Our Different Gospels
Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a variety of pastors from a variety of traditions and we were talking about something scholars call “Liberation Theology.” Before long, we found ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over the true meaning of the word gospel.
For the unfamiliar, gospel is the English word we use to translate the Greek word euangelion (the same word behind both evangelism and evangelical). Literally, the Greek word means “good message.” However, gospel is also a technical term in the church world, and it can have very different meanings depending on which part of the Bible you are emphasizing at the time. For example, just compare English translations of the word when Jesus uses it compared to when it is used by the Apostle Paul. Many English translations actually use “good news” to translate the word when Jesus says it, and “gospel” to translate the word when Paul says it. However, for us, it’s important to remember that only one Greek word is the source for both translations, and it’s also important to remember that whatever Paul thought of the concept, Jesus was his source. Still, the differences in interpretation and translation cause us to have differences of opinion and doctrine in our churches. Additionally, these differences of opinion about the word “gospel” sit at the core of the biggest church divisions of our time. This division is at the core of the Protestant / Catholic divide, and this division is at the core of what we could call the conservative / progressive divide as well. Let me outline the heart of this division by comparing the words of Jesus and the words of Paul.
As we have already seen, in Jesus’ core affirmation of his ministry, he quoted Isaiah 61 saying he came to “proclaim good news.” Also, Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeatedly tell us that Jesus was “preaching the good news of the Kingdom.” Therefore, most New Testament Christians and churches agree that the foundation of our faith, and the foundation of our responsibility in the world, is summed up by the idea that we have and we proclaim “good news.” But the good news according to Jesus can’t be limited to a message. Jesus didn’t just say good things and then move on from town to town, he accompanied his message of good news with real actions that people could report to others as good! More than a message, Jesus himself and the entirety of his ministry on earth—showing love to sinners, healing the sick and casting out demons—was a literal expression of “good news” to the world. That is, the gospel is partially message, and partially ministry, and with Jesus and his followers, it was always both. From the books we call “The Gospels” we see these concepts repeated:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:14-15 NIV
But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
Luke 4:43-44 NIV
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick…. So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
Luke 9:1-2, 6 NIV
From the Gospels, the good news is a message that the Kingdom of God has come near, a message that has to be believed/received, and a message that is often accompanied by works of miraculous liberation.
However, in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection, beginning in the book of Acts and continuing through the epistles of the early church, the idea of the gospel began to take on a more doctrinal tone. Increasingly, the emphasis was placed on the specifics of the message that must be believed and the accompanying works of liberation received less attention.
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
Acts 5:42 NIV
In the book of Acts, the good news is a historical claim, a claim that something had happened in history, a claim that the Messiah (Anointed, Promised King) has come and that Jesus is he. Then, when Paul took the gospel of Jesus into contexts that didn’t care about a Jewish King or Jewish prophecies, he needed to highlight how the gospel was more than a mere historical claim, it was a universal principle for all people of all time.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Acts 17:16-18 NIV
In Athens, the main point of the gospel is the declaration that because of Jesus, resurrection is now a reality. It’s still a statement of history, but it’s also a statement of universal truth and a doctrinal promise. If you believe in Jesus, you can also experience the resurrection he makes available. Then, near the end of his life, Paul made a final expansion on the gospel, writing a treatise on the true nature of this good news in the form of a letter to Christians in Rome, Christians he had never met, where he says things like this:
That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:15-17 NIV
In Romans, the translators now exclusively use “gospel” because by this point, Paul is using the word to highlight a doctrine that’s more than a statement of historical events, or their significance for the future. The gospel is a doctrine that contains power all by itself. It’s a truth that God leverages to bring salvation to people by connecting his righteousness to those who believe it. It’s a doctrine of spiritual empowerment.
This passage, and the book of Romans as a whole, has been especially important in the history of the church because of the work of a famous pastor named Martin Luther. During his younger years, he wrestled with the passage I just quoted, and had great difficulty understanding the phrase “righteousness of God.” From his understanding, God was righteous, and that made him wrathful against the sinner. For much of Luther’s life, he thought that righteousness and wrath were effectively synonymous. But in this passage Paul was talking about the righteousness of God as if it were good news for the sinner! Luther was deeply troubled by the passage, but one day, he had the sudden realization that Paul meant God was giving his righteousness to people who believe this gospel. This became one of the fundamental concepts of the Protestant Reformation, and it is a key doctrine underpinning the divide between Catholics and Protestants and between Progressives and Conservatives even today. In general terms:
Catholics and “progressives” tend to see the gospel as a message of the way God is at work in the world and an invitation to join him in it.
