In a world of sound bites, Instagram, #, and Twitter, we have become really good at saying as much as possible in the fewest words. We have become highly effective reductionists. The more I look at my faith, particularly as an evangelical, the more I realize we have done the same in our spiritual practice. We have reduced worship to preliminaries, message, and invitation, washing out much of the weighty and scriptural aspects of historic worship. In reaction to the more liturgical, we have condensed communion to a wafer, a mini-cup, and a 30 second reflective memorial moment. Worst of all, we have diminished the gospel to an add-on altar call. We really have earned the title, “Church Lite.”
It’s the gospel part that has gotten my attention as of late. I grew up with altar calls and gospel tracts. They were designed to simplify and reduce the gospel message to a three minute presentation. I carried the Four Laws in my pocket through my college years, sharing the message whenever opportunities arose. All of this was reinforced in a national youth ministry I was a part of, where I was exposed to hundreds of messages that preached “the gospel” and called for immediate decisions. Unfortunately, many of those decisions did not stick.
I am still in ministries that underscore the importance of the gospel. Christ and the gospel are central to my faith. I am part of a seminary that refers to itself as “gospel centered.” I work with people who are committed to The Gospel Coalition. But while it serves as a sort of badge of authenticity (Gospel-Centered Preaching, Gospel-Centered Worship, Gospel-Centered Church, Gospel-Centered Parking Lot, etc.), I wonder if we, in all too many ministries, have compromised the larger meaning of the gospel. Recent books raise similar concerns, including Darrell Bock’s Recovering the Real Lost Gospel, N.T. Wright’s Simply Good News, and Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. These are important reads, each underscoring that, in too many cases, we have reduced the gospel to 140 characters or less; worse, we have extracted the gospel from its context.
Defining the gospel is not as easy as people would suggest. Is the gospel reserved only for the New Testament? Does it begin and end with Jesus? Is there gospel in books like Genesis or Jeremiah? Can you really say Ecclesiastes is gospel centered? It depends upon how we use the word. When Jesus preached the gospel (e.g., Mark 1:14, “Jesus went…proclaiming the gospel), did it sound anything like what we call the gospel? What does “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” mean? When you read Paul’s gospel presentations in Acts, do they correspond to what we often preach?
In too many cases, we have reduced the gospel to a tweet, an altar call, a tack on prayer, a salvation formula. It amounts to a decision that typically does not lead the hearer to become a disciple—but simply gets one saved. Some of my congregants expect an altar call, but did Jesus give altar calls? He clearly called us to go and make disciples, but I am not certain He ever called us to go and make decisions.
Many of the gospel presentations in my growing up amounted to an arrangement to get our fire insurance papers in order—freeing us to get back to life. Dallas Willard refers to this definition of gospel as “sin management.” This presumes a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind, and it fosters ‘vampire Christians,’ who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven. But this sells the gospel way short.
In our reductionist ways, our “gospel invitations” have thinned out the larger framework. And we wonder why people are confused. It’s like reading John 3:16 without first reading the encounter with Nicodemus. There is a necessary context. We miss the fact that the gospel does not begin with the Cross—it does not even begin with Jesus. It’s is part of a larger good news message. Look back at the gospel presentations of Jesus or Stephen or Paul, and one notices they always started from the beginning. When Jesus shared the gospel in His hometown, He began with Isaiah (Lk 4:18). In Stephen’s address, he began with, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham…” (Acts 7:2). When Paul shared the gospel in Antioch Pisidia, he opened with the words, “The God of this people Israel chose our forefathers…” (Acts 13:17). They never preached a formula. They always went back to the roots. They set a context for a message that would have otherwise made no sense. They seemed to say, “Do you want to hear the gospel? Sit down. It will take a while.”
To preach the gospel is to tell an ongoing story of God’s pursuit of man, one that continues to be played out. It begins with the good news of Genesis (we are created in His image to govern the world). It has to start here. It moves to the good news that though we usurped His authority, He created a nation to be His rescue plan—to be His good news and His light (Isa 42). And even though Israel preferred her own king, God did not give up on us, but sent His Son to fulfill the promises of Israel and declare His rule (Matt 4). And though man has still sought to commandeer God’s supremacy at every turn, even putting the King of kings to death, God used this death to pay the price for our failure. And the really good news is that His death also served to conquer sin and death, affirmed by His resurrection. And He is presently working through His church to call men to repentance, back to their original design, and back to governing this world for Him.
So what is the gospel? It is the good news of God’s stubborn love, which can only be understood by telling the story. It is the good news that He has won the victory, which is the very nature of the word euangellion. It is bad news for those who still insist on being their own god, which explains the deep aversion many have towards the gospel. It is what we are called to preach, defend, live out, and live in a worthy manner (Phil 1:27). Maybe it is time we stop reducing the gospel to a transaction, like a lot of other things in culture. Tweets and formulas have their place, but not when it comes to preaching God’s good news. Until we do it right, our culture will be confused, unimpressed, and unmoved.