When Did ‘Gospel’ Become Southern Baptist Code for ‘Holy Spirit’?

Jon Tyson
Jon Tyson

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m hearing the word “gospel” being bandied about more and more in Southern Baptist circles as the latest buzzword. You’ve got Lifeway’s most popular Bible study right now: The Gospel Project. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently held an event entitled “The Problem of Porn: Gospel Hope of Parents & Teens.” I recently watched a video of a denominational leader introducing himself to a local church with these words, “I’m excited about the good news of the gospel, it is the gospel that transforms our lives, it is the gospel that brings us closer to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now, I’m not against the proper usage of the word “gospel” by any means. The word is used almost 100 times in the New Testament. But I suspect that the word “gospel” has come to be substituted for a much more important word, a word that represents the third person of the Godhead: the Holy Spirit (whom, by the way, is referenced three times as often in the New Testament as the word “gospel”).

What’s the big deal here? First, the two words are not synonymous and they are not interchangeable. The gospel is not a person. The gospel is not part of the Trinity. The gospel represents the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. The gospel points us to Jesus but it is not Jesus. The Spirit is not a thing but a person. The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus after his ascension to fill and empower believers.

And that leads to the second thing, which to me is the heart of the matter. When you look in the New Testament, the gospel points to salvation while the Spirit empowers those who are saved. Ephesians 1:13 is a good example of this, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” The gospel saves, the Spirit empowers the saved.

This means that context matters. Are you speaking primarily to believers or non-believers? When you speak to non-believers, speak the gospel. When you speak to believers who have already been saved through the gospel, speak about the empowering and transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

But Southern Baptists are seemingly getting this backwards. We’ve (myself being a Southern Baptist) got a long history of shying away from the Holy Spirit to distinguish ourselves from our pentecostal and charismatic brethren. So my working theory is that we’ve substituted one buzzword for another, avoiding references to the Spirit and ramping up attention to the gospel. The problem with that is is that we’re constantly speaking about the gospel to the already saved. Lifeway’s Bible study, the ERLC’s conference, even the pastor introducing himself to the church, all Christians audiences, audiences that have already accepted and believed the gospel, which is why they’re Christians. What they (we) need now is to figure out what it means to be transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In John 14-16, Jesus’ final sermon to his disciples, Jesus didn’t go on and on about the gospel and how the gospel would transform them. He spoke about the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit would transform and empower them. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told his disciples they would receive power not when the gospel came on them but when the Spirit came on them. As uncomfortable as it may be, we can’t avoid speaking about the power of the Holy Spirit if we have any hope of living an empowered life.

If we only tout the power of the gospel to the already saved because of our reluctance to speak on the Holy Spirit, we’re doing our people a disservice and we shouldn’t be surprised when our people live unempowered lives. The gospel is used to bring outsiders to salvation. To the insiders who are already saved, let’s bring the Spirit up in here.

 

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