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What is the Gospel?

2010 May 16
by Julie Clawson

Last week at her blog Rachel Held Evans proposed the question “What is the Gospel?” She received some interesting responses, demonstrating that this really isn’t a straightforward question. She asked a few of us to write down how we would answer that question so she could share our responses at her site as well. As soon as she addressed that question to me, I immediately started singing to myself that old CEF 5-Day Club standard “G-O-S-P-E-L Spells Gospel.” The lyrics in the song define the gospel as – “Jesus died for sinful men, but he arose and lives again. One day he’s coming for those who’ve trusted in him, coming to take us to heaven.” That answer to “what is the gospel?” is so ingrained in me that it is difficult to not just give it as my default answer – “What is the good news? That Jesus died on the cross for my sins.”

When I was 3 that answer was sufficient for me and so I said a prayer to invite Jesus into my heart. The good news as it were was all about me – making sure I got to go to heaven when I died. I didn’t stop to ask what Jesus meant about preaching the gospel of the kingdom, or what it meant when he said he had come to preach the gospel to the poor, or even what it meant to be a disciple and follow the disciplines Jesus demands of his own. I didn’t wonder why I was only taught the gospel about Jesus, and not the gospel of Jesus. I knew my response to “what is the gospel?” and so I didn’t even think to ask those questions for a long time.

Honestly, what really pushed me to start to see the gospel as being about more than just me was how the etymology of the word captured my attention. Wikipedia gives a brief history of the term as follows –

Good News is the English translation of the Koine Greek ευαγγέλιον (euangelion) (eu “good” + angelion “message”). The Greek term was Latinized as evangelium, and translated into Latin as bona annuntiatio. In Old English, it was translated as gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”). The Old English term was retained as gospel in Middle English Bible translations and hence remains in use also in Modern English.

I loved the dual meaning the term gōdspel – or good spell – evokes in modern English. As a major sci-fi/fantasy/mythology geek, I conjured up images of deep magic working to heal a broken world. The darkness that has crept into our world being fought by the good spells of the power of light.

But this play on words was more than just an interesting literary image for me; it pushed me to start thinking through what it really meant for all things to be reconciled to God. Like a good spell intended to transform the world and push back the darkness, the good news of Christ reaches further than I had ever imagined. The scriptures speak of God so loving the whole world that he sent his son Jesus. We also read of Jesus proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom where the oppressed are set free, the blind given sight, and the brokenhearted healed. The gospel of Jesus challenges believers to pray that God’s Kingdom will be manifest on earth as in heaven, that every person has their daily bread, and that all debts are forgiven. In these inclusive passages I began to see that the gospel as preached in scripture was far bigger than a formula that ensured I went to heaven when I died. Jesus was serious about bringing actual good news to all, and boldly proclaimed that in him this reconciliation of all things had begun. Broken relationships could be healed – shattered relationships within families, amongst nations, amidst creation, and between us and God could be finally be made right. This isn’t just good news for someday in heaven, for, as Jesus proclaimed, in him the prophesies of the poor finding hope, the oppressed being set free, and the blind finding sight are already fulfilled. Those who suffer from oppression and poverty have tangible hope here and now. The good spell has been cast, the deep magic is as work, and the light is pushing back the darkness as Christ reconciles all things to himself.

The gospel, the good news, is about so much more than an economic transaction where I get a ticket to heaven in exchange for intellectually assenting to an idea about Jesus. The gospel is good news for the world. It is about God loving the world enough to send his son and establish his Kingdom. It is the gospel of Jesus, the new way of being that he preached. This good news isn’t just something we believe in or talk about, but something we are called to celebrate and embrace. If it is truly good news we will joyfully accept the challenge to follow in the disciplines of Christ – being his hands and feet working to heal all shattered relationships through his reconciling power. We live out the good news to the world.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010

    Thank you Julie. You put into words what I think.

