June 3, 2020

iMonk Classic: The “Absent Gospel” Series (1)

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Series from Nov, 2009

For the next two days, we will review Michael Spencer’s series on “My Strange Experiences with an Absent Gospel” from November of 2009. The original series was in four parts, but we will condense our replay into two posts.

Today, we look at parts one and two together.

• • •

Misplaced, Taken For Granted and Ignored: My Strange Experiences With An Absent Gospel (Part 1)

In a recent sermon, I said that I was deeply concerned about the understanding of the Gospel that I hear among adult Christians and especially preachers. I was not just making noise. With every passing year, I’m amazed that the level of Gospel understanding seems to be lower and lower among Christian adults. This isn’t just a failure to hear the Gospel in the terms and definitions I prefer. No, it is an ever lowering articulation of the Gospel, a replacement of the Gospel with other concerns and, perhaps most distressing of all, a replacement and confusion of the Gospel-centered mission itself.

I expect that this emphasis on my part will not endear me to some people, mostly on grounds that I am failing to see the significance of things like moral issues, behavior change and political causes. I’ve come to the point that I realize a discussion of the Gospel is going to have a predictable shape:

  1. We all know the Gospel. It’s basic.
  2. Once you’ve preached or taught the Gospel, then you need to deal with other things.
  3. If you are constantly trying to bring the Gospel to the forefront as the main concern, you’re missing the importance of things like behavior change and obedience.

Or,

  1. Any message on any Biblical text is “the Gospel.”
  2. You’re trying to push your theology over basic things like obedience and behavior change.

Or,

  1. The point is to get people to accept Jesus into their hearts, not turn people into theologians.

In my own tradition as I experience it in several hundred sermons a year, the Gospel is rarely articulated with Biblical priority or in Biblical balance with the rest of scripture. Good ideas from the Bible are common. Concerns of preachers and church leaders are heard every week. Frustrations with the decline of society or poor behavior of individuals is constant. Some form of the Gospel will frequently pass through these sermons in a place where the truth is seen, but it is also not uncommon to hear generic deism, pure moralism or behavior modification based on “Biblical principles.” Vague ideas like “living for God” or “being a good witness” are frequently referenced. As my readers have often heard, sermons without reference to Jesus are so common as to no longer be that shocking.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this decline is how often in 18 years of ministry I have addressed this topic of the Gospel specifically. Never underestimate the power of preaching to make little impact on deeply held beliefs. Clearly, this displacement of the Gospel is not perceived to be particularly problematic. Of course, these are people who have not been exposed to the Gospel-centric emphasis coming out of various places in evangelicalism or reformation traditions today. There is a reason so many of my good friends don’t emphasize the Gospel: to them “Gospel” is a word in front of singing. At most, it references a four step evangelism outline. It is not the central concept in the Christian life. Something like “Holiness” or “obedience” seems far more practical.

In the second post, I will share some of the ways I’ve tried to consistently articulate the Gospel over the years.

My Strange Experiences With An Absent Gospel: Scripture Sources (Part 2)

The apparent crisis in giving the Gospel its right and Biblically healthy place in evangelical Christian faith exists on several levels.

First, there is the level of scriptural definition. While I can answer the question “What is the Gospel?” it is the Biblical material that should form my definition. Before I give some simple Gospel articulations, what are the Biblical sources of Gospel definition?

Does the Bible give a definition of the Gospel? Or is the Gospel a theme that connects all of scripture, yielding definitional material and language, but also context, meaning and significance for many other things?

Mark 1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Then in Paul’s letters…

I Corinthians 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

In Galatians…

Galatians 3:8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

The introduction to the entire book of Romans is…

Romans 1:15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Paul sees his entire life wrapped up in the Gospel.

2 Timothy 1:8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

Many passages seem to be talking about the Gospel, but do not specifically say they are doing so. For example:

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There are other sources, especially in John, that we should include.

If we look at the categories of foundational content and necessary consequence, the Gospel is foundational content. It may be stated in different because it is a thread making its way through the entire tapestry of the Biblical story, but the Gospel- the Good News- is what the scriptures exist to tell us. There are many voices telling the Gospel at different places in the Biblical story. It may seem strange to say that the Gospel was preached to Abraham without mentioning Jesus, that Jesus preached the Gospel as he came proclaiming the Kingdom and Paul heard the Gospel in the tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this is the case. The Gospel is the foundational content of the message the Bible is announcing all the way through.

As the Bible tells the Gospel, it tells it to each one of us. We are the hearers and responders. We are the nations that are blessed. We are those called to repent and believe. We are the ones asked to believe the testimony of the Apostles. We are the ones who will be willing to suffer and/or experience the power of the Gospel once we have heard and believed it.

