Christian Century and the Gospel

Christian Century and the Gospel September 1, 2012

Turnabout is fair play. The progressive postured The Christian Century has a brief post by David Heim asking folks to reduce the gospel to seven words. They found a nice selection of folks, but I’d classify them all as soterian gospels. In fact, I’d classify them as “God loves us” gospels. Here are some of the summaries:

In Martin E. Marty’s “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow,” the “anyhow” hints at the mercy in God’s welcome. Donald W. Shriver makes a similar move with “Divinely persistent, God really loves us,” as does Beverly Roberts Gaventa with “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” The human propensity to mess things up and long for another chance is central, if implicit, in Mary Karr’s “We are the Church of Infinite Chances.” … Brian McLaren highlights the call to reconciliation; Carol Zaleski celebrates the end of captivity (“He led captivity captive”), and Ellen Charry reports that “the wall of hostility has come down.”  Lamin Sanneh quotes Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world.” Bill McKibben opts for the Golden Rule (Mark 12:31): “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity” Scott Cairns manages to capture a distinctively Eastern Orthodox understanding of the gospel in which sin is not even alluded to (and he is impressively concise at only five words). Walter Brueggemann’s gospel is dense: “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” (“I used only six words,” he says; “I rested on the seventh.”) M. Craig Barnes boils it down to four words: “We live by grace.”

Not one apostolic sermon in the Book of Acts focuses on the gospel as God’s love for us in spite of who we are. Read the sermons in Acts 2, 3, 4, 10-11, 13, 14, and 17. The focus is on Jesus. The gospel is about Jesus.

The gospel in three words: Jesus is Lord (or King). Five words: Jesus is the expected Messiah (or King, or Lord). Seven words: Jesus is the expected King who redeems.

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  • I would have been very curious about how, for example, S Hauerwas, NT Wright, G Boyd, D Willard, some catholic scholars, and eastern orthodox theologians would have answered the question.

  • Steve

    Here is a shot at it:

    Jesus rose as the expected, redeeming king.

  • Excellent. To confess “Jesus is Lord” is to get the rest thrown in. It says it all.

  • scotmcknight

    Tommyab, I think one way Tom would define it is “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” But his new book on How God Became King would sharpen that some.

  • russell

    I subscribe to “Jesus is Lord (or King)” too.

  • Luke Allison

    Messiah rules through life, death, and resurrection.

    But seriously, why would we need to reduce the gospel to 7 words?

  • josh carney


    thanks for making us continually think about this question. this matters.

  • I agree with David (3).

    In fact, how is it that “Jesus is Lord” isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind? It seems all answers should say, “Well yes of course ‘Jesus is Lord’ is what’s central but there’s this other thing too.”

  • Through Jesus, God puts everything back together.

  • Would have preferred present progressive – “is putting” – but that would have been 8!

  • Rob

    I think Matt hit it right on!

  • A few “seven-word” attempts…
    Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. All are welcome.
    Jesus is the Promised King. Repent! Believe!
    Jesus died and lives again as King.
    Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. He is Lord.
    Jesus has introduced a New Creation. Come!
    Jesus invites everyone to enter his Kingdom.
    The story of Jesus is the Gospel.

  • I don’t know Scot, I don’t think that “Jesus is King” means anything to people who don’t know who Jesus is or have a conception of what the role of King in Israel meant (as it is VERY different from the European Monarchies). Outside the specific context of 1st Century Judaism “Jesus is King” seems to imply that our job is to submit to his authority and obey his laws because he is in charge and trouble will come to us if we don’t. To me, without the context of Grace, “Jesus is King” demands obediebce out of fear rather than the obedience of faith worked out in love “because he first loved us.”

  • Rick B

    On another site referring to this someone suggested: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” which some of us affirm every week.

  • scotmcknight

    Nate W, should we define the gospel then by what it means to us now? Furthermore, I find it odd that “King” is seen by some as irrelevant when Shane Claiborne can write a book called Jesus for President. King has some monarchic and negative implications, but all terms do … the fundamental reason for me is that the NT defines the gospel in such terms. Translation into our world requires nuance and adaptation etc, but first we have to get the category right.

