The Gospel (Part 1): What has the gospel got to do with Christianity?

Call me weird, but I have been thinking a lot about church visions recently, and the question of a biblical model for building Christian communities. There are so many aspects to cover: worship, teaching, leadership, evangelism, fellowship, ministries etc. etc. But putting all those complex issues aside for now, I’m still stuck on the basic question:

What has the gospel got to do with all of this?

Most of us would agree that unbelievers need to hear and believe the gospel (whatever that is – hold on until my next post for that!), but then what has the gospel got to do with believers and their lives? There isn’t a unanimous answer from the church on this. On the one hand, for some the gospel is only relevant to the world; it is merely the gateway to salvation, the content for evangelism, the creed we affirm to become church members. For them, the gospel is about how we GET saved. Once you are ‘in’, you move on from ‘the gospel basics’. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who make the gospel the all-encompassing theme of believers; it is the narrow road of salvation, the only content for teaching, the culture we instil in church members. For them, the gospel IS Christianity. Once you are ‘in’, you begin reconfiguring every detail of your life with a new dogmatic ‘gospel-centred’ approach. And still in-between these two extremes there is a confusing continuum of approaches to the gospel and its place in the Christian life, depending on their view of what the gospel message actually is.

So what has your experience been? What has the gospel got to do with Christianity?

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5 thoughts on “The Gospel (Part 1): What has the gospel got to do with Christianity?

  1. Well, for me the question is tricky to answer, because I have to ask myself: “What exactly is the gospel?” before I can answer the question. Another way to put it is: “Where does the gospel ‘end’ and ‘other’ ‘biblical teaching’ begin?”.

    I suppose one approach to distinguishing the gospel itself is to say that the gospel is that which is written in the four gospels in the Bible. But even those draw on most of the old testament as assumed background knowledge. So all that you can really exclude is Acts to Revelations.

    When I studied history in high school, we had a systematic approach: say we studied the Second World War. We would first look at the background and causes, then at the war itself and how it happened, then at its significance, especially on future events. I think the Bible is structured in a very similar way: the old testament being the first part, the gospels the middle part, and Acts to Revelations the third part.

    Perhaps the best way to relate to the gospel is the same way that we relate to a shocking news bulletin: for example, if you were to hear that the ANC Youth League has decided to stage a coup d’état and that masses everywhere in South Africa are violently rallying behind them for support. If you heard that they were murdering the middle class, nationalizing business and plundering houses and stores.

    This news would drive you to action, right? It’s a game changer. I think that’s exactly what the gospel is to a Christian. A game changer. Things that seemed import to you (personally) before you heard and believed the news, no longer seem important. Things that used to have little significance, suddenly become cardinal to your existence.

    The news itself will have only a small role in your life forward – the only thing you can ‘do with it’ is to spread it. However, moving forward, it’s the implications of the news, and the events following the news that will really impact your life on many levels.

    • Hi Pieka. I am so glad you commented here – this topic is really where I want to go with this blog (in terms of my own posts). My passion is to understand the good news as it was understood by Jesus and the apostles, and then to preach it and help build practical, relevant and spiritually mature christian communities with it as God intended. It is my conclusion so far that the true gospel is not as well known and understood in our circles as we might think. And secondly, it seems to me that it is not as well applied AFTER conversion as what it could be. I would like to address that with a few posts over the student holidays, as I wont be spending so much time preparing lessons on the topic at our church’s student bible study every week (that’s my excuse for being so quiet :-P). The reason for this first post then, is to tease out our views, not yet of what the gospel *content* is (which is of course a central question), but to ask us to think first – what has the gospel got to do with MY christian life, and the life of my church. In other words, the question is “what is the gospel” in the other sense of “what is its *function*?”.

      I like what you say about the gospel being a news bulletin – that is an interesting way to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One would then naturally ask at every passage, why is this big news? News is also about something that has happened in matter, time and space – not merely some new worldview or way of approaching yourself and life. News is historical. This means that even the implications of the good news are not merely personal because you believe it, but true whether you believe it or not! The gospel has implications for all of us on this little blue planet. I cant wait to explore this more with you in later posts.

      I notice you said that the good news won’t necessarily play a large role in your life afterwards – that is sort of where my whole post is going. Here is a question for you: What (other than the gospel) could/should a church model its ministries and general approach on? For instance, a church could decide to run like a business, where the idea is to provide a service (excuse the pun) in order to attract ‘customers’. Here the governing principle is the moods, preferences and desires of the congregation and not necessarily anything ‘Christian’ or gospel related (to take it to extremes). I am not saying a church running on sound business principles is a bad thing, I am merely referring to the paradigm of thinking which dictates how and why things are done the way they are. Other churches operate like NGO’s, some are like museums (memories of Europe flooding back to me), others like social clubs.

