The Gospel, The WHOLE Gospel, and Nothing But The Gospel

The Essential Elements of the Christian Gospel

We are in the process of exploring a theology of evangelism for “the transition zone” – that period of time following modernity, often called “post-modernity.”  If you’ve been following along, you know that I am operating under the conviction that the Anabaptist tradition has a great deal to offer during this period of transition.

The first part of this Anabaptist definition of evangelism involves the process by which the Christian community ascertains the essential elements of the Christian gospel. This part of our definition asks the basic question:  what is the content of the gospel?   

Generally speaking, Christians have used the word “gospel” to designate the message and story of God’s saving activity worked out through Jesus Christ.  In other words, the content of the gospel is the message that God saves. On this subject Baptist theologian James McClendon writes: 

The new that comes in Christ—life redeemed, healed, transformed—is a primary element in Christian teaching…It sounds also at that place in the Nicene Creed that confesses “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”  And perhaps a like conviction guided the editors of successive editions of the Methodist Hymnal to begin with “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” a placement that goes back to John Wesley in 1780:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

His blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

East and West, north and South, this gift from God in Christ shapes the Christian faith.[i]

There is apparent unanimity among Christians concerning the conviction that God saves.  For many, however, the meaning of this salvation is a matter of great theological debate.  The origins of this debate are not found in the academic halls of theological inquiry, but in the scriptures themselves. In the New Testament the story of the saving work of God in Christ has two dimensions: the story of Jesus the Proclaimer of the Kingdom and the story of Jesus the Risen Lord.[ii]   

Jesus the Risen Lord 

The story of Jesus the Risen Lord is well known in most contemporary churches.  Found primarily (though not exclusively) in the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles, it is the story about the gift of salvation God has made available to all humankind through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and from the empty tomb.  It is the story of the “word of God” that became flesh and dwelt among us” as a revelation of God of God’s glory, grace, and truth (cf. John 1:140. It is the story about the one whom John the Baptizer called “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the earth” (cf. John 1:29, 36).   It is the story about the one whom the Apostle Paul referred to as “our Passover lamb” who has been sacrificed (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7).  It is the story about the redemption from sin and reconciliation with God was accomplished through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.  In general, the story of Jesus the Risen Lord is the message about the salvation God wrought through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For many Christians, this is the totality of the Christian gospel—the full content of the evangelistic message.  For such individuals the message of the gospel is easy to systematize and mass produce as series of propositional statements passed off as “spiritual laws” or a “plan of salvation.”  What such approaches fail to take seriously, however, is the other important dimension of the New Testament’s understanding of the gospel—namely the story of Jesus the Proclaimer of the Kingdom.

Jesus the Proclaimer of the Gospel

While the story of Jesus the Risen Lord finds its New Testament foundations in the Pauline epistles and the Fourth Gospel, the story of Jesus Proclaimer of the Kingdom—the one he preached and taught—finds its expression primarily in the synoptic gospels (though teachings about the kingdom can also exegetically be found in other sections of the New Testament).  The story of Jesus the Proclaimer of the Kingdom makes references to Jesus numerous announcements about the nearness of the kingdom.  According to the preaching of Jesus, the proclamation about the nearness of the kingdom demands a response.  Mark summarizes Jesus preaching: “’The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (cf. Mark 1:14)

The good news proclaimed by Jesus, then, was the message the kingdom of God was near.  It is what Mortimer Arias called “kingdom evangelization.”[iii]  In the light of this good news, the invitation of Jesus was that his hearers believe this good news and become citizens of the kingdom and members of God’s eschatological covenant community.[iv]

A general perusal of the contemporary evangelical church reveals that this latter mentioned dimension of the gospel is being neglected in the church.  In most congregations with which I am familiar whenever the topic of evangelism is discussed the focus is always on telling the story of Jesus the Risen Lordthe message of how God’s obtained our redemption through the cross and resurrection.  Seldom is there discussion about the message proclaimed by Jesus—His call for people to renounce old allegiances and place themselves under the authority of God’s sovereignty. Exegetically there is no conflict between these two aspects of the gospel.  However many in the contemporary church seem focused only on the story of Jesus the Risen Lord.  As a result, the church often finds itself proclaiming a truncated gospel.  We have not heeded John Wesley who said:  “We are to proclaim Christ in all His offices—prophet, priest, and king.” 

A Basic Account of the Gospel

What does this mean for the contemporary evangelist?  It means that as we take under consideration the essential elements of the gospel for the purpose of communication, we must include both the story of Jesus the Risen Lord and the story of Jesus the Proclaimer of the Gospel.  David Lowes Watson has done this very important work in a lecture entitled “A Generic Gospel.”  In this lecture Watson presents “seven planks of the gospel.”[v]  The seven planks that Watson mentions are as follows:  creation, sin, God’s initiative, death on the cross, resurrection, God’s work in history, and human response. 

