I don’t know for how long my antennae have been tuned to this frequency, but there’s a rumbling about in the world of Western Christianity. The station is playing gospel all day, every day. Sounds pretty sweet, but there’s dissonance in the tunes, if you listen carefully.

When I was growing up in an Evangelical Baptist church, the gospel could be boiled down to a mathematical proof:

  • We are all terrible sinners;
  • God cannot stand sin;
  • God sent Jesus to take our punishment for sin;
  • Now we are saved and can join God in heaven.

Now, that’s a gross caricature, but it’s essentially what was typically presented in many of the youth events I attended. In fact, when I interned for a youth pastor in college, I was encouraged to memorize a formula like this so that I could quickly walk others through this proof on demand.

I’ve never particularly been a fan of this version of the gospel. I mean, it’s true, as far as it goes. Everyone, when it comes down to it, is corrupted by sin. God is a holy God. I have some issues with the imagery with the whole Jesus-as-God’s-whipping-boy thing—it doesn’t make God look so great—but I can stomach it. And yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is our salvation.  The heaven thing? Well, yes. And, no. (That’s a different post.)

I first became aware that I might not be alone in my frustration when I was given Dallas Willard’s magnum opusThe Divine Conspiracy right after college. His premise is that Jesus’ work is meant to open up to the world the advent of God’s kingdom on the earth. In other words, the gospel cannot simply be about going to heaven when we die, but must have everything to do with the believer’s life now, in this world.

Much later, while in seminary, I was working my way through N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, written just before Willard’s great work, when I caught a glimpse of a similar perspective. There Wright poses the question regarding Evangelicalism’s failure to deal adequately with Jesus’ life, so concerned were we with his death. If we were going to adequately articulate the gospel, we had to incorporate everything Jesus was doing prior to his crucifixion.

Several years later, Scot McKnight issued his displeasure with this oversimplified gospel in The King Jesus Gospel. There he cited an experience he had as a teenager, in which he was sent around the neighborhood with an elder in his church to evangelize people trying to eat their dinners. He wasn’t psyched, even as a teen, about weaseling a fellow into saying The Prayer and calling it a success. To McKnight’s mind, we needed to get back, somehow, to what the New Testament writers had been saying was the gospel, which, he says, is a story, not a proof. Note that 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (the only place where Paul actually says, “This is the gospel…”) is actually a brief narrative.

Shortly afterward, Wright brought out his own articulation of a fuller gospel, doing his best to bring to light the various ways the gospel writers saw Jesus’ work. How God Became King suggested that the church had become filled with inadequate caricatures of the gospel: Jesus came to show us how to get to heaven; Jesus came to teach us how to live rightly; Jesus came to live as a perfect example; Jesus came to be the perfect sacrifice (this is similar to the articulation I had heard so often); Jesus came to show that he was God or to show just who God was.

No doubt each of us reading through that list nods our heads at some and drops our jaws at others. Of course, that’s not the gospel! Or, what do you mean that’s not the gospel?! The point is that each has been taught as if it were the whole thing, when in reality each only points to a portion of the gospel.

(By the way, I wrote a series of reviews of The King Jesus Gospel and How God Became King a few years ago, the sum of which is here. It was good times.)

Now, I just recently joined a little group that’s working its way through Michael Horton’s Gospel-Driven Life, which came out a bit before McKnight’s or Wright’s work. Horton goes the same route that McKnight had—and having written first, I suppose he ought to get the credit, though I’m only reading it now—and insists that we must get back to the story. Yet his insistence is to continue to return to what Wright would have called a caricature, that the gospel is all about how we are saved from our sins.

Again, true enough, but not the whole picture.

Re-enter Wright. His latest work—at least, I think it’s his latest; he probably published another book last night—is Simply Good News, and it’s an attempt to articulate, in plain language a more comprehensive gospel, simply. Therein he again is adamant that the forgiveness of sins, while an essential part of the gospel, is only a fraction of what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish. But if we make it the whole thing, we distort it. Distort the gospel, and you’re left with distorted Christians. It’s high time, he writes, we get a clear picture of God’s work and our place in it.

"Gospel Graffiti II" by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0
Gospel Graffiti II” by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0

Now all this is to say nothing of the myriad churches around the world that have been exploring the implications for the gospel in real time and without the luxury of contemplating it in the ivory tower. Rather, their concerns are pastoral. They’ve got real hurting people in their congregations and they’re reading a New Testament that seems to have a lot more to say about life and about the afterlife.

All that is to say, I want to spend some time the next few weeks exploring a more complete gospel and what that might mean for the Christian for this life and the next. Stay tuned!

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