What is the gospel?
My latest column at Christian Week:
What lies at the heart of the emerging church? According to Scot McKnight, Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, the emerging movement is not defined by theology. “The emerging movement is not known by its innovative doctrinal statement or by its confessional stances,” he says. “It is, instead, best to see it as a conversation about theology, with all kinds of theologies represented, with a core adhering to the classical creeds in a new key.”
If there is a theological core to the emerging church, however, it is likely around a single question: what is the gospel? Brian McLaren, a controversial voice within the emerging movement, once mused, “It will serve the church if we spend the next 15-20 years asking the question, ‘what is the gospel?’”
Answering this question is not as easy as it may seem. The easiest answer is to quote 1 Corinthians 15:1-4: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” According to others, however, we must define the gospel in a more completely biblical way. It’s here, according to one pastor, that emerging and traditional churches can learn from each other.
Tim Keller is a founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. Christianity Today calls Redeemer “one of Manhattan’s most vital congregations.” It currently draws over four thousand attendees to its worship services each Sunday and has helped start over a hundred smaller churches in the New York City metropolitan area.
Keller spoke at a conference last May about integrating the way we define the gospel.
“Right now I find it helpful to think of two aspects to the gospel,” he says. “Let me give you the gospel in a nutshell. The gospel is that God himself has come to rescue and renew creation through the work and in the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.”
Keller argues that there is both a trajectory of the gospel and the means. The trajectory or purpose of the gospel is a renewed material creation. The means is by sheer grace, and not by works.
“One of the biggest problems we’ve got is that the older evangelicals are really great at the second aspect of the gospel. The newer younger evangelicals are fairly good at the first. But I don’t know yet of a movement that seems to be bringing these together properly.”
Younger evangelicals, Keller says, love to speak of the Kingdom of God and joining him in his work, but don’t like to talk about atonement. Older evangelicals, in which he includes himself, only learned about the atonement and forgiveness of sins.
Neither understanding of the gospel is adequate. Younger evangelicals will not write hymns like Charles Wesley’s And Can It Be; older evangelicals will miss that the purpose of our salvation is a new creation and will instead focus on the individual.
“I think we have to pull it together,” Keller says.
Pulling it together means seeing the gospel as more than just saving souls who will one day go to heaven. The gospel is also concerned with God’s desire to renew all of creation. The mission statement of Redeemer Presbyterian is “to spread the gospel…to bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world.”
Another church, Imago Dei Community in Portland, puts it more simply: to take the whole gospel to the whole person to the whole world. “An all-encompassing gospel has implications for every part of every human being in every part of the world.”
Our Most Urgent Task
It is easy to get distracted about secondary issues. If Keller is right, secondary issues retreat behind one central question: what is the gospel? How can we, whether we are younger or older evangelicals, understand and live the whole gospel rather than a truncated version?
Keller says that he doesn’t yet know of a movement that brings the two aspects of the gospel together. Integrating these two aspects of the gospel may be the most urgent task facing our churches today.