Here’s Why I Keep Asking

One of my favorite questions to ask these days in small groups, classes, blog posts, and informal conversations is: “What is the Gospel?” I keep asking because I’m convinced our present understanding of what the gospel is and what it’s meant to do is inadequate. Sometimes I wonder if I’m jousting at a gospel that doesn’t even exist. Maybe this inadequate definition of the gospel I keep skewering is a product of my imagination.

Then I read a report like what follows from a friend of mine who is working in Siberia this summer and my conviction is renewed. So I’ll ask again: What is the Gospel?

The Lord has also shown us the heavy need for ministry in this region of the world. Every day, the effects of alcoholism and drug addiction are apparent as we wander through the city and surrounding regions. I know a small church leader in a nearby city whose morning activities include picking up the syringes and needles so the children in the neighborhood will not step on them while playing. Stumbling men and women are seen every day, throughout the day, seeking the answer to their hopelessness in a bottle or two. Homelessness and poverty are rampant ? elderly, infirmed, and children are seen frequently looking for some assistance in meeting their basic needs. Even those not in these extreme circumstances find it difficult to meet their needs ? the salary for normal jobs (programmers, laborers, businesspeople, teachers, medical personnel) is not much to live on. We have visited regions here that all of the best businesspeople, students, teachers and civil leaders have left for Moscow or bigger cities, leaving the homeless, elderly, infirmed, and substance addicted. Think for a moment about our brothers and sisters in Christ here trying to minister to their fellow countrymen in these circumstances. It is a very difficult situation. Surely the Lord?s message of Hope is central to His work here.

I request your prayers for the Lord?s work here in Siberia, and the response from our churches in America. Support for ministry in this region of the world has dropped significantly from American churches over the past couple of years. A Russian Christian leader commented to me that there is a feeling here that the American churches don?t care about Russia anymore. This weighs heavily on my heart.

American mission efforts in Siberia tend to be focused on church planting ministries, with a model of finding locals and Americans to create church families and develop a structure of worship, teaching, and prayer. These are good efforts and have been met with varied success here. There are some church plants that are thriving and some that are not. Unfortunately, much of the American support is tied to numeric results of conversions and numbers of church members. (Emphasis mine) For churches that are in areas of incredible hopelessness and distrust of “Christians,” focus on conversions may not be as important as developing effective ministry to the hungry, orphaned, widowed, broken hearted, and the next generations. The soil needs preparation here ? tilling through building trust, developing relationships, and demonstrating the love of Christ in tangible ways.

As long as we are evaluating our missional success solely in terms of conversions and the size of our churches, then we’re demonstrating that our “gospel” is only a fragmant, maybe just a splinter, of what God has in mind when he says “Gospel.” Looks to me like Russia is not the only place where mass conversions are needed. There are also many Christians, including myself, who need to be converted to an enlarged understanding the gospel.


  1. Wade,

    Good question. You know, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that the cannon hadn’t come together until about AD 400. That means that the first, what, 8-10 generations of Christians weren’t daily Bible readers ;-). Can we even imagine Christianity without the Bible? Ah, but isn’t that an important thought? Christianity isn’t about a book–it’s about a relationship. The gospel is simply the good news of that relationship. It was such good news that it needed to be preserved in a book for all subsequent generations. But if we’re not careful, the gospel becomes a book.

  2. “The gospel is the proclamation in the name of God of remission of sins and eternal life through the sacrifice and mediation of Jesus Christ, to everyone that obeys him in the instituted way.” Alexander Campbell Sub. by Fred White

  3. Missional success has nothing to do with number of conversions. It has to do with the number of seeds planted and the amount of water applied. Our responsibility ends there, God handles the rest. How many mission committees would accept that from a prospective mission team looking for support? Not many I’m afraid.

    My understanding of the gospel lies solely in the identity of Jesus Christ, His nature, His character, His way. For us to take the gospel to others is to take Him to others, everything about Him, the way He talked, the way He served, the way He cared, the way He taught, the way He lived, the way He died.

    Where the gospel goes people get fed, healed, demons driven out, saved, etc. because those are things that happen when Jesus is in town.

  4. wade,
    Ive been wondering some of the same things as of late. What I have been wrestling with is how the church acted in Acts as the incarnational presence of Christ mediated through the Holy Spirit. They brought healing and community along with the mesage of Christ as Messiah. There seems to be a focus on numbers somewhat early in Acts but that is only found in two places. The focus quickly shuffles from the numbers to the inclusion of Gentiles and following paul to rome.

