What is the Gospel?
In Sunday School we’re taught that the Gospel is the stern message of repentance. That I am evil and God is holy, and so I need to change and act like God in order to get His approval and avoid burning in hell forever when I die. Or, if we grew up Calvinists, we learned that the Gospel is actually a triumphant message of victory. That Christ has defeated sin and Satan and freed me from my slavery and bought me heaven-when-I-die. But is the Gospel really about me?
My great-grandfather was a classic fire-and-brimstone preacher who would literally walk up to people and tell them that they were on their way to hell and that their only hope was to believe in Jesus…and start coming to church and stop drinking and chewing and running with girls what do. But we know that the Gospel is more than a moral standard, it’s a relationship. But it’s more than a relationship, it’s a…well what it is exactly?
For too long we’ve made the mistake of personalizing the Gospel, as if the only real implications of the Gospel were on me and my personal relationship with God. We’ve reduced it to the “ABCs” of salvation and found a personal meaning in Jesus’s death in songs which say things like “We are the reason that He gave His life.” But the Gospel is much bigger than that. The Gospel, in its essence, is at least three basic things: it’s a meganarrative, it’s a worldview, and it’s public truth.
1. The Gospel is a Meganarrative
The Gospel is a story. It’s not a few strung-together propositions about the theological and moral status of mankind; it’s a Story—from beginning to end—the story of all of creation. Since this particular Story is so big, theologians have come to call it a “metanarrative.” Some like to refer to it as a “meganarrative,” because of a legitimate nuance, but either way, the point is the Gospel is the one Story to rule them all—it’s as big as history.
Because the Gospel is a narrative, it’s a lens for viewing all of the events of history. That’s one reason why it’s so offensive. It’s exclusive (John 14:6) and it’s all-inclusive (from creation in Gen 1 to re-creation in Rev 21). The Gospel is huge and there’s no way to avoid it.
But at the core of this Gospel narrative is the climactic moment of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of a real man named Jesus, called the Messiah. That’s when the Story reaches is zenith. That’s what we refer to when we talk about the Gospel because it’s the good juicy part, what the New Testament calls the Euangelion, the “good news” of Christ’s victory. We church people get that part, but we often forget what Jesus was victorious over, and for what reasons.
The Emaciated Two-Chapter Gospel
We modern Christians have inherited a Gospel narrative which isn’t even a narrative—it’s a moral stop sign. Aristotle, back in the 4th century BC, defined a story as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Modernist authors challenged that structure, but even they are forced to follow that three-part sequence. (You still have to have a beginning to your story, even if you begin in a non-beginning point—like the middle.)
Postmodernism has collapsed our Story, which has led to us adopting an emaciated Gospel. We’ve reduced the full, huge story of the Gospel to only two chapters. The chapter on my sin and the chapter on Jesus’s payment for my sin. There’s no real beginning to this story and no real end. All that happens is a theological transfer of guilt. And our Story becomes emaciated because it’s all about me, as if we all lived in a personalized vacuum. Like I said before, either the Gospel is the Story of all of life, or it’s false. So we need a bigger Gospel.
The Full Four-Chapter Gospel
Recent theological studies have unearthed that err and helped us rethink the full Gospel by putting it in its real context. This Gospel has four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. You can see here that the middle two are the ones the emaciated Gospel focuses on, the one we see printed in tracts and pamphlets like the “May I Ask You A Question?” one, etc. wherein we get the bad news (I’m a sinner; aka the Fall), then the good news (Jesus died for me; aka Redemption), but we never really know the answer to the question of Why besides that “Jesus loves me this I know…” and “When He was on the cross I was on His mind.”
The real shame with that emaciated Gospel is it takes the most glorious Story ever told and cheapens it into just another form of self-help and personal advancement. It takes this thousands-year-old-Story in the making and strips it of all its significance, replacing all of its rich meaning with the small little meaning that comes from my personal salvation. If we lose the context for the story of our personal redemption, we lose the importance of it. And that is where American Evangelicalism is today. We have the appearance of worship but not the substance. We say God is glorious, but we aren’t really convinced of that.
