Forty-five minutes into a conversation with pastors and church leaders, an elder abruptly turned to me and asked:
“What is the gospel?”
I smiled blankly, trying to remember the name of this interlocutor I’d met just minutes earlier, studying his face for an indication of what he was really after.
Because where I come from, “What is the gospel?” is a loaded question looking for an even more loaded answer.
It’s a trap.
A test for whether one is fully orthodox and “gospel-centered.”
I typically don’t answer trap questions. Questions that aren’t honest engagements of discovery and relationship- but rather intend to divide and categorize in some sort of relational power-play game- aren’t questions. They are traps. But this was a trap question with a no escape clause: It happened during an interview for a Spiritual Formation Pastor position at a church.
All the pastors and other elders were keenly interested in how I would respond.
I knew I had to answer: “What is the gospel?”“What is the gospel?” is a loaded question looking for a more loaded answer. Click To Tweet
The Problem with Atonement Theories and Gospel Formulas
The first gospel I learned was the one-verse Bridge Illustration.
After that, I learned The Four Spiritual Laws.
In seminary I learned that atonement was the heart of the gospel (penal substitution being central, but others such as Christus Victor/Ransom and recapitulation were important as well).
Salvation formulas and atonement theories are elegant, easy to use, and persuasive in a Christendom context. But when I graduated seminary and began to inhabit real life, I found at least two issues with them:
1. They didn’t connect with the people around me.
Theories and formulas didn’t seem to speak to the stories of the people in my life:
- With my boss who was going through a divorce
- With my alcoholic, racist neighbor who grew up going to Jimmy Swaggart revival meetings on the weekends
- With my agnostic fraternity brothers from college
I can (and did) share the formulas (i.e. “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God…”) and attempted to explain the theories (“you see God’s justice demands…”) but something always seemed missing. I intuited something was insufficient with these articulations but couldn’t put my finger on it.
Until I noticed:
2. Jesus never shared our formulas and theories.
My struggle with sharing the gospel drove me back to the Gospels, where I noticed: Jesus never shared a theory of his atonement to help his followers believe in his death and resurrection, nor did he use a one-size-fits-all formula.
In the gospels I discovered what is so good about the good news of Jesus.
Learning to preach the good news from Jesus
The good news Jesus preached consistently focused on two related announcements:
- Who Jesus is- and-
- Who we are because of who Jesus is.
Let’s take a look at how this fleshes itself out by looking at John 21.1-17. We know this text as “The Miraculous Catch” or “Jesus Reinstates Peter”. But here’s my question: Do we think that Jesus proclaims the gospel to Peter in this text?
I say yes.
And the gospel comes in concrete, particular invitations to trust Jesus in the 3 temptations humans always face:
- fear of not having enough
- shame in not being enough
- guilt of not doing enough
The good news for Peter’s fear – John 21.3-6
The first way that Jesus proclaims the good news is to Peter’s fear through fishing advice.
Jesus (much like he does in Luke 5) asks him to admit his lack of provision and then invites him to try the other side of the boat.
Note: Jesus offers good news in a place where they experienced lack and longing. All night fishing, nothing to show for it. This is livelihood stuff here, not fishing for sport or leisure. One of the temptations Peter faced was to fear not having enough and Jesus met him in that fear and provided abundantly.
But Peter had to trust Jesus’ fishing advice, he had to receive the grace, he had to surrender to the invitation (John 21.7)
Do you see? This interaction is all about the gospel: who Jesus is (Lord of all Creation) and who Peter is because of who Jesus is (blessed, provided for, living in abundance, secure, safe, taken care of).
You can trust me to provide for you, Peter. Apart from me you can do nothing; but in me all things are yours.
The Good News for Peter’s Shame – John 21.7-14
The second way Jesus proclaims good news is to Peter’s shame by providing, hosting, and serving him breakfast.
