If you were asked to sum up what the Gospel is in one sentence, what would you say? I asked this question to someone the other day and their answer went something like this: “The Gospel is repentance for your sins and accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”
Having heard Christians speaking of the Gospel over the years, I don’t think that this answer is wholly unrepresentative of how a lot of Christians would answer the question. However, whilst the sentiments contained in this answer are good, I think they not only fail to answer the question adequately, but end up turning the Gospel on its head. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this misunderstanding is one of the overarching reasons for the current malaise in the church.
So what is the Gospel? In a nutshell, the Gospel is “the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.” Repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior and Lord, on the other hand, are not the Gospel, but rather our response to the Gospel.
The distinction may seem a bit pedantic to some, but really it is very important. What the “repentance and acceptance” answer does is to turn the gospel from a theocentric doctrine into a me-ocentric doctrine: the Gospel is me repenting; the Gospel is me accepting.
But this is not the Gospel. The Gospel is an objective fact. Or rather it is a series of objective facts, all intricately connected. It is something that God has done, and it is something that he has done definitively at a certain point in history. And yes, it is something that God calls upon all men to respond to.
The “repentance and acceptance” type of answer is both one of the causes and one of the symptoms of living in a relativistic and subjective age. Why do we live in a relativistic age? At least in part because Christians over the last few centuries have often emphasised the personal response to the Gospel more than they have objectivity of the Gospel itself. And this has had a knock on effect from which it is difficult to escape. Having been at least part of the cause of a relativistic culture that only thinks in subjective categories, it then becomes that much harder to get people to believe in the objectivity of the Gospel:
“That’s just what you believe,” comes the response from one who has been taught to disbelieve objective truth.
There is a further problem. If we do proclaim the Gospel in an objective form, we often concentrate solely on the death of Jesus for sins and stop there. So we present the Gospel in this way:
“Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinners like you.”
To which they reply, “Oh yeah? Says you!”
Although this answer to the question what is the Gospel is better than the “repentance and acceptance” answer, in that it does at least contain objective truth – Jesus died for sinners – it still falls far short of the definition that the Bible presents and way short of what is needed in our current climate.
Protestants have often levelled the charge against Romanists that in depicting crucifixes with Christ still present, they have effectively left him there. But Protestants often fall into the same error, albeit without an actual cross. Much of the preaching in the evangelical world concentrates solely on Christ dying for your sins and never gets to the resurrection, let alone the ascension. When was the last time you heard a full-orbed sermon that mentioned Christ’s resurrection and his ascension?
Of course it isn’t that preachers who never go beyond the cross do not believe in the resurrection and ascension. On the contrary, I am sure that they affirm it. Yet the question is one of emphasis. If we are continually emphasising the sacrifice and we do not go on to emphasize the empty tomb and the filled seat in the throne room of God, then we are to all intents and purposes guilty of the same error of the Romanist who wears a cross with a little Jesus upon it.
The ramifications of this are tremendous. A resurrectionless Christianity will inevitably be a Me-ocentric Christianity, focussing on the response of the sinner more than the objectivity of God’s revelation. An ascensionless Christianity will also inevitably be a me-ocentric Christianity, focussing on God’s claims on us as individuals and missing his claims on the whole world and every area of life.
I think that one of the reasons we have withdrawn from declaring the full orbed objective truth of God is possibly that we are a little bit scared of the implications of it. We can cope with telling people that they are sinners and that they need to repent to be put right with God. But resurrection and ascension? Can we cope with the ramifications of these doctrines?
If we declare the resurrection we move out of the category of “Jesus died for my sins and yours if you trust in him,” and into the category of “Jesus has made a new world order – come and be part of it.” The resurrection was not just one man rising from the dead. The resurrection was the Father declaring that the God/Man had kicked the Old Creation into the dust and was in the business of making a New Creation – Christ Jesus being the first-fruits.
The Heavens and the Earth were declaratively remade when Jesus rose from the dead (see Hebrews 12:26-29 and notice the present reality for those who first read these words. See also Isaiah 65:17-26 and note that death is still mentioned and so this cannot be speaking of the consummated New Heavens & New Earth). The rest of history is the outworking of what was declared by Jesus’ resurrection, whereby just as the old man dies progressively in the believer and the new man progressively appears, the old world is dying progressively and the new creation is progressively appearing.
If we declare the ascension we move out of the category of “Jesus is redeeming me” and into the category of “He is redeeming the world to himself.” The ascension is not just Jesus being enthroned so that he can spend the rest of history “twiddling his thumbs” as Joel McDurmon put it here. Rather, the ascension is Jesus sitting on the throne of God, using the authority that he won to transform and redeem the world, slowly, progressively but inexorably. He is reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). He must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
The objective Gospel including the life, resurrection and ascension as well as just the death of Christ is an awesome and audacious concept. Maybe that’s why we often baulk from proclaiming it and fall back on a far more narrow and often subjective definition. It means that Christ’s claims are total and it also means that God is doing a work that is far, far grander than any of us could dare imagine. It means that all areas of life are under his dominion. It means that a new world order is being built on the ashes of the old, and all the subjective “that’s what you believe” objections in all the world are powerless to stop it. It means that our political classes have no right to govern in their Christless ways and they can and should be called to account.
We need to get back to the objective Gospel, presenting Christ as incarnate deity, Christ as sacrifice, Christ as the new creation, and Christ as the ascended king who will have dominion. All of these things! We need to turn away from the subjective me-ocentric Gospel, and get back to the full-orbed and objective theocentric Gospel of Jesus Christ (see Psalm 145:11-13). When the churches get back to preaching the full Gospel and its incredible ramifications, then we will begin to see this: “the Earth yield her increase; God our own God shall bless us. God shall bless us, and all the ends of the Earth shall fear him” (Psalm 67:6-7).