Just what is the Gospel?

As Christians we often talk about the gospel, but I’m increasingly aware that this is shorthand for some fuzzy notion of a collection of ideas.  It’s something involving Jesus, being saved from an otherwise horrible future, the cross and eternal life.  That fuzziness isn’t very helpful, though.  What I’ve done below, therefore is work through this question – briefly – and come up with a concise statement that I can remember when I need it.  It’s helped me bring clarity for my own sake.   Even so, I think it’s probably better to have a handful of Biblical definitions up your sleeve.

Why don’t you have a go at answering this question?

Let’s start with the meaning of the word gospel: it is simply “good news”. Why? Three reasons.

  1. Every instance of the words translated as gospel or good news in the NT has at its root the stem εὐαγγελι-. There is no exception at all.
  2. In English Bibles, the verb tends to be translated as good news and the noun as gospel. Whatever, good news and gospel are interchangeable, so gospel simply means good news.
  3. The good news is a message, therefore, not an act or a movement or anything else. The Good News is not Christians being nice, those who bring social action, or being available for pastoral care. Those are good things, and they may be the means by which we share the gospel, but they are not the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News and remains just that – a good message.

Let’s go back to the question, then: what is the gospel itself? Why is the news good? There is no singular answer because the Bible tells us the gospel in many ways. Here are two great examples:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44 NIV11)

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7 NIV11)

For me, with the constant grating and awareness of my own moral failings, these two bits of scripture speak to my heart about the joy of true treasure – Jesus, and the cleansing power of Jesus’ life, poured out to death, so that I can be made righteous before God. There are others, of course. Mark’s gospel is a gospel: that’s the title Mark uses for his biography of Jesus. Freedom from poverty and slavery are good news, because in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaims that he brings this. Isaiah 53 is the gospel, because Philip explained how this pointed to the good news of Jesus to the Ethopian eunuch (Acts 8). The eunuch, in turn believed and was baptised.

It’s worth spending time survey what the Bible says is the gospel -the good news.  What I found was that although the Bible tells the gospel in different ways, it seems that there are five essentials.  I take it these are as follows.

  • The gospel focuses precisely on Jesus Christ, rather than the church or love or God generally.
  • The gospel is about the astonishing and much-needed human restoration that only God is able to bring to deal with the effects of our sin. In my first two examples see how much change comes through the good news: total handover of the old life for the treasured new one; and rebirth and renewal leading to a new eternal life.
  • The gospel is cross-centred. In all four gospels, as Jesus moved through his ministry, there was clearly a sense of his coming hour. That was undeniably the glory of Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection from it.
  • The gospel is God’s declaration, in which we trust or don’t trust. Our lives follow, but our minds must first grasp this declaration – this proposition- and be renewed.
  • Because of those, the gospel can only be held by faith and trust, and not gained by good works. Good news comes from God, following God’s actions alone and cannot be earned; the gospel always comes to us.

The gospel is often much more than this, but never less than this.  And when we share the gospel, this is the basis of the good message that we are to share. If  it’s not this, it’s not the gospel.    So having done some workings, here’s my Gospel summary.

Humans have no right to any eternal life with God our creator, because it is our nature to ignore him and his goodness. Either we do that on purpose or – more often – because we’re just not bothered. In turn he has every right to respond in the same way. In fact he cannot ignore this otherwise there would be no eternal justice. That’s the bad news for us.

However, the divine Son of God, Jesus, became one of us and died painfully on the cross as one of us. He took the blame for our wilful ignorance of God. God did more than that, too. Jesus rose from the dead and promised that if we trust him, we have new eternal life, starting now. That’s the very good news of Jesus, in which and whom we are asked to trust.


10 reasons for not getting on with the J-word

The J-word. It’s the word that makes me sigh and ups my hackles all in one go.  I don’t mean Jesus, by the way.   The j-word is journey.  Here are ten reasons* why I think it’s time to let go of the j-word in Christian circles.

