Talking about the Gospel is all the rage these days.

Everyone wants to know precisely how big it should be–does it include working for justice (which is invariably social justice), or not?

With that in mind, I decided to put down my own definition, just for kicks. 

The gospel is the good news that God’s plan to establish a people for himself has not been thwarted by sin, but that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through the merciful atonement that his son Jesus Christ offered on the cross on our behalf, and that our restoration is applied to us through the power of His Holy Spirit.

Of course, that’s a way of putting it that might have so many ambiguities that it dissatisfies everyone.  I’m okay with that.

Many of the debates about the content of the Gospel rest are trying to navigate the relationship between the individual and the social, and ultimately end up relying a false bifurcation between them–which I see lots of good reasons to reject.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. Sounds sort of like Eph. 1:3-14 to me!!
    Thanks for the “tip-of-the-iceberg” ambiguity. There’s lots to discover in your draft definition.

    Thank you!
    Jim Lowery
    (Richmond, VA)

    Reply

  2. Well, I don’t like the social/individual divide either, but what about the rest of creation? It seems like your definition doesn’t speak to that at all. But what about Paul’s words in Colossians 1 or Romahs 8? That suggests that more is being restored than just people. I like the way one of the profs at Covenant puts it, “the scope of the Gospel is as broad as the scope of creation.” In other words, if it’s affected by the fall, it’s affected by the Gospel.

    So perhaps the issue isn’t a question of individual/social, but of a purely human redemption or of cosmic redemption (which obviously includes humanity).

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  3. Jake,

    Believe me, you’ll hear no complaints from me about the restoration of all creation. I’m all for it.

    But I think that we have to specify HOW things get restored. I mean, we all die (physically) before we experience the resurrection of the body. Does a similar process occur to the cosmos? If so, are dispensationalists kind of right about their emphasis on discontinuity?

    Either way, there might be a distinction in terms of the restoration at work–a distinction that goes straight to the heart of the uniqueness of humans within all creation because of the Incarnation (“things into which angels long to look”).

    And that’s where my line about being “adopted as sons and daughters” is so crucial.” That to say that I’m locating the knowledge of God at the heart of the Gospel (with good Biblical support for this, I think). That’s not a rejection of the restoration of the whole cosmos, but rather a point that the Gospel is good news for humans. The stones and trees may sing praises to God, but they aren’t adopted into his inner life like we are.

    I think I’m sympathetic to the covenant prof’s line, but not convinced that the means at work in the restoration of all things are the same. Humans might get the gospel–creation might get being reshaped by humans who have the gospel. : )

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

    1. Like Matt, I’ve observed that “talking about the Gospel is all the rage these days.” But I’m afraid much of the talk is reducible to formulas that are centered on the individual rather than the church: “the Gospel according to ____________” (fill in the name of the person). Obviously, there shouldn’t be a Gospel according to Matt Anderson, Jake Meador, or Christopher Benson. Instead, there should be the Gospel according to Scripture as interpreted through the Church and Tradition. By “Tradition” I mean both the Great Tradition (shared by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) and the plurality of traditions (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Wesleyan, etc.). Because I live in the Reformed room off the hallway of “mere Christianity,” I turn to the confessions for a robust formulation of the Gospel, such as The Belgic Confession (Articles 14-24), The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapters 6-18), and The Heidelberg Catechism (Parts 1-2). The confessions relieve the individual of having to come up with the Gospel for himself or herself, bringing the joy of ecclesial consensus.

      I agree with Matt that we should reject any bifurcation between the individual and the social. I also agree with Jake that we should reject any bifurcation between the human and the cosmos. That is why Jake rightly points us toward Romans chapter 8, where all these dimensions are connected.

      Reply

  4. “I agree with Matt that we should reject any bifurcation between the individual and the social. I also agree with Jake that we should reject any bifurcation between the human and the cosmos. That is why Jake rightly points us toward Romans chapter 8, where all these dimensions are connected.”

