The last post triggered several very thoughtful comments and questions on just what “gospel” is. I typed a few comments to set out my own views — profoundly influenced by N. T. Wright — but decided it makes better sense to make a post of it, as the question is, of course, hugely important.
I’ve often wondered at the fact that “gospel” predates much of the work of Jesus, although it always anticipated Jesus. Consider –
(Mat 4:23) Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Well, Jesus was preaching “good news” long before he announced himself as Messiah. And he preached “kingdom” long before his resurrection. He could do this because both concepts go back to the prophets — particularly Isaiah.
(Isa 52:7) How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings [good news], who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
If we take “kingdom of heaven” to mean “kingdom of God” (heaven being a Jewish euphemism for God) and “kingdom” to mean “reign” — “the reign of God” — then we see Jesus preaching very much in the context of Isaiah — he preached that God was preparing to restore his reign in Israel, which would bring salvation and peace.
(Isa 61:1-2) The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn … .
It’s hardly surprising that Jesus preached about the poor and those who mourn given Isaiah’s prophecy! Jesus’s ministry was a sign of the coming of the kingdom, indeed, a foretaste of God’s honoring his ancient promises.
Of course, what Jesus was preaching wasn’t the fullness of the gospel, but it was enough that he could send out missionaries even though he’d not yet been crucified. That’s a tough concept unless you accept a view somewhat like Wright’s.
I ordered N. T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology by mistake. And, boy, am I glad I did! It’s a technical read (he doesn’t always bother to transliterate his Greek and Hebrew), but the chapters on Galatians have been very helpful in understanding “gospel.”
Wright argues that Israel was already in fellowship with God, already saved by grace. But the nation as a whole did not keep the Law, and so God, through Jesus, renewed the covenant with Abraham — promising a righteousness by faith, not through the Law, so that the Gentiles could join in and there’d be but one nation, one family of God. If the Law remained in effect, then there’d be no way to unite Jews and Gentiles.
What Jesus’ work did was (and I’m not finished with the book) –
* Redefine “faith” as meaning faith in Jesus
* Eliminate Torah as a boundary marker of God’s people, making faith the true boundary between lost and saved.
* Therefore, some in Israel lost their standing with God, while all the world was invited in and many accepted the invitation.
* Create one family of God out of many diverse, formerly fighting families.
Hence, salvation is about God’s faithfulness/righteousness — his keeping his promise, first given to Abraham, to bless the world through Abraham’s seed (family).
Now, this hardly negates the personal salvation we all know and are familiar with, but it puts that salvation in proper context. In this light, I’ll try my hand at defining “gospel” —
* God entered into covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants through which the world was to be blessed. The covenant people are to be defined by righteousness credited due to faith.
* Israel and Torah were preliminary steps toward this blessing.
* God sent Israel into exile and allowed the temple to be destroyed, withdrawing his Shekinah from Israel. But through his prophets he promised a return, blessings to the Gentiles, and salvation from their enemies.
* In Jesus, God revealed himself and demonstrated his power over the powers of the earth and even over death. God showed Jesus to be the Christ and the firstborn of the resurrection.
* In Jesus, God rejects those in Israel without faith in the Christ and includes in Israel all with faith.
* The result is, as promised, a new family of God — and a new kingdom — created out of many nations and many peoples, who join in the salvation promised to the true Israel, receive forgiveness of sin, and bow to the Lordship of Jesus.
* God is blessing the world through the new Israel, as promised.
* The new Israel will live eternally in a recreated heavens and earth at the resurrection, when Jesus returns, as promised by the prophets.
My definition isn’t that simple, but then, neither is it a definition you have to know to be saved. “Jesus is Lord” seems to have been enough in Rom 10:9!
But our post-Reformation emphasis on personal salvation has tended, I think, to undermine our understanding of the covenant between God and the people of his kingdom as a singular community. We tend to prefer the “personal relationship” with Jesus over being a part of a holy nation called to mission together. We like our white, middle class churches to be white and middle class. We like our salvation to be intensely personal — as in, how I live my life is none of your business!
Moreover, we’ve been very weak on mission at times due to misunderstanding the fact that God intended to bless the world through his people — us. We aren’t here to escape the world, just waiting for the train to heaven to roll by. Rather, we are people on a mission from God to bless the world.
And, of course, this saved-by-faith concept has, at times, completely eluded the Churches of Christ.
So, yes, the gospel is simple enough for a 12-year old, but deep enough to dramatically change everything, if we’ll let it.