Claiming the G word

This is a 3 part post on Christian overuse and misuse of the word gospel that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

It is offered not in a snide critical way, but out of an increasing sense of sadness at the divisions within evangelicalism (‘gospel people’ to quote John Stott) over the very word that gives them their name.

Reading some literature from a Christian organisation a while ago I couldn’t help noticing the frequency of the word ‘gospel’. It was everywhere.  I counted over 50 appearances used in about 20 different ways. For example:

‘gospel message’, ‘gospel-centred churches’, ‘full-time ministry of the gospel’, ‘the work of the gospel’/’gospel work’/’gospel workers’, ‘gospel partnership’, ‘growth of the gospel’, ‘the gospel speaks to the heart’, ‘the blessings of the gospel’, ‘gospel commitment’, ‘bringing the gospel to x’, ‘y being passionate about the gospel’, ‘proclaiming the gospel’ , ‘everything we do has the gospel at the centre’ – and so on.

Now I’m all for the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). It bears fruit and grows as it is taught and learnt (Col 1:5-6).  It is a message that, by the grace of God, has changed my life.

But I have a few problems with this sort of claiming of the ‘G word’ for just about every aspect of Christian activity. Here’s the first reason why:

  1. Indiscriminate use of the G-word devalues its meaning

As has been blogged about plenty of times here, the gospel has a specific meaning.  John Dickson has a wonderful chapter on ‘What is the Gospel’ in his equally wonderful book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. In it he offers this summary of the gospel.

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.”

Or you don’t have to take his word for it; try D A Carson,

” … from a comprehensive theological perspective the gospel is the good news of the coming of Jesus – who he is, his mission, above all his death and resurrection, the inauguration of the final eschatological kingdom even now, and all that this means for how we live as individuals and as the church, the eschatological people of God, in fulfilment of all the promises God made in the scriptures that led up to Jesus.”

Or Michael Bird

“God promised in the Scriptures that he would renew creation and restore Israel. The gospel is the good news that God has made these promises good in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. Jesus died and rose for the purpose of atoning for sins and through faith in him and his work believers are reconciled to God. The new age has been launched and God has revealed his saving righteousness in the gospel so that he justifies and delivers from the penalty and power of sin and death.”

Or Scot McKnight in his recent book The King Jesus Gospel (not a quote)

1 Corinthians 15 is the early and prime example of ‘gospel’ in the NT. And this gospel is best summarised by Jesus the Messiah bringing completion to the story of Israel. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the consummation of the kingdom to come. This is, Scot argues, the message the 4 gospels tell; it is the gospel of Paul; it is the gospel Peter preaches in Acts, and it is what Jesus himself preaches – he repeatedly puts himself at the centre of God’s purposes for Israel.

Now you can come back at me and say I’m just plain wrong, but I suggest that this NT understanding of gospel above is not what is in mind behind the indiscriminate use of the G-word in the sort of literature I was reading.

It’s my strong suspicion that those who most vehemently claim the G word tend to have a pretty specific summary understanding of what gospel equals. And that is something close to an evangelistic summary presentation of how to be saved like this (actual example):

  1. [Bad News] We have a serious sin problem
  2. [Bad News] We cannot solve our sin problem by our own good works
  3. [Good News] God has a solution to our sin problem
  4. [Good News] We must accept God’s solution by faith

I’m not saying this isn’t true as far as it goes. But you don’t need to have Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to notice that ‘how to get saved’ formula [what Scot McKnight calls a ‘soterian gospel’] is rather a long way from the New Testament’s rich understanding of the Good News. It tends to reduce the gospel down to little more than shorthand for anything to do with evangelistic activity. It’s detached almost completely from the story of the Bible – a story which has the coming of Jesus the Messiah of Israel as its climax.

To equate this with ‘the gospel’ is like comparing a kids colour by numbers picture of the Mona Lisa with the finished masterpiece.

In other words, indiscriminate use of the word ‘gospel’, rather than demonstrating fidelity the good news, actually starts to devalue the G-word. Ironically, it does the opposite of what is intended.

Next post is on how the use of the G-word can become an exclusionary weapon.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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