What is the Gospel?

This was a paper for my Preaching class. I liked how it turned out, and it does well to demonstrate my theological framework, so where I’m coming from will make more sense.

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What is the Gospel?

It’s amazing that such a simple sounding question can bear such enormous meaning. While it may seem like an easy question to many evangelicals, it is, at heart, one of the deepest questions a person could ask. In The Word of God & the Word of Man, Barth argues that every person has the same question of faith: “Is it true?” The “it” here, essentially, is the gospel. Barth believes that this is every person’s core question, and that it’s the Church’s job to answer it. But how can the Church answer whether the gospel is true if we can’t define what we mean by “the gospel”?  We can’t, and our inability to agree upon and properly articulate a consistent gospel may be the greatest failure of the catholic (lower case) church. To get at a definition of the gospel is to get at the very heart of humanity and of God, and the meaning of life itself.

The word “gospel” means good news. That is the easiest place to start, the first criteria for distinguishing what is gospel and what is not. To quote a pastor and friend from home, “If it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel.” Whatever this gospel is, it must leave a rich and delightful taste on the tongue. Good news is celebrated and welcomed, not loathed or feared. If this is true, it seems that there are a lot of things preached by “Christians” that are just not the gospel. “God hates fags” is not the gospel. “You’re going to hell” or “Turn or burn” are not the gospel. They are bad news. Also, if the gospel is good news, it must be relevant news. Good news reaches out and touches us at a place that is meaningful, deeply personal, and chronologically present. If it were not relevant to our condition, our frame of reference, and our present reality, it would not be good news.

But what is the good news?  To begin to make sense of the gospel we first have to see how it is used in its original context. The first time the word “gospel” is used in scripture is in Matthew 4:23, which reads, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” There are a few implications here. The first is that whatever the gospel is, it can not be limited to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was preaching this gospel at the beginning of his ministry, long before the cross or the empty tomb were realities. It will be important later that the gospel be inclusive of, even centered in, these events, but it cannot be limited to them. The second implication is the gospel’s connection with the kingdom. Whatever this gospel it is, it is about the kingdom of God. The third implication is that it is connected with a tangible action, in this case healing. This would not be of note if it were only in this instance, but in the first several instances of the proclamation of the gospel, it includes this sort of miraculous ministry as well.

Concerning Matthew’s gospel, assuming Jesus didn’t change his message entirely between chapters 4 and 5, this gospel proclamation is spelled out in further detail in the Sermon on the Mount. The proclamation is of an upside-down, counter-cultural kingdom where enemies are loved rather than hated, the poor in spirit are blessed, and the kingdom of God is crashing into earth. It is not entirely foreign; Jesus invokes a plethora of Old Testament law, and in the process extends and interprets them under a particular framework. We see his ultimate lens of interpretation in Matthew 22, when Jesus proclaims that the greatest commandments are love of God and neighbor, and that all the law and the prophets hang on these commandments. The point here is not to be missed: the gospel is inclusive of the Old Testament, as long as it is seen through the schema of God-love and neighbor-love. Therefore, the teachings of Jesus are a part of the gospel, and the core of this teaching is love. The Old Testament can be gospel too, as long as its trajectory is the same as Jesus’.

If one were to ask a typical evangelical Christian what the gospel is, the answer would more often than not go something like this: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.” In fact, most of Christianity has been reduced to one event: the cross. We adorn our churches and our bumpers and our bodies with crosses, in some sort of remembrance of the most gruesome form of death ever invented by mankind. Is that the gospel? How can the death of God be the good news that answers the deepest question of the world? Is this the answer to Barth’s question: “Yes, our Savior and Lord was murdered at the hands of the Romans and the Jewish religious authorities.”? Historically and biblically, it seems that this cannot be the case. At the point of Jesus’ death, his movement was dead as well. Scripture reports that the disciples denied Jesus, returned to their old work, giving up the “gospel” that Jesus had proclaimed. And wouldn’t you? As N.T. Wright has written, “Death is the last weapon of the empire.” At the death of Jesus, the empire had won. You didn’t see his followers going around celebrating that Jesus had “paid their penalty” or “died for their sins”. The cross alone is not gospel, no matter what atonement theory you ascribe to.

