I recently asked this question to a group of young adults: What is one word you’d use to define the Christian Gospel (ie. “good news”)?
Jesus, salvation, hope, happiness, love, fulfillment, expectation...
Good answers I think. And not surprisingly, there was a variety of suggestions. It’s interesting how a small group reflects 2000 years of church history - diversity!
But looking at the words, besides possibly “Jesus,” there was one underlying commonality: personal benefit. The words were used in the context of how does the gospel apply to me. Gospel = salvation, especially personal salvation. In this manner, the four spiritual laws make a lot of sense and have been an effective strategy to clearly communicate the gospel since the mid-20th century. It's convincing...to individuals. Many, if not most, evangelicals could trace their own faith to this definition and experience of the gospel. And don’t get me wrong, personal salvation is a very important part of the good news of Christianity.
But is personal salvation the good news itself? Is salvation the starting point of the gospel?
"No" says Scot McKnight in a recent set of lectures in Vancouver, BC (put on by the wonderful folks at the Regent College Bookstore). The talks were based on his book, King Jesus Gospel.
McKnight argues that the trend in evangelicalism to equate the gospel with personal salvation removes the narrative context of salvation we find in the Bible. With conversion the focus, the biblical emphases of community (ie. God’s people) and discipleship become optional. Following Jesus is secondary to accepting Jesus. But this is not what the Bible teaches!
For an alternative, the Sunday School answer does apply: Gospel = Jesus. But not just the cosmic Jesus who comes to endure God’s wrath and remove my sin in order to secure my heavenly boxseats in Afterlife Arena. No, Jesus is good news because he represents the fullness of God’s work in the world for all people. It's not just about me and my eternal destiny.
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s story - the account of God calling all people to himself, first through Israel as a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8) and now in the form of the church living in the resurrection-reality of Jesus as Lord and King (1 Cor. 15:1-28). Jesus comes as Israel’s true king, which as God originally intended, then extends to all people (Gal. 3:28).
From this perspective Jesus is Lord and King before he is savior. Human response, then, goes beyond conversion and calls for allegiance and participation as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom (read the gospel of Mark!). Personal salvation is part of this fulfillment, no doubt. Citizens receive benefits under a good king after all. But personal salvation isn’t the starting point. The gospel is the complex story of Jesus creating and recreating community in the world - God’s community past, present, and future. The Bible and subsequent history is the narrative of God’s people. And instead of a list of ideas or beliefs, we know the good news through a story.
And the invitation to respond to this good news? Well, instead of four steps to personal salvation, the invitation to individuals is both profoundly simple and profoundly hard: Make Jesus king. Follow Jesus. Join the Jesus-community. Risk putting yourself in the ongoing saga of the Jesus-story.