What is the gospel? Defining the gospel can become an evangelical shibboleth. The password whispered in the dark that separates friend from foe. Some Christians try to dodge the dilemma by eschewing the need for a definition. Yet, having no gospel definition ignores the fact that the Bible is about something, it has a central message. The four Jesus-biographies, the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are our first clue. It is a proclamation about Jesus. But how specific should we be, how much of Scripture should be captured by our definition? Carson crams as much as he can into his paragraph-long definition of gospel:

The gospel is the good news that in Christ, and especially in his death and resurrection, God has taken decisive action to save his people from their sins, such that by Jesus’s death sin is cancelled, the judicial wrath of God is averted, believers receive what Christ merited while he receives what we sinners merited, the devil is defeated, and God displays his incalculable love, pouring out his Spirit upon us so as to convict us, regenerate us, and transform us, in anticipation of the consummation still to come.[1]D.A. Carson, ‘What are Gospel issues’, Themelios 39:2 July 2014

Carson’s worried that a shorter definition doesn’t capture what is important. The difficulty however, is that his definition includes: a sketch of Jesus’ story, a nod to redemptive history, two atonement metaphors, several of the doctrines of grace and a nod the grand meta-narrative. It’s assembled with Carson’s typical technical brilliance and is Biblically true, but completely unwieldy as a definition. It also runs the risk of having to defend the inclusion of some data and the exclusion of other data.  Our ‘transformation’ is mentioned but not the ‘creation of the world’, and so on and so forth.

I think the solution is to concede that God provides five gospel metaphors and that each is useful, and that each should be learnt and shared. Just like we shouldn’t pitch atonement metaphors against each other, we equally shouldn’t just choose a metaphor we like. Rather, we should realise that God in his wisdom communicates through a variety of human agents to a variety of people. The metaphors are arrayed roughly along a continuum of objectivity through to subjectivity. In other words, from how God sees things through to how we experience things.

  1. Chapters of reality
  2. Who God is and how he saves
  3. The story of Jesus
  4. News
  5. Belonging

The four chapters of reality, are the classic Reformed chapters of redemptive history: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.  These chapters capture the big-picture narrative that NT Wright has rekindled Evangelical interest in. Slightly more personal, but still objective is the metaphor of ‘Who God is and how he saves’, (which also doubles as a shorthand for the Trinity). Scripture is revelation from God about the self-communication of God in Jesus. It’s a more subjective definition because it involves salvation, which is where we come into the story.

Next, the story of Jesus; could be sketched out as the conception, birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and anticipated return of the Messiah. As a definition, retelling the key events of Jesus’ story is an objective reality that elicits a personal reaction. (CS Lewis’ version of this metaphor was captured by his apologetic trilemma: “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”) More subjective still is news about Jesus: ‘the bad news, a saviour and the good news.’ Bad news requires value judgements, a saviour implies we need rescuing and good news means that even though things aren’t as they should be, they can be if trust the rescuer. Lastly and most subjective of all, is belonging to Jesus, ‘Union with Christ’. Following, trusting and loving Jesus is intimately personal.

My five Gospel metaphors require three caveats. The need for scrutinising gospel definitions isn’t removed, my taxonomy of five metaphors isn’t exhaustive and while the application of the gospel is universal, a definition should be narrow. Firstly, metaphors are figures of speech or images which are used to represent something else. The representation should be both accurate and coherent. Whilst, there isn’t a single orthodox/evangelical gospel definition, not every gospel definition accurately captures the essential truths of Scripture. We should be desiring scrutiny without shibboleths.  Secondly my taxonomy is not exhaustive. I’ve suggested five metaphors, but your organisation of gospel definitions could be shaped along a continuum of Biblical through to Systematic theology; narrative, belonging to the covenant, belonging to Jesus and salvation. Finally, our gospel definitions should be narrower than Scripture, even though they will be applicable to all of faith and life. The Gospel is not an index of doctrine or another word for the entire Bible. The gospel is a summary of what’s important, the kerygma of faith. However the scope of application is vast, because what’s important will shape everything.

References   [ + ]

1.D.A. Carson, ‘What are Gospel issues’, Themelios 39:2 July 2014