What is the Gospel?

Let’s begin with a clip from that great and wise commentary on life—Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Monty Python clip

In this excerpt, the Keeper of the Bridge of Death asks three questions. In order to cross the bridge and avoid a fate-worse-than-death, correct answers must be given.

This little clip illustrates the truth that there are times when knowing the right answer is important. Many are the bridges that need crossing in life. Many are the “keepers” who stand guard at those bridges and require answers before letting us pass. As parents, we need right answers for the sake of our children. As friends, neighbors, workmates, we are constantly facing important questions that require trustable answers.

Getting the answer wrong may not catapult us into the “Gorge of Eternal Peril.” Then again, it might.

As religious people, we feel a great obligation to respond to religious questions with correct answers.

  1. What is the name of God’s holy book? (The Bible)
  2. What are the five acts of worship? (singing, praying, Communion, sermon, announcements … no, giving … aaahh!)
  3. What is the plan of salvation? (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized)

To our great delight, we know the right answers to a great many religious questions.

What is the Gospel?

There is one religious question, however, we seem to struggle with.

Maybe we assumed we knew the answer to this question and, so, haven’t really talked about it and taught on it with clarity and conviction. Maybe we assumed others knew the answer and haven’t been very motivated to develop a careful, concise answer.

That question is, “What is the gospel?”

And I fear we are just not equipped, just not ready, to give a good answer.

  1. “Well, there’s not a simple answer to … aaagh!”
  2. “What? I don’t know that! Aaarrgghhh!”
  3. “Blue! No, red! No … aaaagh!”

The question is asked and we stammer and stutter and stall. It’s an obvious question—a basic question—but when faced with it directly, too many of us don’t know how to answer. Where do you even start? How do you boil it all down to the essentials? How do you give a short, succinct, sharp response to a question like that?

And so we fumble and mumble and bumble.

When we do manage an answer, it is often so long and convoluted, so detailed and difficult, that those who ask the question give up and walk away while we continue to tick off the 736 essential facts we must get right to be saved.

Worst of all, our answer to the gospel question (to our surprise and sorrow) often ends up not being good news at all. The story that is meant to put spring in our step and hope in our hearts ends up burdening people rather than releasing them.

Can you answer the question, “What is the gospel?”

  1. Can you answer so that nothing essential is left out … nothing unnecessary added in?
  2. Do you have a “cup of coffee” answer—a clear, concise, comprehensible answer you can cover in the time it takes to drink a tall, non-fat latte?
  3. Do you have an answer to the gospel question that is truly “good news”? That excites and motivates? That has people clamoring for more and asking, “Where do I sign up?”

The Gospel According to the New Testament

The people we meet in the pages of the New Testament knew the answer to the Gospel question.

Jesus knew the Gospel answer. Preaching “gospel” was his purpose for living; the reason God sent him to earth (Lk 4:43). He talked gospel everywhere: towns, synagogues, hills and shore. Give Jesus a few minutes and a listening audience and he would go straight to the gospel of God.

The Apostles knew the Gospel answer. After all, Gospel was what Jesus sent them to preach (Mk 16). They talked about it every day—according to Luke, they never stopped talking about it (Ac 5:42)! When Mark decided to write a book, he determined to focus on “the gospel” (Mk 1:1). When God called Paul, he commanded him to carry gospel to Gentiles (Eph 3:7). In his weightiest and most significant letter (the epistle to the Romans), Paul’s theme was the gospel (Rom 1:16-17).

And when the earliest Christians were driven out of Jerusalem by persecution, guess what they went everywhere preaching (Ac 11:20)?

The people we meet in the pages of the New Testament knew how to answer the gospel question.

  • Give them half a chance …
  • Give them a couple of minutes …
  • Give them a listening ear …
  • and they would talk about the gospel: sincerely, clearly, simply, and powerfully.

Can we talk about the gospel like this? I don’t think so.

Oh, we can tell someone how to respond to the gospel …

We can talk about some important consequences of the gospel in someone’s life: go to church, stop lying, learn to tithe …

But when it comes to the gospel itself—the core and crux of the gospel story—we find ourselves suffering from a bad case of laryngitis!

