Ask your average Christian, all across the map — and I mean from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic to the Protestant low-church evangelical, what is the gospel and you will get one of three sorts of answers?
First, some will say that the gospel is the redemption of God through Christ that is mediated through and in the Church and its priests. Now, to be sure, few will say it quite like that, but if you push and shove and hem and haw, you’ll get down to this: God’s work is in the Church and being in the Church is what redeems. This is the ecclesiological gospel.
Second, some will assert that the gospel is the liberating power of God to create justice, peace and love among human beings for the good of the world. Most of these sorts will say it right up front: “the gospel work of God is social justice.” For most of these, anyone who pursues justice of this sort is doing gospel work and is, at some level, evangelizing the world. Yep, there are lots of Christians who think like this. This is the liberation gospel.
Third, others will claim that the gospel is the forgiving power of God to take fallen sinners from a state of condemnation into a state of grace, to take sinners and make them saints, to isolate humans who have believed from those who have not believed. And, this is why Jesus came: to die for sins so that humans could be forgiven. This is the forgiveness gospel.
Which is, I say to myself at times, which one of these gets it right? Or, is it at all possible that each one of these is right, but not completely right, and that the three ought to get together at times and see how they need one another?
I believe that each of them is right and each of them is wrong, and each of them is right and wrong for different reasons — most notably that each of them avoids way too much of the Bible.
The questions that need to be asked are “what acts of God comprise the gospel?” And, “where do we begin when we seek to define the gospel?” And, most incisively, why do the major branches of the Church have their own struggles with a full-orbed performance of the gospel? Is it because each of them blunts the gospel by presenting only some of it?
What, then, is the gospel? Tomorrow I’ll take another look at this question by asking about the central acts of God involved in the gospel work of God.
Let me suggest that a purple gospel will try to keep all of this in balance.