Theology

Why Clarifying “the Gospel” Matters—Now More Than Ever

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If you’re evangelical (or evangelical-adjacent), you’ve likely seen the recent debates over what constitutes the gospel.

New Testament scholars Matthew Bates and Scot McKnight have been front-and-center, responding to characterizations of their nuanced discussions of the gospel found in their various published works. Those challenging McKnight and Bates are associated in some way with T4G (“Together for the Gospel”) and TGC (“The Gospel Coalition”).

I will not use this space to rehash the arguments. However, I do want to express why our understanding of the gospel matters, especially for marginalized people and anyone acutely experiencing the distress of a broken world—like too many people right now in the time of COVID-19. The status quo gospel has certainly caused some people to perform great acts of love and mercy throughout history. But purveyors of the status quo gospel have also used their beliefs to support sexism, racism, ableism, and other harmful -isms. It is fair to ask if the status quo gospel is robust enough.

Our understanding of the gospel matters, especially for marginalized people and anyone acutely experiencing the distress of a broken world. Click To Tweet

Bates, in that recent Christianity Today piece, rightly points out some of the practical concerns of having a correct understanding of what is the gospel:

“Correcting these gospel deficiencies has practical pastoral, ecumenical, and missional payoff…a gospel that emphasizes personal trust that God’s promises are true in Jesus the savior looks different on the ground than one that stresses the allegiance of the nations to a victorious king who bestows saving benefits.”

It’s some of that “on the ground” perspective that I’d like to acknowledge. During this pandemic, many people feel weary, frightened, frustrated, and vulnerable. Some of us feel that way even when there’s not a pandemic. Does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to people who feel this way? Should it? Is the gospel primarily about a divine, inner transaction that hopefully, if we try hard enough, has an impact on the way we live?

I’ll highlight three practical questions that relate to this discussion and debate around the gospel. Surely there are more questions, but we can start here:

  1. Does it matter who Jesus is, or only what he did on the cross?
  2. How should we understand the gospel’s power to liberate?
  3. What, if any, are the ethical implications inherent to the gospel?

Jesus the King

Early in his letter to the Colossians, in what may be a hymn, Paul celebrates the supremacy of Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)

It matters that Jesus is supreme. It matters that he is king (see Col 1:13-14). For people without status in the eyes of the world—like many of the believers in Colossae—life becomes manageable knowing that the King of the Universe is on your side. Also, as Howard Thurman, the theologian, mystic, and poet, argued so eloquently in Jesus and the Disinherited, it matters that Jesus was Jewish and poor, a resident of an occupied territory. The gospel is not just about a savior who didn’t sin, but about one who places himself in solidarity with marginalized humanity, “taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). Not only does the death (and resurrection) of Jesus matter, so does his life (as Scot McKnight well points out in his Christianity Today piece, quoting the apostle Peter’s sermon in Acts).

For people without status in the eyes of the world, life becomes manageable knowing that the King of the Universe is on your side. Click To Tweet

Jesus the Liberator

In Colossians, Paul surely acknowledges Jesus as Savior, the one who forgives our sins (e.g., 1:14; 21-23). Paul also describes Jesus as liberator, not just from our personal sins, but from spiritual forces that play out in human structures (Col 1:16; 2:8, 15). Chris Kugler’s piece in Christianity Today helpfully mentions the Christus Victor theme that runs throughout the New Testament. So much more can be said about Christ’s redemption of all of creation (e.g., Rom 8:15-25). Many of us who have been beaten down by society, often under the oppression of professing Christians, need to know that Jesus not only liberates from personal sin, but from the sins committed against us.

The current pandemic has revealed weaknesses in our own health care system. For example, African Americans suffer disproportionately, not because of personal behaviors, but because of long-standing inequities in the system. A robust gospel addresses the injustices that perpetuate oppression. Evangelicalism has typically shunned notions of liberation that push beyond the freedom of one’s soul, but spiritual forces of evil animate human structures. Christ’s victory over evil forces points to liberation from oppressive human institutions.

Jesus the Model

It’s no secret that the so-called Bible Belt in the US, the bastion of religiosity, has simultaneously been notorious for its patriarchy and racism. Such a paradox is sustainable when actions are separated from beliefs. The status quo gospel has typically separated commitment to the way of Jesus from belief in some Bible teachings about Jesus. I’ve no intentions of disrespecting Martin Luther and the Reformation or advocating a so-called “works righteousness.” My point, however, is that something is wrong when the most stalwart of Christians can justify slavery, dehumanize non-Europeans, advocate oppression (as with Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s support of apartheid), and readily view violence as the way to achieving peace.

Perhaps built into the gospel is the expectation that the subjects of the king are to follow the king’s example. Continuing with Colossians, we read, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col 3:1-2) This new perspective from Paul is meant to create loving communities where “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col 3:11)

Built into the gospel is the expectation that the subjects of the king are to follow the king’s example. Click To Tweet

Striving Together

At this point, I’m not pushing for anyone to take sides in the evangelical gospel debates, but to realize that we are in this together and need to consider the implications of our doctrinal positions. For some, the questions I raise may be interesting, but not necessarily “the gospel.” But for others, the gospel compels allegiance to King Jesus because it’s about more than assent to propositions. For those on the margins, or who are suffering, the gospel is more than a “not guilty” pronouncement, especially since they’ve been the ones who’ve been wronged by people who claim to have faith in Jesus.

While we shelter in place, keeping geographic distance, meeting virtually, washing hands continually, we cannot help but to think about those without shelter, without Internet, without running water, who are vulnerable in so many ways. Is not the gospel of Jesus Christ meaningful for all of humanity, and not just for the privileged? Now more than ever, I hope the church will be able to unite around the truth that the gospel is God’s gift to us all, and that post-pandemic, our collective witness to the world—margins and all—will be able to attest to this reality.

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