We don’t Know the Gospel

The great difficulty facing the people of God today in regards to the gospel is not the world’s stubborn resistance to hearing the gospel but our inability to articulate it.

I do not mean that we too often lack the courage to speak the gospel or that we miss critical opportunities God affords us to talk about his good news. These are not the primary reasons for our gospel muteness. The heart of the matter is much more embarrassing: we do not speak the gospel because we do not know the gospel … and we do not know the gospel because we have misplaced it among the accumulated minutia we call “religion.”

Yes, that’s what I said. Religion has run off the gospel. The setting has overwhelmed the diamond. The skin has spilt the wine. “Religion” has managed to hide the gospel so effectively that we can no longer see it, we no longer prize it, and we are no longer familiar enough with it to speak a word of good news to a world dying for the lack of it.

This loss of the gospel has radically affected our views of discipleship, the church, and our mission in the world.

  1. It has shifted our focus from what God has done for us to what we must do for God.
  2. It has forced us to rely on human insight and effort rather than trust in divine grace.
  3. It has persuaded us that the Christian life is about incremental improvements rather than radical transformations.
  4. It has permitted us to preach much about the church and little about the Cross.
  5. It has substituted programs of social improvement for the salvation of souls.
  6. It has turned us into nervous, insecure, timid church-goers when we were meant to be a people who turn the world upside down.

Unless there is a recovery of the gospel and a reinstatement of its privileged place in the life of the church, the church will continue to devolve into a weekly assembly attended by polite people who vote Republican and do nice things. Salvation will be reduced to an exchange between ourselves and God in which obedience to heavenly requirements secures mansions in the realms above. And sanctification—that grand calling to share in and enact the life of God—will remain little more than a constant round of motivational speeches leading to renewed efforts at self improvement.

It is time for the church to rediscover the gospel … to dig through the sediment of religion to unearth the gold of good news … to find the courage to separate religious chaff from gospel wheat.

“It is time,” I say, not at all implying that this recovery is something unique to us, to the present day, to Christianity in 21st Century America. Far from it. This “time” comes to every person of faith, to every generation of faith, to every movement and denomination—a gracious calling by God to reconsider the story by which we are saved and re-experience the life made possible by that story.

It was “time” for the Romans and Galatians who—even so close to the gospel events themselves—needed to recover the gospel from the sediments of Judaism that threatened to bury it beneath law and requirement. It was “time” for the Corinthians who—just decades removed from the Cross, faced an erosion of gospel by the tides of culture and paganism. The church of the first century was a church constantly at work rescuing the gospel from the encroachment of ungospeled ideas.

Luther, Calvin, Zwingli—those brave excavators of the gospel in the 16th century—were, in their time, digging out the gospel from the accumulations of creed and tradition and hierarchy. Campbell, Stone, and Scott were, in their own way and in their own time, engaged in the same work … an “archaeology” of the gospel that required much reconstruction and restoration.

And, now, “it is time” for us. Oh, we can pretend that, while the gospel may have silted over in other eras and been covered up by the superstitions and traditions of people less faithful than ourselves, we are different from them … we are better than them … the gospel could never be lost to the likes of you and me.

But such pretense is folly and arrogance. We are just as vulnerable to the accretions of time as those who have gone before. Our instincts for the good news are no more unerring than theirs. We too can forget and lose focus and miss the point.

“Faithfulness” is not a vehement insistence that we have the gospel, that there is no need to recover the gospel. “Faithfulness” is the constant readiness to start digging for the gospel once more … a valuing of the gospel to such a degree that no effort or hallowed tradition or sacred cow will be spared in our eagerness to find that gospel pearl of great price.

It is “time” to recover our gospel voices once again and release into our world the sweet song of God’s plan to save and sanctify his children.

[This series of posts on “the Gospel” is rooted in a prolonged dialogue about faith I’ve been having with myself and others and is based on a series of sermons I’ve preached. If the series captures your imagination and you would like to know more about sermons, small group studies, adult education curriculum, etc., please contact me directly.]

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.