Thursday, September 6, 2012

Summarizing the Gospel in Seven Words: D. L. Moody Revisited?

The old evangelist Dwight L. Moody famously claimed the ability to "write the gospel on a dime."  I have long scoffed at this, viewing it as a classic example of the wedding of arrogance and naivete.  Scoffing aside, the issue of what the "gospel" message actually entails has developed into somewhat of a cottage industry in biblical studies over the past few years.  On one side stand such traditionalist Protestant groups like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, who exist to defend and propagate a "soterian" (from the Greek term sōtēria, "salvation") message rooted in the twin doctrines of penal, substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.  On the other side stand such New Testament scholars as Darrell Bock and Scot McKnight, who maintain that the New Testament "gospel" is more wide-ranging in its content than the traditional individualistic, forensic formulation might suggest, with Christological, salvation-historical, and corporate/communitarian dimensions that need emphasis as well.  On this blog I have weighed in quite frequently and with great detail (see herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here), coming down firmly on the side of Bock and McKnight.  As Tom Wright has argued strenuously over the years, the "gospel" is emphatically not the message of "how one 'gets saved'."  It is the message that results in people "getting saved" when they believe through the effective agency of God's Spirit who inspired the message and illumines the hearer.  And the New Testament portrays this "gospel" message as the fulfillment of God's promises in Isaiah 40-55.  As a result, McKnight defines the gospel as "the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel's Story" (p. 43).  I myself, after an analysis of Mark and Paul, defined the gospel as the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God through the historical events of Christ's death and resurrection.

Now mainline American Protestants are getting in on the act joining the conversation.  On 23 August The Christian Century had a short cover story in which David Heim

asked a number of high profile respondents to summarize the gospel in seven words or less.  Shades of Moody indeed from a quite unexpected source!  Some of the responses were quite interesting (read Heim's full story for elaborations of these and further responses):

  • Martin Marty: "God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow."
  • Donald W. Shriver: "Divinely persistent, God really loves us."
  • Beverly Roberts Gaventa: "In Christ, God's yes defeats our no."
  • Mary Karr: "We are the Church of Infinite Chances."
  • Brian McLaren: "In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation."
  • Ellen Charry: "The wall of hostility has come down."
  • Lamin Sanneh: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world."
  • Bill McKibben" "Love your neighbor as yourself."
  • Scott Cairns: "Christ's humanity occasions our divinity."
  • Walter Brueggemann: "Israel's God's bodied love continues world-making."
  • M. Craig Barnes: "We live by grace."
This is an interesting, if somewhat predicable, smattering of responses.  Some, by their terminology, reflect the underlying liberalism of their theology. Brueggemann's definition, though rich, remains more than a little abstruse and capable of misunderstanding.  Cairns's response differs from the rest in its Eastern Orthodox emphasis on theiosis.  McKibben's answer no doubt caused a minor earthquake in Wittenberg when Luther rolled over in his grave at the apparent confusion of law and gospel manifested thereby.  Gaventa's transparently Barthian summation is quite good (though, as we would affirm, too narrow in focus), while Sanneh's quotation of 2 Corinthians 5:19 resonates deeply within my Pauline soul.  

But, as Scot McKnight has rightly noted, all of these statements are summaries of "soterian" gospels of one particular type, viz., "God loves us" gospels.  Now it is true that God's love for a dying and condemned world is a strong emphasis in the writings of John and Paul.  McKnight, however, rightly notes the absence of such a theme in any of the numerous "gospel" sermons in Acts (e.g., ch. 2, 3, 4, 10-11, 13, 14, 17).  The emphasis, in each case, is on Jesus.  The gospel, in other words, is primarily Christological.  (Such a Christological focus, I might add, is exceedingly clear in such Pauline texts as Romans 1:2-4 as well.)  As a result, McKnight offers three different Christological definitions, varying from three to seven words: "The gospel in three words: Jesus is Lord (or King). Five words: Jesus is the expected Messiah (or King, or Lord). Seven words: Jesus is the expected King who redeems."

One "soterian" who has not backed down (and is unlikely ever to do so) is Michael Horton.  After an admirable review of the various responses elicited by Heim, Horton offers a nine-word summary based on Romans 4:25: "Crucified for our sins and raised for our justification."  Like Claude Rains's Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, I am "shocked" that Horton would define the gospel in terms of justification.  All kidding aside, I have argued many times that justification is not the message of the gospel per se, but rather the result of the Spirit's effective operation through the gospel message to elicit faith in the hearer.  More significantly, like those of the writers he criticizes, Horton's gospel is entirely a soterian one.  Christology—specifically, who Jesus is and how his mission in life, death, and resurrection relates to God's Old Testament promises to Israel—appears only implicitly at best.  

It would, I think, be better to use Paul's own citation of the tradition he claims to have "received" at his conversion (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) as a basis from which to work. There the traditional gospel is presented as follows: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve." Jesus' death for our sins and resurrection the third day are emphasized here as they are in Horton's summary, but two important nuances are found here that Horton ignores.  First, the subject of the death and resurrection is identified as "Christ."  Far from being a simple proper name, "Christ" is a title, and hence the tradition explicitly identifies Jesus' death and resurrection as messianic acts.  Second, Jesus' death and resurrection took place "according to the Scriptures."  Verses 20-28 elaborate on this theme, and show that these messianic acts were the means by which God was, at long last, fulfilling the purposes for creation and humankind that he had promised to his people in Scripture. To put it simply, the gospel is the message of the kingdom of God.  It speaks of both its inauguration and guaranteed consummation through the death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus. Using 1 Corinthians 15 as my primary text, I would define the "gospel" in seven words as follows: Jesus, the crucified Messiah and risen Lord.  Here Christology retains its primacy, though soteriologial and salvation-historical aspects are clearly implicit as well.

One further text ought also to inform the discussion, Mark 1:14-15"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'" This text is significant on numerous fronts. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that these verses in effect define the gospel for us in verse 15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." In the context of the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the people stood at the cusp of the eschaton. They were about to experience the inauguration of the promised and long-awaited kingdom of God. Mark proceeds in his narrative to demonstrate that it was through the ministry, death, and resurrection of the "son of God" that this kingdom came to fruition. Note as well that the call to repentance and faith is clearly not part of the gospel per se, but rather the called-for response to the message of good news, defined in terms of the kingdom. Mark, in 1:1, had designated his book a "gospel" about Jesus Messiah, the Son of God. Christology, once again, takes primacy. But in Jesus' own preaching of the message, Christology serves the purpose of eschatology:  it was through Jesus' own messianic ministry that God's kingdom would be established as had been promised. In this light, one could summarize the gospel as follows: God's kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ.

How would you summarize the gospel?  Let me know.


  1. Matthew 1: 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ[e] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed[f] to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

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