Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is Our Gospel Too Small?

One of the most helpful passages I've read in a very long time comes in the midst of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert's book What is the Mission of the Church? They take a chapter to look at the current evangelical controversy surrounding what is actually included in the "gospel." Is our gospel too small? Do we limit the gospel when we focus on the cross? Their thinking is very wise and insightful and helps to draw out the exact questions we are asking. I cannot recommend highly enough taking the time to read and absorb them.
     Both of us have over the past several years been immersed in the world of evangelical discussion about the gospel. We've attended the conferences, read the books, looked at the blogs, and written a few things ourselves about this most controverted and important of topics. One of the things we've concluded over the years is that in many ways evangelicals seem to be talking past one another on this question of what the gospel is.
     On the one hand, some would define the gospel as the good news that God is going to remake the world, and that Jesus Christ--through his death and resurrection--is the down payment on that transformation and renewal. They look at the gospel with the widest possible lens, taking in all the promises that God has made to his people, including not only the forgiveness of sins but also the resurrection of the body, the transformation of the world, the establishment of God's kingdom, and all the rest.
     On the other hand, there are those who would define the gospel as the good news that God has acted to save sinners through the death of Jesus in their place and his subsequent resurrection. They look at the gospel with a narrow lens, focusing particularly on that which lies at the foundation of salvation.
     The conversation between these two camps has gotten quite tense, even heated at times, with one side accusing the other of being "reductionistic," and that side firing back with the accusation that the first side is "diluting" the gospel and losing the heart of it.
     A good deal of this confusion can be untangled, we think, by making some careful observations about how this conversation often plays out. It seems to us that these two groups--those who say the gospel is the good news that God is reconciling sinners to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus (let's call them "zoom-lens people"), and those who say that the gospel is the good news that God is going to renew and remake the world through Christ (call them "wide-angle people")--are really answering two different though highly related questions. Of course both groups say they are answering the question "What is the gospel?" (and they are!), but if you look closely at how they talk, it turns out there's quite a lot being assumed by both sides about that simple-sounding question.
     To a zoom-lens person, the question "What is the gospel?" translates as "What is the message a person must believe in order to be saved?" And so he answers by talking about the substitutionary death of Jesus in the place of sinners and the call to repent and believe. To a wide-angle person, though, the question "What is the gospel?" translates instead to "What is the whole good news of Christianity?" And of course he answers by talking not just about forgiveness but also about all the great blessings that flow from that, including God's purpose to remake the world.
     Now with that in mind, you can see where the confusion comes from. When a zoom-lens person hears a wide-angle person answer the question "What is the gospel?" by talking about the new creation, he thinks, "No! You're taking the focus off the cross and resurrection! A person doesn't need to believe that to be saved! That's diluting the gospel!" On the other hand, when a wide-angle person hears a zoom-lens person answer the same question by talking only about the forgiveness of sins through the cross, he likewise thinks, "No! The good news doesn't stop there! There's more to it than that! You're reducing the gospel to something less than it is!"
     The fact is, depending on how you think about it, neither the wide-angle person nor the zoom-lens person is off base. It's true that when someone asked in the New Testament "What must I do to be saved?" the answer was to repent of sin and believe in the crucified and risen Christ. It's also true, though, that the Bible sometimes (even often!) talks about the gospel with a wide-angle lens. It includes in the whole good news of Christianity not only forgiveness of sin, but also all the other blessings that come to those who are in Christ.
     Another way to put the point is that neither of these two questions is illegitimate. Neither is more biblical than the other. In fact, the Bible asks both the question "What must a person believe in order to be saved?" and the question, "What is the whole good news of Christianity?"--and it answers both in terms of the word gospel. 
The authors proceed to examine in depth several New Testament passages that use the word gospel in both senses. After establishing some shorthand for the two senses of gospel--the gospel of the kingdom for the wide-angle lens sense, and the "gospel of the cross" for the zoom-lens sense, they summarize their finding and bring the two together with the following points:
     First, there is only one gospel, not two.... There is only one gospel--one message of good news--but the New Testament writers seem to have no problem zooming in and out on that one message, sometimes looking at the whole thing and calling it "gospel," and other times zooming in particularly on forgiveness through Christ and calling that "gospel," too.
     Second, the gospel of the kingdom necessarily includes the gospel of the cross. You cannot proclaim the "full gospel" if you leave out the message of the cross, even if you talk for an hour about all the other blessings God has in store for the redeemed. To do that would be like picking up an armful of leaves and insisting that you're holding a tree. Unless those leaves are connected to the trunk, you don't have a tree; you just have an armful of dead leaves. In the same way, unless the blessings of the gospel of the kingdom are connected to the cross, you don't have a gospel at all. Take a look again at those passages from Matthew and Mark where Jesus preaches the arrival of the kingdom. If you look closely, you'll notice that Jesus never preaches simply "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." He always preaches, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," or, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand; therefore repent and believe the gospel." That is a crucial thing to keep in mind; indeed it is the difference between preaching the gospel and preaching something that is not the gospel at all. To proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom and all the other blessings of God without telling people how they may become partakers of those blessings is to preach a nongospel. Indeed it is to preach an antigospel--bad news--because you're simply explaining wonderful things that your sinful hearers will never have the opportunity to be a part of. The gospel of the kingdom--the broad sense of "gospel"--therefore, is not merely the proclamation of the kingdom. It is the proclamation of the kingdom together with the proclamation that people may enter it by repentance and faith in Christ. Perhaps, in fact, it would be more accurate (though clunky) to speak of the gospel of the cross and the gospel of the kingdom through the cross. And that leads to another point.
     Third, and more specifically, the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom. It is the gate through which all the blessings of the kingdom are to be gained. The fact repeated over and over again throughout the New Testament is that the only way a person can become a partaker of the blessings of the kingdom is by coming in faith and repentance to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus for salvation....
     Incidentally, that's why it makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call the gospel of the cross "the gospel," even as they go on calling the whole complex of good news "the gospel" as well. Because the broader blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of forgiveness through the cross, and because those broader blessings are attained infallibly by means of forgiveness through the cross, it's entirely appropriate for the New Testament writers to call forgiveness through the cross--the fountainhead of and gateway to all the rest--"the gospel." That's also why we never see the New Testament calling any other single promise of God to the redeemed "the gospel." For example, we never see the promise of the new creation called "the gospel." Nor do we see reconciliation between humans called "the gospel." But we do see reconciliation between man and God called "the gospel" precisely because it is the one blessing that leads to all the rest.
     --Kevin DeYoung and Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Wheaton, IL: Crossway (2011), pp. 92-94, 106-109. Italics original, bolding added.