What is the essential nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as expressed in Scripture? Is it the ethics of Jesus, the love ethic? Is it the example of Jesus? What about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the substitutionary sacrifice for sin?
What is the Gospel?
A popular catchy saying is, “Preach the Gospel everywhere. If necessary, use words.” Are words necessary? Or are the words of Gospel proclamation secondary to the good works of the Gospel?
This is not a minor issue!
I contend that the Gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4), which was a substitutionary atonement for our sin (Romans 3:21-26), providing forgiveness and eternal life (John 3:16; Romans 6:23), the gift of God, pure grace, received by faith in Jesus Christ alone, excluding works of righteousness (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5-7).
And this Gospel cannot be preached without words. It must be proclaimed (Romans 10:8-18), Apart from proclamation, the Gospel cannot be known and received.
But what about good works? As D. A Carson notes below, we must distinguish between the necessary entailments or accompaniments of the Gospel and the heart of the Gospel. Is the error too much proclaiming and not enough works of compassion? Both are necessary, but which is most neglected?
Here is an excerpt of a recent article as Carson addressed this problem in in Themelios, The Hole in the Gospel.
But observe three things:
1. The gospel is, first and foremost, news—great news, momentous news. That is why it must be announced, proclaimed—that’s what one does with news. Silent proclamation of the gospel is an oxymoron. Godly and generous behavior may bear a kind of witness to the transformed life, but if those who observe such a life hear nothing of the substance of the gospel, it may evoke admiration but cannot call forth faith because in the Bible faith demands faith’s true object, which remains unknown where there is no proclamation of the news.
2. The gospel is, first and foremost, news about what God has done in Christ. It is not law, an ethical system, or a list of human obligations; it is not a code of conduct telling us what we must do: it is news about what God has done in Christ.
3. On the other hand, the gospel has both purposes and entailments in human conduct. The entailments must be preached. But if you preach the entailments as if they were the gospel itself, pretty soon you lose sight of the reality of the gospel—that it is the good news of what God has done, not a description of what we ought to do in consequence. Pretty soon the gospel descends to mere moralism. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.
So now I come to the fairly recent and certainly very moving book by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? This frank and appealing book surveys worldwide poverty and argues that the American failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is “the hole in our gospel.” Without wanting to diminish the obligation Christians have to help the poor, and with nothing but admiration for Mr Stearns’s personal pilgrimage, his argument would have been far more helpful and compelling had he observed three things:
First, “what God expects of us” (his subtitle) is, by definition, not the gospel. This is not the great news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Had Mr Stearns cast his treatment of poverty as one of the things to be addressed by the second greatest commandment, or as one of several entailments of the gospel, I could have recommended his book with much greater confidence. As it is, the book will contribute to declining clarity as to what the gospel is.
Second, even while acknowledging—indeed, insisting on the importance of highlighting—the genuine needs that Mr Stearns depicts in his book, it is disturbing not to hear similar anguish over human alienation from God. The focus of his book is so narrowly poverty that the sweep of what the gospel addresses is lost to view. Men and women stand under God’s judgment, and this God of love mandates that by the means of heralding the gospel they will be saved not only in this life but in the life to come. Where is the anguish that contemplates a Christ-less eternity, that cries, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses. . . . Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:30–32). The analysis of the problem is too small, and the gospel is correspondingly reduced.
Third, some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.