It’s easy to throw around the word “gospel.” I like to explain that when I use the word “gospel,” I’m referring to that which I believe is the central Christian message. If others are also using the word to refer to what they see as the central Christian message, it’s little surprise that the word can be used with a variety of meanings. For there are numerous proposals as to what constitutes the central Christian message.
The definition of the gospel that I’ve seen most widely used is that given by J.I. Packer: “God saves sinners.” Simple and to the point. Many respond that this is too simple. They say that the gospel is also about God remaking and renewing the world. Or that the gospel is about becoming a part of God’s family, the church. But I think it’s extremely important to make distinctions between the gospel and the results of the gospel.
With this in mind, here are four areas that, when perceived as results of the gospel, are a great and necessary benefit to the Christian, but when mistaken for the gospel, greatly weaken the Christian message.
- Renewal of the world, social justice: That God wants to bring the peace, justice, and goodness of his kingdom to this earth, and that he wants us to be a part of this movement, has been a popular, and valuable, teaching as of late. Yet the power of the gospel is greatly diminished when “God saves sinners” is exchanged for “God is renewing the world. Come and join Him.” One of the consequences of this exchange is that our vertical need of rightness with God is replaced by important, but secondary, horizontal needs. “If only we spread peace, if only we put an end to war, if only we eliminate greed, then…” Not only does this put too much trust in human power and wisdom, but it neglects the means by which God brings about renewal. The message of the cross of Christ gives identity and motivation to those pushing forth God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom isn’t characterized merely by healed social structures, but also by rightly directed worship. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, is the central focus of the picture we are given of the completely renewed creation (Rev. 21-22).
- Personal moral living: “God saves sinners” is a radically different message than “Be a good person,” and there is no end to the need for this clarification. Equally important to recognize is that the central Christian message doesn’t lose its significance once one is saved. The gospel message of God saving sinners isn’t just for the unconverted. Christians, too, need daily to rest in the identity-altering news that salvation is a work of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
- Charismatic experiences: I’m all for powerful encounters with God and expecting God to work in miraculous ways. But the temptation for those of the charismatic bent is to quickly move past “God saves sinners” and become more interested in subsequent experiences of God. The core message that is often either articulated or at least implied is, “Come and live a supernatural life” or “Experience greater power in your life,” both of which are wonderful results of the gospel, but they are not the central Christian message. The power of God is seen most clearly in the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18, Rom. 1:16). We ought to never tire of meditating on and speaking of the wonder of this gospel that even angels long to look in to (1 Pet. 1:12).
- Community life: This is probably the area that I feel the most temptation to put forth as the gospel. Through the cross, God calls believers into a body or family. God has ordained that both Christian growth and witness depend on the church community. Those of us in the West don’t really get this. We are conditioned to see the individual as supreme, not the community. As a church planter, I want to push back hard against this Western idolization of the individual. I want to show how living life together is absolutely essential to Christian faith. Yet for all that Christian fellowship has to offer, “Give yourself to community and experience growth” is not the gospel message. While we need to see how we our intricately connected to other believers in our lives, we ultimately need to see that our identity comes from Christ. Christian community that loses this vertical focus becomes idolatrous and cultish. Yet Christian community that centers on the message that God saves sinners is a powerful force for change both inside and outside the church.