What do you mean when you say the gospel is “good news”? Surprisingly, perhaps, not all Christians mean the same thing by this phrase.
-Some mean a new set of religious ideas about God, humanity, and the world. –Others mean a new way of living, a new morality that will improve one’s life. –Yet others mean an assurance about ultimate destiny beyond death.
Yet none of these are what the Bible means by good news, or gospel.
Why? Because the gospel is about something that has happened that is exciting and brings the story of which it a part to its climax. And most of what is presented today as gospel is advice. So claims esteemed biblical scholar N. T. Wright.
Whether it be religious ideas, a new morality, or an assurance of future destiny, all these versions of the “gospel” miss the point that the gospel is news, something that has happened. In fact, something that has happened in a particular ongoing story about God, the world, and history – the great Jewish story found in the Hebrew Bible.
Here’s Wright’s description of this backstory to which the Jesus story is the climax.
“Paul’s Bible was the Jewish Bible of the day, what Christians now call the Old Testament. Paul, like many Jews of the time, read this Bible as a single great story— but it was a story in search of an ending. It was about how God, who had created the world, called a single people, Israel, to be his people— but not for their own sake. He called them and made them special, so that through them he could rescue the world—the human race and the whole creation— from the appalling mess that had come about.
“The trouble was, the people who were supposed to be carrying forward this divine rescue operation needed rescuing themselves. They shared in the same mess— the same rebellion against God, the same corruption and wickedness— as the rest of humankind. But their Bible still spoke of God doing a new thing, rescuing the rescuers, and getting the whole plan back on track. Some passages, including some famous ones, spoke of this happening through a coming king who would be “anointed” with God’s own powerful Spirit in the way that monarchs were anointed with oil. By no means did all Jews in Paul’s day believe in a coming anointed one. For those who did, this figure would embody the best news anyone had ever heard. He would rescue Israel, and with Israel all the human race, and with the human race all the world.” (Kindle Locations 347-357).
This “essentially Jewish message” went out into a world of Jews and Gentiles challenging the reality and need of all the old deities. Jews found this message offensive and blasphemous (“there is no God but God”), Gentiles found it seditious nonsense (There is no God but Caesar). Yet the early church, the apostle Paul in particular continued to press this “blasphemous” and “seditious” good news in the world.
For something to be news it needs to be about something that had happened that was part of a larger story, indeed that story’s climax, and transform the existence of those who embrace it between the climactic event and its final realization. (Kindle Locations 333-336)
This is what we find in Paul’s own description of the good news in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6. The Messiah (the story of which he is a part) died, was buried, was raised, was seen (what happened and climactic event). The rest of chapter 15 details the changed life possible between the present and Christ’s return. (Kindle Locations 341-342).
“So what are we saying? Paul has taken biblical language about God and has applied it to the message about Jesus, knowing that in his hearers’ minds it will resonate with language they associate with Caesar. If we can get our minds around that idea, we will be well on our way to understanding what he meant by the gospel. (Kindle Locations 491-493).
“Something had happened. Something would happen. And in between, something powerful and mysterious was happening in the lives of all those who found themselves caught up in it. (Kindle Locations 498-499)
Instead of The Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road or other efforts to organize a presentation of the gospel as ideas or truths Wright gives us a fourfold description of what makes something news. If Wright is correct about the good news of the gospel being something that happened, an act, then his way of describing the good news has the advantage of congruity between what is described and form of description. To present it as ideas or truths is to organize a presentation of it in terms that do not capture its nature.
What happened, the story of which it is a part, how what happened brings that story to a decisive climax, and how that happening transforms life now is, in my judgment, a helpful paradigm to use in thinking through how we might share the story of the gospel with others. Not as brief prepackaged sound-bytes but rather as crucial elements of the story to be told. Instead of pushing for decision, sharing this story lays the groundwork for further conversation and relationship, gives a preliminary sense of what belonging to Jesus might entail, and equips a hearer to better discern what God is (or might be) doing in the world.
Further, Wright’s approach keeps the benefits of the gospel for us as subsidiary to the story to which it belongs rather than becoming the “thing” which selected aspects (almost always Jesus’ death, sometimes his resurrection) are summoned to support. In other words, Wright’s approach remains God and Christ-centered rather than centered on us in a way that reflects biblical presentation and priorities.
All in all, a far more helpful approach to sharing the good news of the gospel than approaches we have had heretofore.