What is the Gospel?

Most people think the gospel is about individual spiritual salvation and eternal life after death. That's certainly an important part of the gospel; a part Jesus talked about when he said:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

John 3:16, and other verses like it, magnificently address the question of personal salvation. However, they do not convey the full gospel. Unfortunately, a great many people, perhaps most Christians today, think they do. Our concept of "salvation" has become conflated with our understanding of the "gospel" so that most Christians think they mean the same thing.

The meaning of the word "gospel" is different than the meaning of the word "salvation." That idea didn't sink through my thick scull until I was in my early 40's. I had to really think about the implications of that. What does it mean that the gospel is bigger than salvation? I hadn't a clue.

In fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ is like a coin with two sides. Tim Suttle puts it well:

The gospel has a personal dimension which is about how each person relates to God -- and this is a critical piece. It also has a corporate dimension which is about how humanity as a whole relates to God and to each other -- and this is a critical piece as well. The personal and corporate dimensions of the gospel must be held together. In American evangelicalism we have the personal covered, but we are lacking in our corporate understanding of the good news. That we are so lacking, I believe, robs the gospel of its impact on our society because the nexus of the personal and corporate is where all the power lies.

Without both sides of the coin (individual and social) -- you don't have a "gospel coin" at all. You may retain your individual salvation but you have lost the gospel.

In my experience, most Christians, including me, were raised in the church, yet have little conception of what the gospel, in its fullness, means. It was not until I was in my 40's (after attending church all my life and being a Christian for over 35 years) - that I gradually became aware that the gospel is bigger than just individual, spiritual salvation.

I think I always had a vague notion that there must be something more to it that I didn't quite get. After all, I had read many times Jesus' references to "the Kingdom of God." It seemed Jesus talked more about that than anything else. But, I just assumed (as guided by teachers, pastors, etc) that he must be talking about either an otherworldly heaven or some spiritual realm on earth.

It never occurred to me that Jesus might actually be talking about the nasty old earth I lived in. When my pastors and teachers did talk about the earth, they said it was a bad, sinful, place that Jesus would one day come back and destroy. They said our earth was Satan's kingdom and we yearned for the day Jesus would return; rapturing us to heaven, and destroying the earth.

A great many evangelical Christians testify to the same experience as mine. You can read about many of them in Scott McKnight's most recent book where he also says:

I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about "personal salvation," and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making "decisions." The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles....

Our biggest problem is that we have an entire culture shaped by a misunderstanding of the gospel. That so-called gospel is deconstructing the church.

Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, pg. 26, 27.
You can read more about Scott McKnight by clicking on his name above. He is a well-recognized and respected evangelical New Testament Bible scholar. You can read more of the robust gospel conversation (some evangelicals even say that Jesus' gospel is not the "real" gospel) going on in evangelical circles in this December 2005 cover story from Christianity Today (perhaps the leading Christian evangelical magazine in the world): Jesus vs Paul.

OK, so if the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than individual salvation, then what is it?

The Gospel of Jesus is the good news of the Kingdom of God. How do we know that? Easy, the gospels tell us that over and over again.

For instance, Matthew 9:35 says:

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.

Over and over the gospel writers tell us that the gospel Jesus preached was the good news of the Kingdom of God. [See also Mt 4:23; Mt 24:14; Lk 8:1.]

The exciting thing is that the Kingdom of God is not only a spiritual, heavenly, kingdom we can go to after we die. Instead, the Kingdom of God is all-encompassing. It is on earth; it is in heaven; we can be part of it now (and after we die) if we choose to be.

The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst.

Luke 17:20-21

This was the core message of Jesus' teachings; the core of his gospel. We see this clearly in The Lord's Prayer.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Matthew 6:9-13 (emphasis added)

The good news of the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth -- it's here now (not in its entirety, but it is breaking through) -- is the key gospel truth that is missed by the modern church. And, it is what makes the gospel so much more relevant and powerful.

Richard Dahlstrom confessed on page 56 of his book Colors of Hope, The: Becoming People of Mercy, Justice, and Love.

"The kingdom? That's for later." With these comforting words, I'd emasculated the gospel into irrelevance, a sin for which I would come to repent.

Here's what Richard Stearns says on pages 17-18 of The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World.

More and more, our view of the gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call.... We seem to have boiled it down to a kind of "fire insurance" that one can buy....a ticket to the next life.

There is a real problem with this limited view of the kingdom of God; it is not the whole gospel. Instead, it's a gospel with a gaping hole. First, focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life. The kingdom of God, which Christ said is "within you" (Luke 17:21) was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it.

Yes, it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world--to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and the marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. While our "joining" in the coming kingdom of God may begin with a decision, a transaction, it requires so much more than that (emphasis added).

You can read more about this at The Gospel of Jesus and America's Gospel Problem.

In summary, the full gospel of Jesus Christ is:

  • Individual, spiritual, salvation; but also,
  • Good news (actually spectacularly amazing news) that the Kingdom of God has arrived; and
  • Christians must enter and join the Kingdom; DO things to expand God's Kingdom on earth -- NOW.

Which begs the question:

What should christians do as citizens of the Kingdom -- to expand it? What is "Kingdom Work?"

How Do Christians Proclaim the Gospel -- Today?

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