Going back to the Gospel-less, often Christ-less content of much evangelicalism, there is the possibility that the Gospel is assumed and we have now passed from foundational content to application.

I do not believe this is the case, because the resulting application and articulation does not build on the Gospel, but on a foundation that often qualifies for Paul’s Galatians 1 warning of “another Gospel, which is no Gospel at all.” Does application always rest on some articulation of the Gospel, or is the Gospel assumed?

New Testament scholars often point out that the basic rhythm of Paul’s letters is explanation of the Gospel- or some emphasis within the Gospel- followed by specific application of the Gospel. If this is the basic movement of the great apostle as he communicated with the early churches, is it outlandish to see this as a kind of healthy example of how Gospel articulation and application should generally co-exist in a healthy Christian experience?

From these scriptures, I believe our Gospel articulation should include:

  • The Gospel as announcement of what God has done
  • The Gospel of God
  • The Gospel as a message about Jesus
  • The Gospel as the message of Jesus/The Kingdom
  • The Gospel as God’s redemption of his broken world (covenant story)
  • The Gospel as the foundation on which our responses- worship, missions, obedience, etc. – exist.

Next, I will build some specific articulations of the Gospel on these various levels.

Comments

  1. So why is it that we have distilled the message into something so simple?
    I remember the New Zealnders I know had a song we used to sing:

    ‘Say a little prayer to Jesus she’ll be right’

    • Allow me to repeat Leon Morris’s famous quote about John’s Gospel and apply it to the gospel message in general — it is a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. It may be stated in the simplest terms but it has such depths, it takes a lifetime to explore.

  2. The gospel is deep. No doubt. But I think one can focus on the mysteries of the gospel and still miss the point of it. This is where I wish Lutherans hadn’t been demonized as “weak on sanctification” (which I discovered was a mostly a self-inflicted distortion). Luther taught that we perform our good works in faith in Christ, in the knowledge of God’s saving grace, understanding that our good works are never perfect. Richard Niebuhr had a great quote relevant to this in “Christ and Culture”, that it is the gospel which gives us the strength, hope and courage to do good works. I think we all can hear the words, “you are forgiven” and never truly get it. We definitely can hear that our despised enemy is equally forgiven and really struggle. Maybe in the back of our minds we are always attempting to please God, no matter how many times we are told that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness (yes, Finney is spinning in his grave as I write that).

    But the point is that we never, never put the gospel behind us. The best way I can describe it is in the words of that old chorus: “the world behind me, the cross before me”. The cross is always before us; it is never in the rear-view mirror.

  3. Maybe the emphasis on salvation testimonies forces us to leave the gospel behind. I was a loser, now I’m a winner. What winners need the gospel? Often I hear testimonies which basically begin, “back when I was a sinner…”; at the end, they are among the “saved”. It sure makes the gospel sound elementary, kind of like booster which falls back to earth once the rocket reaches apogee.

  4. Is there something to be said for the gospel being dull and lifeless when you’ve hacked all the mystery out of it? The modern western mind sucks at mystery, so it tries to distill everything to a formula. But no formula can resolve with infinity it in, and eternal life is what is on offer, so even the eternal life has to be cut down to a measurable variable to fit in. Worse yet, then we get into arguments of formula vs formula, when all the time God is there to meet and get to know. But in meeting God, we learn that he’s WAY bigger than we can handle, and retreat to formulas… HUG’s patented “Fire Protection Insurance”, because it fits in our head. But man, what is the point of worshipping a God that fits in our tiny brains?

  5. What was that song by the man and woman which spoke of the paradox of love? A dark haired woman and a guy. Who sings it and what is the name?

  6. “Never underestimate the power of preaching to make little impact on deeply held beliefs.”

    Tell me about it. In the church I’ve recently been a part of, I brought to light the failure of our body to articulate the Gospel. Someone asked what I would like to see. When I answered with more attention to Jesus’ life and the Gospel message, someone told me “you can’t put God in a box.”

    I’m not making this up.

    • They were probably correct in saying YOU couldn’t put God in a box… because THEY already had Him in one!

  7. Hi all,

    In the words of John Piper, “You never, never, never, never, outgrow your need for the gospel.” Like the post mentioned, unfortunately the gospel is seen as a stepping stone to doing something else.

    Great post 🙂

    Yuri

  8. We are studying this topic in our Adult Bible Fellowships (ABFs – we’re way too hip to call it Sunday School; after all Adult Sunday School makes for an awkward acronym). But a lot of what I’ve read here is in our home-grown lessons. I’ll have to ask the pastor who wrote the lessons if he’s familiar with Internet Monk. I know he thinks highly of Piper. A lot of what our lessons have emphasized is also in Schaeffer’s “True Spirituality” from 40 (forty) years ago. His insight into the culture and the Church is more amazing every day.