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Thinking Confidently – what is the gospel?

As part of the Evangelical Alliance’s “Confidence in the Gospel” initiative. We are pulling together 5 national consultation days to have the major conversations about how we raise confidence in the gospel across the nation. The first of these days will focus one of the most contentious and challenging questions we need to ask ourselves as evangelicals: “What is the gospel?” People from a range of different backgrounds assume they know the answer to this question and so it often remains an unnamed and unspoken elephant in the room in much discussion. I am pulling together some of the programme for a major conversation about this subject and wanted to brainstorm the questions with you. Love to know which questions I have forgotten and would love to hear who the key players both in the UK and wider afield we need to involve in this conversation. I am assuming in the conversation that participants have a high view of scripture and a desire to take it seriously in our contemporary cultures.

1. Does the gospel preached have to sound like Paul in Romans? Or Can it sound like Paul in Athens? Jesus in Galillee?

For many the gospel is the order and content of bits of the book of Romans. So for example – we must convict of sin first (romans 3:23), we must talk about Christ’s death next (romans 5:8) and then we must call people to confess with their mouths and their hearts (Romans 10:9). But the gospel according to Paul in Athens has space for a different angle. Jesus sometimes lead with grace first and then challenge. If we depart from the Romans model have we as some believe departed from biblical orthodoxy?

2. What is the difference between the gospel and the call to radical discipleship?

This seems to be what Don Carson is talking about by asking us to distinguish between the gospel and its entailments. He seems to be arguing that the gospel is news about what Jesus has done – but does not include our response to that news, see here:

By learning, with careful study of Scripture, just what the gospel is, becoming passionately excited about this gospel, and then distinguishing between the gospel and its entailments. The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel. To preach moral duty without the underlying power of the gospel is moralism that is both pathetic and powerless; to preach a watered-down gospel as that which tips us into the kingdom, to be followed by discipleship and deeds of mercy, is an anemic shadow of the robust gospel of the Bible; to preach the gospel and social justice as equivalent demands is to misunderstand how the Bible hangs together.

Not sure if I understand what he means. If the entailments are not “optional extras” but therefore “necessary inclusions” why does he make such a big deal between distinguishing between the gospel and its entailments. Surely its the same as preaching faith and repentance – trust in the gospel message and a calling for an appropriate response. A lot of the emphasis on what the gospel is has been too narrowly defined in terms of God and me as an individual who wants to go to heaven when i die because of Jesus’ death. Lets explore the full scope and scale of the gospel and its response.

3. Does the gospel always need to include an account of penal substitution?

Not wanting to resurrect old debates, but if we recognise both that Penal substitution is a clear biblical model of the atonement is it also admissible that there are other models present in scripture too. Have we preached the gospel if we have drawn mainly on the model of Redemption, Sacrifice, Victory or Reconciliation to name but four others.

4. What are the key motivators for calling people to believe? Is the threat of Hell an essential part of every gospel message?

Some argue that we have not preached the gospel if we have not warned people that if they don’t respond then they are facing eternal conscious torment in Hell. Even those that believe in eternal conscious torment are not always convinced that this needs to be a part of a gospel message for it to orthodox. Is it true to Jesus’ teaching that the threat of Hell was the primary motivator he gave for every evangelistic conversation?

5. Should the gospel sound like a self-esteem self help programme?

Some groups make the gospel sound like God’s main priority for your life is that you see yourself as loveable. Now working with traumatised children I am beginning to understand how important a correct self image is. But if the gospel stops there – surely we are missing some important elements of the gospel out.

6. Should you expect to get the “whole of the gospel’ across in every evangelistic message?

I have been preaching evangelistically I have been aware that there is a mental ticklist in some of the Christians listening to what I am saying. But is there a place for scene setting sermons that clear away the challenges or do we need to distinguish between apologetics, evangelism and discipleship? I would argue for a more seamless connectivity between these three areas.

5 thoughts on “Thinking Confidently – what is the gospel?”

  1. Hi Krish,
    Thanks for this – what an interesting post. I just don’t see how Romans can be our starting-point when it was written to already-believers rather than not-yet believers. For me, any discussion about the Gospel has to wrestle with what Jesus means when he talks about ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom’.
    Also, we have to wrestle with what it means to be a sinner. Too many Gospel messages seem to talk about sin as the external things we do which, in a largely civilised country, simply aren’t that big a deal. You’re going to Hell because you speed? As I read it, the NT talks about the sinful nature and then the acts of the sinful nature. The sinful nature – the bit of us that says ‘no’ to God – is the issue. Otherwise the Gospel becomes a message of moral reform (about which Dallas Willard is so scathing in the Divine Conspiracy) and our discipleship a wet blanket. Once we get to grips with the fact that, at a fundamental level, we say ‘no’ to God then we realise that we need a Saviour!
    Blessings,
    Rich

  2. Hey, Krish,

    Long time! Thanks for this post. You are asking some important questions here!

    I’ve been trying to develop the assertion that the Gospel is Jesus Christ himself. I don’t know that this fundamentally answers any of your questions, but I would agree with Rich (hey, Rich!) that the emphasis should not primarily be on moral behavior, but on an introduction to Jesus Christ as a person, which of course, he is. What would one say about Jesus if introducing him to someone at a cocktail party mingle? On the bus? At church? Personally, I’m selective about my comments regarding people I’m introducing to best fit the situation.

    Further, I’ve been reading some Hans Urs von Balthasar of late, and he would underscore the necessity of relationship for a person to take on the yoke of discipleship–which leads to other interesting questions.

    Thanks, brother. Hope you and yours are well!

    Pat

  3. Krish, if your raison d’etre is to raise confidence in the Gospel then there are lots of ethical and philosophical issues which inhibit people coming to believe in all that Jesus is. The fact that too many Christians have sat on a different side of the fence for a long time is important. For example, people who are non-Christians but who want to learn about faith are advised to read the bible. In some ways that is sound advice but without some context this can have disastrous consequences. Within the first few lines of Genesis they are being told a creation story they can’t accept. Many Christians don’t see the whole evolution vs creation theory debate as a particularly big deal but for non-Christians it can be very confusing. They are reading this book which is the word of God yet it contains ideas that they cannot accept! We know and believe that God speaks into every age and into every culture but we don’t do enough to help people make the connection between where they are and God’s plan for them.

  4. Krish,

    Great post. From a US perspective I think too much unhelpful time has been spent on #3 recently(atonement). The penal view (which is only one of the many NT metaphors, shown nicely by some of Steve Holmes’ work) is not connecting with our culture as much as it may have in the past.

    If I were to emphasize one of the points above I would put energy into #2… I’m afraid we have much lack of commitment due to a “get out of jail free card” gospel.

    I would agree with #6 and say that it also falls under the same issue as #1. My evangelistic preaching rarely tries to “do it all”. NT Wright and Scot McKnight have recently focused on the minimizing of the gospel through missing the story of Israel, or the actual life, deeds, and resurrection of Jesus. I think this is incredibly helpful but even McKnight admits that telling the whole story takes a long time.

    You sure have an important and difficult discussion ahead of you. I hope you keep us updated via your blog.

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