    Again, “connected” doesn’t necessarily entail connected in the same way. I might be connected to my friends and church in a very different way than I’m connected to the trees. Unless we specify how we’re connected, we’re missing some of what Paul is up to, I think.

    matt

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  5. Matt: The aforementioned confessions specify how the human and cosmic dimensions of the Gospel are connected. Again, it should be clear that I am pressing for confessional articulations of the Gospel rather than individual articulations. With all due respect, what Matt Anderson says has less weight for me than what the Belgic Confession says. What confessions help you make sense of the Gospel? This inquiry relates to the unanswered questions that I posed to you yesterday on the post, “Catholic Evangelicals and the Future of a Movement.”

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  6. “With all due respect, what Matt Anderson says has less weight for me than what the Belgic Confession says.”

    Perhaps you would be best to go read more of it, then, and less of what I have to say. : )

    Seriously, I don’t put what I have to say on the same level as those confessions. I wasn’t trying to establish “the Gospel according to Matt Anderson.” I was simply trying to articulate my understanding of the Gospel, which may or may not be the Gospel. You seem to be addressing this with a level of seriousness that I am not. The joy of blogging (or, at least, this blog) is that I get to speak not authoritatively, but openly about what I’m thinking at any given moment. Think more Platonic dialogs, and less Westminster Divines.

    Which is to say, everything you wrote about locating the gospel in a confessional context might be true–but it doesn’t tell me how *you* understand the Gospel, or at least minimizes the importance of attempting to articulate it in our own words. I’m generally persuaded that actually putting something in your own words is both a sign of understanding and a part of coming around to it…which is why I’m less inclined to spend my time responding to articles that you refer to. I like comments on blogs mostly because I get to interact with real people–simply going at it with authorities takes some of the joy away of that (Socratic) process. Additionally, there’s something about the creative process of moving words around that opens up new avenues of thought, reflection, etc, and that shows us precisely what we don’t actually understand.

    So I guess we approach this from a very different standpoint. I don’t treat what I’m doing here as anything close to the level of creating a catechism, even though I think that’s a very worthwhile thing for us as individuals to do. I’m trying to deepen my own understanding of the Gospel, and the understanding of my readers, most of whom know not to take me very seriously at all.

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

  7. I’ve been rereading Dallas Willard’s “The Divine Conspiracy” this summer, and I think he has a slightly different take on things that I’ve started to embrace more. In the beginning of his book (fortunately he also quotes it on his site) he says:

    “This book, then, presents discipleship to Jesus as the very heart of the gospel. The eternal life that begins with confidence in Jesus is a life in His present kingdom, now on earth and available to all. So the message of and about him is specifically a gospel for our life now, not just for dying. It is about living now as his apprentice in kingdom living, not just as a consumer of his merits. Our future, however far we look, is a natural extension of the faith by which we live now and the life in which we now participate.”

    The key elements I take away from this that all too often Christians are looking to the future restoration of heaven on earth, or however you want to resolve Revelation, and are not focused on the restoration now that Jesus provides by becoming his disciple. There is life to be had here and now, as we continuously become more and more like Christ, and this restoration is available to all (you should read his section on the Beatitudes). This discipleship becomes far more than a “doctrine of sin management”, which is heavily frowns upon.

    I guess I’ve pretty much quoted the same thing as you, and then mungled up things thoroughly with my inadequate analysis (gotta get me back to some Torrey session or something 8^D) but Willard’s book has really been opeining my eyes this summer and I wanted to pass his thoughts along to add to the conversation.

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  8. Matt: I know you’re not elevating what you have to say “on the same level as those confessions.” I know you weren’t trying to establish “the Gospel according to Matt Anderson.” But as long as we’re conversing openly, I wanted to chime in and say that my “exit strategy” to the individual-oriented Gospel talk is to rest in and reason from the church-oriented confessions of the Reformed tradition. How do I understand the Gospel? The aforementioned prepositions are all-important to me: “in” and “from,” not “out” and “beyond.” Do the confessions hijack my understanding of the Gospel? Not at all. They form my understanding of the Gospel much better than if I act as my own magisterium. In my movement from Evangelicalism to the Reformed/Anglican traditions, I’ve realized the importance of submission. When I submit to the confessions, I’m not constrained but rather released to think “in” and “from.” This reminds me of what Robert Frost said about poets who try to write poetry without form: it’s bondage. The freedom is within forms.

