What is the Gospel? How would you define it? If I said to you, “Fill in the blank. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is ______________,” what would you say?
We ask that question all the time at our church. We ask it when we speak to baptism candidates. We ask it in our church membership classes. We ask it to parents for child dedication. We ask it during our lay leadership training class. We ask it when we interview potential staff. We ask it a lot!
And in addition to all the asking that goes on at my church, I have personally asked that question to a wide variety of people, particularly over the last ten years. I have asked pastors, scholars, missionaries and lay people. I have asked non-Christians, new Christians and 90-year-old church lifers. I have asked children, teenagers and adults. I have asked my own children to the point that they are probably tired of being asked. I have asked that question a lot!
After all of this asking, I have come to one clear conclusion: people are unclear about the content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are just not quite sure what it is.
I did not come to that clear conclusion simply because all of that asking produced answers that are different from each other, nor because the answers were different from my answer. Both reasons contributed to my conclusion, but the main reason I have come to that conclusion is the consistent pattern of behavior I have observed when people are asked the question.
When asked what the Gospel is, people often answer slowly and hesitantly. It takes them time and thought. It seems quite difficult. They often appear caught off guard by the question even when the context of the conversation makes it a natural question to ask. They search hard to find the right words and are surprised that the answer does not come quickly to their mind. Most people are quite unsure about their answer being accurate.
Since the Gospel is the most basic and fundamental message of the Christian faith, it seems like it should not be a hard question for a Christian to quickly and easily answer. Yet, it is difficult. If I asked ten random Christians, I would very likely get ten different answers, many of which would be hesitantly expressed. If I asked you today and then asked you in a month, you might give me two different answers! And wonder why it wasn’t the same the last time you told me!
Why? Why is it so hard to define the Gospel? Here are seven reasons to consider:
- There is not one, explicit, repeated definition of the Gospel in the Scriptures. The Bible is not a dictionary. It is a collection of 66 books written by about 40 human authors over 1500 years in 15+ genres. Determining the meaning of a word used in this vast and diverse book requires studying all of the occurrences of that word, its cognates and its euphemisms across all of that material, each in its context. Though most of the information on the Gospel is in the New Testament, even there the Apostles explained it in different ways without contradicting each other. Synthesizing their views into one concise definition faithful to all the Bible teaches about the Gospel is quite a difficult task.
- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are referred to as gospels. Though I don’t think it is wrong to refer to Matthew as the Gospel of Matthew, I do think those titles cause confusion when defining the Gospel of Jesus Christ primarily by the occurrences of the word “gospel” in the Bible. The first four books of the New Testament are actually more than the Gospel. They are theologized biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. They certainly include his Gospel, but their content exceeds the basic message about Jesus that was spread throughout the Roman Empire by the Apostles. As such, referring to them as gospels contributes to the fog that seems to surround a common Gospel definition.
- The Gospel is simple and deep at the same time. I explained the Gospel to all four of my children when they were really young and they easily understood it. Yet, I produced a doctoral project of 100,000+ words that still hasn’t explored the depths of its meaning. In that way, the Gospel is a bit like the ocean. A child knows the joy of sand castles at the beach with the calming sound of the waves, but the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced oceanographers would never say they truly know all that the ocean is. It’s too deep to be fully known! That simple, but deep aspect makes the Gospel hard to define.
- The drift of the human heart, even the Christian’s heart, seems to be away from the Gospel. When my feet hit the ground in the morning, I’m usually thinking about all that I need to get done today, not what God has done, is doing and will do in Jesus Christ. I don’t inherently think about the Gospel. Furthermore, there is a tide in my very nature that is consistently pushing against me thinking clearly about the Gospel. I’m bent away from clarity on it. Again, the sea is a helpful analogy. In college, I swam straight out into the Gulf of Mexico to reach a sandbar. When I returned to shore, I found myself 1/4 mile away from where I left! Unbeknownst to me, the sea was pushing me East. It’s a bit like that with our fallen nature. We drift away from God not towards God. Therefore, it is hard to keep the Gospel clear and defined. It is a bit like swimming against the tide.
- The Gospel is not regularly emphasized in our churches. Many churches simply do not consistently preach the Gospel. Those churches seem to fall into one of two categories. First, some do not believe the Bible is God’s word and, therefore, are not faithful to the Gospel of the Scripture. They do not preach the Gospel because they do not know it and/or do not believe it! So, of course, their congregations are unclear on what it is. Second, others know it and believe it, but think it is primarily a message for non-Christians. They preach the Gospel for outreach events or during worship services when they think more non-Christians will be there. They do not regularly preach the Gospel because they do not think the Gospel is a message for the Christian. Instead, they focus their teaching on how Christians should live their lives. Therefore, their congregations can also be prone to being unsure about the content of the Gospel.
- The Gospel is a mystery that is progressively revealed in the Bible and in history. Think about the references to the Gospel in the historical timeline described in the Bible. Here are just seven to consider. (1) God preached the Gospel to Adam & Eve – Genesis 3:15. (2) Noah preached the Gospel – 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6. (3) God preached the Gospel to Abraham – Galatians 3:8. (4) Some suggest Jonah preached the Gospel. (5) Jesus preached the Gospel prior to the Cross – Matt 4:23. (6) The Apostles preached the Gospel – Acts. (7) Perhaps most profoundly of all, the Gospel is eternal, that is, it predates creation and will forever be true – Revelation 14:6. Now, the fact that the Gospel is a message from the eternal realm that gets revealed more and more in the earthly realm increases the difficulty of defining it. It is not as simple as just taking the last “definition” we see in Scripture. We need to take great care that the last definition is also informed by all of the previous revelations of it. All of the occurrences of the message in the Bible have consistency since they are the same message, but at the same time, some of those occurrences are more well-developed and each one is contextualized to the situation and the specific time period of salvation history. That makes it difficult to define.
- The Gospel is news. Lastly, the Gospel is hard to define because of its genre of human discourse. It is news. Good news. Think about the last bit of good news you received. The CT scan shows no cancer! You got the job! You are going to be a grandparent! They won the state championship! The college of your dreams accepted you with a full scholarship! News is not something to be defined so much as it is to be told and re-told. If it is good news, it is to be remembered and celebrated! The Gospel is good news. Sure, it needs definition in so much as we want to get the main points of the good news right, but it is a true story to tell about Jesus more than it is a word to be defined. That makes it hard to define.
What is that good news? Well, that’s a topic for another blog post on another day.