Two years ago, I took some time to study the word "gospel" as it is used in the Bible. I started out by reading the four gospels themselves, making particular note of any reference to the gospel in word or intent. Then I did a word search and looked at all of the verses in the Bible which contain that word. (There are fewer than 100 and surprisingly, none at all in the book of John.) I think I started this study because I heard you and others using the word "gospel" to mean something broader than the understanding I had always held. Maybe I was missing something. It wouldn't be the first time. There have been lots of narrow views that I held as a young believer attending a Baptist church which I later rejected or expanded.
This time, however, I concluded that the narrow definition is best. The gospel is simply the good news that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." (1Tim 1:15) I find no Biblical evidence that our particular gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is anything other than this.
A very consistent pairing of words found in the Bible is "preach" and "gospel." The gospel is preached. It is a message. You preach the gospel, you don't live the gospel. That word pairing, "live" and "gospel," is not found in any meaningful way in the Bible. To be sure, we should live "in light of" the gospel message. But if that's what you mean, then say it that way. Saying that we should "live the gospel" is just confusing and an invitation to misunderstand.
There is no "whole gospel" that is somehow more inclusive than the meaning found in 1 Timothy (and every other Biblical reference I could find.) Again, this word pairing is not found in the Bible, and again, its use just invites confusion.
Feeding the poor is not the gospel. "Feeding the poor" is feeding the poor! Let's use accurate language. Pursuing justice is not the gospel. Taking care of the environment is not the gospel. But saying this in no way diminishes the importance of these things. The sheer volume of admonitions from Jesus to take care of the poor makes it imperative. Clearly God loves justice. I'm a big fan of creation care. But resist the temptation to call these things "the gospel." They are not! These thing are important in their own right. There's no need to infuse importance by attaching the word "gospel" to them.
Want to get together for coffee sometime?
Thanks, Rick, for the thoughtful engagement around the word “gospel.”
I agree, by definition, “news” is not a verb and it is not lived, it is broadcast or announced. What I suppose I find myself resisting is the reduction of that “news” into four spiritual laws which have an exclusively individualistic focus. To me the news which is good enough to herald has more expansive implications than simply being rescued from Hell.
1. Gospel and kingdom are paired in at least 9 sections of scripture. That is to say that this good news is about a realm, a dominion, a kingdom. And while it is true we cannot speak of the kingdom without reference to the King, it would be short-sighted to ignore the scope of this news. If we want to count references (which we probably don’t) “kingdom”
is referred to by Jesus far more than “gospel” (“gospel” shows up 9 times in the Gospels while “kingdom” shows up 116 times).
2. This kingdom so worth proclaiming and even losing your life for belongs in some special and particular way to the poor. And while the sermon on the mount reference, “blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom”, likely refers to a poverty of spirit, it most certainly cannot be divorced from those who experience a poverty of body (the lame, blind, etc) and a poverty of resources (the materially poor). We cannot avoid the centrality that the poor occupy in this kingdom announced by, and ushered in by Christ.
3. The scripture Jesus probably refers to when he re-coined the term “good news” in his teaching is Isaiah. 61:1 “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” This proclamation, reiterated by Jesus in Luke 4, was not only particularly good news to the poor but involved broken hearts being healed, captives being freed, and prisoners coming out of darkness. These would have been understood with both literal and metaphoric power.
4. Jesus talks about losing one’s life “for the gospel” and Paul speaks of being in chains “for the gospel.” Interesting that this particular phrasing does not necessarily say losing one’s life for preaching the gospel, but that aside, the gospel must certainly have implications beyond a privatized and personalized response to such a point that it endangers those who “obey the gospel” (another iteration which may not involve preaching).
While I will concede that the technical definition of “gospel” is something one heralds, I grieve that the understanding of this good news of a dawning kingdom has been reduced to an individualistic, consumeristic, privitized, personal relationship with Jesus (a particular understanding of “gospel” which I think I could argue has been popularized only in the past couple hundred years by a specific wing of western Protestantism). It has become for many a gospel of self absorption, not a gospel of the absolute reign of Christ over “all things” systems and individuals included.
Yes! Let’s do coffee.
You make some really good points, particularly about the kingdom. The "gospel of the kingdom" is a phrase used by both Matthew and Luke and that concept is expressed elsewhere as well. I also agree with you that the "life insurance" view of the gospel which has been popularized over the past century is inadequate, even dangerously inaccurate. I continue to maintain that for the sake of effective communication, it's important for us to define and distinguish between "the gospel" and "the implications of the gospel." However, let me propose a definition that's a bit more robust than what I previously implied:
I believe that the gospel is the good news that Jesus came to die for sins, to establish His kingdom, and to redeem creation.
It's always great to talk with you, Scott.