The Gospel We Find?

In talking about the Bible as (not) an owners manual for life, we discussed the connection between expectations of the Bible / assumptions about what the Bible is, what we look for / hope for from the Bible, and what we actually find when we turn to it.

A similar problem besets our articulations of the gospel message itself. What is the “good news” that the Bible proclaims or reflects?

Each year I teach a course on Romans through Revelation. That’s a lot of documents.

Is there one gospel message that holds it all together?

I remember listening in on ordination exams in a conservative Reformed context. There, the gospel was often thought of in terms of “justification by faith.” I remember one guy would always ask candidates, “Can you name two passages from the Old Testament which preach the gospel of justification by faith?” Not so coincidentally, every candidate named the only two passages in the OT where the language of “righteousness” and “belief” are found together.

This is merely illustrative: there are ways we can think about the gospel that limit us severely, such that we might even find ourselves saying, as some of the pastors Scot McKnight talks about in King Jesus Gospel, that Jesus didn’t preach the gospel. That’s when we know we’ve backed ourselves into a corner.

Image: Stuart Miles /

But is that the best we can do? Or is there a larger all-encompassing word of “good news” that can pick up a larger swath of both NT and OT?

Here, I think that the quest for the center of Paul’s thought is helpful and instructive. While some might argue that Paul’s gospel is something like justification by faith or union with Christ in his death and resurrection, I’d say that both are looking at the wrong end of the stick.

These are ways of talking about our participation in the gospel, the potential impact of the good news on us, rather than the good news itself.

We get closer to the good news itself when we talk about what God has done in Christ himself, than we get when we talk about how that Christ event comes to benefit us. In other words, the accomplishment of salvation is the gospel, and the application of salvation is the ramification of the good news–or what makes it good news to me.

So how about something like this: the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all things.

What does crucifixion mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? Hebrews? 1 John? Revelation?). But it is a representative and (usually) reparative act. It is not simply a person who died, but the Messiah, the king, the representative ruler over God’s people.

What does resurrection mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? 1 Peter? Hebrews? Revelation?). But at the heart of it is the reality that Jesus is the enthroned master over all things and therefore the one who is to be both celebrated and obeyed by all the nations of the earth.

What do you think? Too vague? Too specific? Not clearly enough “good news”? How do you articulate the gospel in such a way that it can be borne witness to by such a diverse collection of texts? Or is that even a possibility? Is “the” gospel too much to ask our Bible for?


17 thoughts on “The Gospel We Find?”

  1. One might push this into an even more explicitly narrative direction by stating that the gospel is this: “In the life, death,and resurrection of Jesus we see the culmination of God’s saving purpose for the whole world.” This adds to your formula a wider frame of reference that encompasses the whole canon of Scripture. Further, the language of “culmination” brings in the eschatological framework, without which I don’t think we can really understand “gospel.”

    1. Nice, Jim. I definitely like the larger narrative dimensions that adds to what I’ve done. I was going a bit minimalist, I confess–trying to say something that even James would provide evidence for! But perhaps asking for a base-line minimum from each book is too limiting?

      1. I would read James as essentially a clarification of exactly what is this gracious saving purpose that God has been up to all along, which is now fulfilled in Christ.

  2. I think the gospel Jesus preached could be encapsulated as, “The time has come and I, the Messiah, am here. So repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is coming and now is.” I think the gospel comprises the four elements in that message: It’s a new time of God’s mercy; Jesus the Messiah has come; He has brought and is bringing the New Creation kingdom; Repent and believe.

  3. I like this formulation, with one tweak: “the crucified Christ is *become* the resurrected Lord over all things.” The “become” gives it a narrative aspect–there was a before, there is an after, there was a problem to be solved–rather than sounding static, abstract, and a-historical.

  4. A baseline for each book probably is too limiting, since every writer isn’t trying to write Jesus 101. And we have a canon, not a bunch of interchangeable documents that say basically the same thing. The more or less basic gospel should however show up in each, y’know…*gospel*.

  5. I think this is the crux of a lot of the debates that are going on today. I think that if we are serious about a narrative theological approach, we have to consider the mythology that the inspired stories create. By that I mean to say that all stories create relatively consistent worlds (e.g., the physics, the rules of reality ect). This mythology would be the good and necessary consequences of the world set up by the story. The caveat would be that all mythologies, unless explicitly stated by the author, would be held somewhat loosely. mythologies are unavoidable. you need them to make sense of the story. mythology is systematic theology of stories.

    For us, if the gospel is a story, then the talk about the good and necessary consequences of that story (justification and cosmic redemption) are unavoidable. thus I propose that we take Daniel’s presentation of the gospel as primary, all the while holding the systematics in the back of our heads simply to explain and help ppl better understand and appreciate the story. but the story should be primary, not the mythology.

