It’s an interesting time in American Evangelicalism. Of all the issues you’d think we’d be settled on, it’s the fundamental question: “what is the gospel?” Yet, browse the releases of the past few years and you’ll quickly find that there’s anything but a consensus. J.D. Greear, Matt Chandler, Greg Gilbert, R.C. Sproul, John Dickson and Scot McKnight have all chimed in on this vital question. And, though there are similarities, it’s also striking just how much variation there is here.
Our Church of the Cross family regularly offers an introductory four-week missional community to introduce new people to who we are and how we live. Week two covers this exact question: “What is the Gospel?” The homework is that each participant has to e-mail me and, in one page or less answer this exact question. As part of our discussion, we have borrowed from Trevin Wax’s excellent resource, the collection of Gospel definitions. We borrowed four different perspectives from four different authors and we compare them in discussion:
Tim Keller: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”
John Piper: “The gospel of Christ is the good news that at the cost of his Son’s life, God has done everything necessary to enthrall us with what will make us eternally and ever-increasingly happy, namely, himself.”
Steve Timmis: “Jesus Christ, God’s promised rescuer and ruler lived our life, died our death and rose again in triumphant vindication as the first-fruits of the new creation to bring forgiven sinners together by the Holy Spirit to live under his gracious reign as His Kingdom people.”
N.T. Wright: “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 Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
We have yet to have anyone say that they think any of these definitions are heretical. But we’ve also yet to have anyone say that they completely resonate with all four. Instead, most people seem to identify with one of these definitions more strongly than the others. While we did not choose definitions at the extreme ends of the spectrum, we do see that, while some emphasis substitutionary atonement stronger, others lean more towards a kingdom or Christus-Victor approach.
Recent work by N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and John Dickson, among others have (I believe) convincingly demonstrated that, while “salvation by grace alone through faith alone/substitutionary atonement/propitiation” is certainly part of the Gospel, it is not necessarily the totality of the Gospel. And yet, at least within many of the circles that I travel within, this has become the totality of “the Gospel,” so much so, that it’s common to simply describe such doctrines as the gospel as if anything else is just simply not “the gospel.”
Yet, we seem to forget that the first four books of the new testament are actually “The Gospel According To . . . ” In other words, the four authors understood the totality of their letters as “the Gospel.” Jesus refers to “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 24:14) and in Matthew 26, when the woman adorns Jesus with perfume, Jesus sums it up by saying: “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13).
In its most fundamental sense, “gospel,” as you know, means “good news.” This certainly includes ”salvation by grace alone through faith alone/substitutionary atonement/propitiation,” but it is also almost certainly not limited to this doctrine. As Mark Driscoll has shown in his helpful book Death By Love, not only does it include propitiation and Christus Victor, but also forgiveness, expiation and other truths. And as Scot McKnight, John Dickson, N.T. Wright and others have demonstrated, the first audience certainly would have understood it primarily as the royal announcement of the arrival of the Messiah.
And yet, we now have an entire strand of evangelicalism which quite forcefully says that if you don’t include the salvation by grace alone through faith alone/substitutionary atonement/propitiation” strand of truth in every presentation, then you have not presented “the gospel.” While I understand the concern, I’m honestly a bit perplexed on why it scares so many “reformed” folk that the Gospel is actually larger than their pet doctrines allow for? You don’t fully appreciate a prism until you begin to see just how many beautiful colors and color combinations it can produce. Why is it that when someone emphasizes a truth of “the Gospel” that is not our “choice doctrine,” we accuse them abandoning orthodoxy?
To my “reformed” friends, please understand: I am not abandoning salvation by grace alone through faith alone/substitutionary atonement/propitiation.” I’m simply saying that it’s not the totality of the Gospel. Why can’t we expand our perspective instead of saying that those who don’t share the same limits are somehow heretics?
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).