This is the opening blog in a vision series entitled “SBC21: The Duties and Dangers of This Present Hour” that baptist21 will post over the coming months. The introduction, direction, and explanation for this series has been laid out in two previous posts. Here are Part one and Part two of the introduction to this series.
In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Rob Bell was asked to tweet the Gospel (i.e. define the Gospel in less than 140 characters). His response was, “I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.” For many this explanation is lacking. For one thing it lacks a clear tenant of the Gospel message from the New Testament (NT), the cross! But, this begs the question, “What is the Gospel?”
For some it may seem unnecessary to begin a vision series discussing what the Gospel is. For many it is simply assumed that Christians know what the Gospel is because the Gospel is the beginning of the Christian life. Should not the Gospel be elementary to the Christian life? However, there is actually great debate over what the Gospel is. People come at this question from different perspectives. In current debates there seem to be at least two “competing” views among theologians (I put competing in quotations because to some it seems that instead of two different definitions on what the gospel is there are really two different questions being answered. See article by Greg Gilbert). The first position answers the question about the gospel in a kind of systematic summary way: (something like) the Gospel is the perfect life, substitutionary death on the cross, and victorious resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth to save repentant, believing sinners (cf. 1 Cor. 15). The second position answers the question about the gospel more in terms of the grand meta-narrative of Scripture with God remaking as good what was pronounced good at creation, namely the cosmos, through the work of Jesus bringing about the Kingdom of God. A third position can be added to these first two. This third position is not argued among scholars but it is widely held among laity and many pastors in evangelical churches. This position defines the Gospel as the “plan of salvation,” by which one means this is the message you have to hear and receive (asking Jesus into your heart) in order to become a Christian, have your sins forgiven, and go to heaven when you die. This third position sees the gospel as merely the entrance to the Christian life.
The Gospel is the central message of the Christian faith. Getting the gospel wrong is disastrous. I believe that each of the positions stated above can be wrongly emphasized and cause us to lose what the Gospel is! I will take the positions in reverse order. The most disastrous position is the one that sees the Gospel as the door or hoop that gets you into the Christian life but does not see the Gospel as central to ALL of the Christian life, something you both continually believe and live. In theological terms this view sees the importance of the Gospel for justification but not for sanctification. This leads some to not preach the gospel weekly because they believe the Gospel is ONLY for unbelievers and not for believers (or they just tack on an evangelistic appeal at the end of a message for the unbelievers in the crowd). This view sees the Christian life as the praying of a prayer to get in (“accepting the Gospel”), and then “discipleship” is following a list of rules or principles laid down in the Bible after that. This leads to a new form of legalism that is not gospel-centered and can block our lost friends, neighbors, and the nations from hearing the clear message of the Gospel. It tends to put the emphasis of the Christian life primarily on what individual believers “do,” and this lends itself to works-based self-righteousness (or sin-based guilt) rather than gospel-driven, continual repentance. This approach leads to divorcing the imperatives of the Bible from the indicatives of the Gospel. In this we train our children to be Pharisees who pray like Daniel, love their in-laws like Ruth, are brave like David, etc. They see the Christian life as a set of rules (or principles) to follow instead of a person who has acted to rescue a people (For further examination of this check out an earlier baptist21 blog entitled “Preaching the Gospel Every Week”). The Christian life, in this view, is still mainly seen as obeying in order to be accepted rather than acceptance that leads to obedience. This muddying of the Gospel has caused many SBC churches to lose a generation.
The second position can be a good way to explain the Gospel (see below). Yet, some who would espouse this position can tell the meta-narrative in a Christ-less fashion, as if the Kingdom can be ushered in without the king, or as if the king is just a bit character. This de-emphasis was seen clearly in the answer of Rob Bell to the question to tweet the Gospel. Was his response merely that history is headed somewhere and you can trust your instincts to hope that things will get better than they are now, and this is somehow connected to an empty tomb? Where is the cross? Where is sin? Some in this camp, on occasion, seem to explain the Gospel as living as Jesus lived in the world to make the world a better place. Some in this camp flirt with inclusivism (or universalism), elevate social issues (maybe a social gospel), downplay proclamation and avoid speaking of sin. From the more liberal wing of this position would be someone like Brian McLaren who is intentionally vague on whether or not he affirms the exclusivity of the Gospel and consciously dodges the question. McLaren writes, “I can imagine some impassioned critic of this book concluding a review with a statement something like this: ‘It’s bad enough that McLaren has undermined conventional understandings of hell, but in its place what has he offered? No clear alternative. One cannot even tell for sure, after a careful reading of this book, whether McLaren is an inclusivist, conditionalist, or universalist. All one can say is that he is clearly not an orthodox exclusivist.’ In response, I might offer…that clarity is good, but sometimes intrigue may be even more precious; clarity tends to put an end to further thinking, whereas intrigue makes one think more intensely, broadly, and deeply. Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God is a case in point; his parables don’t score too well on clarity, but they excel in intrigue.” The problem with McLaren’s view is that Jesus’ words on exclusivity are clear (and intriguing), and they end further discussion (John 14:6) (link: http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/626)
However, the first position can be overemphasized as well so that personal regeneration is the only thing Jesus accomplished in his passion, or at least the only thing we focus on. This can lead some to not see the holistic implications of the Gospel (i.e. that Christ’s death does NOT merely secure an eternity for bodiless souls in heaven but resurrection from the dead in glorified bodies). This can also lead some to not see the cosmic dimension of the Gospel, new creation. It also leads to the Gospel being about me and Jesus, rather than Jesus rescuing and creating a people, the church. This explanation often emphasizes an individualistic Gospel, not a corporate and cosmic one. Jesus is rescuing a people, a family made up of all nations, and he is remaking the world.