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29 August 2012

What is the gospel?

What is the gospel?

It sounds like an easy one, but answers to this question have provoked controversy within the Church. Krish Kandiah, the Alliance’s executive director: churches in mission, writes… 

‘What is the gospel?’ should be the simplest question you could ask a Christian, because in order to become one in the first place, a person needs to have believed the gospel. 

But there is a lot of confusion and indeed controversy regarding the simple question of the content of the gospel. Many Christians take a minimalist approach to this question, trying to distil the minimum amount of truth that needs to be communicated for the gospel to have been proclaimed. For some this is driven by efficiency – getting the least amount of truth to the most number of people – as this is seen to be good stewardship of our limited resources. For others the driver is orthodoxy in an attempt to fall in line with Paul and Timothy as they ‘guarded’ the gospel, making sure it is presented faithfully and consistently. Both of these motives have given rise to various gospel summaries or outlines where the gospel is boiled down to its raw materials. They usually go something like this:

  1. God loves you
  2. You have sinned
  3. Jesus died for your sins and rose again
  4. You need to respond by confessing Jesus as Lord

This outline was part of my journey to faith and I am grateful both for those who wrote it and for those who shared it with me. The strengths of these outlines are clear. They help Christians by providing a framework, a discussion starter, or a sermon ender, and can often be visually represented (eg the famous ‘Bridge to Life’ diagram). They can enable us to see the wood for the trees in the Bible and they emphasise precious aspects of our faith such as what God is like, what Jesus has done on the cross to forgive our sins and our responsibility to respond. 

But there are problems with this approach. 

First, it reduces Scripture. Sometimes we need to see the trees. By cutting the gospel down to a few proof texts in the book of Romans, for example (3:23 6:23, 5:8, 10:9), we neatly bypass huge chunks of that letter, which are effectively deemed irrelevant in the process, particularly anything to do with God’s relationship with Israel, the Church and the work of the Spirit. Evangelicals must hold on to the fact that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful” and not prune the gospel down to size. If the gospel was intended to be communicated as a soundbite or outline then it would have made sense for God to provide one for us. Rather the biblical equivalent of evangelistic material is four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. The epistles, on which most gospel outlines rely heavily, were actually written to believers. Jesus’ commission: “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20) and Paul’s defence: “We did not hesitate to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:25-29) and even the length of the biographies in an age when publishing was prohibitively expensive and painstakingly difficult indicates that the biblical emphasis seems to err on the side of teaching more rather than less. 

Second, it solidifies what needs to be fluid. Every gospel presentation you read in Scripture feels like it has been tailor-made for the audience in question. Track through Jesus’s conversations in John’s gospel or Paul’s sermons in Acts and you will see very different articulations of the gospel. That does not mean a free-for-all – it is hard to fault Paul’s orthodoxy or Jesus’ commitment to the gospel. But it does mean we need to be as ready to connect our presentations of the gospel to the needs and conceptions of our audience as Jesus and Paul were.

Third, it causes unnecessary controversy. When trying to reduce the gospel down to its most important parts, dilemmas will always arise. Choices have to be made whether to mention for example, sin and judgement or hope and peace; Jesus’ death or Jesus’ life, the role of the Holy Spirit or the role of the Church; speaking the good news or living out the good news. Why argue over which is more important when both can be celebrated? 

The Evangelical Alliance was formed in 1846 to unite Christians around the gospel. It was founded around a confession of faith that set out some boundaries for gospel witness. These are not the gospel itself, just like the boundary lines that mark out a football pitch are not to be confused with a game of football. It would be pretty boring just to watch the lines for 90 minutes, but without them the game would collapse. The Alliance’s doctrinal statement lays out the non-negotiables for gospel witness but also seeks to create a field of play for the creative, contextual and concrete articulation of the gospel message itself. 

Krish KandiahOn Tuesday, 20 November 2012, the Alliance is hosting a national consultation to explore this question in more depth. This event is being held at St Paul’s Onslow Square, London, from 10am until 4pm. A wide range of thinkers and practitioners have been invited to participate in the day. If you’re an evangelist or leader of a church or organisation and would like to be part of this conversation, there are an additional 40 free tickets available. For more information visit eauk.org/confidence or contact e.barrett@eauk.org to book your place.

Krish Kandiah is the Alliance’s executive director: churches in mission

There has been a recent run of books and articles that have sought to expand on the reductionist approach to the gospel. These include:

  • The King Jesus Gospel by Scott McKnight
  • The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler
  • How God Became King by NT Wright
  • The Essential Gospel by Andrew Wilson.

Of course they come to different conclusions on the final form – but they nevertheless raise important caveats and questions that can help us discover and enjoy more of the gospel.

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