      My question is, is this right? And… what does a gospel-centred church look like compared to this? How does the gospel fit in with trying to motivate Christians to give, to stop sinning, to love each other, to suffer patiently, to worship sincerely, to serve broken communities? My feeling is that we often try to motivate all things without the *meaty* content of the gospel message (which is not just “God is loving and forgiving and wonderful so therefore Christian you should…”). Maybe we say “because the bible says so”, or because “God says so”, or because “its the right thing to do”, or “because you or others would benefit”. But what about “because according to the gospel…”? Try Romans 6:1-11 as a test case…)

  2. Ah John, I see what you did there 😉

    I’m also looking forward to continuing the discussion with you, then.

    Some quick responses to your response:

    If you are going to put forward the argument of applying the gospel in church life, you must first make a distinction between applying the gospel in church and applying the epistles (and Acts) in church. Is there any difference? And if so, what is it? The very scripture that you quoted (Romans 6) is in an epistle. The argument could be made that most of what is in the rest of the Bible “points to” the gospels anyway. So: what is the difference between applying the gospel and applying ‘other scripture’ to church life?

    I really like the question that you raise in your 3rd paragraph: what are we really trying to accomplish with church; I mean, we all know what elements are important in church: fellowship, worship, teaching, the gifts, but that does not really address the question of “why?” or “what is the point”.

    Looking forward to exploring this more!

    • I am not sure I see what you say you see… 🙂

      Just a quick distinction – when I say the gospel, I do not mean exactly the Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as opposed to the epistles etc.). I mean the gospel that was preached by Jesus and the apostles, which we derive FROM the Gospels and the epistles (and in certain ways even more from the Old Testament!). Although the four Gospels are aimed at preserving and presenting the story of the good news, you rightly point out that the epistles are written to people who already know the gospel and who merely need encouragement or correction in applying it and living it out. But then, whether it is the Gospels or the epistles, my entire argument is that either way it was an application of the gospel message (during a time they didnt even have the New Testament!)

      So actually, what I am talking about is not applying ‘Scripture’ directly but rather indirectly i.e. teaching and applying *the reality* which the bible merely points to. The bible is not the gospel, but it is God’s way of teaching us the gospel. We need a gospel that rests on a biblical foundation, but not a message about the bible. This is so important. Liberals often fail at on the first point, conservatives often fail on the second. Well that’s just my view of it anyway.

      As for the distinction between the gospel and ‘other Scripture’, this distinction is actually a result of us not really grasping the entirety and scope of the Judeo-Christian narrative about ‘the kingdom of God’ and what it is all about. This is the thread which ties together the entire history of creation and redemption recorded in Scripture. If our bible seems wider than our gospel, I would dare to say it is because our understanding of the gospel is too narrow. Similarly, if our church seems wider than our gospel, perhaps we need to ask if this is not because our church is too wide or, more commonly, because our message is too small and uninspiring. I do believe, however, that God is at work despite this. It is rather that I believe God yearns for us to grow in the knowledge of Him, so that we are not destroyed by a lack of it.

      Let’s talk more about this before I delve into – what is the gospel? Do you see what I mean about how Paul applies the gospel to the motivation for purity in Romans 6? He doesnt throw a tradition of Christian morality at them, or a humanistic appeal to being a healthy and functional individual/community, nor does he even refer to the law, but he aims to (ad)minister the part of gospel about how and why Jesus died. That is profound for me. How differently would (do) we try and motivate a person today who was addicted to pornography and doesnt see why they should stop?

      I will share some more in the next post about your question of ‘why’ the church and the link between this and the gospel…

  3. Hehe – I think we are being a bit silly in discussing the “what’s it for” before we have settled the “what are we talking about”. That being said, I’ll indulge you be answering your questions 🙂

    Yes – I do see what you mean by Paul’s motivation. And I agree with you: many today (and this I see more than anywhere else in the more liberal NG Church) draw our attention to the negative effects of sin on our lives and puts this forward as a motivation for us to stop. I notice how people are not content to say “It’s bad because it’s against God’s will.” Many people today first want to understand *why* God has a problem with something before accepting that it’s a sin.

    Another point that I would like to touch on is what you say about the Bible ‘pointing to’ the true Gospel. I have had some conversations with you in the past where you explained to me the dangers of becoming ‘the people of the book’. With this I agree.

    However, I want to emphasize the important role of scripture: As Christians, there are three sources where we can go search for truth: the Bible, the Spirit, and the Church.

    In an idealist’s world, these three would always agree, but in our world, either one can be off:
    The Bible could be misinterpreted or overemphasized, as was done by the pharisees and scribes in Jesus’s time.
    The Spirit: the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit that can facilitate spiritual experiences. One must be mindful of attempts by demons to influence or mislead our thinking.
    The Church: Show me a congregation that has gone for 50 years without getting some teaching wrong, and I’ll show you a very remarkable exception.

    So, finding truth about God and the gospels should involve all three sources and a constant endeavor to align the three with each other. I think that the Bible serves as the best “measuring stick” for the other two. But this *does not* mean that we can go around thinking that because we have the Bible, we do not need the other two. A Christian without the Holy Spirit is as good as a soldier entering modern war armed without any means to contact his command. A Christian who isolates himself from the Church is definitely not in line with scripture to start with (nor is one that resists the Holy Spirit, for that matter).

    But: without the Bible, I’d have a really tough time discerning truth from lie…

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