Why Is It So Hard to Define “The Gospel”? A Short Reflection and a Case Study

Why Is It So Hard to Define “The Gospel”? A Short Reflection and a Case Study April 23, 2020

Why Is It So Hard to Define “the Gospel”?

Social Media is abuzz with “gospel” debates these days. Is proclaiming “Jesus is king” enough? Or do we need to be more explicit about the impact the kingdom of God has on personal salvation, justification, atonement, etc?

Personally, I found Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel a robust theology of gospel redemption in the kingship of Jesus. I am not convinced that all the fine print of personal salvation needs to be magnified in such books or discussions. Much of the work done by N.T. Wright, McKnight, and Bates seeks to correct an overly individualistic spirituality. That is important work.

The fact of the matter is that pin-pointing a singular and clear definition of the biblical “gospel” is challenging. But why? It is because gospel language is used in so many different ways in the NT that it defies narrow articulation. I had a conversation recently with a friend about how “gospel” (euangelion) might qualify as a “tensive symbol,” meaning that it is a biblical concept that cannot be connected to one referent only. It is almost as if it is a catch-word for many dimensions of Christianity and salvation. It is a world of theology unto itself.

Let’s take a small case-study: the occurrences of euangelion in Philippians.

The Gospel is Jesus Christ (the person)

In what some consider to be the thesis statement of Philippians, Paul calls believers to live in a “manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). The “gospel of Christ” could be interpreted here as the revealed person of Christ and his standard. Alternatively, it could be the standard itself, but it is hard to know what that standard would entail if not the lifestyle and expectations of Christ himself.

The Gospel is Truth or Christian Worldview

A second way Paul uses “gospel” language in Philippians is in reference to something to defend or support.

 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (Phil. 1:7 NIV)

 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. (Phil. 1:16 NIV)

Paul saw his imprisonment is a kind of trial in and of itself, where he was situated to provide a defense, support, or justification for his Christian faith. What exactly was he defending? It depends on why he was arrested. Probably he was arrested as a rabble-rouser, promoting dangerous teachings that threatened Roman civil society. Paul was an advocate for gospel truth, a certain way of conceiving all of life, including religion (respect for the divine) and virtue. In that sense, “gospel” seems to be a truth-perspective or what we might call today “worldview” (combined with lifestyle).

The Gospel is a Mission

On several occasions in Philippians, Paul treats “gospel” as a reference to the mission of spreading the message of the good news of Jesus Christ.

  1. The Philippians partnered with Paul “in the gospel” (i.e., gospel ministry and mission) (1:5; also 4:15)
  2. Paul’s imprisonment has served to “advance the gospel” (mission) (1:12)
  3. Timothy partnered with Paul in the “work of the gospel” (mission) (2:22)
  4. Euodia and Syntyche have worked alongside Paul “in the cause of the gospel” (mission) (4:3)

Here the term “gospel” is used as if it were a project that is moving towards completion.


Is the “Gospel” about God or about Humans?

If the Gospel is a constellation term, Jesus Christ still stands at the center, no matter the specific connotation of the word in a given context. For Paul, the “good news of Jesus Christ” is both about the God who is at work in the world and about human (and cosmic!) redemption. We have to remember that also in Philippians we have the Christ Hymn (2:6-11), which is a powerful summary of the good news of Jesus Christ. Here it is clearly all about the glory of the preexistent Christ, his humble obedience to the Father unto crucifixion, and his subsequent glorification as Lord over all. Is the Christ Hymn also about us? Of course it is. First, we are those who bow before this Lord of lords and King of kings in reverence (2:10-11). But also the hymn begins by identifying Christ’s mindset as that which ought to be imitated by believers—humility and deference to God the Father and all things to God’s praise alone (2:1-5).

The Christian Confession: “Lord Jesus Christ”

Some of the debate about the biblical “gospel” is whether it is enough to say “Jesus is King.” We have to remember that short confessions like “Jesus is King” or “Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:11) are shorthand ways of getting at the longer “truth” statements bound up in Scripture’s witness. “Lord Jesus Christ” says at least three massive gospel statements at once.

  1. Jesus  – this was the historical person named Jesus, Jew of Nazareth who died on a Roman cross
  2. Christ – He was associated with the messianic promises given to Israel
  3. Lord – He is not simply a governor or king, but master over all humans and creatures.

This glorifies God the Father (2:11) because Jesus Christ was given the task of restoring peace and order to the whole world, undoing the power of Sin and Death and restoring harmony and goodwill in all of creation (3:20-21).

Every knee and every tongue. The fact that the hymn refers to every knee and tongue acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ points to the individual experience of the Gospel. It is both a public reality and a private experience.

None of this is particularly “new” about gospel language in the New Testament, but I am content to see euangelion as a larger-than-life term. We will not err in one direction or the other if we remember that for Paul it was not about a kingdom per se, nor about individual human justification, but a living relationship with Lord Jesus Christ, a personal (individual) and corporate (ecclesial) experience.

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