Blake Newsom is Dean of Chapel, Assistant Professor of Expository Preaching, and Director of Mentoring for Pastoral Ministries at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“What is the gospel?” The question seemed simple enough, so without hesitation I responded in a relatively straightforward and unguarded manner by quoting 1 Cor 15:1–5,
Now, brothers, I want to clarify for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you— unless you believed to no purpose. For I passed on to you as most important what I also received:
that Christ dies for our sins
according to the Scriptures,
that He was buried,
that He was raised on the third day
according to the Scriptures,
and that He appeared to Cephas,
then to the Twelve.
I followed up the quotation by highlighting the central message located within those verses: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, for the sins of the world. After answering, I looked up, surveyed the pastor search committee that had lobbed the softball of a question (or so I thought), felt confident about my response to their opening question, and nonverbally communicated, “Next question, please.”
“That’s not the gospel!” To say that I was stunned to hear those words rifling in response from one of the pastor search committee members would be a dramatic understatement. My bewilderment derived from two sources. First, to my knowledge, search committees do not typically start arguments with prospective staff members, though differing views might exist. So, I was somewhat surprised to have the answer to my first question so passionately challenged by a member of the search team. Second, and most alarming, was the reason for the glaring indictment leveled at me. I do not think that I am above having one of my statements challenged. But in this instance, I could not understand the reason for such a protest. Because I had completed two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from a respected seminary, having my understanding of the gospel challenged was a bit confusing. Did I not understand the gospel? Was I confused as to the most basic and fundamental of Christian teachings? My mind raced to understand how I could have answered incorrectly. To complicate matters further, the demurring committee member proceeded to enlighten me with the correct definition of the gospel. As the minutes and points of his explanation ticked away, I rehashed my original answer to determine the source of our disagreement over such a critical matter.
Interestingly, my uncomfortable conversation in a pastor search committee interview is symptomatic of a more widespread issue within evangelical Christianity. We are having conversations and disagreements as to the message and content of the gospel, and these divergent views seem to be leading to contentious discussions about the foundation of our belief system. Far worse, confusion on the message and content of the gospel will cause significant issues among our churches, including creating ministers and congregations who are apathetic toward evangelism.
Numerous voices have engaged recently in discussing this crucial doctrine. This article is my attempt to contribute to the discussion. I am not joining the conversation because I think I can articulate a better, deeper, or more unifying position than has been put forward. Rather, I am engaging simply to highlight a different approach. My intention in this article is to present a simple approach to understanding the core content of the gospel. We will begin by addressing some common misconceptions concerning the nature and content of the gospel.
Three Misconceptions about the Gospel
As a seminary professor, I have been exposed to several trendy views on the gospel from written and oral sources, some of which seem to be inadequate views that come with some serious problems. In identifying these views, my goal is not to stoke the fires of contentiousness, but to highlight some errant ideas about the gospel. To be clear, the views critiqued are all located within the realm of the broad, Christian tradition. My aim is to spotlight views of the gospel that are insufficient and problematic. I will begin by stating my response to three inadequate views.
Formal Evangelism Presentations are not the Gospel
First, formal evangelism presentations are not the gospel. In recent decades, a number of excellent (and some lower-quality) resources have been published for the purpose of helping believers present the gospel so that the lost might be saved. I am grateful for formal evangelism presentations because they encourage, inspire, and instruct people in evangelism, a practice that is lacking among the vast majority of believers. We should applaud efforts to motivate and mobilize believers to engage in evangelism, and I have used and taught several formal evangelism presentations. Most of the methods that have been published through the years are based on and organized around the Scripture, and God has saved countless individuals through formal evangelism presentations. However, an evangelism presentation, regardless of its high quality, should not be mistaken for the gospel. One does not find “EE,” “Way of the Master,” “The Four Spiritual Laws,” “FAITH,” “The Net,” “PRAY,” or other similar outlines explicitly stated in the Bible. I have used, taught, and affirm all of those presentations as based on and faithful to Scripture. The problem is not that they are unbiblical; the problem is they are not in and of themselves the gospel. Stated another way, evangelism presentations should not be considered synonymous with the gospel. Rather, they are merely tools to help a person explain the message of the gospel to someone who is lost. Those who have developed and produced the presentations would affirm that they have published a method of presenting the gospel. It is inaccurate to consider any evangelism presentation to be the gospel.
Important Christian Doctrines are not the Gospel
Second, important Christian doctrines are not the gospel. Do not misinterpret this statement to say that the gospel is not an important Christian doctrine. The gospel is critically important and foundational. However, none of the important Christian doctrines should be regarded as synonymous with the gospel. N. T. Wright appropriately states,
I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.
While this writer and Wright would not agree completely as to the nature and extent of the core content of the gospel, I agree that many people are conflating important Christian doctrines with the gospel.
Of concern to this writer is that the gospel has become a buzzword in Evangelicalism. As is often the case with buzzwords, they lose their core identity and meaning due to their overuse in books, conversations, and retweets of pithy statements. The word gospel has become a catch-all term that captures attention. Since every Christian theme or doctrine seems related and attached to the gospel, every Christian theme or doctrine is mistakenly regarded as synonymous with the gospel. Consequently, all of the important doctrines in Christianity become the gospel, including (but not limited to) creation, theology proper, Scripture, the Trinity, prayer, angels and demons, anthropology, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Again, do not misunderstand my claim. The gospel is inextricably linked to all elements, themes, and doctrines of Christianity; however, all elements, themes, and doctrines of Christianity are not the gospel and should not be posited as synonymous with the gospel. Holding such a view complicates a legitimate understanding of the gospel. If everything is the gospel, then nothing is the gospel.
If Scripture, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, or any other doctrine is synonymous with the gospel, then why the need to delineate the categories at all? Why is there any need to nuance the various doctrines if they are equivalent? Clearly, the terms and categories are not the same. While Scripture contains the gospel, Scripture is not the gospel. While soteriology includes and is connected to the gospel, soteriology is not concerned only with the gospel but also with other issues pertaining to salvation.
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Scripture quotations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. The formatting of these verses follows the English translation.
N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 41.