1. Because I’m now over 40.  Not that this is an excuse (although it is, kind of), but I’m beginning to know myself a little bit better.  I’ve never really liked the word journey to describe the Christian’s life, but now I’m absolutely certain I don’t.

2. Because ‘the Christian journey‘ implies that we are travelling** somewhere to find God or spiritual enlightenment.   Surely this is all backside-about-elbow?  Because God finds us, not the other way around, and once he’s found us, if we’re doing any ‘journeying’ (suppress gag reflex) at all they surely it’s with him right at his side?

3. Because it’s a self-help term from La La land, and even there it’s seen as overused.  No doubt someone might interject with John Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress, but for a while now the self-help theorists have purloined it (see here: don’t mention the j-word) which is enough reason alone for dropping it like a hot coal.   In fact it’s now a bit passé, really. Do we really want to use the discards of 80s California to appear to be contemporary Christians?

4. Because it’s an anagram of ‘Run Joey!’, which sounds like some earnest Australian children’s programme.

5. Because I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Carl Trueman seriously dislikes it.  Which is almost reason enough by itself.

6. Because the thing about journeys is that while they can be fun, and often they are a disaster, ultimately they are not ends in themselves, and yet most people seem to talk about them as if being ‘on a journey’ is the main thing about being a Christian.

7. Because it taps into the obsession of the current milieu where process is seen as better than conclusion (another example here).

8. Because it’s just so overused.  Seriously, can’t we think a bit more deeply about the words we use as we live our lives in relationship with Jesus Christ?

9. Because I’m also a Big Cyclist.  And cyclists just don’t really do journeys.   We either ride, or we train, even if we’re not actually training for anything in particular.   (for example “I’m just getting out my cutting edge carbon fibre dollop of two wheeled loveliness to go out on a long journey”.  No, no, and no again.)

10.  Because it’s not very bloke-ish.   Talking about your journey while in the showers after a grubby ride…well you can imagine the response.

*I say reasons, but don’t take it that they are reasonable.
**’Travelling’ is a word that seems not to be used quite as often, but is arguably worse.  I’ve been asked ‘are you travelling with anyone at the moment?’ I was sitting down at the time.  Am I travelling?  Not right now, no.  And if  you mean “are you meeting up with someone regularly to carefully consider (I could use the word reflect but see below) how ministry and life is going”, why not say this?
***forgive me for prattling on but don’t even get me started on the word ‘reflective’.

Shed Evangelism

Recently I was heading back from a town in Kent, where I’d been on a mission with a local church there. I was travelling back with Chris Green, author of this blog and we chatted about evangelism – to men in particular (evangelism to men, not chatting to them). The conclusion I came to – and I can’t remember if Chris agreed or not as I was blathering on so much – was that every man has an inner geek. It might be football, or cycling, or rugby. it might be coffee or Macs or music. Whatever it is, every bloke will have something he is involved with just that little bit too much.

All of this means, therefore successful evangelism to men has to take this on board. The title therefore of my sellout book that will never leave the ideas box is “Shed Evangelism – Redeeming the Inner Geek”.

Talking today to a man who has several inner geeks (there’s something about Oak Hill that both attracts and encourages geekdom) I think we have to start by thinking about how geekyness might be graded, and therefore it might be useful to describe a number of levels. So here’s five levels as a starter for 10:

Geek level: beginnings of obsessiveness, but essential a cheerful enthusiast. Has that slightly smug look towards anyone who isn’t serious about the subject, but is willing to encourage others to join him in his favourite pursuit.

Wonk level: Has sufficient normalness that guilt pangs are all part of the joyful experience. The object of his obsessiveness Is occupying a reserved space in his budget. Never buys everything from just one shop. Will encourage others but only if they show signs of proper seriousness; does not smile when he does his thing.

Nerd level: is now having to buy bits for his obsession on eBay and in parts, so that the cost of buying the full bike/coffee machine/hi fi is not obvious to wife/girlfriend etc. Subscribes to several websites and magazines on the matter. Will spend at least three weeks researching any purchase and still be unhappy with it. Still slightly open and joyful about the object of his nerdiness though.