  • Greg D

    My favorite is the one quoted by McKnight in King Jesus Gospel: “Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived and died and who was raised and ascended and enthroned, is both Messiah of Israel and Lord of the whole world.” I think it’s important to us Gentiles that Jesus is Lord of the whole world, not just the Messiah of Israel.

  • Danny

    How can you not love Walter Brueggemann’s answer?…especially him “resting” on the seventh word. Classic!

  • Doug Peters

    “Jesus’ death and resurrection bring us life”

  • Doug Peters

    either that or “repent: the kingdom of God is near.” 😉

  • You have a good point. My post on The Christian Century when they started that contest tried to reflect that distinction between “We ared saved” and “Jesus” –

    “God’s final word, Jesus, unfolding in community.”

  • Erwin Morales

    In seven Greek words: “‘ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.’ — Ἰησοῦς Χριστός” in its original context. But of course, reducing the gospel in a few words is futile and may even produce inimical consequences. The meaning of words depend on the hearer’s cognitive environment. –> Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory.

  • Creation to New Creation, through Jesus Christ.

  • Nik Harrang

    I think Chaplain Mike (#12) hit it well with both proclamation and summons. I would modify slightly: “Jesus is earth’s True King. Repent! Believe!” Or, “Jesus is Lord of all. Repent! Believe!”

  • Nancy L.

    I’m with Josh #7…thank you, Scot, for continually striving to help us think about what matters.

  • Andy

    Jesus is bringing his Kingdom to Earth!

  • Isn’t the whole idea of seven words, needlessly reductionistic? Doesn’t the limitation of seven words do a significant injustice to the Word made flesh? Why do we play these kind of games when the Spirit of God gave us four gospels and twenty three other books to flesh out the meaning of the gospel?

  • Scot – I guess I am thinking about this as an exercise in poetically distilling the gospel in such a way that sums up its very heart. I’m sure you are as well! I suppose I shouldn’t have spoken in an adversarial way. I don’t disagree with you that the kingship of Christ is a very important facet or even that for the 1st century Jewish/Hellenistic culture it was the central defining category of the gospel, but I do think that it is, like all language (as you said well) a metaphor.

    I guess in a way I do think we should be seeking to speak the gospel in a way that is universal across all cultures and times and I’m jut not sure that’s possible without proclaiming God’s unconditional love for all creation.

  • DRT

    You left off the one word and two word gospels.


    Follow Jesus

  • DRT

    Nate W, I don’t believe that we should try to say what the gospel is for us in such and announcement. The gospel is an announcement, a proclamation, a headline that will have the details fleshed out but is meant to convey the substance a spur questions that must be answered.

  • Tanya

    Marty, of course it is reductionistic. I feel that way after every sermon. And scripture is text — so does this mean Michelangelo, Davinci and Rembrandt did something wrong by attempting artful presentations of scripture? I’m wondering why Scot has suggested this was some weird liberal exercise in “reducing the gospel,” rather than an interesting exercise for some major theologians. Its as if they were told, “consider your understanding of the Christian gospel, and write a haiku poem.”

    Recall that when Barth was asked to sum up his 31 volumes of Dogmatics he replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” (A windy 12 words.)

    The question is whether these phrases do something interesting, rather like preaching, to shed light on the gospel. They are haiku-like, and I wonder why this wouldn’t be a good exercise for us all. Scott raises an intriguing point about Acts. I’ll think about it. I think this is the kind of conversation the statements are meant to evoke.

  • DRT – but shouldn’t the “Good News” contain good news withing it’s proclamation? For a people long awaiting a kingly savior and freedom from the oppression of “Lord” Ceasar, “Jesus is Messiah” would have been amazingly good news in and of itself, if True.. But that same proclamation today would not be heard as “good news” to someone who is not waiting for and has no desire for a king. Once one has understood the Jewish/1st century context of the gospel proclamations of scripture then “Jesus is King/Messiah” is amazingly good news. Today though, I don’t know if “king”, “messiah”, or “lord”, sound like good news to people who have not grown up being taught the old testament and do not think about the world and life through a “christian” filter.