    This comment, I hope, allows you to hear more of me––and maybe, just maybe, it opens “up new avenues of thought, reflection, etc., and shows us precisely what we don’t actually understand.”

    I try to respond to all of your questions, although you might find my answering unsatisfying. ;-) So, I think it’s fair to ask: Which confessions form your understanding of the Gospel? This is another way of asking: Which room(s) do you inhabit?

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  9. Matt:

    One further note. While the confessions I mentioned specify the human-cosmic connection, I tried to specify the connection in my post, “Developing an Ecological Orientation through the Narrative Imagination.” If you want to hear what I have to say rather than what the confessions have to say, here’s a relevant excerpt:

    When the passage from O Pioneers! is read in concert with this passage from the Book of Romans, we discover something very important: the nexus between creation (cosmos), creature (human animal and non-human animal), and Creator. Too often Christians focus on the nexus between creature and Creator, neglecting creation. Unpacking Paul’s logic, we can see our redemptive narrative in nature’s mirror. Just as creation was “subjected to futility,” our flesh was in bondage to the “law of sin” (7:21-25). Just as creation will be liberated, our bodies will be resurrected. At the center of this redemptive narrative is the Creator, who summons us to wait patiently for the eschatological climax, similar to the Nebraskan farmer who waits patiently for her crops to yield a harvest. The challenge, I propose, is to feel that our hearts are hiding down in creation, where the future is stirring.

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  10. Christopher,

    There’s a presumption in your comments that anyone who does not subscribe to a particular confession is not “submitting” and has set up their own “magesterium.” That is not an assumption I share.

    Additionally, I think we’re talking past each other–I might subscribe to a particular confession, but still engage in the sort of exercise I did above. So while I appreciate your concerns, they seem quite misplaced. To make the point clearer, I might study and take in all the confessions you named, and still devote myself to synthesizing them in the way I did above.

    Which is to say, I don’t accept your conflation of the confessions that form our thinking and the “rooms that we inhabit.” I can, and have been, shaped by some of the Reformed confessions (particularly Heidelberg, which I think is the best) without worshipping in the Reformed room. They are not incompatible at all to me.

    As for the relationship between creation and humans, again, what’s the force of the “just as” in your understanding? Does that mean that creation must undergo a physical death before the resurrection comes, just as humans do?

    It’s one thing to say that there’s a link between humans and creation, and that the gospel encompasses both. It’s another to say that the gospel addresses both in the same way, and that both experience redemption/resurrection in the same way.

    Best,

    matt

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  11. Matt: Your last comment clarified our respective approaches. I am trying to understand the Gospel from the Reformed room, submitting to the confessions because, in the words of Michael Horton, “I for one believe that these confessions bear the clearest and soundest witness to our common faith.” You are trying to understand the Gospel from the hallway, synthesizing creeds from various rooms. Both exercises are helpful and needful, as we see in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he articulates the Gospel from the hallway while being formed by the Anglican room. Horton’s warning is worth heeding for all of us: “So while the danger on more confessional sides is to ignore C.S. Lewis’ invitation to ‘mere Christianity,’ the opposite danger is toward a shallowness that loiters in the hallway and never lives in any room.”

    You asked: “As for the relationship between creation and humans, again, what’s the force of the ‘just as’ in your understanding? Does that mean that creation must undergo a physical death before the resurrection comes, just as humans do?” The force is both spiritual and symbolic. By saying we can see our redemptive narrative in nature’s mirror, I mean that the fall and redemption happen to both but not “in the same way.”

    Thanks for sticking with the conversation. I hope your weekend is restful, my friend. And keep up the good work at Mere O.

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  12. Richard Worden Wilson August 8, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Matt,
    I definitely appreciate your summary of the Gospel, and think I resonate with your seemingly circumspect relationship to Reformed confessions. May I presume you are wanting to understand the Gospel from “the Apostles'” room, so to speak?

    I also appreciated your concluding comments in “New Life in Ancient Sources” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/New-Life-in-Ancient-Sources.html

    “The recovery of tradition, however, is just another means toward the goal of a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ, who is the end of history and the foundation of our faith.” and “Lest the emphasis on recovering church tradition become another “gigantic conspiracy of misdirection,” evangelicals must remember and must appropriate tradition selectively in light of the truth, so that the ultimate purpose of our liturgies and calendars and embodied practices is to plunge more deeply into “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus,” and thus “gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3:8).”

