If you, like I, were raised in an "evangelical" church, you might think of this as the question with the ultimate "no-brainer" answer, the theological equivalent of the arithmetical sum of 2 + 2. After all, the designation "evangelical" is derived from the Greek term euangelion ("gospel"), and has been used since the time of Martin Luther in the 16th century to distinguish the Protestant church (die evangelische Kirche) from the Roman Catholic church because of its ostensibly more scripturally faithful understanding of the gospel.
Indeed, as a young Christian I took for granted both the centrality and foundational significance of the gospel. More importantly, I took for granted the belief that my circle of Christians—those who worshipped at churches like Grace Chapel in Havertown, Pennsylvania, and who took their theological cues from institutions like Philadelphia College of Bible and Dallas Theological Seminary—had the "biblical" answer to the question of how to define and articulate it.
I assumed, like all in my circles, that the "gospel" was to be understood as the "message of salvation." In particular, the "gospel" was defined as the good news of what God had done in Christ's (never "Jesus'") death and (in some articulations) resurrection to "make possible" the salvation of individual human beings, and how a person "appropriates" what Christ had accomplished so as to benefit from it. In other words, the gospel, as I was taught it, was the combined message of the doctrines of penal, substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.
Now, I wholeheartedly affirm both of these doctrines as central to my understanding of the faith, not least as articulated by the Apostle Paul. And such an understanding had the heuristic value of distinguishing the "gospel" Christianity of my experience—whether in its Lutheran, Reformed, or Anabaptist manifestations—from both Roman Catholicism and the "modernist" Protestants who located the heart of the faith in Jesus' ethical teaching rather than in his atoning death and bodily resurrection.
Nevertheless, four problems presented themselves to my understanding. For one, we were obsessed with the issue of the "clarity" of the gospel. By that was meant clarity in expressing what a person must "do" to be "saved." This meant, of course, that we had to strive hard to disabuse the notion that "good works" played any role in salvation. Now this is true in that there is nothing a human being can do to "earn" or merit God's favor or be pronounced "not guilty" at the bar of his just judgment. As St. Paul teaches, we are "justified by faith" alone (Rom 3:28—Luther, by the way, was "justified" to insert allein in his translation of the verse). The "righteousness" that avails before God is given to us as a gift of grace.
This concern to eliminate "works," salutary though it was, had some unfortunate consequences. Texts such as Ephesians 2:10, which teach the necessity (and theological inevitability) of good works for believers, were marginalized. Romans 2, which teaches that "the doers of the law ... will be justified," didn't fit on the so-called "Romans Road," so it was either ignored or reinterpreted tendentiously. And James 2 remained as embarrassing for us as it was for Martin Luther himself.
Most importantly, however, the concern to eliminate "works" led to grave misunderstandings of the New Testament itself. I think of two areas in particular. First, Jesus' call to discipleship was reinterpreted as a call to a "second level" of commitment, with the result that the groups "Christian" and "disciple" were no longer viewed as coterminous, despite the obvious implication of Acts 11:26. Second, despite Romans 10:9 and a host of other passages, Jesus' Lordship was divorced from his role as savior. Thus any call to acknowledge Jesus' Lordship in a "gospel" presentation was considered an unwarranted intrusion of "works" into the pure gospel of undeserved grace. The nadir of this approach occurred a generation ago in the "controversy" over John MacArthur's book, The Gospel according to Jesus, where the California pastor exposed the false dichotomy for what it was.
Concern for the clarity of the gospel led to a restricting of what biblical texts could be used. The perennial favorite, John 3:16, was of course paramount. The other "safe" text was Ephesians 2:8-9 (shorn of the inconvenient verse 10), which asserted both salvation by faith and the ineffectual nature of "works." Yet even here confusion reigned in my young head. John spoke of "believing," and Ephesians spoke of "faith" (since I didn't know Greek at the time, I was unaware that both the verb and the noun were cognate, both deriving from the pist- root). Despite this I was taught that the best way to present the gospel was to call people to "accept Jesus as their personal savior" or "trust Jesus as their personal savior." As a youth I was always confused as to why this terminology was apparently preferable to that which I found in the Bible itself. I still recall a conversation in which our youth leader, a graduate of Florida Bible College, was concerned that a friend of mine had expressed his faith in terms of his having "received" Jesus, despite the derivation of his confession from John 1:12.
The second major problem that the standard evangelical understanding of the gospel presented to me was the role of the resurrection. My pastor, a Th.D. graduate of Dallas Seminary, preferred to speak of accepting Jesus as one's personal "sin-bearer." As an avid reader of the Bible, however, I knew that St. Paul had defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 in terms of Jesus' death for our sins, his burial, and his resurrection "according to the scriptures." The standard evangelical "gospel" had the death of Jesus down well, so it seemed, but appeared to leave the resurrection off to one side. How could Paul have said that Christ was "raised for our justification" (Rom 4:25), when the only seeming significance for it that I was hearing was as "proof" that Jesus was really God and/or that God had accepted the validity of his sacrifice for sin?
The third problem I encountered is one associated particularly with the dispensationalist context of my early Christian experience. For us, Paul's gospel, interpreted as the message of justification by faith, was primary, THE message par excellence needed by all people in the present age. But, as I knew, the Gospels spoke of Jesus as having taught the "gospel of the kingdom." Was this the same message as Paul's? Could it be that Jesus, like Paul, actually taught the doctrine of justification? Since evidence for that in the Synoptic Gospels is at best scarce (the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18, perhaps, but nowhere else), my dispensationalist teachers had a different explanation. Jesus' "gospel of the kingdom" was the "gospel" suitable for the "dispensational" context of his earthly ministry. The good news proclaimed by Jesus, on this understanding, was his announcement that God would imminently bring about the Jews' hoped-for messianic kingdom if they repented and accepted him as their Messiah. Paul's gospel, on the other hand, was uniquely designed for the unbelieving world in the wake of the Jewish rejection that led to Jesus' passion and resurrection.
