Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Asking the question, "what is the gospel?"

image The church is struggling with the gospel. In these last few years of emerging revolution in the church, I have encountered church leaders struggling to re-understand the gospel. I use the word struggle in an intentional way, both in the sense of aggressive engagement and in the sense of frustrated grappling.

Serious engagement with the meaning and power of the gospel is nothing new to our century. One can hardly point to an era in church history when faithful men and women have not been simultaneously enraptured by the gospel's beauty and held fast by its convicting truth. And while many have come near to claiming they have at last divined the gospel's true meaning, the struggle continues unabated, often by those who once felt they had momentarily gained the better of its truth.

In our day, both seasoned saints and emerging radicals are struggling to comprehend and articulate the gospel even while they live within and out of its transformative power. This is a very good thing. Over time, I've found that my ears perk up when someone asks aloud the question "what is the gospel?" The answer one gives to such a question says as much about one's faith as it does about God and His redemptive work in the world. How one answers the question tends to have an enormous impact on the way one's faith is lived. To struggle with the gospel is ultimately to ask hard questions about whether or not we are living the fullness of the gospel as given us in Scripture.

The best part of the question, "what is the gospel?" is that it is a deceptively difficult question to answer. It is even more difficult to do so succinctly. Those of us trained to quote Scripture to such answers have an especially tough time doing so, since anything much shorter than the book of Mark leaves a lot of the gospel out of the answer. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, comes close to a concise statement of the gospel. So does Titus 3:3-7. Hard pressed, one might also point to John 3:16-20. But a close look at these texts reveals a frustrating fact about our Scriptures: very often, the writers assume we know what the gospel is, and use the term more loosely than we would like. Sort of like the same writers do with the Kingdom of God. Even Jesus won't let himself be pinned down about such powerful ideas, preferring to illuminate them with a broad brush through parable and story. The question "what is the gospel?" is a tough one to answer.

That's why I have found myself collecting short versions of answers to this question as I have struggled with it myself. Here is one version I came across recently:

The gospel is the story of the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.

Dr. McKnight errs on the side of completeness over simplicity or comprehensibility. If you read the rest of his article (which is very good and every bit worth your time), you'll see that each phrase fragment stands in for a large and important theological concept that McKnight believes is central to the overarching story of the gospel.

In forthcoming posts, I'll share more gospel paraphrases that I've come across. For now, perhaps we can content ourselves with a little imaginative exercise: if you found yourself across the coffee table from someone sincerely asking the question, "what is the gospel?", what would you tell them given three minutes or less?

Cross-posted to sanctus.cross.


James Wood said...

I've never thought about this question in quite this manner. Thanks for bringing it up.

I think that the rule for mission statements must also apply to this endeavor. K.I.S.S.

If it takes more than one sentence (or requires a run on sentence) then it is too long and complicated.

At PUMP they give everyone "homework" and they say it several times every time they meet: God loves me; Jesus died for me; I can have hope in the resurrection. That's a pretty good gospel statement.

I like the part in McKnight's thing about restoring God's image-bearers . . . I just don't know if that is a concept that can be unpacked in a sentence.

By the way, why is it we can't say: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" I know that it wouldn't work, but why? What is it about that sentence that did work? How can we capture that essence today?

Jake Shore said...

I agree. I would even add that the truth of the gospel has been up for interpretation, particularly in some of the fringes of the emerging movement, becoming instead more of an aesthetic exercise.

I love Dr. Knight's definition. If I had 3 minutes, this would be a great template.

Great post! We need to always be reminded of the primacy of the gospel.