If you asked preachers and many Christians to name the “main thing” for the church, I bet they’d say it’s the gospel.
But I wonder if they’re really thoughtful about what they believe the gospel signifies.
For example, a lot of churches say the gospel is about accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Acceptance of this message is supposed to be the focus of preaching and teaching in the church
The gospel is the main thing because the goal is getting people to that moment of acceptance. Call it conversion. The gospel in this sense is understood as that which you’re supposed to share with other so that they themselves will make some kind of confession or accept Jesus as Savior.
In this view, the “gospel,” serves a kind of gnostic individualism. It’s very much focused on individual human beings receiving some kind of saving message and accepting it.
It’s also just so about salvation in the hereafter. You’re going to be saved through your reception of this gospel and receive the promise of salvation because you’ve accepted this message about Jesus Christ.
This is the gospel as saving message, focused on gnosis, for the individual believer.
The problem with this view, as I mentioned, is it’s hyper individualism. Perhaps also its anthropocentrism. It’s very much focused just on individual human believers.
It has very little to do with community, church, world, share common life, or God’s creation. It’s about hearing a message, accepting it, and getting saved.
We might also point out this is a hyper-spiritualized understanding of the gospel. It doesn’t “land.”
Without a real sense of what salvation might be, a concrete sense of what salvation looks like, salvation becomes abstract, detached, distant, conceptual. God saves us in Christ, but the message offers very little sense of what we are saved for. It lacks shape.
So what is the gospel, what is this “salvation” toward which the gospel orients us?
Consider a passage from the New Testament that defines the gospel. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Let’s say that that’s a good short construction of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that he’s reconciling the world to God.
If that’s your view of what the gospel is, already if you’re open to seeing it, you’ll notice that’s bigger and different from individual salvation. It’s focused on reconciling the world to God. All of creation. One can get an entire eco-theology just from that one sentence in 2 Corinthians.
If you work to overcome the hyper-individualism that typically informs interpretation of this passage, you’ll lean in on noticing it is actually saying that Christ was reconciling the whole world to God. So Christ isn’t just about human or individual salvation. Christ is about the reconciliation of creation with God, the healing of creation.
Such reconciling resoundingly impacts a lot of other things: how we view climate change or ecology; how we think about those things which divide people from each other like national borders and war.
If reconciliation is central to what Jesus is about then it has to do with peace in the world, it has to do with making things right. God’s justice of more equitably distributing food and water and all the things that are emphasized by Jesus in his earthly ministry of healing. Feeding. Clothing. Caring for those who are in prison, all those kinds of things.
Pay attention to the content of the gospel–which is Jesus Christ–and you can see he was focused on saving works now, in the present moment, especially for the poor and oppressed.
This is an understanding of gospel that “lands.” It’s especially for the poor and oppressed. It has a shape, concrete actions and forms. It establishes a new province.
One might call it a kingdom, as Jesus himself does in Scripture. The kingdom of God.
If you to try to separate all of these concretions from the Gospel, the various and specific ways the gospel reconciles, makes for peace, transforms in this life, and say, “Well those are important but they’re not nearly as important as sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ,” then you’ve somehow made the gospel not the gospel.
That’s what’s maybe deeply problematic about much of American Christianity. Today many think there’s this one thing called the gospel. And then there’s all these other things that we think of as political or social or cultural or governmental considerations.
I think a better view is to say that the gospel is good news related to “all the things.” It’s why Jesus talks about becoming kingdom. He mentions government, a “kingdom,” a political structure on purpose as part of his gospel proclamation because the gospel is political, structural, physical, tangible, creative.
In that sense, then the gospel isn’t just an individualized gnostic message that you receive and therefore are saved. What the gospel is is an announcement of God’s active work of salvation in and through the communities that proclaim it. If you reframe it in that way, then what you have to believe, what you have to kind of come to terms with is that the proclamation of the gospel has to be coming out of communities that are working for the kingdom, that are living and embodying the kingdom in various ways.
One last thing: Jesus called himself at times the Son of Man. Another great translation of this is: The Human One. Although it’s important to refocus attention on the impact of the gospel for the whole world, for all of creation, it is also true that the gospel is centered in The Human One, Jesus Christ.
But notice. The embodiment of the gospel is not someone who points beyond the human, to some distant salvation detached from this world. No, the gospel is this human one, standing right in front of us, crucified and risen.
And since he is gathering all the other human ones up into himself, reconciled in the cross, then all the ways we care for other human ones and the creation of which we are a part, all those salves, forms of peace, works of love…
those are the gospel.