Packing the Gospel

Jesus proclaimed something he called “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” So did the Apostles and the earliest disciples. When standing up to preach in synagogue or agora or (even) prison, the people we meet in the pages of the New Testament could reach into their pockets and pull out a sermon that proclaimed the story that saved and sanctified them.

It wasn’t a seven-hour sermon. It wasn’t a sermon that only Jews could understand. It didn’t require intimate familiarity with the Old Testament or Greek philosophy or esoteric religious practices. It told a story anyone could grasp and respond to, no matter their background or education: soldiers and Sadducees … fishermen and professors … prostitutes and virgins … rich and poor … the powerful and the nobodies … Hebrews and Hellenes.

It is obvious that these first preachers of the gospel didn’t simply open their scrolls to Genesis and read until they finished Malachi. They had to pick and choose. They narrowed the message of Scripture to some central themes, some fundamental truths. They weighted the words of God and the life of Jesus, focusing on certain parts and ignoring others.

They didn’t dump the entire revelational load on their listeners as they proclaimed the gospel. Who could have stood it? Who would have understood it? They identified a precious kernel at the very center of God’s word and God’s Son and shared that when they preached. It was that kernel they called the “gospel.” And though there were other matters they talked about in time, they were careful and constant in affirming that it was the kernel that saved people—no more, no less. It was the kernel that contained God’s “power” to create new life and transform hearts. Everything else was icing on the gospel cake. But it was the gospel itself—the chewy center—that made peace possible between God and his broken world.

In a later essay (“The Core Gospel”), I intend to spell out the ten themes I believe to be the crux of the gospel, ten ideas that shaped the preaching of Jesus and (especially) the witness of his followers. I hope you will resonate with those core themes and see the value of affirming and proclaiming them in the church today. I hope you will recognize in them God’s power at work to save people from sin and make them holy.

“But,” you may ask, “how did you land on these ten ideas? Out of all the possible themes in Old and New Testaments, why these? And why not others?”

That is the question that faces us next as we explore the contours of the gospel message. Once we have decided there is a core called “gospel,” how do we determine what is in it and (as important) what is not! Jesus and the early disciples knew and talked about the gospel. But how do we recover that essential story for ourselves and for our witness? Do we just open our Bibles to Matthew and read to the end of Revelation? Or should we seek to discover in our Bibles the same kernel that formed the heart of their preaching, trust it as they did, and proclaim it to others with their zeal and persistence?

If you and I intend to go in search of that core gospel, it will require us to discern the “weightier matters” from the lesser, make decisions about God’s character and priorities, and determine what is vital to the gospel story and what is expendable. It is a search, I confess, that makes me nervous. It is fraught with difficulties and dangers. Others have taken the wrong path in their search for the core gospel. There are detours and ditches all along the way. We walk a narrow road in the search for the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel.

The Gospel Suitcase

I travel a great deal. I seem to spend half my life on airplanes. As a result, I have packing down to a fine art.

The great dilemma of the frequent traveler is deciding what goes into the suitcase and what doesn’t. You can’t pack all the comforts of home or your bags become too heavy—you might be forced (horrors!) to check a bag. But there are some items you can’t do without. So I always pack my toothbrush but never my library. Underwear is essential; my seventeen favorite shirts are not. When I make foolish packing decisions, my arms hurt from lugging around all sorts of things I don’t really need. When I pack wisely, I travel with nimbleness and grace and always have what I require for the journey.

In packing our gospel bag, we face a similar dilemma. What do we put in and what do we leave out? Too much, and the gospel becomes unwieldy, bloated, burdensome. Too little, and the gospel doesn’t contain everything we really need for the journey. Packing the gospel is a fine art … a delicate balance between including all that is necessary but not one tenet more.

Most Christians (let’s confess it) are not fine artists. We struggle and stumble in our attempts to get the gospel right. “Does this belong in the gospel?” “Is that really necessary for salvation?” We pack and unpack, arrange and rearrange, and still suspect we’ve done an inadequate job in the end.

The great temptation (where the gospel is concerned) is to pack too much into it. An expanding gospel has been the characteristic tendency of believers in every age. The Judaizers of the first century wanted to pack Moses and circumcision into the gospel. Believers today insist on including everything from worship styles to views on the end times to charismatic experiences. Into the gospel bag go all our favorite practices and traditions and positions. We fill in the blank (“Unless you ______, you cannot be saved”) with every personal opinion, biblical interpretation, and sacred cow we have adopted over a life-time of following Jesus.

As a result, the gospel grows long and large and leaden. The good news becomes a burden. We drag around all the comforts of faith, every cherished practice, each denominational distinction—a huge and awkward hodgepodge of beliefs, opinions, practices, and perspectives. Transporting such a gospel wears us out. And transferring such a gospel—trying to communicate it, encouraging others to adopt it—becomes well-nigh impossible. We lose our nimbleness and grace. We lose our confidence in living out the good news. And we lose our evangelistic voice.

Some believers, however, move in the opposite direction, leaving out ideas that are essential to the gospel’s character. A shrinking gospel has been a temptation plaguing the church in every generation. The Corinthians of Paul’s day (for example) loved the bits of the gospel that talked about spiritual power but had little time for the Cross—both the shameful, foolish one on which Christ died (1Co 1:18ff) and the humble, self-less one on which they were asked to die themselves (e.g., 1Co 4:8ff). Many Christians (past and present) have preferred the part of the gospel that speaks to loving God over the part that insists we must love each other as well.

The solution has been a little judicious editing where the gospel is concerned. Just a snip here, a slice there. Don’t like that part about sin’s dominion of humanity? Cut it out! Or the part about the Spirit’s active role in transforming our lives? Lop it off!  Or the bits about resurrection and final judgment? Take the knife to it! At every turn of the church’s history, there have been people all too willing to amputate necessary parts of the gospel story in an attempt to lighten the gospel load.

When that happens, the gospel loses its power. It becomes fuzzy and feeble and formless. Stripped of all shame and foolishness, denuded of anything miraculous or inconvenient, pruned of its bold claims and difficult truths, the gospel ceases to be the good news that saves and the means by which God makes us holy.[1]

Who would mess up the gospel like this? They must be very bad people.

Even Good People can Make Bad Gospel Decisions

When we think about people who either expand or reduce the gospel, we labor under a great prejudice. Such people must be wicked, unfaithful, unspiritual, and insincere. They do damage to the gospel because they are such damnable heretics. Pharisees! Libertines! Marcionites! Too bad people like this can’t be burned at the stake these days!

Sometimes (it is true), wicked people get hold of the gospel and try to inflict harm. Like the opponents Paul mentions in his letter to the Philippians, some “preach Christ out of envy and rivalry … [and] selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing they can stir up trouble” (1:15-17). The church has always been the target and victim of bent people who want to bend the gospel to their own purposes.

More often, however, the greater damage done to the gospel is at the hands of good people who love God and want nothing more than to be holy, faithful, spiritual, and sincere. The real threat to the gospel comes not from bad motive but from bad decisions based on good intentions. Good people (especially good people) can pervert the gospel when they don’t really understand what the gospel is.

[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.]

[Click to view the previous post in this series]

[Click to view the next post in this series]

[1] As I will suggest in a future essay, “too much gospel” has been the characteristic failing of the church of yesterday. “Too little gospel” is going to be the characteristic failing of the church of tomorrow.

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