This all started with a question about who gets to determine the definition of the term the gospel. It is an important question since we use the word all the time, and it would be helpful if we were all operating with the same definition. In our postmodern world it doesn’t always seem necessary to get entangled in a quibble over definitions as long as we end in a group hug or blowing bubbles for each other or something. But there truly is much at stake when we’re talking about something that is central and essential to our common faith.
The question of who gets to decide got derailed into a debate about the definition itself. Fair enough. At some point we need to return to the question (which is, perhaps, more ecclesiological than soteriological), but for now it is fitting to sort a couple of things out for clarity’s sake.
Having read a bit of N.T. Wright (not enough to call myself an expert, but enough to catch his groove), I am impressed with his insights and reasoning. Wright, it seems, is dissatisfied with the modern TR (Truly Reformed, or, perhaps better, Typically Reformed) approach to topics like justification, gospel, lordship, etc. His work is controversial to say the least. Having exploded onto the popular theological scene with ideas in hand that challenge conventional views, Wright has been the subject of scads of criticism. Among the ideas he brings is a perspective of the gospel that is out of time with popular contemporary understanding.
Wright’s view on the gospel is that it is not, at least for Paul, “a message about ‘how one gets saved,’ in an individual and ahistorical sense.” He continues:
It is a fourfold announcement about Jesus:
- In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in the cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.
- In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.
- The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.
- Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.
It is, moreover, a double and dramatic announcement about God:
- The God of Israel is the one true God, and the pagan deities are mere idols.
- The God of Israel is now made known in and through Jesus himself.
In its most compact form, for Wright, the gospel is: Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord.
The profundity of this statement must not be lost on us. The gospel, as Wright has framed it, moves beyond being an offer of a personal religious experience to the declaration that the long awaited King has come. Now each person does interact with this proclamation, so it is intensely personal (and personally soteriological) in that sense. For the one who believes it is good news, indeed. For the unbeliever it is not good news. For all it is truth.
The implications of the gospel, therefore, extend far beyond the salvation of the individual (although I insist that is a significant feature of it!) to the whole of creation. It is not just soteriology. It is eschatology. It is ecclesiology. It is missiology. It is teleology. It is ontology. It is theology at its most spectacular.
For many, this is difficult because we don’t know what to do with that kind of gospel. How do we interact with such a sweeping statement? How do we get people to do anything (make a decision, live differently, do Christian things)? I think this is a large part of the evangelical problem. That is, I think we’ve long been caught up in doing religious things (which looks like anything from liberalism to fundamental legalism) and neglect being citizens of the kingdom of heaven…under the direct and universal lordship of Christ the King.
I’ll conclude, though there is much more to be said, by letting Wright speak for himself:
The ‘gospel’, then, is, as Paul says in Romans 1:16, ‘the power of God for salvation’. The word for ‘power’ here is ‘dynamis’, from which we get ‘dynamite’. To understand Paul’s meaning, we may invoke a further technical term. Paul speaks in Acts (20:24) of ‘the gospel of the grace of God’. But what is grace? Grace is not a ‘thing’ – a heavenly gas, a pseudo-substance, which can be passed to and fro or pumped down pipelines. The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love.
But it doesn’t just reveal all this so that people can admire it from a distance. It reveals it precisely by putting it into action. The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is putting into effect that kingship, the decisive and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered, at the heart of his missionary practice, that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them into a community of love across traditional barriers, liberating them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human being they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.