The gospel is an event, not a formula

Much discussion at the Boar’s Head Tavern recently on the question of “What is the gospel?” The question arose in a discussion with Joe Carter (ringmaster at Evangel, who is guest-posting at the BHT), and people responded by posting a variety of formulas summarising the gospel.

One point which Joe made in response to this was that people were reaching for creeds or confessions (or their own words), rather than the Bible:

But what creed or confession – that we all agree on – defines the term [i.e. “the gospel”]? And since it’s such a biblical term, shouldn’t we be able to point back to the Bible rather than to Calvin or Luther or an ecclesiastical body, for its meaning?

This raises an interesting question: why doesn’t the Bible provide a single, summary formula for “the gospel”? Part of the answer can be found in a statement of Jesus’ that I’ve discussed before, Luke 24:46,47:

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Now in many ways that is itself a summary of the gospel, but it’s a summary that points beyond itself to its proclamation: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.

In other words, it is not an abstract gospel – a particular form of words or set of ideas to which we mentally assent – by which we are to receive repentance and the forgiveness of sins, but the gospel as it is proclaimed by Christians and the church. (For more on this, see my post The engine-room of Lutheran spirituality.)

The gospel is an event, not only as it relates to things that have happened in the past – Jesus’ suffering and resurrection – but as it erupts into our lives in the present, and in particular as the story of Jesus’ coming among us, death for our sins and proclamation of forgiveness is re-enacted each week in the church’s ministry of preaching the gospel, baptising, absolving and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus didn’t give us a formula, but he did give us the church, the Word and the sacraments. If we’re looking for an answer to the question “What is the gospel?”, that’s where we should be looking.

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10 Responses to The gospel is an event, not a formula

  1. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Jesus didn’t give us a formula

    Jesus is the formula, aka the paradosis: 1 Cor 11:23; 15:3-4; 2 Tim 2:2; Lk 1:1-2; 2 Thess 2:15, etc.

    he did give us the church
    which is his Body, into which we are incorporated, through baptism into his death – most certainly an “event” (both his and ours)

    …the Word
    which is to say he imparts himself: John 1:14

    …and the sacraments
    See above, re: the Word made Flesh: John 6.53-58

    A serious question (not intending to be snarky here): If “Evangelicalism” (aka an attempt at being truly church by being solely “back to the Bible” gospel-“evangel”-centred) over and against some presumably corrupted “catholic” baggage-ridden predecessor now finds itself in intense debate regarding the very question “What is the Gospel?” then just how bankrupt is this whole approach to being church? Very, not very, entirely, not at all?

  2. Chris says:

    Lathrop and Wengert in their book on Lutheran ecclesiology, “Christian Assembly” (Fortress Press), write about church being an event, a happening that takes place when the Gospel hits the ears and ignites faith in the hearer. Sorry I don’t have a page number to give you, however. I don’t have the book in front of me.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    Last time I heard this covered by a Lutheran, it was Rod Rosenbladt teaching. When he reached for a definition, he found one in Scripture:

    1 Corinthians 15:1-4
    1Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand,
    2by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
    3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
    4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

    The nice thing here is that this is not merely a great summary of what we know to be the Gospel. It explicitly states it.

  4. Tevildo says:

    It might be argued that “the gospel” is “the good news”, of which John 3:16 is the most succinct summary. But that leads us into what “believeth on him” means in practice…

  5. Tevildo says:

    “in him”, rather. Or “in Him”? Is the recieved text the paramount authority? 🙂

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The gospel proclaimed in a summary

  7. fws says:

    I think maybe what we all sometimes sense, is the Gospel turned into a philosophy or something that can be intellectually persuasive.

    Really isn´t the Gospel simply the Person of Jesus? Who he is. what he did. why he did it. Your mom is your mom when you are 1 week old and you maybe know her as mother more profoundly then than you did when you came to know the intellectual creed/content of her life story and history, etc. Yet the intellectual knowledge is a necessary consequence of that knowing, faith, trust.

    Why not say that the Gospel is quite simply (or unsimply!) Jesus. “Where christ is, THERE is life and salvation. ”

    being connected to all that. something tangible, historic, organic, ontological?

    liturgy, baptism, holy supper, confession/absoution as a nexus to all that? We seek Jesus where he tells us to find him!

  8. fws says:

    example: when christians confess to me that they are not certain they have faith or believe, I tell them to look to Christ Crucified (handy to have a crucifix around then…) and tell them simply to trust Jesus. to cling to him. to assume that everything else is false, even their thought processes.

    I tell them to cling to their baptism.

    This is the SAME message.

    To trust that what Jesus promises there is true for THEM. and to hold God to his promise to them there, even if they lack the credentials of faith or trust or repentance or reformed life or whatever….

    the Holy Gospel is Jesus. Nothing less.

    How could there be more?

  9. fws says:

    ok. hard for me to shut up about Jesus. sorry….

    one more point…

    I see alot of confusion lately in the Lutheran church about sanctification, works, law/gospel distinctions.

    Sometimes it is helpful to word-substitute. Example: use the word “trust” substituting for the word “faith” you can have faith in your faith, but trust implies more strongly an Object outside of you.

    with law/gospel try Will of God. The Will of God in Christ is the Holy Gospel. The “Will of God” is about both Law and Gospel. There is not more than one “will of God”.

    This is helpful because sometimes we divide and separate rather than merely distinguish. This is especially true in the case of Law/Gospel and 3 uses/purposes of the Law.

    Sanctification=Faith. Fruit of sanctification is always automatic, spontaneous, and require no effort at all. zero. zip. nada. The fruit IS visible, but it looks identical to the Will of God wrested from the old adam (pagan within us) and pagans in the form of the outward keeping of the second table. So it is invisible in the sense that Christ our Lord was invisible: whenever someone sought him out in a group, why was it they always need to ask : “which one of you is Jesus?”

    We want sanctification to be visible for all the same reasons we tend to imagine Jesus to stand out in a crowd or appear special in his earthly ministry. He was ordinary. Invisible in that sense. We don´t like that. so… we don´t want the “gospel” to be that. That would be too (fill in the blank).

    Incarnational Lesson: True righteousness looks like salt and yeast. It looks like Jesus. Not like a doctrine, and not EVEN like a proclamation. Proclaimation implies exclamation point. Implies “Pay attention!” Implies something that stands out and commands attention.

    No. It is much more mundane and existential. Jesus. What things look like with Immanuel. God-with-us.

  10. fws says:

    ok… I know…

    It looks like church, baptism, holy supper. little churches with a few old people who sing out of tune and the church appears to be dying.

    because it is.

    because it looks like Jesus.

    Where Jesus is, there is life and salvation.

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