There has been a wave of books in the past five or so years purporting to define and explain the meaning of the Gospel. Gospel (euangelion, in Greek) means "good news." Evangelicals, of course, ought by definition to be identified by that good news. The question, then, is what does it mean? What is the good news and for whom is the news actually good? Reflecting on these few beginning questions gives us a sense of why the discussion is significant. If we (evangelicals) can't get that right, if we cannot agree on the central aspect of New Testament witness and faith, can we agree on anything?
Various perspectives on the meaning of the Gospel might be mapped out on a continuum, with "vertical" at one end and "horizontal" at the other. Those who emphasize verticality define the Gospel primarily in terms of Scripture's emphasis on God's forgiveness of the individual sinner. In a familiar Protestant formulation, the sinner has been "justified by grace through faith" in Christ's atoning work. This justification results in a future destiny of eternal life with God in heaven. "That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 9:10).
At the other end, some emphasize that the Gospel involves horizontal (social, communal, and ethical) transformation. Jesus came not primarily to "save" people from hell or to give them a ticket out of this world, but to redeem creation and humanity from futility, discord and to create lasting shalom (peace). The so-called "Messianic mission" is upheld as a central text. Jesus understood that he came "to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Lk. 4:18). His disciples are to do likewise.
This heightened energy around defining the Gospel was focused recently in a major way at the national Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, where over 2,500 scholars, teachers, and pastors convened under the theme "Justification by Faith." This phrase was, of course, a catchphrase of the Protestant Reformation and, with the response of the Council of Trent, came to denote a major point of distinction between Protestant and Catholic understandings of salvation. Theological debates and ecumenical discussions on the significance of that phrase have abounded in the past several decades. But the discussion has recently found its way again within the camp of those who identify or are identified, in one way or another, as "evangelical."
In this respect, the prodigious work of Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has brought fresh attention to the dynamic interplay between the doctrine of "justification by faith," the diversity of the Bible's understanding of salvation, and the meaning of the Gospel. Wright's work on justification was, in effect, the centerpiece of the aforementioned ETS conference. And this conference became, in a way, a follow-up to the 2010 Wheaton Theology conference, also reflective of Wright's influence on evangelical theology.
In brief (and in a way that will surely do injustice to his vast, complex work), the nature of justification, for Wright, has to be interpreted and understood in light of the biblical context of God's covenant of grace with humanity -- focused historically in Israel, Christ, and the church. As I understand it, justification by faith, for Wright and more broadly for what has become known as the "new perspective" (which to be fair, includes a diversity of perspectives and nuances), is a forensic declaration by God that a person is "in the right" -- that he or she belongs in the covenant. The doctrine of justification, for Wright, is a subset of the larger story of God's salvation, set by the terms of his covenant faithfulness, in which he is setting the world to rights and will finally (eschatologically) reconcile creation to himself and his people to each other. (For a complete exposition of his understanding of justification, see his Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision[InterVarsity Press, 2009].)
While his critics have pushed in some helpful ways on the feasibility or coherence of one or another aspect of his theology or terminology (both during the Wheaton conference and ETS), to my mind, Wright's "new perspective" is at the very least a constructive antidote to a tendency -- often either latent or explicit -- within conservative forms of evangelism to reduce the Gospel to a vertical-only aspect. Traditional conservatives acknowledge, of course, the biblical imperative for Christians to act in ways that reflect their allegiance to Christ. At this point on the continuum, the "horizontal" (reconciliation, ethics, creation care, etc.) emerges as an implication of the Gospel, but not as the Gospel as such. It stands in the category of "witness" and "gracious response." This way of parsing it, in my view, omits an organic connection between grace and action and between individual salvation and corporate, communal reconciliation.