Christians Define “Gospel” in Different Ways, and That’s Okay

Jon Manning. Photo Courtesy of PLNU Faculty Directory.

By: Jon Manning, Professor in the School of Theology & Christian Ministry and Director of PLNU’s LEAP Program

A recent opinion piece in The Point made a rather concerning pair of claims: our PLNU chapel services are failing to preach the true gospel, and have instead been promoting a false gospel. These assertions genuinely surprised me until I realized that the article’s working definition of “gospel” (i.e., we are sinners destined for hell but Jesus has died for our sins so that we can believe and be saved) was substantially limited. This is certainly one common articulation of the Christian gospel, but it is by no means the only way that Christians past and present have understood the meaning and implications of “gospel,” and in solitary isolation, this singular concept leaves our theological imagination quite impoverished.

It turns out that Christians define the meaning and implications of “gospel” in different ways. I’d like to explore some of these ideas, since they are mutually constructive and help us fill our theological toolbox with perspectives that can help us deepen and broaden our faith.

Firstly, the root meaning of the word “gospel” itself comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “good news.” What is the nature of this good news? We could begin by asking the gospel authors themselves. Our gospel texts begin with Jesus himself spreading good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he declares (Mark 1:15). Elsewhere, he says, quoting Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” (Luke 4:18-19). God’s kingdom is near. The oppressed find freedom. Salvation comes to those who need saving. This is surely good news.

Yet our gospel authors, and indeed, Jesus himself, do not simply provide us with one correct way of thinking about what this nearness of God’s kingdom, this salvation, means or why exactly it serves as good news/gospel. Instead, they provide us with a kaleidoscope of overlapping images and ideas. Mark uses the metaphor of a “ransom” (10:45) to describe Jesus’ death — suggesting that Jesus’ death salvifically pays a price for others, for us. But nowhere does Mark describe to whom this price is paid, or exactly how or why.

Meanwhile, while John also describes Jesus’ death as a source of life for “everyone who believes,” (3:16), he does so with a different premise: in 3:14, he compares Jesus’ lifting up on the cross to a very strange story in Numbers 21:4-9 where Moses lifts up a bronze snake on a pole so that Israelites can gaze upon it and be healed of their deadly snakebite wounds. John’s implication: when we look at Jesus on the cross, we too are healed and given new life when we recognize the God of the cosmos, revealed as incarnate in Jesus, willingly suffering and dying.

And then there’s Luke, who entirely avoids using “ransom” language in his text, and who emphasizes Jesus’ salvific acts throughout his life and ministry. For Luke, the good news of Jesus is not first and foremost that he was a sacrifice for our sins, but that life abundantly follows wherever he goes: he brings in his living body healing, newness, reconciliation, renewal, salvation. He provides an example for his disciples to embody, and he invites us to practice the love of God and neighbor as a means of inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). This invitation to a new, redemptive way of existing in the world is absolutely good news for Luke, and for us as well.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul was also a proclaimer of the good news, and his letter to the believers in Rome is often credited with laying out the simplest “gospel” message, that is, the so-called Romans Road (i.e., we are sinners destined for hell but Jesus has died for our sins so that we can believe and be saved). At the same time, a careful look at Paul’s letters demonstrates that much more is at stake for Paul and the communities of Christ’s followers he nurtured. He proclaims that God in Christ has overcome the cosmic forces of Sin and Death (1 Cor 15:20-26) and that God is, by the power of the Spirit and in collaboration with believers, in the process of bringing forth new creation and reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-21). The goal of this divine mission — the restoration of the entire cosmos! — is far bigger than can be summed up with a one-line prayer of confession.

Another place we can explore the way early Christians understood “gospel” is by looking at two early Christian creeds: the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These creeds contain the most commonly held core beliefs of the wider Christian movement, and both continue to be spoken aloud in worship by a variety of Christian groups even today. (The text of both is easily found online if you’re unfamiliar.) The central affirmation of both creeds is that Jesus has come, he has died, and he has been resurrected. Both creeds also affirm that God forgives our sins. This is all good news! But the creeds contain no explanation of the mechanics of forgiveness, nor do they provide one normative account of how Jesus’ life-death-resurrection leads to salvation. If you’re looking for the good news of the gospel in the creeds, it is found primarily in what God has done in Jesus, rather than how God has done it.

In the midst of this discussion, I see two practical issues of importance for our PLNU community. First, theologically speaking, our community contains multitudes; we are diverse. Not all of us identify as Christian. Those of us who do consider ourselves Christian possess varying degrees of personal commitment toward and self-understanding of this identity; we hail from a variety of church traditions and denominational groups; we carry with us various experiences of faith ranging from transcendent to traumatic. Very likely no two members of this community share totally identical theological viewpoints (which means we should all exercise extreme caution when we are tempted to denigrate our neighbor’s faith or theology). It seems important that the faith and spiritual leaders of our community demonstrate sensitivity to the asymmetrical nature of the community by offering a variety of venues, experiences, invitations, opportunities and indeed, forms of language for people to approach and contemplate the gospel and perhaps grow in faith. I’m pleased to say that this is exactly what I see our chapel team doing in our community, both in and out of chapel.

Second, any of us who wish to contemplate the meaning of the Christian gospel should consider that the good news is not merely that we are saved from something (whether it be sin, death, Satan, hell or the tyranny of ourselves), but that we are saved for something. We are saved toward something. The good news of the gospel is not merely individual souls saved from hellfire, but that we are invited into a community of people whose life and ethos is informed and sustained by God’s resurrection of Jesus. We are invited to reimagine the world, to transfigure our loves and relationships, to understand our very own selves through God’s eyes—the one who creates, restores, resurrects and brings life, healing, wholeness and reconciliation. May it be so in our lives and community at PLNU.