Spellbound by the Gospel: What the Gospel Is and What It Isn’t
Part I, What the Gospel is
Recently one of my best friends, who is involved in Christian ministry at a major university in the United States, was criticized by his employers for not generating enough ‘decisions for Christ.’ Too bad, for, even though my friend is not after decisions, his may be one of the few Christian campus ministries that attracts decent amounts of ‘unbelievers.’ At a recent gathering 80 people turned out, most of them not affiliated with Christianity. While this was not an evangelistic meeting, all those present knew fully well that a Christian organization was behind the event. Yet many of them inquired about the next planned event. Perhaps it was exactly because a certain version of the Gospel was not shoved down their throats that these people were finally able to interact with Christianity in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
What is the Gospel anyways? On the one hand we know what Gospel is. It is good news. In the Greco-Roman context of the empire in which Christ was born, gospel, or “euangellion,” was a word used to announce the birth of a new emperor who was considered to be a son of the gods. The evangelists who wrote the four gospels subverted this word to refer to the good news of the incarnation, the becoming flesh of the Logos of God, in the person of Jesus Christ. Gospel refers to this coming of a helpless child in a manger in Bethlehem, whose message—no matter how diluted or compromised it became—was to completely overthrow one of the most powerful empires in history.
So, on the one hand we know what Gospel is. It is the reconciliation of humanity with God through Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life willingly in the process of accomplishing it. Gospel is new life in Jesus through the power of the Spirit. It is forgiveness of sins; it is unmerited divine grace; it is justice between individuals, institutions, societies, ethnic groups, and races. It is wholeness for all creation and well-being for all creatures. It is also, to a large extent, future.
Partly because it is future, we have at the same time no clue what Gospel is. We can never grasp it, only be grasped by it; we can never know it, only witness to it; we can never own it, but only surrender to it; we can never master it, but only serve it in never-ending bewilderment. We can’t know the Gospel because its source is divine and we are human. We may recognize that Jesus is our Savior, but not outline how this salvation works. It is for good reason that the Church Fathers reached unity about many essential doctrines but never on the doctrine of the atonement. The moment we would know the Gospel, it would be ‘ours,’ we would own it, patent it, brand it, lord over it. Which is in fact what too often happens. We thank Jesus for his ‘bloody’ service and say: “Thanks for all the hard work. We’ll take it from here.” We trust our programs much more that the Spirit of God and rely on marketing to have a better appeal than the image of a ravaged man on a cross or the humble servant who only whispers invitations and mostly prefers to remain silent. Hey, we’ve been given the Great Commission, right? So let’s do this thing. Let’s get some multimedia going and register decisions. We need tangible results.
It might be good to remind ourselves that one important summary of the Gospel as used by the early Christians, the fish sign, a Greek acronym of which the letters stood for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” was part, not of a communication strategy designed for maximum effect, but of a secret sign language that the persecuted church used to mark their hidden meeting places. No victory here in the name of the Gospel, but a church gone underground using a secret code that spoke of a salvation that they greatly suffered for. The fish sign was not a proud flag indicating something well-defined, victorious, and powerful, but something mysterious, foolish, and weak. Just as Paul had called the cross foolishness.
The Gospel will remain effective only as long as we leave its foolishness intact. Contrary to popular belief this does not entail shoving the Gospel down people’s throats and enforcing decisions, but rather by allowing people to encounter the mystery of the Crucified One at their own pace and within their own context. We can merely facilitate such encounters and will be better equipped to the extent that we are ourselves caught by the same mystery. We need to be remain spellbound by the Gospel.
Part II, What the Gospel is not
In my previous post I talked about the danger of using the Gospel as part of a human strategy designed to create effect and generate results. In order to achieve this, many make the Gospel a prisoner of human definitions. This is about more than a matter of strategy. There is a deeper problem here. The nature of the Gospel, or better, the nature of our relationship to the Gospel is at stake. Is the Gospel such a thing as can be defined in words, made manageable by institutions, and integrated in human strategies? Many will say Yes and point to Paul, the apostle, as the prime example of a missionary effort that was successful in spreading the Gospel to the far reaches of the known world. But Paul’s success is neither proof nor support for the question whether the Gospel can be grasped and managed or not. Let me, in response to my earlier post, list a few things the Gospel is not.