Protestants and “conservatives” see the gospel as a doctrine that when believed results in immediate, present righteousness before God and the promise of future salvation.
This forms the most fundamental divide among Christians when it comes to our relationships in the world. For those who embrace the Reformers understanding of the gospel, our primary responsibility is to preach the gospel and to let God’s righteousness take hold in a person’s life according to God’s own methods and timing. In other words, for most Christians in the tradition of the Reformers, Christianity is focused on getting people to understand and believe a specific set of truths about Jesus and then to leave the rest to God. Church ministries are focused on education and doctrinal accuracy more than character or behavior, and when character or behavior flaws arise, the solution is often assumed to be better education.
However, for Christians in the Catholic tradition (and in many “progressive” Protestant traditions), the gospel has always been a message that combines the promise of God with the cooperation of human beings. This view holds to the doctrine of God’s grace and forgiveness being available to humans because of Jesus, but it also includes a call to cooperate with God in the work of the “good news,” a work that includes proclamation, individual transformation, and collective social engagement.
This division has done extreme damage to both camps because the division has tended to push Christians away from each other into the extremes of their respective positions. At one extreme, there are Christians who say all we should focus on is preaching a specific doctrine called the gospel. At the other extreme, there are Christians who say all we should focus on is living out a specific lifestyle that represents the gospel. Of course, as is usually the case, both extremes are inadequate. Why, even Paul in the book of Romans referred to the gospel in ways that reject both extremes!
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.
Romans 1:1-5 NIV
For Paul, the gospel was definitely a doctrine to believe, but also a calling to obedience flowing from that belief. I’m convinced that Paul would have personally affirmed both the Catholic and the Protestant perspectives. If Jesus proclaimed a gospel that was both doctrinal and social, and if Paul proclaimed a gospel that was both doctrinal and social, our gospel should be so too.
Rediscovering A United Gospel
In this book, I will not attempt to reconcile all the doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics. My background and my knowledge are firmly situated in the Protestant camp, specifically the evangelical tent of the Protestant camp, and therefore, all I can do is address the weaknesses of the evangelical viewpoint and its tendency to live near the doctrinal extreme. This book is primarily a call for my fellow Protestants, specifically my fellow evangelicals to embrace a gospel that is more than doctrine alone, a gospel that includes social action and bringing the good news of the Kingdom into present-day living. For too long, evangelicals have allowed a narrow view of the gospel to govern their social engagement. To be sure, a good case can be made for the specific doctrines of the Protestant Reformation (imputed righteousness, salvation by grace alone, etc.) but evangelicals have for too long lived as if doctrinal accuracy and doctrinal communication are all that matters. Any Christianity that embraces the gospel as taught by both Paul and Jesus must also live it the way James taught:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world…. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James 1:27, 2:14-17 NIV
It’s time for the evangelical church to expand its idea of the gospel beyond merely something to proclaim and something for people to believe. It’s time for us to realize that the gospel is a proclamation of a powerfully good message and a lifestyle altered by that good message enough that even the unbeliever can see it as good news! In other words, it’s time for us to understand a bigger view of the good news, to live from and for that good news, and to promote its goodness to the wider world. This isn’t new. It’s the gospel Jesus demonstrated, and it really is the heart of the gospel Paul proclaimed as well.
In the next few pages, I’ll take you through some of the most important passages in the New Testament about this good news and we will attempt to summarize and define the good news in a way that fully reflects the entirety of the New Testament teaching.
The Good News According to Jesus
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:14-15 NIV
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Matthew 4:23 NIV
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Luke 7:22 NIV
The Good News for Jesus was always tied to the now and future Kingdom of God. It offered healing and demanded transformation.
