“Gospel” is a big, big concept. And while it’s helpful, I hope, to work through the key “gospel” verses to understand the concept, this has hardly been a complete or thorough exposition. I mean, how can we consider “gospel” without also working through the meanings of “faith” and “Kingdom,” for example? Nonetheless, it’s a good start.
And it’s a good enough start to make several important points.
Baptism. We in the Churches of Christ like to use “obey the gospel” to mean “come forward to be baptized.” That’s not exactly right, is it? It’s a mistake to equate “gospel” with “get baptized so you can go to heaven.” Baptism is important, but it’s not the heart and soul of gospel.
Nonetheless, baptism is closely associated with the gospel in such passages as —
(Rom 6:3-8) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin– 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
(Gal 3:26-28) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
You see, the key gospel passages speak of Christians being “in” Christ Jesus, and these passages speak of being baptized “into” Christ Jesus. The parallels are important, so important that baptism is a picture of what the gospel does. We die and God makes us a new creation in the waters of death and life.
But we sometimes confuse baptism with the gospel. The goal isn’t to get our children immersed. The goal is for our children to become new creations, to become like Jesus, to live holy and righteous lives, to be compassionate, loving people who model their lives on Jesus. Baptism is the beginning, not the end, and our obsession with baptism as some sort of magic that transforms us from damned to saved ignores the commitment baptism entails.
Baptism is death. It’s symbolic of our penitence, of leaving our old life behind. And we do such a lousy job of teaching this that countless adults feel the need to be rebaptized because they didn’t understand the Lordship they were making a commitment to.
Obedience to the gospel means, at the least, understanding what Paul tells us to confess: Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). And it means understanding the “death” part of the burial — leaving our old selfish lives behind to live as servants of God. But we tend to sell baptism as a cheap ticket to heaven rather than the surrender of all we are at the throne of God. And we pay the price for this mistake every day.
The word translated “doctrine” simply means teachings. The gospel is therefore doctrine. But not all doctrine is gospel. When progressives draw a line between gospel and doctrine, they mean gospel-teachings and non-gospel-teachings. The conservatives, of course, note that gospel is also doctrine, as it’s a teaching, and then they try to attach to “gospel” all manner of teachings. Not so.
We’ve managed to politicize “gospel” by fighting over what is and what isn’t a salvation issue and couching the arguments in terms of “gospel.” In earlier generations, the same fight was fought over “faith” versus “opinion,” with one side arguing that how we support orphanages is a matter of faith while others said it was a matter of opinion. Neither side bothered to look up the definition of “faith,” which means “faith in Jesus,” not “faith in some preacher’s theory on how churches may or may not cooperate.”
Just so, in the current controversy, it’s easy enough to figure what “gospel” really means. Just grab a concordance and look it up.
My own view is that we need to let go of the fight so our minds will be clear enough to be instructed by God through his word. We are so caught up in the controversies of the day and what someone might say about us that we struggle to even have a thoughtful conversation about these things.
“Gospel” does not include the 5 acts of worship or the plurality of elders or congregational autonomy. That doesn’t mean those things are false. It just means that when the scriptures say “gospel” the authors don’t have those things in mind. They do mean that those who respond to the gospel submit to Jesus as Lord and to apostolic instruction. That’s why we confess “Jesus is Lord” when we are saved (Rom 10:9).
But if you and I disagree over, say, whether an elder must have one or multiple children, it’s not a disagreement over the gospel. We agree that we must submit to apostolic instruction. The fact that we disagree over what the apostles meant or to what extent a given instruction applies today is just plain not a gospel disagreement.
If you pick up Luke and just read the prophetic declarations of Mary, Jesus, and others, you can’t help but notice the social implications of the gospel. One aspect of the gospel is that the coming Kingdom was supposed to change life for the oppressed and needy for the better. Matthew ends Jesus’ ministry with the famous Judgment Day scene that defines our salvation based on how we treat those in need.
The mistake the Social Gospel movement made 100 years ago was to let the government take over caring for the poor, with the result that welfare was separated from the compassion of Christians — and the poor are paying for that disastrous decision even today. But that hardly means the church can get out of its obligation to show compassion as Jesus did. The heart of the mistake wasn’t government welfare. It was the end of church welfare. We err seriously when we blame the government for our failures.
One major theme of the gospel is unity. Galatians roundly condemns the abuse of the gospel to divide God’s people over positive laws, such as circumcision. If our understanding of the gospel is not producing unity in practice, we need to seriously rethink our understanding.
Be you conservative or progressive, you have to admit that the Churches of Christ need some work in the area of gospel. If you read the great gospel passages and compare them to what we teach and who we are as a people, we come up short.
We’d do well to spend some serious time re-studying these passages, not to beat the other guy but to truly understand them deeply. There is far more depth here than we normally realize. The gospel has the power to save, to unify, to help the poor, and to bless all nations. Rather than blaming the other guy for getting the gospel wrong, perhaps the solution is for us to look in the mirror and see how we might get the gospel right.