything down to four trite “laws”, they stress the mystery and beauty of faith, not its simplicity. By doing so, they avoid the shallowness that plagues much of American evangelical Christianity. The Four Spiritual Laws may be easy to understand, but there is no mystery in them.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I always find it very moving when I hear someone I know to have a great and deep faith also talk about the "mystery."

I've occassionally heard an RC priest chant the line about the "mystery of faith." Almost makes me want to attend there more often, if that service weren't at the same time as my church.

One of the scriptures for today is I Cor 1: 18 - 25 which I interpret, in part, that my mind will never be able to grasp the whole picture of what God is up to. I have some postings on my blog about another church group saying that God becoming man "isn't logical."

LutheranChik said...

I think that repeating "Jesus died for your sins" ad nauseum to people as if the frequency of repetition is somehow going to convey the mystery of the Christian faith to the listener -- as well as placing salvation in the future, as pie in the sky, by and by -- are some of the lamest ways to communicate Christianity. I would agree with the other posters here that to be called into the Christian faith is to be called into a Holy Mystery. And it isn't an individual me-and-Jesus drama; as you quote, "Behold, I am making ALL THINGS new."

Having gone through a period of profound skepticism myself, and having friends who have as well -- it would be nice if would-be proseltyizers would listen to our stories, our disenchantments with Christianity and what it was that God used to break through to us. (Hint: It ain't The Four Spiritual Laws.)

Andy said...

Ah, Mystery...

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds"
-Albert Einstein