The Gospel in a Nutshell

Many of us got the impression from our churches over the years that the gospel could be shrink-wrapped, shrunk down, and stated in brief summary form, usually along the lines of “Jesus died to save me from my sins.” (Frank Schaeffer has a funny take on this in his novel Portofino, in which the missionary family evangelizes using a “Gospel Walnut Witnessing Kit.”)miniature_bible

As I said in a previous post, Jesus’ death on the cross is clearly part of what the New Testament means by “the gospel.” There’s no giving that up. But watch what happens when we say that the essence of the gospel is “Jesus died to save me from my sins.” First, I’ve just referred to myself (twice) more than Jesus (once). Second, I’ve focused on the cross; I’ve said nothing about the resurrection, much less Jesus’ life and teachings. I’ve said nothing about the kingdom of God, which is what Jesus proclaimed as the gospel (Mark 1:15). Third, then, is it any wonder that many of us grew up wondering why we needed that Old Testament in front of our New Testaments? Was it just a paperweight? (Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bible publishers helped us out of this jam by printing Bibles with no Old Testament, just a New Testament and Psalms.)

The problem with—and solution for—saying that the gospel can be summed up in this way is that neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers nor Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers interpreted Jesus’ mission only in terms of a single event. No, they spoke about Jesus in terms of what the one God, Creator of all things, was up to in the world (for example, Matthew constantly refers to how Jesus’ story fulfilled Old Testament scripture; and Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law, not overthrow it). So we might begin to suspect that freeze-drying the gospel into one simple sentence about Jesus and me may be missing the boat.

So here’s another reason to ask “What is the gospel?” We need a starting point, a focus for the gospel that’s more grounded in the biblical narrative as a whole. Yes, Jesus’ saving death is crucial. But while saying “Jesus died to save me from my sins” is good news, it’s really only good news for me. So am I at the center of the gospel? Somehow I doubt it. We need to keep going.

Question: What other ways of summing up the gospel were you taught?