Elephant in the Room: Gospel

From Krish Kandiah, wow — wish I could have been there:

When it comes to talking about the re-evangelisation of the West, the elephant in the room is the question: ‘What is the gospel?’ There are all sorts of tribes and divisions within the evangelical community and sadly this means we sometimes grab hold of one part of the gospel and assume that is all there is. We end up sometimes with fragmented or reactionary approaches to the gospel and sadly end up with less than the whole biblical picture as a result. The Evangelical Alliance’s Confidence in the Gospel initiative includes five gatherings of evangelicals from across the nation to take time to listen to each other, and ask gracious but robust questions of each other in a bid to remain faithful to the gospel as revealed in Jesus, preached by the apostles and used by the Spirit to draw a lost world back to God.

So by gathering some of the tribes together – groups that don’t often speak to one another – our aim was to try and generate a way to test and see that we are being faithful to scripture. Because only scripture is infallible, it is possible that we may have misread or misheard the gospel it announces. Rather like the apostle Paul, 14 years after his conversion and call to gospel ministry, he travelled back toJerusalem to speak to the apostles to make sure “he had not laboured in vain”. So our meeting was an attempt to take time and check the faithfulness of our evangel.

It was also important to us to listen to brothers and sisters from across the world. South America and Africa were our main sources with eye-opening challenge for us. Too often we live as if the cure for the Western Church’s problems is contained in the West. Our hubris and colonial snobbery continues on – even when the numbers are against us. The Church is experiencing growth everywhere except the Western world and yet still we hold on to the belief that we have all the answers.

So in putting our speaker list together we wanted to cross a number of dividing lines to check our hearing of the gospel. We kicked off with the New Testament scholar and evangelist Michael Green who challenged us to hear again THE APOSTOLIC GOSPEL. We then heard from the Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell who heads up the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission. Rosalee challenged us to give due attention to the universality and particularity of A GLOBAL GOSPEL.

Then a harrowing reminder of what happens when our gospel is reduced to pietism from a Rwandan scholar: Antoine Rutayisire’s A PEACEFUL GOSPEL, who highlighted the dangers of minimising the gospel to spiritual renewal that made no difference to ethnic hostilities by reminding us that in Rwanda’s genocide it was Christians killing Christians.

Michael Reeves; the head of theology at UCCF (University and Colleges Christian Fellowship) further challenged us, to consider whether we are preaching A TRINITARIAN GOSPEL. Mike provoked us to consider that “When our gospel is not robustly Trinitarian we are not specifically and robustly Christian. Ann Holt is the Director of External relations and Bible Society and made a clear plea that our gospel isA BIBLICAL GOSPEL that tells the whole story of Jesus as part of the whole story of the Bible. We often “start the story too late.”

After hearing these lightning talks (10 min each) there was time to discuss the issues together in smaller groups. The recommendations from these groups included:

1.We want to hold on to the particularity of the historical revelation of God by focussing on the story of Jesus when we present the gospel.

2.We need to be clear about calling people to personal repentance but also to turn away from every aspect of our cultures that denies God.

3.We need to tell more of the biblical story – we cannot reduce the gospel to the gospels – but at some stage we must tell the whole big story of scripture.

4.We must make sure our gospel is truly Trinitarian; we are drawing people into personal relationship not just to God but to the Trinity. It is only as we are clear about the Trinity that we will be clear about the atonement. The Trinity also allows us to understand grace and adoption clearly.

5.As we stay faithful to the apostolic gospel we must be clear to tell the whole multifaceted story of Jesus.

6.The outworking of the gospel is not just intellectual assent but a life well lived.

We closed off the day with an emphasis on A MORE EXPANSIVE GOSPEL which Dr Steve Holmes from St Andrews University expounded and AN ATHENIAN GOSPEL based on an exposition of Acts 17 from Dr Daniel Strange who argued for the need to tackle the idolatry of our cultures.

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  • Rick

    “We need to tell more of the biblical story – we cannot reduce the gospel to the gospels – but at some stage we must tell the whole big story of scripture.”

    Scot- how do you feel about that statement? You have written in the past: “The Gospels are called the “Gospel” because they are the gospel, and they are the gospel because they tell the Story of Jesus”

  • Chris Oakes

    I’m wondering how the proposed trinitarian gospel lines up with Scripture – in my experience, many want to add a good deal of trinitarian lingo that is post-biblical and even questionable. Could it be we unnecessarily complicate “the simplicity that is in Christ?”