The empty tomb, the resurrection, makes the cross “gospel”. In fact, without the resurrection, there is no gospel at all. The kingdom, if it had truly broken in, was stifled at Jesus’ death. The teachings of Jesus, about enemy-love and blessing upon the seemingly unblessed, are foolish jargon, because the world does not work that way. The death of Jesus was awful, meaningless, and tragedy. But with the resurrection, everything changes. Suddenly, it begins to appear that the kingdom of God may have truly intersected with earth. It begins to appear that shameless, radical love may not be so illogical. It begins to appear that perhaps Jesus died for a purpose greater than man’s. The resurrection of Jesus both legitimates and makes “gospel” the life, teaching, and death of Jesus.

For this reason, the resurrection must be central in the gospel. The very word “gospel” has to hinge on the resurrection, because without it, there is no good news. Without resurrection, it’s either old news, bad news or worthless news. This really makes one wonder why we pay so much attention to the cross. Even the holiday of Easter becomes a guilt-fest where we mourn the death of Jesus and reflect upon its meaning. I’m not suggesting we ignore Jesus’ death and the impact it has upon the problem of sin, but if we don’t see it in light of the resurrection, we’re not really saying much at all that would have made sense to the earliest Christians.

Compiling what we have so far, the gospel is the kingdom of God coming to earth, the teaching of radical love for the Father and fellow, the death of the son of God, all legitimized by this God-man being raised from the dead. This is a heavy definition, but it is still not enough. This is nothing more than a set of data, a stance on history. It’s not unequivocally provable that all of these events took place in history, so is the gospel just a particular way of saying what happened a long time ago? Is this really the question on the minds of mankind, whether a set of events occurred or not? If so, then the gospel is dead. But we believe the gospel to be alive, something that shapes and molds and changes people. What part of the gospel is it that does this?

The answer is right in the midst of everything we’ve addressed to this point. The kingdom of God reality demonstrated that although the world is a certain way, it is moving towards something else. The world, because of these events, has a new telos, a new final chapter, in which love is exemplified between God and humanity and humanity amongst itself. The teachings of Jesus about neighbor and enemy love gain precedence in that it rang true in the end for Jesus himself. The death of Jesus becomes the ultimate act of love in that it didn’t have to happen, but it was allowed to happen to accomplish a particular end or many ends in which this kind of love can flourish. The consistent theme within all of these elements is love, and the resurrection demonstrates that love, in the end, conquers all.

The gospel then, at its core, is all about love; love from God to people, from people to God, and from people to people. But the gospel has something specific to say about this love. To borrow a phrase from a popular Christian teacher, the gospel is the proclamation that “Love Wins!” If the gospel had to be reduced to two words, I believe those two encapsulate it best. The gospel claims that, although everything dies, some things still go on. The gospel claims that there is meaning even in the meaningless. This is a message that meets us wherever we are. For the teenager starving for attention and affection, even though it seems the whole world is against him, love has overcome the world, and there is a whole new world to be discovered in it. For the 65 year old drug addict who hasn’t made a good decision in 50, there is new life and a new day, because love has won, and forgiveness and restoration have been made possible. For the coercive and crusading “Christian” who would use fear, guilt, or even violence to proclaim Jesus, lay down your sword! Love has defeated the old and worn religion of law and death.

If we answer Barth’s question in this way, everything changes. When people ask, “Is it true?” they are really asking “Does love really win?” They want to know whether love and goodness and peace can really come out of their situation. And we have the wonderful and humbling privilege of answer them, “Yes, love does win. Even if you don’t see it, we already know how this story ends, because Jesus has risen from the dead.” This is the gospel that changes the world.

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