I have since rejected such an inelegant understanding of the biblical story. Nevertheless, it throws into relief a serious problem: if the "gospel" is primarily about individual salvation from sin, how can Jesus' historical announcement of the kingdom be correctly designated as "gospel?"
The fourth problem is one that stared me in the face for years without my even realizing it: If the gospel is the message of individual salvation via Jesus' death and resurrection, how is it the the apparent biographies of Jesus known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John came to be called "Gospels?" Was the early church mistaken to thus label these documents? If not, what significance should be accorded the various narratives of Jesus' teaching and healing ministry? Was Martin Kӓhler right after all in labeling Mark as a "passion narrative with an extended introduction"? Are these stories designed primarily for historical interest? Was Charlie Moule right when he suggested that the Gospels were "exercises in reminiscent reconstruction" designed to explain how the pre-resurrection situation of Jesus' earthly ministry led to the post-resurrection situation of the church? I would articulate the fundamental problem like this: How does the message about the coming of the kingdom of God relate to the events of Jesus' passion and resurrection? How, in other words, do kingdom and cross correlate? My dispensationalist heritage could not answer that question adequately.
I lived with these tensions for years. Indeed, it wasn't until 1997 that a little book by N. T. Wright entitled What Saint Paul Really Said jarred me out of my mental torpor. In that little, popular book, he made an astounding claim that I have since come to regard as foundational to a correct understsanding of the gospel. It is this: The gospel is not a message of "how a person 'gets saved'." It results in people "getting saved" when they believe the message, but the gospel itself is the announcement of Jesus' Lordship as a result of his death and resurrection.
Wright's thesis was elaborated and refined last fall in what I consider an essential little book by Scot McKnight entitled The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. McKnight contends that, over the last 500 years, the Christian understanding of the "gospel" has changed to the point where it now is commonly equated with the plan of salvation and the methods of persuasion used to commend this plan. He calls this new understanding of the gospel "soterian" (from the Greek sōtēria, "salvation"). Importantly, this shift in the understanding of the gospel corresponds with a shift in emphasis away from discipling to that of gaining converts to the faith. What ultimately matters is being "in" and destined for eternity in "heaven." McKnight believes this "soterian" gospel to be deficient in that it has substituted theological propositions related to individual salvation for the story of Jesus, which is the biblical focus of the gospel in that it completes the biblical story of Israel.
McKnight ultimately lays the blame for this shift in emphasis at the feet of the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin themselves, however, can only be accused of this unfairly. Luther, for example, famously defined the gospel thus: "The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s son, who died and was raised, and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell" (p. 94). McKnight, for the most part, is clear to absolve the great reformers of explicit blame for this. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the Reformers' battles were intra-Christian disputes, one of whose major foci concerned how people were justified, it is true that they correspondingly emphasized the standing of the individual before God. As a result, the tables were set for further, less happy developments.
Thus, even though learned Reformed theologians like John Murray have insisted that the gospel message embrace "the whole counsel of God" ("The Message of Evangelism," 125), others have for all intents and purposes identified the gospel with the doctrine of justification. R. C. Sproul, for instance, articulates the gospel thus:
The Gospel is called the ‘good news’ because it addresses the most serious problem that you and I have as human beings, and that problem is simply this: God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness – or lack of it – or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.Indeed, I once heard Sproul claim that the gospel hasn't been preached unless the classic Reformed doctrine of "double imputation" is included as an essential element. This, I assume, is just Sproul being Sproul, so I have chosen to take what he says with a pinch of salt. What is more important, however, is that he has effectively narrowed the focus of the gospel in the way McKnight targets as inadequate.
According to McKnight—and there an be no real dispute—the real culprit in the demise of the fuller, biblical gospel is 19th century American revivalism. The 18th century, both in America and Britain, witnessed a heightened emphasis on the role of human decision in the conversion event/process. The full flowering of this occurred in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. This resulted, first of all, in the conscious attempt to summarize the gospel as succinctly as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does open up the possibility of reductionism and oversimplification. For example, I once heard Bob Godfrey say that D. L. Moody claimed the ability to "write the gospel on a dime." I, for one, would have liked to see that, but am not optimistic that he could have done so and retained much genuine biblical truth. In the 20th century, the most famous example of the attempt to summarize the gospel as a brief set of propositions surely Campus Crusade's "Four Spiritual Laws." Once again, it is not wrong to summarize the New Testament's "plan of salvation." What has happened, however, is that the assumption that such a plan is the gospel has stood in the way of an appreciation for what the Bible itself calls the "good news."
The second result of such a reduction of the gospel is an increased emphasis on methods of persuasion in presenting the gospel. The results, as are well known, have not been pretty: psychological ploys, overly emotional music, altar calls, and—worst of all—downplaying the hard sayings of Jesus and the New Testament authors so as not to turn people off. This begs the question: Is this the best way to fulfill Jesus' commission to "make disciples of all nations?"
Over the next couple of weeks my intention is to look at the New Testament carefully to determine what, in fact, the gospel is. I hope to use exegesis of the major relevant passages in Paul and the Gospels to test McKnight's thesis about the inadequacy of the so-called "soterian" gospel. I do this, not as a mere antiquarian exercise, but because the subject is indeed of first importance (as Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 15:3). And not only that. How we articulate the gospel has far-reaching consequences on how we live out our faith as kingdom citizens in the midst of the present evil age.