(1)  Creation.  God is the Creator of all that exists and what God has created is good.  God has created humankind in God’s own image.  Human beings exist to bring glory to God in creation and voice all of creation’s praise for the goodness of God.  Human beings are privileged  in  creation to experience the blessing of an ongoing, unfolding, loving relationship with God.

(2)  Human sinHuman beings have rebelled against God’s purpose for their lives.  As such, we are unclean and alienated from God.  Our sin not only affects ourselves, however, it also has an effect on all creation which now suffers decay, chaos, violence and evil.  These things are not a part of God creative process, but are an aberration of that process caused by human sin.

(3)  God’s initiative. God covenants with humankind to provide a means of salvation from the destructive consequences of our sin and creation’s brokenness.  In the Old Testament this covenant is revealed in the relationship God establishes with the people of Israel.  In the New Testament this covenant is extended from the people of Israel to all humankind through Jesus of Nazareth.  In Christ, God becomes a Jewish Rabbi, linked to the covenant history of the Israelites.  In Christ God reaffirms the covenant not to abandon us. 

What does Jesus do?  Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom of God.  He comes announcing that God is still at work seeking to fulfill the ultimate purpose of creation.  How does Jesus reveal this saving work of God.  Jesus reveals the salvation of God by teaching, healing, and dying.

(4)  The Death of Jesus on the Cross.  Why was Jesus crucified on the cross? Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God.  He invited people to reorient their lives according to the rule of God over their lives.  He wanted to restore what was lost in creation as a result of human sin.  By living according to the standards and principles of the kingdom of God, however, Jesus exposed the extent of human sin. As such, he was crucified because he was a threat to the status quo.

In both his incarnation of the kingdom and his crucifixion on the cross, however, Jesus revealed something important about the nature of God.  He revealed that God has identified with the suffering of humankind as a result of our sin.  On the cross, Jesus Christ felt the effects of the uncleanness, alienation, violence, evil, and suffering brought about by sin.  As the Apostle Paul writes:  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

(5)  The Resurrection.  The death of Jesus Christ was not the end of his story.  On the third day the scriptures tell us that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  What does this mean?  First, it means that the life and teachings of Jesus Christ have been validated by God.  God’s purposes in creation will one day ultimately be fulfilled.  Death—humanity’s greatest enemy—can’t  put an end to the kingdom.  Second, the resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals that Jesus is God’s anointed Savior.  In him there is victory over sin and death and the possibility of wholeness, healing, and eternal life.

(6)   The work of God in history.  Even the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are not the end of the gospel story.  The Book of Acts makes it clear that the work of God in human history continues through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  For the Anabaptist, the Holy Spirit works in the world primarily through the ministry of the church.[vi]  The Holy Spirit gave to the church understandings of the teaching of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit empowered the church to be witness to the gospel.  The Holy Spirit equipped the church to minister to the needy and heal the sick.  Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit brought together those who had placed themselves under the sovereignty of God, making them a community that serves as a sign of the kingdom.[vii] In their life together the Anabaptists believed that God’s Spirit had created them to be a sign of the kingdom.

(7)  Response.  What is the appropriate response to the proclamation of the gospel?  When Jesus proclaimed the gospel, he said that the appropriate response was to “repent.” The individual who hears the gospel is challenged to turn around and reorient their life according to the rule of God.  In short, the response God intends is for people to become disciples.   Unfortunately, since the church has so often preached a truncated gospel, this has not been the response for which we have asked.  The contemporary church has usually offered the invitation that people “make a decision” to believe that Jesus is Savior.  The weight of the New Testament, however, demands that we invite people to “make the decision” to become followers of the Lord Jesus who is Savior and Life. 

[i] James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  Systematic Theology:  Doctrine.  Vol. 2. (Nashville, Tennessee:  Abingdon Press, 1994), 103.

[ii] These two aspects of the gospel are often referred to as the gospel about Jesus and the gospel of Jesus.  I am rejecting these terms because they have been used at times by Protestant to indicated that there are two gospels—the one of Jesus considered superior, and the Pauline perversion of the gospel referred to as the gospel about Jesus.  Such a view cannot be supported exegetically. See Maxie D. Dunnam, Congregational Evangelism:  A Pastor’s View.  (Nashville, Tennesee:  Discipleship Resource, 1992), 2.

[iii] Mortimer Arias,  Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus:  Announcing the Reign of God.  (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  Fortress Press, 1984), 3.

[iv] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 654. 

[v] David Lowes Watson, “A Generic Gospel” (lecture presented at the Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 24, August 1994).

[vi] Though they affirm that the Holy Spirit works primarily in the church, they would never limit the Spirit’s work exclusively to the church.  They believe that God’s Spirit is present anywhere in the world where the kingdom of God was breaking forth with expressions of peace, justice, goodness, and love.

[vii] Makes no mistake about it, the Anabaptists did not confuse the church with the kingdom.  The kingdom would come in its fullness only by a act of God at the parusia—the second coming.

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