    In an increasingly post-christian world we need to use words that speak the word of Christ in post-christian language. The Word is of course the same as that communicated by the apostles in their gospel sermons, but the WORDS we use must be chosen to communicate the deeper eternal “good news” that also laid behind the apostles words.

    “Jesus is King” is a wonderful way to sum up and clarify the gospel for someone who is already familiar with more soterian versions, but for someone who does not have a christian background I just think it may give the wrong idea.

    Does that make sense?

  • DRT

    Nate, well, on phone all I can say is that those seeking the one to follow will be drawn to examine further. those happy with of all won’t. are we to do old school forced sale?

  • “Jesus declared Lord and King by resurrection”

  • DRT – Good thought. There often comes a point when we just need to speak and allow those who do not have “ears to hear” to walk away or lash out at us for having spoken. There is no “hard sell” when it comes to the gospel.

    I’m thinking of this exercise as if the seven words are meant to most clearly communicate the Spirit of the Word expressed in the incarnation, teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

    I.e. If you only had 7 words to communicate the Gospel to someone who had never heard of Christ or the Bible before what would you say?

    In that situation I don’t think “Jesus is King” would do anything to help them understand the Gospel. For one who has no prior knowledge of Christ (or only knows of Him via characatures or the lives of hypocrites) there is no Good News in that proclamation.

    In that situation (which i understand may well not be what the original question was meant to address) our best hope of communicating the gospel isn’t in telling truths about Christ, but in somehow BEING Christ in their midst. So, maybe the gospel would best be summed up with the 7 words that Christ would speak.

    What would Christ say with only 7 words? Humbly, some ideas:

    “My body broken, blood spilled, for you”

    “Who condems? Neither I. Sin no more.”

    “I choose you, friend. Love one another. “

  • Doug Hendricks

    Nice little exercise. Meditating on all the various comments. Nate W #35 got me thinking of different angles we could take on the queston. Like; What act/deed might might communicate (peak interest in??) the gospel for person in ones life?

  • Another idea, as I reflect more on this:

    “Whatever the cost, I am with you.”

  • I would love to hear Bob Dylan’s answer to this. If anyone could sum up the gospel in 7 words it would be him.

  • Doug Hendricks – Awesome! Exactly. Neither 7 words nor 70×7000 words can contain the gospel. In this exact moment though (Right now!), we each can fully BE the Good News in one single act of self-denying death for the pure love of another, exactly as they are.

  • DRT

    Nate W., the problem I have is that there are different questions that can lead to different teachings of the gospel. Our consumerist culture has made this a difficult situation because everything that we are exposed to resounds with “what’s in it for me”. I, personally, was quite put off by that approach because it felt so shallow. If the good news ends up being that I will be saved then I feel pretty unfulfilled about that. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice and all that I will get mine, but that is hardly an answer to the big questions that I have. The big questions are more like “what is all of this?”, “what meaning is there to this?”, “why do I have so much and others so little?”, “is it really about making sure that I get the best for myself?” and then the really big question, which gets to the root of everything for me, “Why?”.

    The proclamation of Jesus being the ruler gives me the direction, not the answer, and that is what I have searched for my entire life. Why? Where? Why? The proclamation that the answer to my questions lies in Jesus is the point of departure. That is, for me, quite good news without even understanding anything about what’s in it for me.

  • DRT

    A bit more….

    When the answer to my questions is given as “Jesus died for me and I will have eternal life” or something like that, then I really do feel it is some kind of sham. It feels shallow and the meaning of my search is not going to be cured by something for me.

    I want all things to be put to right. I want to know who to follow, who to work with, who I should be taking my direction from. Like Jesus says, the one who prays out loud so that everyone can hear them already has what they are searching for and they already got it. They have their reward. But that is not the reward I am after. My reward is to know that this all makes sense.

  • gingoro

    Please explain as I am missing the point. Sure we can do short summaries that for someone who already knows the Bible story sums up the gospel BUT what good does that do when talking with a young person who does not know much or any of the Bible storey?

