"What is the gospel?"
I was interviewing for my first job as a college chaplain. As far as anticipated interview questions go, I should have seen this one coming. But in that moment, I remember fumbling for something that would sound sincere but not simplistic, intelligent but not heretical, and accurate without being forced. I had gone to seminary after all.
I recall this moment with clarity because, out of the whole interview process, it was the only question that caused me to sweat my answer. I have never since taken for granted that the answer to the question, "what is the gospel?" is not as easy as it seems.
If I am going to make the claim that the gospel is what is missing from our current approach to a theology of intimacy, then we need to begin by answering the question: What is the gospel?
If you grew up, like me, in church or have had heavy evangelical influences in your life, then you are likely very familiar with the gospel. I cut my teeth on Scripture memorization and evangelism classes, so I was sure that I knew the gospel. It may surprise you, (and it certainly surprised me) to learn that what I emerged with was actually only a piece of the gospel and not the full gospel. This is a more common occurrence than we might think. In my work with college students, I encounter this on a regular basis from emerging adults who have spent quite a lot of time in various kinds of Christian educational contexts. To understand the gospel, we must first examine why this piece-meal-ing is so common in Western, American Christianity. I have observed two key reasons for this:
1. Culture wars. We have bifurcated the gospel to navigate culture wars and social influences. One example is when we were attempting to justify slavery with Scripture, we removed social responsibility from the gospel and focused on soul saving. This diversion leveled up when fundamentalism was established to resist the effects of the Enlightenment. We wanted to get back to fundamentals and so we redrafted language about our Christian values and priorities. This need to combat the evils of our day also caused a latent (and often explicit) retooling of the gospel message to emphasize what championed our cause and deemphasized, well, everything else. Both on the progressive and conservative ends of the spectrum, our gospel is often adjusted to address the concerns we find most troubling and in need of a good ‘ol gospel reckoning. Does this mean the gospel we learned was wrong? We’ll examine that, but first, we need to recognize a second influence.
2. Modernized evangelism. Each modern generation has its patented evangelistic movement. Popular gospel presentations were simplified and taught to the masses for easy proselytizing. Whether it was "The Romans Road," "The Four Spiritual Laws," or a beaded bracelet that told a piece of the gospel presentation with each color, many of us learned a simple, straight-forward way to tell our friends about Jesus. However, each attempt to be succinct and accessible ran the risk of diminishing parts of the gospel and overemphasizing others. Many of these evangelical tools only served to convert but not to disciple. As a result, "the gospel" became a threshold one crossed to become "saved" but would then no longer be needed (except to convert others).
Are we wrong?
I’ve sat in churches that preached "the gospel" with a heaping dose of sin and shame. In these sermons, 90% of the content was spent letting us know that there was a big problem with the world/people/society. We learned that this problem was rampant, that we were part of the problem, and that the problem was very displeasing to God. We would be called to repent of our problem and something about God’s grace was tagged onto the altar call.
By contrast, I’ve sat in churches where "the gospel" was all about grace. Sure, there might be a problem, but sin was not something we dwelled on. In fact, sin is not nearly the big deal we’ve made it out to be (because learning about our sin makes us feel bad about ourselves). Instead, let’s talk about how good God is and how His grace is unending and that we are already okay because God is so good.
You may recognize these examples. These may have been your church experience. And though I caricature them to make a point, the truth is: God is good. Grace is abundant. The world does have problems and there is sin in our life that needs transformation. The gospel reveals both realities even if we grew up hearing about one way more than the other. To circle back to my question about whether we were wrong: The answer is yes and no.
For many of us, our grasp of the gospel is just a mismeasure of one ingredient. If we were making cookies and put in way too much flour (or none at all) the cookies would not turn out right. Sure, we might find ourselves choking these cookies down nonetheless, it is the gospel after all. But something would still be off about the cookies. We might even find ourselves doing theological gymnastics just to find a convincing way to sell these pasty cookies to other people. Some of the cleverer attempts by modern American Christianity have been applied to selling not-quite-right gospel cookies convincingly so that you and I begin to believe that this is just what cookies are supposed to taste like.
"Sure! These are chocolate chip cookies. I know it tastes like we replaced the chocolate with raisins but that’s just because the social gospel is basically communism. This is what the real gospel tastes like. We promise."
This retooled gospel recipe is difficult to detect because it contains good ingredients but
poor measurements. And it has been happening since the early days of the church. Gnosticism, Arianism, and other popular heresies were not outright rejections of the death
and resurrection of Christ, but they take all the ingredients and make something God never intended. The Epistles are a living example of how the earliest Christ-followers were constantly facing this challenge. The human authors of these letters were continually restating the original gospel recipe and calling out the false gospels that still seemed to smell and look like the real deal. This has been an ongoing area of discernment for Christians that is still needed today. I believe that our human nature is consistently working to recalibrate the compass of our hearts towards a false North. Yet, throughout the sanctification process, God by His Holy Spirit is always breaking in to reorient us back on True North. It is a lifelong journey to learn the gospel and drink deeply of its truth. I find myself returning regularly to this process; asking the Lord to tear down my false gospels and restore me to His Truth.
If we can recognize and consider this process, then we can begin to unpack why our discussion of intimate relationships has been drifting away from the gospel. At the heart of intimacy is a renewed understanding of the gospel where we find satisfying answers by allowing Christ to show us the best questions. The Kingdom of Christ is not only the threshold but also the sustaining path that we rely on daily for our sanctification and living relationship with God. As we mine the Scriptures to discern a theology of intimacy, our false gospels will be challenged, and the shortcomings of our current discipleship models will be exposed. But all this so that our understanding of the gospel, like well-baked cookies, will be all the more satisfying.