2. The Gospel is a Worldview
Since the Gospel is literally the big-picture Story which makes sense of all of life, it’s what gives meaning to everything and what we need to understand everything. We all interpret life with stories—Joan Didion went so far as to say we tell ourselves stories in order to live—and that’s exactly the function of the Gospel in a Christian’s life. It becomes to him his story, the one that makes sense of everything.
The Gospel gives meaning to life and shows us how we should interpret it. Psychology tells us a story about human sin which makes us the victim, the Gospel tells us a bigger story which makes us part of the enemy. Political science tells us the best form of government is a Democracy, the Gospel tell us it’s a type of monarchy—a theocracy. Philosophy tells us the meaning of life is what you make it, the Gospel tells us it’s what God has made it in His redemptive story told in history. If we lose the power of the Gospel to interpret life, it won’t matter that we get heaven-when-we-die because we will have missed the whole point of life itself.
3. The Gospel is Public Truth
So we know that the Gospel is a complete Story about life (not just my eternal fire insurance) and it’s an entire worldview which allows us to interpret life, but it’s also the capital-T Truth about life itself—all of it. Meaning, it's all or nothing: it’s literally the Story of every human being or it’s not a Story at all. It’s either totally true, or totally a lie. Often we think if someone doesn’t quote/unquote receive the Gospel then they just aren’t part of our club. It doesn’t work that way. It’s as if they stand there staring down the barrel of a gun, telling you they don’t believe it exists. Then the gun goes off and their doubts are forever erased.
As C. S. Lewis so perfectly wrote: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” Our response doesn’t change the facts. God created everything with an intention, and if we don’t line up with that; that’s our fault.
Hugh Whelchel writes:
Scripture begins with the creation of all things and ends with the renewal of all things, and in between it offers an interpretation of the meaning of all history. N.T. Wright says that the divine drama told in Scripture “offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.” The Biblical metanarrative makes a comprehensive claim on all humanity, calling each one of us to find our place in His Story. (Hugh Whelchel, How Then Should We Work?)
The Gospel happened in time and space and therefore has implication on everything and everyone in time and space. It’s not simply a spiritual thing we tell ourselves to make sense of our personal spiritual longings or feelings of inadequacy. It’s what happened. It’s our job to get on board.
The Point is…
The Gospel is a series of events that 1) enact redemption and 2) reveal God's character. If we lose the close connection between events and theology, we lose God and degrade him into what pop-Christianity calls God: my co-pilot or my personal life-coach.
Ironically, We've made the Gospel all about us and thus lost its true power and significance. If the Gospel is just about me and my salvation, then it only has a place in my prayer closet—and the prayer closets of those around me. Worship is thus just a vertical, personal affair between me and God, made possible by the theological ramifications of the Gospel. In that Story, the Gospel becomes a product to sell; Jesus becomes the benefactor, and the church becomes the retailer.
But the Gospel is bigger than that.
The Gospel is about God restoring peace to the earth, reversing the curse and bringing order from the (increasing) chaos. The Gospel before Christ was the promise that God would come Himself and conquer evil. The Gospel post-Christ is the message that He has done it—it is finished.
Last thing. Let’s not confuse the Gospel with our response to the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t “repent and be saved.” That’s the implications of the Gospel as applied to us fallen humans. The Gospel isn’t “You’re a sinner but Jesus has made a way for you to be saved.” Again, that’s an implication. The Gospel, pure and powerful, is the declaration that God, the creator of the Universe, has kept His promise which He made from the beginning (Gen 3:15) by writing Himself into the Story so that He could overcome and conquer what no other character could. The Gospel, at it’s core, is that God has won. One implication of that Story is: are you with Him or against Him?
So when you go out into the world and spread the Gospel, don't do like my great-grandad and beat people over the head with a theological baseball bat. Instead, tell them their Story. Just make sure to be honest with them about the implications, about what the Story requires of them, about what it requires of all of us. Then, Lord willing, their eyes will light up because they will see the glory of the Gospel for what it really is, not for what we want it to be.