  6. The gospel/good news is that the kingd of God is here and is open to any and all who will trust the King. Whether or not a kingdom coming is good news depends on who the king is. The kingdom of God is good news only because there is a good King who loves us and who reigns with love and justice.

    1. Marshall, I’m curious how you see that “kingdom of God” Gospel playing out in the rest of the NT, beyond the Synoptic Gospels, where “kingdom of God” is not a prevalent theme?

      1. Daniel, I would say it IS a prevalent theme.
        Acts 1:3 – Jesus spoke to his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection about what? The Kingdom of God.
        Acts 8:12 – Phillip preached what? The good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ
        Acts 14:22 – Paula and Barnabas strengthened the church and told them what? We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
        Acts 19:8 – Paul argued in the synagogues about the Kingdom of God
        Acts 28, Paul preached the Kingdom of God.
        Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians Colossians, Galatians, 1 &2 The, 1 &2 Tim, Hebrews, James, and Revelation all refe to the Kingdom of God as what we are striving to inherit, what we are working for, what we are called to participate in.
        I think that the Kingdom of God is what ties all of these things together, and Christ’s death and resurrection are what enable us to fully participate in what we were created for – the Kingdom of God.

  7. “Is there one gospel message that holds it all together?”

    I’ll take a shot at this. For me, the gospel message that holds it all together is this one, taken from Matthew 22:37-40:

    “Jesus replied: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”

    I really enjoy this blog. Thanks for such thoughtful, engaging posts.

    1. Is the gospel a command? How is being told to do something “good news”? Also, in and of itself, there is no Jesus there. Don’t the NT writers rather uniformly think Jesus has something significant to do with the gospel?

      1. Please forgive the inelegance of my response. I’m no scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve tried to respond as best as I can in a short amount of time!

        “Is the gospel a command?”

        It seems to me that the gospel may be both promise and command. I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that faith in Christ’s resurrection is all that God requires of his creations. I believe that God desires more from us than that, and with his words Jesus sets out what those foundational expectations are. We are commanded to find love for one another and for God. Jesus emphasises that this love is the basis on which all the law and prophets are founded.

        “How is being told to do something “good news”?”

        It seems to me that there are quite a few instances where someone being told to do something in the Bible may be seen as “good news” (though if you’re of the opinion that “good news” is solely focused on resurrection, then please ignore this). Just a few examples: I would argue that Christ telling the paralyzed man to “Get up, take your mat and go home” is “good news,” illustrating as it does the power of God working in the world for a beneficent purpose. As does Christ’s command to Lazarus of Bethany to rise (at the least, I assume it was good news to Lazarus, who probably appreciated the whole not-being-dead thing), illustrating God’s power over death. Without God’s command that Jesus sacrifice himself (“Yet not what I will, but what you will”) would there be any “good news” to speak of as that news relates to Christ’s resurrection?

        “Also, in and of itself, there is no Jesus there. Don’t the NT writers rather uniformly think Jesus has something significant to do with the gospel?”

        Jesus is there. He’s the speaker – the teacher who, in that moment, cut against the grain and discarded the rituals and regulations constructed around the religion of the time in order to emphasize the “heart” of God’s law. He “rewrote the narrative,” if you will.

        If you’re referring to the resurrection itself with your comment, then yes, there is no resurrection there (unless you consider that, narratively-speaking, Christ is “resurrecting” the Word of God through radical, revolutionary reinterpretation and rescuing it from the strict, over-gilded interpretations of the leaders of the time). He is, however, bringing the “good news” of God’s expectations to the people. Under theories of Liberal Christianity/Liberation theology (to name two – like I said, no scholar here) the news of God’s love for mankind and of God’s desire to liberate the poor and the oppressed constitutes real “good news”. These ideas are expressed in the words which Jesus speaks in the quoted passage. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself without recognizing the plight of the poor and the oppressed. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself without working to end that poverty and oppression. God’s concern for these conditions is “good news.”

        I know that mainline Protestant/Jesuit/Methodist notions of “good news” have fallen out of favor in terms of mainstream acceptance of late, but that doesn’t nnecessarily negate their possible applicability to the question posed.

        Sorry for the fragmentary thoughts and the lack of skill in expressing them. No offense is intended to anyone by expressing the above. Thanks again for your words. I genuinely enjoy reading them.

  8. If you want a minimalist statement that still says a lot, my vote would be for “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself…” You could also include some of the other portions of that quote from II Cor. 5 if you want something longer. If you need something less, perhaps just the word “Jesus” sums it all up.

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