Recently, as in yesterday, Rob Bell made another attempt at “tweeting” the gospel. Now I say this not to pick on Bell (for reasons why, see the last idolatry post) but to use it as a starting point for discussing the gospel. Given Bell’s last attempt, this is actually an improvement and does come quite close. So, rather than label him a heretic for missing it (or other facets of orthodoxy), let’s give him the nod for moving in the right direction and for earnestly thinking through matters. Here though is what he came up with:
The gospel is the counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us. – Rob Bell
What Bell gets absolutely right is that the gospel is news. It’s not something that comes natural to man, it’s not something you would guess. In its full proclamation it brings joy. Where this definition fails then is in the relative clause conveying the content of that news. If we said:
- The Gospel is counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news
That would be correct so far as it goes, it just remains a bit vague. When Bell fleshes out the content of that news, he only decreases the ambiguity slightly. In other words, with this definition, someone can still wonder what exactly happened to bring this about. Or to keep with the news theme, Bell has substituted a subtitle for a headline, so it doesn’t actually proclaim what constitutes the Gospel, it just offers a result of the gospel.
The gospel is best understood as the news of a historical event, namely for Paul it was the news that Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave. Much more can be said about that, but nothing less can be said. This could be expanded to be more explicit:
- Christ died for us, meaning we deserved death
- We deserved death because of our sins
- Christ not only died but rose from the dead, meaning he is alive today
This is news in every sense. It is something that actually happened and can be historically verified. The gospel by its very nature invites investigation. The gospel then is a declaration of something that has happened that can be verified as true. It is the proclamation of something as historical fact concerning God’s action in the world.
It then is something we have to declare, not something we can live. Ed Stezeter via Twitter over the last couple of days has pointed out the quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi to “Preach the gospel, if necessary use words,” is both mistakenly attributed to him and a false quote as well. I didn’t explore his reasoning behind that, but I would agree as, if the gospel at bare minimum is as defined above by Paul himself (in 1 Cor. 15), then it is something you would have to declare. You can’t live Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
Now you can and should re-pattern your life in light of the gospel, but you can’t live the gospel. The gospel is a declaration of what Christ has already done, not something we do.
I think the confusion arises when we make a category mistake of switching implications and results of the gospel with the actual gospel itself. The gospel is a declaration of Christ’s finished work and so it has many and far-reaching implications. One of those is that Jesus is Lord and vindicated as God just as he claimed to be before his crucifixion.
In the 1st century world, to make that declaration then had political implications, but the actual declaration itself is not trans-culturally political. Caesar claimed to be Lord and divine, so anyone else claiming the same thing was making a political statement. Obama does not claim to be Lord or divine, so declaring Jesus as such today is not making a political statement, nor would it have political implications in all culture where it is proclaimed. It might, but it doesn’t of necessity.
Another category error would be to turn the cross or gospel into a divine object lesson about love. Bell comes close to this, but I wouldn’t necessarily accuse him of doing it. The cross definitely demonstrates God’s love, but the gospel is not primarily that Christ brought the love of God to us, for this implies that it wasn’t available or known prior to the cross. Too often when this description of the gospel is used, God’s wrath gets swallowed up to the point of almost non-existence. It shouldn’t be forgotten that our sinfulness led to God’s wrath, which led to the cross in the first place. God simultaneously loved us so much to give his Son for us, but then also poured out the wrath he intended for us onto him. The cross is just as much an object lesson in God’s wrath and the gravity of sin as it is for God’s love, but again, these are implications of the gospel, not the actual gospel itself.
It might be best to view the implications as necessarily flowing from the work of Christ on the cross. In this sense, they are linked, but not identical or even quite synonymous. The gospel is something that happened in history: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the grave. This changed the course of history in more ways than can be imagined. But most of what gets substituted as “the gospel” is really just either footnotes or commentary on what actually happened.
Let’s not forget what the real headline is, and remember that Christians need to hear the gospel just as much as anyone else. But that’s for another post…