    How do you think we should relate the classic creeds of “orthodoxy” to the Apostolic teaching space through which we find God in and through Christ? Perhaps there is a need to more clearly qualify and refine our approach to truth through tradition with an even greater emphasis first on biblical tradition, lest the Christ we come to know is filtered predominantly through a renewed appropriation of tradition as you suggest. Why do you think, or do you think, so many Evangelicals are so reticent to fully commit to simple biblical tradition, and seem so eager to embrace creedal Christianity?

    All the best to all in Christ,
    Richard

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  13. Christopher,

    “So while the danger on more confessional sides is to ignore C.S. Lewis’ invitation to ‘mere Christianity,’ the opposite danger is toward a shallowness that loiters in the hallway and never lives in any room.””

    I agree with that assessment. I think we’ve reached common ground! : )

    “The force is both spiritual and symbolic. By saying we can see our redemptive narrative in nature’s mirror, I mean that the fall and redemption happen to both but not “in the same way.””

    Yah, that’s a helpful clarification. I agree that the “fall/redemption” narrative plays out cosmologically, but I’m also not exactly sure how to articulate the differences. One thing that is lurking in the back of my mind is the fight over the “new creation” language in Paul. I’m pretty firmly convinced that he deploys it only anthropologically. I work that out in my senior thesis on the topic, though, which is somewhere in our archives. : )

    matt

    Reply

  14. Richard,

    “May I presume you are wanting to understand the Gospel from “the Apostles’” room, so to speak?”

    Yup, that’s about it. And thanks for dropping by from the Patheos piece. We love having new blood around here. : )

    “How do you think we should relate the classic creeds of “orthodoxy” to the Apostolic teaching space through which we find God in and through Christ? Perhaps there is a need to more clearly qualify and refine our approach to truth through tradition with an even greater emphasis first on biblical tradition, lest the Christ we come to know is filtered predominantly through a renewed appropriation of tradition as you suggest. Why do you think, or do you think, so many Evangelicals are so reticent to fully commit to simple biblical tradition, and seem so eager to embrace creedal Christianity?”

    I think the question about the relationship between Scripture and tradition is just about the biggest and hardest question we face.

    But when you say “biblical tradition,” do you mean Scripture itself, or those traditions that are contained within and sanctioned by Scripture (like communion and baptism)? I have in both directions, but want to make sure I’m responding to the right question.

    matt

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  15. Richard Worden Wilson August 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Matt,
    ‘But when you say “biblical tradition,” do you mean Scripture itself, or those traditions that are contained within and sanctioned by Scripture (like communion and baptism)? I have in both directions, but want to make sure I’m responding to the right question.’

    I think that if our focus is on “the Apostles’ teaching,” inclusive of the whole received canon, then their practices of baptism and supper would be included, so it wouldn’t be an “either-or” issue for me.

    Back to the starting point for this discussion (now most likely played out, but….): My own inclination regarding summaries of the Gospel is to include some reference to God’s will in referring to being God’s people, to illuminate what it means to be God’s people. You said:

    “The gospel is the good news that God’s plan to establish a people for himself has not been thwarted by sin, but that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through the merciful atonement that his son Jesus Christ offered on the cross on our behalf, and that our restoration is applied to us through the power of His Holy Spirit.”

    While I appreciate that redemption/restoration/recreation is applied to or affects people in a manner different from the rest of the created order (as you’ve noted), it is appropriate and necessary to at least imply that an inherent part of the Gospel is that God’s people are expected to apply His will in their lived relationships. This will directly transform the rest of creation. Perhaps the most general and indirect, yet binding aspect of the Apostles’ teachings that will impact our interaction with creation, is that of love for other people. Any delineation of the Gospel of Jesus ought to include a call to obey Jesus, to do God’s will; otherwise the inaugural call to “Repent and believe the Good News,” the transformational “take up your cross and follow me,” and the consummation in “not my will by yours,” is completely lost, delayed, or least obscured.

    All the best to all in Christ, Richard

    Reply

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