The 8 Marks of a Robust Gospel
This year the Christian Vision Project is asking our simplest but most important question yet: Is our gospel too small? Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at North Park University, certainly can't be accused of thinking small in his biblical and theological studies. To the contrary, in books like The Jesus Creed and A Community Called Atonement, he has demonstrated a knack for picking big topics and approaching them in surprising and enlightening ways. McKnight's weblog, JesusCreed.org, is an oasis of careful thought and Christian intelligence, finely attuned to contemporary theological debates yet deeply rooted in the study of Scripture and the Christian tradition. These qualities are also evident in his response to our big, small question.
Our problems are not small. The most cursory glance at the newspaper will remind us of global crises like AIDS, local catastrophes of senseless violence, family failures, ecological threats, and church skirmishes. These problems resist easy solutions. They are robustpowerful, pervasive, and systemic.
Do we have a gospel big enough for these problems? Do we have the confidence to declare that these robust problems, all of which begin with sin against God and then creep into the world like cancer, have been conquered by a robust gospel? When I read the Gospels, I see a Lion of Judah who roared with a kingdom gospel that challenged both Israel's and Rome's mighty men, gathered up the sick and dying and made them whole, and united the purity-obsessed "clean" and the shame-laden "unclean" around one table. When I read the apostle Paul, I see a man who carried a gospel that he believed could save as well as unite Gentiles and barbarians with Abraham's sacred descendants. I do not think their gospel was too small.
I sometimes worry we have settled for a little gospel, a miniaturized version that cannot address the robust problems of our world. But as close to us as the pages of a nearby Bible, we can find the Bible's robust gospel, a gospel that is much bigger than many of us have dared to believe:
The gospel is the story of the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:2627) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.
The gospel may be bigger than this description, but it is certainly not smaller. And as we declare this robust gospel in the face of our real, robust problems, we will rediscover just how different it is from the small gospel we sometimes have believed and proclaimed.
1. The robust gospel is a story. Jesus didn't drop out of the heavens one snowy night in Bethlehem to a world hushed for Advent. Instead, Jesus' birth came in the midst of a story with a beginning, a problem, and a lengthy history. When Jesus stood up to announce the "gospel of the kingdom" (Matt. 4:23), the first thing his hearers would have focused on was not the word gospel but the word kingdomthe climax of Israel's story and its yearning for the eternal messianic reign. Gospel-preaching for Jesus had the same hope and vision one finds in Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:4655), Zechariah's Benedictus (1:6879), Simeon's Nunc dimittis (2:2932), and John the Baptist's summons to a new way of life (3:1014)namely, the fulfillment of the whole story's hope, the kingdom of God. This is why Paul defines gospel after its first mention in Romans 1:1 with this: "which he promised beforehand through his prophets, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David" (NRSV). To preach the gospel and to believe the gospel is to offer and enter into a story.