The Gospel Coalition Article


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What is the gospel?

We claim to preach it. We want to live in light of its message. We are commissioned to share it.

Getting the gospel right is vital to the Christian faith. Calling something “the gospel” that is most definitely not the gospel could be devastating. Saying something is not “the gospel” that is in fact part of the gospel could likewise be detrimental to our faith.

In thinking through the importance of defining “the good news,” I have been running a series called “Gospel Definitions” on this blog – showing how many people today and throughout history have defined “the gospel.” It is interesting to see the variety of ways Christians define the message at the heart of Christianity.

The question has become quite heated in recent days. Evangelicals are dividing into different camps, largely depending on what they emphasize as the vital part of the gospel message.

Christianity Today is devoting the Christian Vision Project in 2008 to this very issue, asking contributors to weigh in on the provocative question: “Is our gospel too small?” Scot McKnight gives eight marks of the “robust gospel.” Others warn that we have shrunk the gospel to a matter of personal, private salvation – leaving out its cosmic dimension.

On the other hand, there are pastors and scholars who are publicly resisting the idea that we need to increase our view of the gospel. A major evangelical leader at a recent conference asked the question: “Is our gospel too big?” He listed what he sees as the dangers of confusing the gospel’s implications with the gospel itself.

It seems that two opposing camps are forming. The first camp believes we have truncated the gospel by only focusing on individual salvation at the expense of the cosmic dimension of Jesus’ lordship. Furthermore, by neglecting the biblical teaching about the coming Kingdom of God, some worry that we have embraced a gospel that is so heaven-centered as to render it ineffective to speak to earthly realities.

The second camp fears that historic evangelicalism is rapidly being replaced by a resurgent “social gospel.” Alarmed at the growing number of self-professing evangelicals who are rejecting or diminishing the penal substitutionary model of the atonement or downplaying the necessity of personal faith in the finished work of Christ, these pastors and scholars choose to reaffirm their commitment to personal salvation through Christ’s atoning death. They worry that cutting out penal substitution and neglecting the importance of individual salvation will leave us with a new form of liberalism whose gospel is powerless.

Now the camps seem to be polarizing.

Those in the Kingdom camp fear that emphasizing penal substitution will reduce the atonement to one theory, lead to over-individualizing of the gospel, and leave little place for the public implications of Jesus’ Resurrection. Better to put aside penal substitution. Since it’s not the heart of the gospel and the doctrine might lead us to leave out the kingdom or the importance of life transformation, it’s better to leave it aside for now.

Those in the Atonement camp fear that talking too much of “the kingdom” will lead us to the doorstep of liberalism and leave us with a neutered social gospel. Once you begin talking about the kingdom, you’re bound to lose the cross and wind up in the Emerging camp. Better to leave aside the kingdom for now.

It is frustrating to me that the two camps expect us to choose between these two options as if they were mutually exclusive. If the gospel is the announcement of Jesus Christ – specifically his death and resurrection and exaltation as Lord of the world – then we have a message that is both personal and cosmic. It is a message about the coming of God’s kingdom, yes. And the king of that kingdom has given his life for its subjects (atonement).

We should not have to choose between making the gospel either about personal salvation or cosmic renewal, seeing the gospel as public or private, making it all about the kingdom or the atonement, centered on the cross or resurrection, proclaiming Jesus as personal Savior or Lord of the world.

Can we not hold these together at the same time? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about a king and his kingdom? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about personal repentance and corporate witness?

Too many speakers in both of the gospel camps have decided that the emphases of the other camp are unimportant. Instead, we need to hear the cautions from both sides. It is true that we cannot dismiss the substitutionary atonement and the importance of individual repentance without fatally wounding the gospel. Yet at the same time, we cannot dismiss the kingdom-centered nature of the gospel of Jesus and Paul and the public nature of the announcement that Jesus is Lord without reducing the gospel to a matter of private spirituality.

We should not be satisfied in either the kingdom camp or the atonement camp. Perhaps we can all be happy campers if we join with others in proclaiming a “both-and” gospel instead of an “either-or.”
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