    We must be careful I think of over stressing the different aspects of the kingdom. Yes, eternal life and bring others to call upon Christ as Lord is definitely important but so is bringing justice, mercy, and help to those who need it. The balance can be precarious. Newbiging I think deals with some of this in Open Secret..
    i better stop now..

  5. David U says:

    Great post and great question, Wade! From my perspective, we have for way too many years put our focus on the response to the Gospel, instead of the Gospel itself. There is a huge difference between the two, therefore the results of the two approaches are very different also. The power and the hope are in the Gospel, because that is where Jesus is.

    Some folks will probably be upset, but you are dead on with your statement that says we as current Christians may need to be converted to an enlarged understanding of the Gospel.

    Preach on, bro!


  6. What is the inadequate gospel that you’re hearing?

  7. Chris–In a nutshell: Jesus died and rose again so that individual sinners can go to heaven when they die.

  8. Charles says:

    My understanding of the Gospel is God’s communication to us, whether it’s in Scripture, His presence in each of us, loving each other/God, or however He decides to work today. I’m not demeaning the Bible, but it’s one way He gets a hold of us, and is never described as the only communication.

  9. Wade, I totally agree with you. Yes, we do have hope of heaven when we die, but we also have hope of healing and peace in this life. Salvation is more than something to hope for after death. We are being saved now!

  10. Here two of my favorite passages about the Gospel:

    “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. This is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

    “So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God ? all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in making us friends of God” (Romans 5:11).

    Perhaps part of the answer is where the focus is placed. Is it on the “gospel” or the results of the gospel? Jesus said “everywhere you go, tell the good news [gospel]” (Mark 16:15). In simple terms, the gospel is expressed in the verses above. The result of the gospel involves discussions of justification and sanctification (and ultimately glorification). I’m not sure–generally speaking-that the confusion is with what is the gospel. It’s with what happens next. What does our new friendship with God look like in everyday terms?

  11. I remember hearing N. T. Wright say, “The gospel is a story which is then encapsulated in the formula, ‘Jesus is Lord!'” (I wrote a summary and links to his .mp3 lectures here.)

    His comment is elegant in its simplicity without oversimplification . The statement “Jesus is Lord!” is a pointer to the new order God desires for His kingdom. As has already been mentioned, this little formula takes in much more than Heaven after we die. It is a reordering and of the entire cosmos as we know it.

  12. Growing up in my particular tradition, I learned that the Gospel was even narrower than what Wade is talking about. “I wish they would obey the gospel”, or “Two people obeyed the gospel this morning.” We’d twisted the Gospel into a euphemism for being baptized, as if that’s all the Gospel call us to do or be. I remember being mortified later when I realized that Christianity wasn’t transactional and that it called me to remake my life in his image instead of defeat people in arguments about how to become a Christian. It took away the security I felt when I thought I had done all that I needed, but it was very empowering to know that the Gospel was big, that it was something to live out, not just accomplish in one day, that I could do it through expressions of love instead of expressions of superior knowledge. If I hadn’t been exposed to the true beauty of the Gospel,I probably would have kicked the Christian habit years ago.

  13. I learned the gospel is the good news of Jesus, born or a virgin, fully man, fully God. Suffered on a cross for the sins of man, ressurected on the third day, defeating the grip of death, and ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God, inteceding on our behalf.

    Yee HAW!!!!! Listen to Rich Mullins song, “The Creed.”

    We make it more than it is and overspiritualized it.

  14. Isn’t the Gospel at LEAST as much about being a blessing to this world as it is fire insurance in the next? When Jesus’s followers were asked by John’s (about Who He was), He responded that:

    “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the glad tiding preached to them (Luke 7:22-23 and Matthew 11:4-5).”

    Nothing about the afterlife there…

  15. I think the question we need to ask here (and excuse me if I’m jumping ahead of where you’re going, Wade) is how did Jesus define the gospel? It says he travelled around preaching the gospel (Mark 1:14). So, what did he preach? “At last the time has come! The Kingdom of God is so close you could reach out your hand and touch it. Turn around and believe this Good News” (Mark 1:15).