  2. May 17, 2010

    Really wonderful use of imagery here, bringing home the multilayering of “faith” as so much more than belief (as Marcus Borg suggests): “Like a good spell intended to transform the world and push back the darkness, the good news of Christ reaches further than I had ever imagined. The scriptures speak of God so loving the whole world that he sent his son Jesus. We also read of Jesus proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom where the oppressed are set free, the blind given sight, and the brokenhearted healed. The gospel of Jesus challenges believers to pray that God’s Kingdom will be manifest on earth as in heaven, that every person has their daily bread, and that all debts are forgiven. In these inclusive passages I began to see that the gospel as preached in scripture was far bigger than a formula that ensured I went to heaven when I died. Jesus was serious about bringing actual good news to all, and boldly proclaimed that in him this reconciliation of all things had begun. Broken relationships could be healed – shattered relationships within families, amongst nations, amidst creation, and between us and God could be finally be made right. This isn’t just good news for someday in heaven, for, as Jesus proclaimed, in him the prophesies of the poor finding hope, the oppressed being set free, and the blind finding sight are already fulfilled. Those who suffer from oppression and poverty have tangible hope here and now. The good spell has been cast, the deep magic is as work, and the light is pushing back the darkness as Christ reconciles all things to himself.”

  3. May 18, 2010

    I often ponder this question. My experience with the gospel has been a concentrated high fructose corn syrup version–everything will be good, sugary sweet if you accept the gospel without questioning what it is or its purpose. I love this:

    “Broken relationships could be healed – shattered relationships within families, amongst nations, amidst creation, and between us and God could be finally be made right. This isn’t just good news for someday in heaven, for, as Jesus proclaimed, in him the prophesies of the poor finding hope, the oppressed being set free, and the blind finding sight are already fulfilled.”

    I wish more Christ-followers would ponder this question.

  4. May 18, 2010

    This is such a great post, Julie. I really love it – and it speaks to the journey that a lot of us have been on over the past few years.

    The breadth and variety of the responses to my question on the blog has really challenged me to re-think what seems like a basic question, “What is the gospel.” I like where this question has taken me!

    Thanks again for bringing your crazy-huge brain and crazy-huge heart to the conversation! :-)

  5. Jes permalink
    May 20, 2010

    Funny – this has been an ongoing discussion amongst our circle of friends for some time. You explained my take much more eloquently than I did!

    I’ll be sharing this with them.

    Thanks!
    Jes

  6. May 21, 2010

    Julie, that was well put and a pleasure to encounter.

    I’m at your blog for the 1st time, via Rachel Held Evan’s, where I read/comment occasionally. I was an Evangelical from childhood to about age 45, 15 years ago, and a well-educated, ministering one. Now I’m more one of the “spiritual but not religious,” and only the inclusive, love-oriented and “non-literalist” or “unorthodox” styles of Christian faith do I find any affinity with. But I am somewhat, and want to be increasingly a bridge-builder, and work from positive common ground shared by most people of spiritual faith.

    In that spirit, I appreciate that your understanding of the gospel seems to leave dogma to a minimum, along with the abstract theology that only gradually grew up, over centuries to create the “orthodoxy” that most Christians cling to, considering it a necessary part of “saving faith”… how sad! Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Prot.) have been “sold” on the idea that those abstractions were “once for all delivered” to the Apostles and then put into the New Testament all in the 1st century. Thereby, the beauty and liberating effects of the “gospel” story (or concepts) have been perverted and encrusted with stuff that is bound to create doubts, obscure the true “simplicity of the gospel,” etc.

    So along with good, healthy expressions like yours, we do have a major educational task to help people realize the spin of emerging orthodoxy, begun already in the NT particularly by Luke, which chose one being-developed version of theology over others and began to confine the love and liberation almost from the beginning (btw, there WAS no pure and idealistic “Jerusalem Church” or “early church” we have to uncover and model after… our impression of it is largely a creation of Luke, historical at points and inventive at others).

    Howard Pepper

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