Bird on what is the gospel (2)

Since Michael Bird is aiming to construct an ‘evangelical theology’ (just set Dec’s teeth on edge there, sorry about that) one of the first tasks he has is to answer the question ‘What is the gospel?’ A question that has come up on this blog rather a fair bit.  And what Bird says here is solidly in line with  N T Wright, Scot McKnight, John Dickson and many others …

The gospel has six themes within it. He unpacks each of these succinctly and persuasively:

1. The gospel is the message of the kingdom of God

2. The gospel includes the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and exaltation

3. The gospel announces the status of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God, and Lord

4. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles is intimated in the Old Testament

5. The response that the gospel calls for is faith and repentance

6. Salvation is the chief benefit of the gospel

And so Bird’s summary definition:

The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit

Couple of comments.

This is a very helpful summative discussion.

Bird doesn’t really get into the context of intra-evangelical debates and how this definition sits in considerable tension with popular traditional evangelical perceptions of ‘the gospel – where it is (to caricature a bit) ‘You are a sinner under God’s wrath and judgement. Jesus died for you. Believe in Jesus and your sins are forgiven and you will go to heaven when you die’. Or maybe ‘The bad news is that you are sinner. The good news is that Jesus died in your place; believe in him and you will be justified by faith’.

Bird’s scheme does not begin with sin / wrath or equate the gospel with justification by faith. Sin gets a mention in point 2 and point 5 where repentance is a changing one’s view of Jesus and expressing contrition for sin against God. He does say that the gospel is not simply an atonement theology, a system of salvation, it is news of events.

This is right but remains I think counter-intuitive for many evangelicals. I would have thought he’d discuss this gap between NT gospel and popular evangelicalism more in a book on evangelical theology. He does set this gospel up in contrast to the social gospel (and he includes McLaren in this along with Rauschenbusch).

I’d also want to push for more discussion on the evangelical tendency to individualism in contrast to the corporate nature of God’s saving work. The gospel brings the believer into a new community of the King by the Spirit.

And, perhaps unintentionally, the chapter shows how thoroughly N T Wright has blazed the trail on gospel. I can remember not so long ago his summary gospel of ‘Jesus is Lord’ had people scratching their heads thinking he’d made a category mistake.  Bird quotes Wright’s summary at the beginning of the chapter before developing his own later. But compare Wright’s with Bird’s and you see that the former’s is so good that there isn’t a lot new to say …

‘The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus as the risen Lord.’

Comments, as ever, welcome

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6 thoughts on “Bird on what is the gospel (2)

  1. Hi Patrick!
    Your caricature is, unfortunately, not that much of a caricature. I can say I have seen a small shift away from this kind of incomplete understanding of the gospel in my little corner of the world. It hasn’t been the result of folks intentionally reassessing the viability of their evangelical theology of the gospel, though.
    People gain some perspective from the influence of popular preachers like David Platt and Francis Chan. Then, through the back door (or maybe it’s the front door) of simply deciding that they can and ought to repent of a culturally acceptable, self-serving, “Christianity”, and begin living with God’s priorities in mind, their view of gospel and it’s implications, seemingly by default, becomes increasingly expansive.

    • Great to hear from you Crystal! Saw you had just re-joined real life 🙂 My wife gives me a hard time for (alleged) over-use of the word ‘narrative’. But I’ll stick with it and hope she doesn’t read this. If each person has an ‘entry point’ into the gospel (perhaps as simple and as profoundly important as ‘God loves you’), they will likely only have a very partial sense of the whole story. That bigger story takes time to grow into and learn and appreciate. And, as you say, the more you do the bigger its scope and implications are. But you would hope that people don’t just stay with simple entry point version and think ‘this is the gospel’ in full.

  2. I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on a post with the E word in it. I find the Wright/McKnight/Bird gospel a little too neat and tidy. There seems to be an assumption that everybody gets to hear the exact same gospel, but I think definitions of the gospel will depend on who is hearing it. Here is where I would want to bring in some of those social gospel folk. Luke tells us (at least twice) that Jesus was preaching the gospel “to the poor.” This wasn’t a generic gospel for just anyone. It was very specifically for the have-nots of society.

    Ephesians also speaks of the gospel in very specific terms – it is a word addressed to Gentiles, who at one time were divided from Israel but who have now been made able to have fellowship with Jews as the one people of God through the reconciliation made possible by Christ who is peace. The gospel, in short, is that in Christ, hostility has been killed. As you mentioned in your critique – and here you are spot on – community and gospel cannot be spoken of separately. More than that, “community” cannot be spoken in abstract terms. Here again some social gospel content might be necessary, because the gospel is always aware of the particular social reality in which it is to be spoken.

    • I’d guess those authors would contest the assumption you observe Dec while agreeing that the context will significantly shape how the good news is communicated. If these are big picture summaries of the specific content and ‘architecture’ of the good news in the NT, the biggest challenge in the NT, as you note, is how the heck does this global good news that Jesus is Lord of all apply to pagan Gentiles or the poor? I’m no evangelist I’m afraid, but i love the idea that ‘the’ good news is rich enough and deep enough and wide enough to connect to all sorts of people in all sorts of different cultures and contexts.

  3. I do get the impression that these big picture summaries of the gospel are treated by Wright/McKnight as THE gospel, and then we translate this gospel into other contexts. Is there such a thing as an “original” gospel that is free of translation? I see these summaries as functioning as such, but I’m not sure such a move can be theologically justified. Historically justified, perhaps.

    • I think that’s an fair summary of the ‘W/Mc ights’. Rushing out the door – sounds like a conversation for a few blog posts on translation of ‘original’ gospel and 4 gospels all translators in their own way of the ‘Jesus story’ …

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