  • DRT – totally hear you. I was raised knowing that I would be “saved” because I had said “Jesus, please come into my heart, I don’t want to go to Hell” when I was 3 (!) years old. I thought that I had to then obey and live up to that but was also told that it was impossible to do anything without God doing it for/in me. I spent a long time hurting people waiting for (begging) the Holy Spirit to change my sinful heart. Even though I was “saved” I was still a slave to sin, to shame. I still lived with some deep seated belief that I am not good enough to be accepted.

    In one precise moment, I realized that there is absolutely nothing I can do that will make God live me any less and nothing more that I need to do to be “liked” by Him either. I heard that he was “Lord” my whole life but was oppressed by the idea that I could not live up to his kingly requirements and I oppressed others by treating them as if they were undeserving of God’s love until they believe certain things. I firmly believe now that the root of man’s separation from god is not ultimately broken law, but the shame that is born out of knowledge of Good and evil. Humans are naturally aware that a higher standar exists because they have been made to feel inadequate by others who have in turn been made to feel likewise by others…etc., all the way back through history. Christ stepped in and said, in the most emphatic way possible, “You ARE Loved. Your sins are not only forgiven, but have never been enough to separate you from God. His creation IS good and IS going somewhere. All WILL be redeemed and if you would only believe that this is true and treat others as if this is true, you would be part of bringing about His reconciliation.”

    So, I totally agree with your experience of the gospel, I just think that the starting point, in a post christian (and maybe even post-theistic) world needs to be treating others as if they are free to cease striving and biting and clawing to be MORE. Within that grace they will joyfully submit to the king. It seems though, to me, that to first hear “there is a king whom you must now down to” sends the opposite message: “your only hope is in being more obedient.”

    I know that this isn’t what you are saying. From your perspective “Jesus is King and invites you to join him in ruling” is great news. My only point is that many (including me) have been enslaved to a command to submit and will be set free to joyfully submit byte rough experience of unconditional love.

  • “Byte rough” should read “by the”

  • Buck Eschaton

    Something along the lines of “Return, the Jubilee is here!!!…Your debts are forgiven!!!”

  • Andrew

    Erwin — Nice to see the shout-out to Relevance Theory! 🙂

  • DRT

    Nate W. 43, that made a ton of sense, given post Christian….

  • LeslieS

    I’m really resonating with several of Nate W.’s comments. I totally want believing Christians to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” and to live completely submitted lives, yet non-believing friends and neighbors need to understand “God loves you no matter what” before they can accept forgiveness and submit to him as Lord.

  • Neil

    it may take hundreds, or even thousands, of words to explore all the nuances and explain all the details – but when it comes right down to it… if you cannot explain the gospel in 7 words, you probably could not do it in 7,000.

  • Neil

    as for n. t. wright: in “how god became king” he writes (and i’ve eliminated two words to make it seven) – “god has become king in/through jesus.”

  • How’s about;

    ‘The ungodly declared righteous for Jesus’ sake.’

  • Grant Walsh


    You said, “Not one apostolic sermon in the Book of Acts focuses on the gospel as God’s love for us in spite of who we are…..The focus is on Jesus. The gospel is about Jesus.”

    But, isnt Jesus just the expression of “God’s love for us in spite of who we are.” In other words, they are inseparable.

    **asking only in terms of the “soterian” aspect of the gospel.

  • Joel

    JR Daniel Kirk once summarized it as “The crucified Jesus is the risen Lord.” I think that’s pretty good.

  • Mark Farmer

    I’m with Matt @9, with the adjustment of using the expression “In Christ” instead of “Through Jesus”:

    “In Christ God puts everything back together.”

    This fits with some of the most mature NT thinking, as in Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10.

    Summaries with words such as “King” or “Lord” are less transparent in meaning in our postmodern context, accurate though they be as summaries of much NT thought.

  • I am amazed that the words of Jesus are not brought to bear on these central questions about the Gospel. Why is the Gospel not still what Jesus said the Gospel is: “Repent and believe the Gospel about the Kingdom” (Mk 1:14, 15)? Yes, of course his death for sin and his resurrection were added as they happened. But the Kingdom of God is according to Jesus the basis of the saving Gospel.

  • Scot has it right: the gospel is not about us but rather about Him.