Eight Summarizing Words on the Gospel
- Thursday, January 08, 2009
The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-19)
Many have commented on the fact that the church in the western world is going through a time of remarkable fragmentation. This fragmentation extends to our understanding of the gospel. For some Christians, "the gospel" is a narrow set of teachings about Jesus and his death and resurrection which, rightly believed, tip people into the kingdom. After that, real discipleship and personal transformation begin, but none of that is integrally related to "the gospel." This is a far cry from the dominant New Testament emphasis that understands "the gospel" to be the embracing category that holds much of the Bible together, and takes Christians from lostness and alienation from God all the way through conversion and discipleship to the consummation, to resurrection bodies, and to the new heaven and the new earth.
Other voices identify the gospel with the first and second commandments—the commandments to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. These commandments are so central that Jesus himself insists that all the prophets and the law hang on them (Matthew 22:34-40)—but most emphatically they are not the gospel.
A third option today is to treat the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels as the gospel— yet it is the ethical teaching of Jesus abstracted from the passion and resurrection narrative found in each Gospel. This approach depends on two disastrous mistakes. First, it overlooks the fact that in the first century, there was no "Gospel of Matthew," "Gospel of Mark," and so forth. Our four Gospels were called, respectively, "The Gospel According to Matthew," "The Gospel According to Mark," and so forth. In other words, there was only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus
Christ, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This one gospel, this message of news that was simultaneously threatening and promising, concerned the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the long-awaited King, and included something about his origins, the ministry of his forerunner, his brief ministry of teaching and miraculous transformation, climaxing in his death and resurrection. These elements are not independent pearls on a string that constitutes the life and times of Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they are elements tightly tied together. Accounts of Jesus' teaching cannot be rightly understood unless we discern how they flow toward and point toward Jesus' death and resurrection. All of this together is the one gospel of Jesus Christ, to which the canonical Gospels bear witness. To study the teaching of Jesus without simultaneously reflecting on his passion and resurrection is far worse than assessing the life and times of George Washington without reflecting on the American Revolution, or than evaluating Hitler's Mein Kampf without thinking about what he did and how he died. Second, we shall soon see that to focus on Jesus' teaching while making the cross peripheral reduces the glorious good news to mere religion, the joy of forgiveness to mere ethical conformity, the highest motives for obedience to mere duty. The price is catastrophic.
Perhaps more common yet is the tendency to assume the gospel, whatever that is, while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless. This overlooks the fact that our hearers inevitably are drawn toward that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher knows that.
My students are unlikely to learn all that I teach them; they are most likely to learn that about which I am most excited. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery. It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center. What is to be feared, in the famous words of W. B. Yeats in "The Second Coming," is that "the centre does not hold." Moreover, if in fact we focus on the gospel, we shall soon see that this gospel, rightly understood, directs us how to think about, and what to do about, a substantial array of other issues. These issues, if they are analyzed on their own, as important as they are, remain relatively peripheral; ironically, if the gospel itself is deeply pondered and remains at the center of our thinking and living, it powerfully addresses and wrestles with all these other issues.
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