Obsessive level: guilt levels fluctuate, but then the pleasure from the object of his obsessiveness soon overrides any hint of such a thing. Has had some serious relationships but then the potential other half soon realised where his affections really lay and buzzed off sharpish. Annual holiday is always orientated towards his obsession.

Über-nerd level: does not want anyone else getting into his thing. Likes it to be very exclusive. Apart from money for existence all spare cash is focused on his thing. No relationship with anyone else ever considered apart from those who share his unreserved obsessive focus. The stroking and cleaning of his bike/coffee machine/ hi fi is slightly disconcerting. To be honest he’s difficult to get on with.

To use the terms, Just put use the word describing the appropriate level after the subject. So a coffee wonk is someone who won’t touch instant coffee but is happy with a cafetiere, but a coffee über-nerd is someone who roasts and grinds their own coffee by hand and makes every cup with a thermometer and scales in a darkened room. That sort of thing.

Hmmm…this might have legs.

Christmas is not for slacking…

As I headed off to our church Carol service last night I bumped into one of my student colleagues.  I said “Only three Christmases until we’re knee deep ourselves” or something along those lines.  In other words we have three years as student ministers to enjoy Christmas before it becomes a big work slog thing.

When I got to the service I realised I was being a complete numpty.  Of course Christmas services are hard work for Church ministers. Good stuff always is.  And there at the Carol service was a whole church celebrating the coming of the Lord; and not just members of the church family, but neighbours and friends too.  Those who rarely cross a church threshold, but clearly enjoyed it.  This ought to be what makes a minister tick: preaching the word to the faithful and the visitors.

It’s not three years until it becomes a big work slog thing at all.  It’s three years until I can get truly stuck in, and there’s no time like the present to be practising.    These three years will be best used to try and reduce the numpty factor.

Back to London…

We (that is me, my increasingly amazing wife, and our three girls: the Dribbler, the Snoozler and the Space Cadet) have arrived back in North London to start studying at Oak Hill. I told my eldest girl six years ago- when we moved to Sheffield from North London- that we wouldn’t move again. A Dad’s rash promise number 243. It’s good to be back though. Hopefully there will be a few more moments to blog. Looking forward to dedicating more time to studying His word too.

I got my bike out today and had a quick 20 mile spin around Potters Bar, barely breaking sweat. Six years of Peak District hills has been good for me (apart from the extra 15kg of girth) – I must have been a right old wuss back then!

It matters to God….

A little bit of revelation hit today.  In my pensions life I’ve been speaking to a colleague about the compromise that one of our clients has to make in choosing a third party administrator.  The client has to settle for less in areas that matter less in order to gain more in others that matter more.

Compromise with God is not the same, but too often I try to do it the same way.  As I contemplated this at lunchtime today, it gave me a new insight into why David said to God “against you, and you alone have I sinned”  in Psalm 51.  You see, David loved God more than anyone else, and knew that he’d failed God first.  Yes, Bathsheba, Uriah and Zadok were all hurt dreadfully, but  God mattered to David, and David knew his sin mattered to God.

So when I say about something that I do (such as genuinely lusting after the latest carbon Pinarello): “it doesn’t really matter to God that I do this -it’s not hurting anyone, and there’s more important things to be worrying about”, I am deeply wrong, and it betrays all sorts of flaws:

  • It shows that I think and act as if God’s plan for my life doesn’t matter
  • It shows that my priorities are higher than God’s are in my life
  • It shows that I’m slapdash with his Word, even though He lovingly crafted it for me and others in order to tell us about himself.

It rightly pulls me up to look at my motivation.  It rightly tells me that when God says something in his Word, I don’t have the right to compromise on it.  But there’s an extraordinary joy in recognising all of this: how can God, against whom I wrong so often, and so obviously show him that I matter more than He does, still bring me so much care, joy and providence?  I don’t know why God does this for me, but He does, and I am so very thankful.