What Is the Gospel?
(I’m working on a new book, Letters for Young Ministers. Here is an abridged version of one selection.)
At least sometimes, so called “dumb questions” turn out to be the very best questions of all.
“What is the gospel?” might be one of those.
Okay, so “gospel” means “good news,” but what is “the good news”?
I bring this up because while people may refer to “the gospel” I often think that what I hear (and what I sometimes say) in church sounds a lot more like good advice than good news. We encourage people to do this, think that, or feel this way or that. The focus is on us. Often there’s a heavy hit of “should.”
Here’s the first thing about “the gospel.” It’s not about you (or me). It is about God. The gospel is the news about who God is. what God has done, what God is doing and what God has promised. And it turns out that this God acts in ways that we humans mostly don’t expect, frequently don’t like, and generally find surprising.
There’s a simple way to assess whether a sermon is a message of the gospel. Look at the subject of the verbs. If we humans are the subject of all the verbs, as in “we think,” or “we ought,” or “we have done this or that,” chances are that it isn’t good news. It may be good advice or boasting or guilt-tripping. But it isn’t gospel. If it’s the gospel, God is the subject of at least some of the verbs. Like, “God opens a way,” “God changes lives,” “God does amazing things with people we may have written off.”
In order to talk this way, you need to believe that 1) there is a God and 2) that this God is active and up to something in the world. The Bible is a book that draws us into this way of seeing life.
But there’s a strong counterforce. I’ll call it “modernity” for short. “Modernity” boils everything down to rational explanations and only counts stuff like data or facts. Which is fine as far as it goes. Only it doesn’t go far enough.
The theologian, William Placher, in a book called Unapologetic Theology, has a little riff I like. He writes, “As I read the biblical stories and as I use them to try to understand my own life, I also come to realize that in these stories God’s initiative has a kind of priority.
“Abraham does not think he has just taken a notion to travel; he thinks he is responding to God’s call. Samuel does not just choose David; he anoints David as God’s choice. Jeremiah calls the people back to faithfulness to a God who has never abandoned them. I find myself wanting to say similar things about my own life as a Christian: my acts of love seem a response, however inadequate, to a love that loved me first; my projects, when they are for good, make sense to me as parts of a larger plan.”
The key here is God’s initiative, an active God who is creating, calling, seeking, finding, forgiving and turning things upside down.
In language that is a little more blunt the Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz Weber says something similar. “I’m not running after Jesus,” she writes, “Jesus is running my ass down.” God’s initiative.
One of the problems in churches that have drunk heavily at the wells of modernity is a loss of confidence in God’s initiative, in a God who acts. When you lose that confidence then you are apt to talk mostly about human action, i.e. what we should think, feel or do. (Incidentally, when people say “don’t preach to me,” they are mostly meaning that kind of finger-wagging. No good news in it.)
For most Christians “the gospel” focuses on what God has done and is doing in Jesus. So they may speak of Jesus who has torn down dividing walls between hostile groups (Ephesians), or died for the ungodly (Romans) or rose from death so that death might have no power over us (I Corinthians).
All of these ways of speaking gospel are about God’s activity and initiative. God makes the first move. And God gets the last word.
Another way to put this is to say that the thing that makes Christianity different from other religions or life philosophies is grace. Grace is God’s doing, God’s initiative. It is running our ass down when we may (like Jonah) be running away from life, truth and God.
Often people think that Christianity is about all the things we should do to get on God’s good side, or to show others that we are the ones who are on God’s side.
Nope. When we are frantically trying to do all the stuff that shows how great we are and how on God’s side we are, God frequently finds a way to say, “STOP IT, STOP IT RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.” (Experientially that may feel like hitting a wall).
Because the gospel isn’t about all the stuff we should be doing to show everyone that we are on God’s side. The gospel is, “In Jesus Christ I, the living God, have taken your side and will never leave it. Trust this and LIVE.”
Our lives, then, are lived as a response — “however inadequate” — to a love that loved us first. That’s gospel.