This series is based on a great article in Preaching Today. The author, Skye Jethani, addresses the turmoil in the modern evangelical church over how the gospel should be preached.
In most conservative, American Protestant churches the gospel has been pretty straightforward: believe in Jesus, get saved. The Churches of Christ have added “get baptized” and “repent” to the list: believe, repent, be baptized — get saved. (We usually add “hear” and “confess,” but these are really part of “believe,” right? I mean, you can’t believe without hearing and we can’t baptize you or accept you as a brother until you tell us that you believe.)
Thus, for us, the gospel has always been about getting saved — at the moment of baptism.
But in the Churches of Christ, there’s a second gospel we sometimes teach. For many, “gospel” includes all doctrinal truth. Hence, the inferences that we must appoint a plurality of elders or worship only a cappella are considered “gospel.” This is why we have publications named the Gospel Advocate, the Gospel Minutes, the Gospel Gleaner, the Gospel Gazette, the Gospel Journal, and the Gospel Preceptor — and why some of us damn as apostates those who dare infer differently from us.
Rather, for purposes of this series, I want to consider the redefining and broadening of the gospel going on in current evangelical literature. The importance of this should be pretty obvious. We are supposed to be all about the “gospel.” The better we understand it, the better we’ll be equipped to be about our Father’s business.
Now, there are several trends all going on at once, leaving many of us in information overload. And, quite naturally, there are those who demand that we stick with the gospel as preached in the 20th Century — it’s just believe and be saved. We might need to tweak the presentation and our methods to get people in the building to hear it, but it hasn’t changed, indeed, cannot change.
Of course, the gospel cannot change. No one really disputes that, which is why the chest-thumping over the issue is less than honest. The question isn’t whether we should change the gospel. It’s whether we’ve misunderstood it. More precisely, it’s whether we’ve understood it completely.
Let’s make a list of areas where the literature is challenging our understanding.
Gospel of creation
N. T. Wright argues in Surprised by Hope that the gospel is bigger than our souls.
(Rom 8:20-22) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
This and other passages point out the gospel is about the redemption of the creation — not just individuals.
Gospel of evil
In recent years, many churches, including many Churches of Christ, have preached a therapeutic gospel. The gospel will heal your marriage, your finances, your addictions, etc. And while there are great truths here, the tendency of such teaching has been to minimize sin as rebellion. Rather, sin became something to be overcome through counseling. (It’s no coincidence that many of our preachers are trained in counseling — which is a topic for another day.)
There’s now a trend back toward recognizing evil as evil, and not merely mental illness.
The younger generations — particularly those in a post-9/11 world — don’t see sin primarily as brokenness…. They see sin as active rebellion. They don’t shy away from the presence of evil in the world, and they wrestle with its reality from a gospel perspective. They want to deal with the rebellion in humanity.
The political gospel
Shane Claiborne and others [say] the [powers], our country, our economy, and other cultural forces need to be deconstructed by the gospel of Christ and not vice versa. So, here we have a category of politically subversive activism that is brewing at the edges of our conversations about the gospel.
These ideas actually go back to the seminal work of John Howard Yoder in the Politics of Jesus. And N. T. Wright has often pointed out that the gospel confession “Jesus is Lord” was necessarily subversive in First Century Rome, as the oath taken to Caesar was “Caesar is lord.” When converts became Christians, they gave their loyalty to Jesus rather than Caesar. It was not Jesus and Caesar. It was Jesus instead of Caesar — but we’ll pray for Caesar and obey the law insofar as the law doesn’t violate God’s will. These are the sorts of distinctions that get Christians killed.
Today, we sometimes urge our members to pray to God and then pledge allegiance to America. But if Jesus is Lord, then President Bush and Congress and the Governor are not. And this makes the gospel radically political.