One of the challenges of ministering in the context of a pluralistic university and as Teaching Elder in a broad church, is defining the simple word “gospel.”
In the university the word is alien except for those who are Christian. And in the context of the campus Christian community, there are a multiplicity of ways to give language to a message that is also a lived experience.
The word pops up fairly regularly in a various position papers and edicts from the Presbyterian Church (USA), but it is always left undefined–a word into which we may pour our own meaning. And while way in which each Christian comes to be so is unique, the message that describes the reality experienced by each is the same.
So…what is the Gospel?
“Gospel,” of course, is derived from the Old English gōd-spell, which means “good news” or “glad tidings.” The Gospel is a message. It is something that is communicated and relayed to those who have never heard it or, perhaps, have misheard the message before.
The Gospel is also a message that has content. Important messages have content. If someone walked up to you and said, “the eagle has landed” you would probably be momentarily perplexed and the go on with your day attributing the message to some problem with the messenger and of no concern to you.
On the other hand, if the year was 1969 and you were a controller sitting in mission control listening to audio feed from Apollo 11 and you heard, “Houston. Tranquility base here. The eagle has landed,” this message would have distinct content–news of the first successful moon landing.
As with the second example, the Gospel is a message with specific content. In his excellent book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, Jim Belcher provides an excellent explanation of the content of the message (from a vision document used by his PCA church):
…The “gospel” is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. Through the Savior God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. We witness this radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and community transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship. (p.131)
This explication avoids making “gospel” simply an academic word that can be debated, discussed, and dissected by theologians alone. Instead, Gospel becomes a word that belongs to the church, and to every member of that company. It’s a personal word because this message changes our lives here and now:
- Jesus is the Messiah–the deliverer sent from God.
- God has entered the world and begun His renewal project.
- God’s reign has been established.
- In believing this message, we are reconciled to God.
- God’s powers enters our lives.
- Our lives become radically realigned to God’s values.
- We experience deep community.
- We yearn for and work for justice through deeds of mercy.
- We practice our vocation as a way of transforming culture.
- We are enabled to truly worship God and live our lives for Him.
In other words, the Gospel is the foundation of the Christian life.
Without the Gospel working for social justice becomes simple political activism and creates anger, guilt, and resentment.
Without the Gospel work becomes an end in itself and an idol.
Without the Gospel community becomes a commodity that we consume rather than a reality we embrace and something we give ourselves to.
That’s why the failure to be clear about the whole Gospel is central to a life of Christian faithfulness.