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
John 3:16-18 NIV
The message of Jesus includes the message of universal condemnation for sin, the sacrificial love of God, and eternal salvation made available through Jesus alone.
“The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”
Luke 6:40 NIV
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
John 14:23-24 NIV
The behavior of Jesus’ followers is to be the actual imitation of Jesus and obedience to his teaching.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20 NIV
The mission of Jesus’ followers is to reproduce other disciples who identify with Christ and obey his words.
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
Obedience to Jesus includes loving God and loving people.
This is how Jesus presented the good news. Although he never gave us a rigid formulation of a doctrine he called the gospel, his teaching included a recognition of something spiritual (we need to get right with God through faith in the Son) and something social (we need to imitate Jesus, love others, and train others to do the same).
On the other hand, the Apostle Paul did go to great lengths to clarify and explain the doctrine and the implications of the gospel. Here are some of his most important contributions to the topic.
The Good News According to Paul
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:1-6, 16-17 NIV
At the beginning of his letter to Rome, Paul wanted to make sure he was as clear as possible regarding his ministry and the gospel he was attempting to represent. He wasn’t personally known to the believers in Rome, so his explanation of the gospel had to be as clear and explicit as possible. No wonder it took on a very doctrinal tone.
The gospel involves the message that by Jesus’ death and resurrection, God graciously gives righteousness and salvation to any person who receives it by faith and lives it out through an obedience that invites others to receive it as well.
Paul’s explanations are certainly more complicated and detailed than anything we find in the words of Jesus, but he is nonetheless clear that the gospel is a doctrine about how Jesus’ death and resurrection resolves a spiritual problem, and an assumption that it would deeply affect the life of the believer to produce a winsome obedience. The gospel begins as something we learn, then it is something we believe, and finally, it is something that transforms us.
Here’s one more from Paul:
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 NIV
The gospel involves the message that God is making people new in Christ, reconciling them to himself and to others as well, and deploying them as agents of reconciliation in the world.
In this passage, Paul added a deeply social / relational component to the gospel by claiming that reconciliation is core to the gospel’s work. Not only does it reconcile the believer to God (spiritual) it also reconciles us to each other (social) and gives us the job of working for the cause of reconciliation (also social).
I would be happy to continue these quotations and summaries for pages and pages, but I hope the overall picture is clear. Any honest reading of the New Testament should lead to the conclusion that Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to demonstrate the Kingdom in power, to sacrifice himself for our salvation, and to call people to follow him in repentance, faithfulness, obedience, imitation, and the work of reconciliation. There are always spiritual and social components to the life of following Jesus, and a proper understanding of the writings of Paul confirms it.
This is what the New Testament writers mean by gospel. It is the entirety of the message of Jesus—who he is, what he has taught, what he has done for us, and what he requires of us. More than that, the gospel not only brings about an eternal, future salvation, it also brings about a temporal here-and-now salvation, a real-and-true righteousness in this present moment that increasingly compels people to move away from their own sinfulness and toward an obedience that flows from and results in reconciliation. Then, as the gospel takes hold deeply in the life of a person, it compels him or her to become an agent of that same transformative good news. The gospel is more than a message. It is a message that transforms individuals. It transforms us spiritually, but it also transforms us socially, making us collective agents of transformation in the world around us.
A United Formulation of the Gospel
Although evangelicals have largely followed the Protestant tradition of narrowing the gospel focus to the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ, it’s time for us to rediscover the broader understanding of the gospel as taught by Jesus and the New Testament writers. It’s time that we embrace a re-unified understanding of the gospel that isn’t satisfied with the extremes of doctrinal accuracy or social engagement but that embraces both. A gospel that has doctrinal truth, spiritual transformation and social engagement all at its core:
Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to demonstrate the Kingdom in power, to sacrifice himself for our salvation, and to call people to follow him in repentance, faithfulness, obedience, imitation, and the work of reconciliation.
It’s time for us to fully receive this gospel, to let it do its work of transformation in our lives and to embrace our role as agents of gospel-based reconciliation and transformation in the world around us. This is the journey of all who claim to be followers of Jesus, and it is a journey that we should wholeheartedly embrace.
To that end, let’s consider what it means to integrate a gospel like this more deeply and more fully into our lives, our churches, and our world.