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.