The Gospel: a Commodity or a Call?
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” . . . And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” ––Mark 1:14–17
The word “gospel” derives from an ancient Greek word indirectly through Latin, which when translated means “good news.” Of course, the next logical question that should be raised when one proclaims “a gospel” is “good news about what?” How does the New Testament answer this question, and is the contemporary evangelical church giving the same answer? What really is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
If asked the question, the majority of evangelical church goers today would most likely offer something akin to the “Romans Road:” all men are sinners, Christ died for our sin, and by accepting Christ’s free gift of salvation one can go to heaven. This understanding of the Gospel basically reflects a theological thinking that has been shaped by a number of cultural and historical influences over the last few hundred years that weren’t always reflective of the New Testament Gospel proclamation.
In the wake of the prodigious work of E.P. Sanders, New Testament scholars like James D. G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and many others have worked diligently to evaluate and apply Sanders’ observations to our understanding of the New Testament Gospel proclamation. What has emerged from all this work over the last few decades, though not without much controversy, is a realization that the contemporary evangelical view of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be more than a bit skewed. What many New Testament scholars have been arguing for quite some time now is that we have been reading the New Testament through a clouded “western” lens, and we need to recapture the New Testament’s perspective, which will be a “new perspective” for many of us, on this thing called “The Gospel.”
The “Romans Road” example of the Gospel offered above illustrates the prevalent contemporary understanding of the Gospel as a set of doctrinal beliefs. Though the “Romans Road” or the doctrinal understanding it expresses is not technically incorrect, it does betray too narrowly a constructed thinking. In part, this is perpetuated by our contemporary misunderstanding of the biblical use of the word “believe.” The result has been the view that an acceptance of the Gospel means an adherence to a set of doctrinal bullet points. When this view of the Gospel as a doctrine is coupled with the contemporary western understanding of self-identity as a consumer, the result is a too narrowly defined gospel as a good news concerning the reception of a gift. As a result, the Gospel of salvation becomes nothing more than a commodity.
This is reflected in the common enunciation of an invitation to the Gospel with words like “accept,” “receive,” “believe,” and of course the all too often repeated “ask Jesus to come into your heart.” This linguistic universe reveals the metaphor of commodity as the central and exclusive understanding of the Gospel salvation.
But when Jesus descended upon the scene in Galilee proclaiming a Gospel as told in Mark 1, he described it as the arrival of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, the Gospel was a narrative about God doing something, which is more than just the revelation of doctrine. The Gospel is the good news that God has become King of his people again, and this narrative includes a call to follow after his Kingdom.
At its core, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is historical and participatory in nature not doctrinal. While doctrine is a valid and indeed necessary way to talk about the Kingdom, it is not the Kingdom itself. The real invitation is not just to accept but to enter into, not just believe but to follow. The Gospel is not a commodity, it’s a call. Lord, may I not treat the grace of your Gospel simply as a thing I possess but as a noble and divine call that I answer and live out.