- Decisions. The Gospel is not something that can be fit into a system that churns out decisions so that its effectiveness can be tested and then turned into a human trophy. Oh how many institutions have sought praise and money from their constituencies by naming the number of converts produced. If all these phony reports were true, the world population would have completely turned to Christ three times over decades ago. Since this is not the case, there must be something wrong with the decision cards at evangelistic rallies. By the standards of these programs Jesus was an utter failure at generating decisions for Christ. He fed thousands, drew great crowds and plenty attention, but managed to offend just about everybody and in the end even his close associates left him.
- Moments. Another reason why decisions need to be downplayed as a clear sign of the Gospel is that decisions often have nothing to do with the ‘moment’ of the Gospel: the moment of change, the moment of contact with the living God. Decisions can be responses to so many things: to peer pressure, manipulation, social context, you name it. Decisions can be meaningful but more often than not they are pointless. They often do not address the person in her or his context and treat a person as an abstract individual before God. The Gospel calls us to repent from our old ways and make a 180 degrees turn. Such a turn begins—it is true—with a decision, but can never be reduced to that decision.
- Definition. People who go after decisions are also people who work with a certain definition of the Gospel. For, in order to know that a decision has been made, the ‘decision generators’ (usually called evangelists) need to know exactly to what has been responded. So we have the “Roman’s Road,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” or the “Bridge Illustration.” While at times helpful, these definitions are inherently reductive because they purport to capture the essence of the Gospel. Since the Gospel, if true, comes from God through Christ, we human beings have no way of being able to define or capture the Gospel, let alone define its essence. The so-called ‘essences’ that our ‘decision generators’ come up with can easily be exposed as perversions of the very Gospel they try to convey. Indeed, many of these evangelistic methods narrow not only the message but also reduce the recipients to disembodied souls who need to be sent on their way to an eternal heavenly paradise. Such hearers are not seen in the context of the real lives they are currently living. Their everyday struggles, whether these are social injustice, the loss of dear ones, health problems, etc., are routinely treated as irrelevant.
- Cognition. Rather than defining it, the Gospel is something we witness to. We witness that we have seen the Christ, we acknowledge that he is the son of God, experience that his sacrifice takes away the sins of this world, etc. In the sense that we are recipients of salvation and reconciliation we ‘know’ that Christ is of God. But that is not the same as saying that we ‘know’ Christ in the sense of having mastered him, of having figured out who and what he is. We can only be a vessel of God’s grace. We can only be a channel of the Gospel insofar we are simultaneously its recipients. This is not to say there is no cognitive element to the Gospel. We surely can identify Christ as the One sent by God, but what the exact content of this Christ is, eludes us. The moment we have mastered the Gospel, it has lost its power to transform us. It has then become a human tool used for the purpose of human programs with a human goal. So, while acknowledging the cognitive element, we always need to be aware that that Gospel transcends our capacity for understanding.
- Deconstruction. The Gospel is salvation, new life, mediated through Christ, reconciliation with God, hope for the resurrection of the body. All these terms, however, are in constant need of reassessment. As human words, they are a mere human scaffolding to what cannot be expressed. We tend to capture and encapsulate these words, master them, render them comprehensible, make them human. As a result their metaphorical power is reduced and they become meaningless. The truth is that the Gospel cannot be mastered. Rather, it confronts us, demands and effects ongoing transformation. Those who preach the Gospel are in the process of encountering that Gospel. Those who spread the Gospel are in constant need of receiving the Gospel. The Gospel can only be Gospel if it confronts and deconstructs us. How could we ever be effective ministers of the Gospel when that same Gospel no longer confronts us? This is what happens, however, when we define it, turn it into a program, and seek to generate decisions for Christ. In that case we become dead sign posts that point the way without going the journey ourselves. Then we become hypocrites who preach what they don’t practice.
So, paradoxically, we can therefore only know the Gospel to the extent that we acknowledge our inadequacy to understand it. We can only be effective ministers of it as long as it keeps ministering to us. At Pentecost it was not only the by-standers who were astounded at the pouring out of the Spirit; the apostles had the greatest difficulty to come to grips with what happened to them and so they testified about Christ. And as the believers were spellbound by the Spirit, the by-standers became spellbound by the Gospel.