Among Christians, the gospel is considered foundational and we like to think that we know what it is. However, when you pay attention to how believers talk about it, there is some fuzziness regarding what it exactly is. Part of the reason for this imprecision is the fact that the gospel is central. Practically every theological issue orbits around it with varying degrees of separation. It is therefore quite easy to bundle issues into the gospel, especially if they are closely related, even though they might be quite distinct.
The insights of Dr Matthew Bates on the gospel in his excellent 2017 book Salvation by Allegiance Alone really prompted me to have a more refined understanding of the gospel. In his endeavour to explain faith as allegiance in the New Testament (NT), Bates created an essential summary of the gospel (which is what we are supposed to believe.) He clearly outlined what constitutes the gospel and what does not. For me his particularly incisive observation was that even though justification is an outcome of believing the gospel, it is not in the gospel as it is presented in the NT. There are not many things that are more closely related to the gospel than justification. However, him showing that there is a subtle but important distinction showed me I needed a precise understanding of the gospel.
Going off Bates’ summary there are a handful of passages that essentially capture the gospel. Acts 2:34-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and Romans 1:1-4 for example, contain what are some of the earliest creedal summaries of the gospel that we know from the early Church. Together they tell us the gospel is the story of how through his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfils Israel’s scriptures as Lord and Messiah. Now much more can be said but the point is that even though in the NT it was articulated in various ways, in it there is a pattern of discourse about the gospel, which indicates it had a definite meaning. The gospel is the message that we must believe in order to become Christians. Therefore, it is a matter of first principles and Christian thought must proceed from it. Once we can properly discern what the gospel is according to the NT, then we can properly determine how other issues, particularly important ones, relate to it.
Let us go through some examples that help illustrate the careful distinctions that ought to be made between the gospel and other possibly related issues. The first example I earlier gave was how justification is a direct result of believing the gospel and not part of the gospel. Another example is among Western believers the contentious issue of sexuality and the gospel. On the one hand, we have the infamous Nashville statement that denounced homosexuality but was criticised for smuggling sexuality into the gospel message even though it is not in the NT. Now on the other hand we have people like Rob Bell who publicly affirms the resurrection, an indisputable biblical component of the gospel, yet he also affirms homosexuality. How then are issues of sexuality related to the gospel?
There are different ways to address this but first we need to recognise that while it is true that matters of sexuality are not part of the gospel, it is also true that the NT is clearly against homosexuality. The resurrection reaffirms the original goodness of the created order found in Genesis, which includes the union of man and woman so at the very least, affirming the resurrection while accepting homosexuality is a gross misunderstanding of the gospel. It is clear in the NT that even though matters of sexuality are not in the gospel, believing it necessarily entails accepting a particular sexual ethic. More broadly, there are certain entailments to believing the gospel, both in our thinking and actions. While they are not in the gospel they have to be taken seriously because of the gospel. This is because they affect what it means to faithfully live out the gospel message.
My final example is what is often called the “prosperity gospel.” As the name suggests, it contends that prosperity is somehow included in or tightly associated with the gospel. I will not wade into the current debates on it here. That is a matter for another post. What I am interested in is the reason behind why prosperity is used to define the gospel in the first place.
When you listen to proponents of the prosperity gospel, at the basis of their message is a simple association that goes something like this: gospel means good news therefore health and wealth, which are good and are from God, must also be part of the gospel. A common illustration they use is good news to someone who cannot walk is healing so they can walk again. This notion is very convincing when it comes to healing because in the NT and even today, when the gospel is preached there are sometimes miraculous healings. This is in fact follows a similar line of reasoning to those who include justification in the gospel. Those who believe in a gospel of justification say good news for a sinner is that they are no longer condemned before God. Just like with healing, what makes this association compelling is that people, both in the NT and today, often have a sense the burden of guilt is lifted of them when they believe.
It only seems natural that good things that are sometimes associated with the good news are indeed part of what makes the news good. The trouble is by that reckoning, whatever a person lacks that is good and from God can be considered their gospel, that is, good news to them. The gospel can become highly diluted through a highly subjective estimation of what a person thinks is good news. Justification, health, wealth and prosperity among other things are all good but they are not what the NT calls the gospel.
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