Is the Gospel Simple or Complex?
I've noticed a recent trend in evangelical writings concerning the message of the Gospel. Many Christian leaders are encouraging us to rethink the Gospel, insisting that the message preached by most pastors and evangelists is incomplete.
As you might imagine, though, the "missing" content varies from writer to writer. For some, the Gospel is incomplete without an exhortation to care for the poor and needy. Others claim that our Gospel is lacking if we don't encourage political involvement. Still others tell us that the Gospel message is all-encompassing, urging us to not only believe in Jesus, but to transform our actions, our thoughts, and consequently our world. In other words, the Gospel is as big as the kingdom of God, and we ought to include this enormous vision of God's kingdom in every evangelistic proclamation.
Although I agree that God's kingdom is all-encompassing, I think this recent approach to the Gospel confuses the implications of the Gospel with the message of the Gospel. Biblically speaking, the Gospel (or "good news") of Jesus is that He died for our sins and rose again so that those who believe in Him can participate in eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Even if we trace the good news back to the accounts of Jesus' life (i.e. "the gospels") we find that the message of His Gospel was that the promised King had arrived and would ultimately usher in God's kingdom. The response Jesus called for was typically belief in Him in order to participate in the coming kingdom.
After the resurrection of Christ, Paul clarified the "good news" for the men and women to whom He was preaching. The good news is that Jesus, by His death and resurrection, had defeated sin and death and paved the way for sinners to enter God's kingdom (i.e. receive eternal life).
For that reason, our works of mercy, our personal holiness, and our political involvement constitute applications of the Gospel, but they do not constitute part of the message of the Gospel itself. As Christians, of course we are called to reflect the characteristics of God's kingdom in order to proclaim Christ to the world. We do this with our words and our actions. However, to state that the good news of Jesus Christ includes our acts of goodness or righteousness is a dangerous and incorrect form of preaching. The good news, of course, is that Jesus saved me from my sin even when I did nothing to deserve it (Romans 5:8). Yes, the message of the Gospel implies that Christians ought to participate in reflecting and promoting God's kingdom, but the Gospel does not require those actions in order to receive eternal life.
This is a critical distinction -- I'm not simply splitting hairs. I think that many writers and speakers, with the best of intentions, have added their pet concerns to the message of the Gospel in order to communicate the importance of what they're trying to say. If I tell you that you haven't really believed in the Gospel unless you are doing or saying the things I consider important, you're probably going to listen to me more carefully than if I make it a matter of implication and application. In other words, dangling the threat of hell over your head might just scare you into seeing matters my way.
If we do that, though, I think we lose the shocking beauty of God's grace. The Gospel is about what God has done for me in Jesus Christ, not about what I do for Him in response. My response flows out of the Gospel, but my response isn't a part of the Gospel. The good news is that I am completely sinful and unworthy, but God provided a way for me to know Him through His only Son. That good news motivates me to obey and to serve Him, but we need to be careful not to give the impression that service and obedience are necessary components of God's free gift. If the Gospel hinges on what I do for God, I don't think it's really good news at all.
What do you think? Does the Gospel truly include everything Jesus asks us to do, or is the Gospel simply the message of His death and resurrection to provide us with eternal life? Click here to join the discussion.
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