Friday, July 26, 2013

what is the gospel? a question not so easily answerd

I struggled to decide what to share this week, and in the end decided to begin the dialogue about something that I've been wresting with, something that has been weighing heavily on me for some time now: the church's (mis)understanding of the gospel.
matt chandler

I know that is a bold statement.  It sounds arrogant to criticize the preaching found in so many pulpits.  (Although it turns out I'm not alone (more on that later).) I'm not claiming here that I've got it all figured out (my reading list grows longer by the day), but I do want to share with you this burden that I feel deeply.  I hope it will lead to some good discussion and maybe even some change.

My church small group is doing a study on Matt Chandler's Explicit Gospel.  I'm having a hard time enjoying the book.  So far it seems like a filled-out version of the four spiritual laws, mixed with the 'neo-reformed' (not sure what to call it) creation-fall-redemption-restoration explanation of scripture.  I don't have as many problems with the second emphasis as with the first method, but in both cases I have one big concern: it's not the gospel.

The gospel isn't primarily about how someone "gets saved".  It isn't about a transaction.  It's not about God creating the world and people being sinful and deserving hell.  It's about the person of Jesus.

"Can't it be both?" you ask.  That depends on if you care about the New Testament definition of Gospel.   The fact that Jesus's death on the cross frees us from sin, that we are justified by faith, is true, and certainly good news.  But it is not the "gospel" as defined by the first Christians.  I believe that the distinction does matter.  Before I explain further, we need to take a look at 1 Corinthians 15.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:1-5)
Lay aside everything else for a moment and read it again.  What is Paul's definition of the gospel?

It is Christ - the events of his life, in accordance with the scriptures.  Importantly, it is not simply Jesus the man referred to here.  Jesus' messianic title - Christ - is used, and with it all that it entails.    The good news is Jesus the Christ - the Anointed One, the Messiah.  He died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised (yes, a dead man now alive!), and he was seen by witnesses and is still alive.

Scot McKnight* shows how there is a traceable line from passages including this one to the development of the creed within the early church.  What this means is that from very early on, this was the gospel that was preached.  How did it change to what McKnight calls the "Soteriological gospel" (in lay terms, the how-salvation-works-gospel)  This is a long and interesting story, and I will let you hear it from someone more knowledgeable than me (McKnight is a good place to start).

The unfathomable richness of the gospel expressed in the passage above deserves many more blog posts.  For now, let me contrast it briefly to Chandler's gospel, and say a final word about why all of this matters.

Matt Chandler's gospel seems to be primarily about our relationship to God, and how, in a legal fashion, that relationship changes because of what God has done.  He repeatedly emphasizes that the gospel is about God, not us.  But why, I have to ask, is it so much about individual salvation?  There is conspicuously little on the life, resurrection, and messianic identity of Jesus.  For me it is uncomfortably more about a series of tidy logical steps than about a life-changing story about our living, reigning King.

Finally - why does this matter?  First, if the early church (starting with the apostles) cared so much about the historical life events of Jesus and his identity as Messiah, so should we.  By focusing on the theological steps to salvation, we risk diminishing our preaching of Christ as King.  Finally, the "getting saved" gospel leaves very little in the way of resources for living the Christian life.  Of course churches have discipleship programs, etc, to make up for this, but the link between these programs and the message they preach is often weak.

I believe this is a serious issue facing a large portion of the church in America.  I invite your thoughts on all of this, either via comments or email.

**Talk given at Regent College on his book The King Jesus Gospel


  1. I shall have to think on this. Good post.
    -Little Megan

  2. update: I've written a post with some further resources and links for exploring some of these topics: