Spencer and Jacob were two members of a pastors group I coached several years ago who inadvertently helped expand my understanding of the gospel. Of course, to protect the guilty, I have changed the names.
Spencer, a young neo-Calvinist type, was a church planter who also served in a role with a national church-planting network. Jacob, who was a generation older than Spencer, served as pastor of an established and innovative downtown church. Innovation, sincerity and bulldog tenacity were in both men’s DNA. They both loved the Lord and liked to tussle on theological matters. It was their tussle one Tuesday just after lunch that enriched my understanding of the gospel. Here’s what happened:
Spencer had recently returned from a church planters’ meeting where he served as one of the leaders helping to weed out (no pun intended) planters who were looking for support. During our Tuesday afternoon session, Spencer recounted his recent meeting and how frustrated he’d become with some of the would-be church planters who “could not define the gospel.” He emphasized to our group, “I had to tell these guys, really, if you can’t define what the gospel is, there’s no way we’re going to fund your church plant.”
I think Spencer expected his story to produce a hearty “Amen” from the rest of our group. In fact, that’s what I expected, too since I agreed with him. So both of us were caught off guard when Jacob asked, “Spencer, how do you define the gospel?”
The next three minutes was awkward. The tense back and forth between Spencer and Jacob seemed like an hour. In sum, it went something like this…
Jacob: So how do you define the gospel?
Spencer: Well, I’m sure all of us here know the gospel.
Jacob: Probably. But I’m still curious how you would answer the question.
Spencer: I’d answer it the same way any of us would.
Jacob: Yeah, but what is your answer?
Spencer: Well, we all know what the gospel is.
Jacob: Wait a minute. I’m confused. You were just telling us how these church planters could not answer the simple question, “What is the gospel?” But when I ask you the simple question, for some reason you’re not giving an answer. I’m not going to judge your response; I’m just curious what it is.
As any of us can empathize, Spencer was suddenly aware that he was being “hoist with his own petard” to quote Shakespeare. The conversation ended before either man lost all dignity – Spencer for not being able to answer his own, supposedly simple, question and Jacob for making that fact more obvious than it needed to be.
During that brief exchange, two things stood out to me. First, how unable I would have been to answer the question with clarity and conviction in the midst of a dozen pastors, each who was capable of poking holes in my theology. Second, how not-so-simple it is to provide a robust description of the gospel.
I’m on faculty at Western Seminary where our tagline is “gospel-centered transformation.” I like that phrase. Christianity is nothing without the gospel, and the gospel transforms. But what is the gospel? Of course, the gospel is “good news,” but what exactly is this good news?
It’s been more than a decade since my ringside seat for the back-and-forth between Jacob and Spencer. In that time, I’ve heard the gospel described and defined in a number of different ways. Typically, the gospel is reduced to the good news that Jesus died for you, or that salvation comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. While these definitions are totally true, they also don’t seem to tell the whole story. After all, the angels announced to the shepherds the “good news” that a Savior had been born (read Luke’s gospel or watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special if you don’t believe me). My hunch is that while the gospel certainly is not less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, it very well may be more.
I think if we extend our understanding of God’s good news we will find a richer understanding of the gospel. While we never want to lose the centrality and importance of what Jesus accomplished via the cross and the empty tomb, I think we gain an even deeper appreciation of just how truly good this good news is when we place Jesus’ death and resurrection within the much larger good story.
The story of God’s reality and activity is all very good news.
This is why for the next few months I want to unpack, unfold, and explore a broader understanding of the gospel. My goal is to communicate it in a way that a non-believer could understand. So let’s try that. Let’s start at the beginning and unfold the gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ. Tune in next week for the good news that there is a God. See you then.