    That’s the gospel according to Jesus: the long-awaited arrival — the in-breaking of God’s reign and rule. It’s available to you and me and poor people and brokenhearted people and kings and fools and divorced people and women and preachers and cripples and children and computer programmers and soldiers and IRS agents and hookers.

  16. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Because I believe this, my life is transformed in the here and now. I don’t have to win arguments, win the rat race, or win the plaudits of the world (or church). I have already won. Jesus is already Lord. He loves me. That changes everything. Walking over crushed crack vials no longer breaks my spirit. In the words of Paul (Simon), I just think of it as “Diamonds on the Soles of My Shoes.”

    Transformed, translated, loved, saved. Gospel!

  17. Wade,
    That is pretty dissatisfying and incomplete. I hear much of the same, but also that the gospel is some sort of self help program – Jesus can make you a better parent, a better spous, a better friend, a better athlete, a better… While all of this may be true in some regards, I think, like the gospel that you’re hearing from the mainstream North American evangelical church, this gospel falls short of the gospel of Christ. CS Lewis wrote something to the effect of, “He didn’t come to make us better people, but a completely different sort of people.” And you know how I feel about dear old Jack!
    So, what is the gospel? Well, right now I’m working my way through The Divine Conspiracy, so the following is going to smack of Dr. Willard’s thoughts and ideas – but I think he’s right. The gospel is simply that the kingdom of the heavens is available to everyone right now – that Christ is standing before us offering us the oportunity to rule and serve in his Father’s kingdom in spite of our past or current situation (remember the beatitudes!) Our life in that rule will undergo change as we begin to act upon the reality that God is. We, of course, will become better at all things, but more importanly, the kingdom life offered in the gospel is a bountiful life in spite of our family situation, marital problems, work situation, or inability to dunk a basketball from the freethrow line!

  18. So, what do you think it would take to convert Christians to an enlarged concept of the Gospel? Where do we go from here? Or, is this something that Christians need to be confronted with on a large scale?

  19. In my admittedly limited experience, this more complete articulation of the gospel is incredibly attractive to people both young and old, both inside and outside the church. I don’t think many people necessarily want a commodified gospel that’s all about them and “getting their butts into Heaven”, to borrow McLaren’s phrase. I think deep down, on some barely identified level, they are uncomfortable with it, but it’s all their leadership gives them. In my situation the struggle is to get church leaders to learn to communicate the gospel in slightly new language rather than getting Christians to appreciate the fresh articulation.

  20. What is the Gospel?

    What a great question. We’ve been talking about this all week in my Postmodern Theologies class with John Mark Hicks. I like the warning in Divine Conspiracy against “vampire Christianity”–the notion that Christians only want Jesus for his blood. We get Jesus’ blood and then move on to Paul for the rest of consumer passions.

    Think about the rich diversity of “gospel talk” in the four Gospels for instance. In Matthew, salvation is linked to the “ethical training for the kingdom of heaven”–the Rabbi shows his disciples how to live as outposts of God’s future reign. In Mark, salvation is tied discipleship in a different way. Discipleship is participating in the shame (as opposed to Mel Gibson’s “pain”) of the cross. Those who would be a part of this New Band of Brothers/Sisters must be willing to embrace shame in light of a culture hinged on power and honor. In Luke, salvation is tied to the overturning of the dominant power systems–the poor are liberated, the capties are set free (it’s not Blessed are the poor in spirit but blessed are the poor). In Luke we are introduced to a radical theology of neighbor: there is no one who is not our neighbor! In John, salvation is couched in the language of abiding in eternal life (John’s word for Kingdom) and belief in “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

    What is interesting to me is that the four Gospels are even more layered than what I’ve just presented. Each one presents a rather wholistic picture of salvation…and we haven’t even gotten to Paul yet šŸ™‚

    I like this idea “people out of legalistic traditions need grace; people out of grace traditions need discipleship.” I think that says a lot about where we’re currently at in Restoration/Evangelical churches.

    The gospel doesn’t just want to say something (our sins are forgiven) it wants us to live a certain way (we are empowered to be the Second Incarnation).

  21. The gospel is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in our time. That in fact is the good news. It is absolutely good news that through Christ we will get to heaven, but that is not all the good news and that does not address our current condition. If that is the gospel we are spreading then it is no wonder people are not finding it relevant. Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, translated it has been inaugurated and we are to live with the reality of that Kingdom having already come (while we still await the final consummation). What great news that our lives have been redeemed even today!

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