  • Sherman Nobles

    • In a word – Jesus, in whose name alone is salvation!
    • In a sentence –
    o “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Jn. 3:16
    o “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” 2 Cor.5:19
    o For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Col. 1:19-20
    • In a paragraph
    o The gospel which Paul delivered was “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” I Cor. 15:3-5
    • In a book – All four of the Gospels, especially John, and Romans
    o “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31
    o Romans
     What is the gospel? (1:1-17)
     Why do persons need salvation? (1:18 – 3:20)
     How then are persons saved? (3:21 – 4:25)
     Universality of Salvation (5)
     What are the benefits of salvation? (chs. 6-8)
     But what of those who refuse this gospel now? (chs. 9-11)
     What shall be the daily life of those saved through faith? (chs. 12-15)

  • Steve Sherwood

    Could you say more of what your concerned about Chris #2?

  • Pat Pope

    Did the group primarily focus on the question of what the gospel is or did they venture into applying that gospel to various issues? It seems that’s often where things break down. Various people can say they believe in the gospel and its power for salvation, but when applying it to specific issues, that tends to be where we diverge and then call each other’s beliefs into question.

  • MatthewS

    I had a more positive response to seeing the “Trinitarian Gospel” label.

    Our Sunday School group has been using some of the “Bible Boot Camp” (I don’t love the name but I like much of the actual approach) materials to discuss the trinity and Jesus as fully God and fully human. It seems to me that people go from “yawn, I knew all this a decade ago” to expressing internal tension quite quickly as you start peeling away the historically rejected positions. If we believe in a trinitarian God, I think it is not enough to assume that people have a mature understanding of what it is and isn’t based on the fact that they claim it in name. You start describing modalism vs. tritheism vs. subordinationalism and people start sitting up a little straighter, wondering which part is heresy and which part is OK.

    My point being, seems to me that if we believe in a trinitarian God, it merits the time and effort for a community to understand what that does and does not mean.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, doesn’t sound right to me but it was such a cryptic and condensed statement. “We cannot reduce the gospel to the Gospels” denies, however, what they are. They are the gospel. One can never be reducing the gospel by going to the Gospels. Ever.

  • Phil Miller

    I’d be interested in hearing a bit more of what your concerns are in #2 as well, Chris. I think it’s hard to read Paul and not come away with a Trinitarian perspective.

  • Tim

    It’s so simple. The good news (i.e., “the gospel”) is that by turning to Jesus in repentance and faith we can be cleansed from our sins and receive the promise of God’s spirit so as to do good works for him in this life, all the while with the hope of being with Jesus in his heavenly kingdom when this life is over. That’s it. It’s that simple. Really.

    Unfortunately, the gospel that I’ve outlined isn’t good enough for certain reformed types who want to insert PSA somewhere into the gospel. For different reasons, the same gospel also isn’t good enough for certain progressive types who don’t really believe in non-physical realities such as might be required by a heavenly kingdom and feel that the gospel loses “relevance” when phrased in his way.

  • While I’m all for this sort of dialogue, it seems that in gathering “tribes” in the West that don’t typically speak to one another, they left out actual Church traditions that have the commission to preach the gospel and baptize the nations (i.e. Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholic, Anligans, Orthodox, Baptist, Covenant, etc.) and settled for a very limited group of university and global non-denom alliances. Don’t get me wrong, the speakers sound excellent and are certainly a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, but to move forward in the West it makes sense to get the leaders of the Western denominations talking, too.

  • Rick D

    Looking forward to exploring this question with you in Grand Rapids this weekend…

  • Rodney Reeves


    At the risk of being a little snarky, if “that’s it,” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sure wasted a lot of ink and papyrus.

  • Leland Vickers

    Unfortunately, I think Tim #9 is an example of the confusion that is persistent regarding the “gospel.” His gospel is actually a description of a person’s response to the gospel message and the resultant conversion of the person’s life. Preaching the gospel was expounding the good news of what Jesus had done in fulfilling God’s plan; answering the question, “what must I do?”, was a secondary matter — still very important, but secondary to the gospel itself.

  • Tim

    Rodney #12,

    I would agree with you if I thought Matthew et al. were trying to explain the gospel rather than write an ancient biography primarily focused on Jesus’s earthly ministry following his baptism.

  • Chris Oakes

    I suppose I’d rather allow Paul’s words to explain the gospel, rather than demanding a “trinitarian” label. I recognize the actual doctrine post-dates Paul, of course, but still, was Paul’s explanation insufficient?

    Also, I’m unclear at the meaning of: “we are drawing people into personal relationship not just to God but to the Trinity.” Help me understand the “not just” in relation to God.

  • Tim

    Leland #13,

    On the contrary, I think your statement to the effect that the gospel is “the good news of what Jesus had done in fulfilling God’s plan” is “an example of the confusion that is persistent regarding the ‘gospel.'” I mean, just what exactly did Jesus do in fulfillment of God’s plan? And what does that mean for us (i.e., the gospel)? The summary I gave at #9 least gives a straight answer to that last question.

  • dopderbeck

    This does look like it was good, but in the strong statement “because only scripture is infallible,” this gathering excluded all non-Protestants, e.g. Catholics and Orthodox Christians. How is staking out such a strong claim concerning Protestantism an effort to overcome “tribalism” in the broader Church?