The last time Peter looked into Jesus’ eyes he had just denied him three times (Luke 22.54-62). Peter’s disloyalty to Jesus had severed his relationship with him; he failed to follow the only “law” of the new covenant- love- when he confessed with his mouth that HE DID NOT KNOW JESUS.
There are multiple allusions to shame and how Peter is being saved from it in the text that can’t be covered in this post (i.e. nakedness/clothing- Jn 21.7; Compare Luke 5.8 and Jn 21.7 w/r/t “Go away from me!” and I will swim to you!) but what I want to focus on here is how Jesus communicated to Peter, “I give you all my worth, honor, and value. You are in my family.”
Not with words, but in an enacted gospel event: Jesus gospels Peter by providing (none of your 153 fish needed), hosting (giving identity and association to his guests) and serving (agape love in action, much like the foot washing) breakfast.
Table fellowship is good news to someone who has disavowed knowing Jesus; it means Jesus accepts, receives, welcomes, identifies with, and loves you. (For more on table fellowship, and covenant, and how this act signifies and ratifies more than 21st Century Westerners recognize, see “Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century” by R. Alan Streett, and “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant” by Michael J. Gorman)
Jesus identifies with and includes Peter and his friends in his company and in so doing declares his shame to be untrue and undone! The “breakfast event” is good news, but Peter had to participate in it. He had to be served (again!) by Jesus and submit his body to the reality of that identity (i.e. “I am one who Jesus loves/serves/takes as an intimate companion”).
The breakfast event declares: You are acceptable to me, Peter. I will remain loyal and united with you despite your failings. My love makes you enough for me. Receive my acceptance and validation.
The Good News for Peter’s Guilt – John 21.15-17
The third way that Jesus proclaims good news is to Peter’s guilt and it is through a commission as a shepherd.
Most of us are familiar with this as Jesus “restoring” or “forgiving” Peter, but do we see Jesus’ questions, “Do you love me?” and commission, “Feed my sheep” as good news?
It is, friends.
Jesus is dealing with Peter’s guilt: first by allowing him to confess faithfulness (love=faithfulness here; love= intimacy+loyalty in the New Testament), and then by authorizing him as his representative.
Notice: Peter isn’t told to buck up, make it happen, work harder, strain more. Peter wasn’t offered an exhaustive explanation of how Jesus’ death secured his forgiveness or given a sure-fire formula of salvation.
Jesus doesn’t even say, “Prayer this prayer after me…”
Because it wouldn’t have been good enough news for a man trapped in the darkest of guilt.
I am the one who forgives, Peter, even your deepest transgressions. Will you trust in my love as my authorized representative?
Observations about how Jesus Proclaims the Gospel
All three instances of good news in this story (fishing advice, breakfast, question and commission) were particular to Peter and how he needed to respond to Jesus’ lordship at that moment. Jesus doesn’t offer any abstract theological formulas or elegant theories to agree with; No friends, Jesus comes in the particularities and circumstances of Peter’s life and offers him abundant provision in his fear, secure identity in his shame, and cosmic significance/authority in his guilt.For fear, shame and guilt Jesus provides provision, secure identity and authority. Click To Tweet
How then Do We Gospel?
It’s not that we don’t need atonement theories, it’s just that we’ve been asking them to the wrong work.
Jesus and his disciples don’t seem to think our deepest problem is we lack sufficient insight into the mechanics (the “how to”) of our forgiveness by God in Christ. Rather, in text after text, story after story, we see the same bad news of fear, guilt, and shame being addressed because it keeps humanity apart from the Kingdom of God. These three tools of the Enemy show up all through the narrative of scripture at paradigmatic moments (see Genesis 3.6-7; Luke 4.1-13; 1 John 2.15-17 for instance).
If we want to know what was so good about the gospel Jesus preached, we need to pay attention to the problem Jesus spoke to and acted against.
What does it mean to gospel like Jesus?
We offer concrete, specific proclamation or enacting of “Who God is” and “Who we are because of who God is” that invites an immediate response of trust so that we can leave behind the bad news of our fear, guilt, and shame and live in the love of God and others.