  • Rodney Reeves


    So, John’s purpose is mis-stated in 20:30-31?

  • dopderbeck

    “The Gospel” is outlined succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. THAT is “it.” What everyone is talking about here, including I think this conference are the _implications_ of the Gospel. To me, _this_ is where the confusion lies. The _implications_ of the Gospel are endless, and no summary statement can contain them. (Cf. John 21:25).

  • Phil Miller

    The Gospel” is outlined succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. THAT is “it.”

    If that is the Gospel, then what did Jesus and His disciples preach when we are told they preached the gospel in the Gospels?

    It seems to me that Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15 is not to give the Corinthians a summary statement of the Gospel as much as it is to shore up his credentials as a bonafide apostle. He’s reminding them that they can rest assured the Gospel he received from Christ and the other Apostles is the real deal. It seems that there were people who were casting doubt on Paul’s apostleship, and as a result casting doubt as to what the Corinthians believed about Jesus and the resurrection.

  • Scot,

    About #3…

    3.We need to tell more of the biblical story – we cannot reduce the gospel to the gospels – but at some stage we must tell the whole big story of scripture.

    …I totally agree, but I might even push in another direction. It seems that often the gospel gets reduced to what Paul said about justification. NT Wright has done a wonderful job of calling us to really listen to all the dimensions of the gospel in the gospels in ‘How God Became King.’ Each witness from Scripture should be heard, balanced, but we must not ignore the historic dimension of the gospel–Jesus’ announcement to his contemporaries in 1st C. Palestine that the Kingdom had come near, and through his teaching, signs, and wonders this Kindgom was open and available.

  • Technically Jesus defined the gospel in Mark 1 as, “The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!.”

    This contains the actual good news [nearness/availability of the kingdom] and our response [repent and believe].

  • dopderbeck

    Phil (#20) — well, Paul says this is “the gospel,” and I think it is indeed a summary statement of the euangelion often referenced as “the gospel of the kingdom” (euangelion tes basileiasin the Gospels (e.g. Matt. 24:14). The “kingdom” is instantiated as a result of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. That seems clear in the Gospels, in Acts, in Paul, and in the Johanine epistles and Revelation. The call to individual and corporate repentance, the final defeat of death and sin, the transformation of persons, cultures, and the entire creation, the anticipated return of Christ and the final consummation of history — all of these are _implications_ of the good news that Christ was born, Christ died for us, and Christ is risen.

  • dopderbeck

    And, BTW, something I think the emphasis of this conference seems to significantly overlook with its emphasis on sola scriptura: a key implication of the Gospel is the founding of the new community of the Church. “Gospel” and “Church” can’t be separated, by sola scriptura or anything else.

  • scotmcknight

    Phil, what they preached is Jesus … I sketch this in a chp in my book, The King Jesus Gospel.

  • Tim

    Rodney #18,

    I certainly don’t think John’s purpose was misstated in John 20:30-31. These biographies were written so that people would believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the one that was prophesied about in the traditions found in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Phil Miller

    Phil, what they preached is Jesus … I sketch this in a chp in my book, The King Jesus Gospel.

    That’s kind of what I was getting at (and I did read your book, btw! 🙂 ). It just seems to that what Paul’s doing in 1 Corinthians 15 is reminding the Corinthians of the implications of the Gospel (to use dopderbeck’s term). I have a hard time seeing how we can define the Gospel without inherently talking about the Kingdom when those are the words that Jesus used Himself. It’s not I don’ t think 1 Corinthians 15 is the Gospel, but I think we need to look at all Paul’s saying, too. Further on in chapter 15, Paul says,

    Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

    In other words, the Gospel is all wrapped up in Jesus and His Kingdom.

  • Phil Miller

    Btw, I think I’m essentially repeating what Scot says regarding 1 Corinthians 15 in his book here.

    I like how N.T. Wright puts it, though, too.

    “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.”

  • dopderbeck

    Phil — I think we basically agree.

  • Awhile back Christian Century had an article challenging commenters to compress the gospel into 7 words or less. I passed this challenge on to my small group but in slightly altered form:

    If you had only 7 words to communicate the gospel to someone who has just awoken from a coma with 100% total religious amnesia (no concept of God, never heard the name “Jesus” before) what would you say?

    Of course this challenge seems absurd, but its actually really interesting because the structure is SO limited that it almost forces you to resort to poetry. I’d love to hear what the commenters here can come up with!

  • Georges Boujakly


    Compressing the gospel seems counterproductive when many believe it is compression that has landed us where we are. Expansion seems more appropriate. Yes poetry can pack a punch in a few words but it’s still compression, I think.

    The expansive view espoused by the speakers seems more on target. The less people know of God the more they need to understand. Not advocating verbosity but the deep ideas of the Gospel cannot nor should not be compressed, in my opinion.