Having someone challenge you to think about something you take for granted is annoying. You know this is true. You get asked something like, “Why do you always have the same drink order at Starbucks?” or “Why do you love your spouse?” (two questions of an admittedly different scope), and you just mumble something about “Because it is what it is, and I just do. Why do you have to be so annoying, especially before I’ve had that Starbucks?”
In the last year, our church leadership and staff have been asked to consider the question— “What is the gospel?” We assume we know. We’ve listened to Billy Graham. We got the bracelet with the colored beads. We know the Romans Road and can traverse it with the best of them. But think about this. What do you know? What would you say? If you had to answer like a junior high essay—in 100 words or less (fewer, junior high English teachers, it’s fewer)—what would you write? Cut away what you assume and take for granted and answer the question like you’ve never heard it. Maybe you haven’t.
What. Is. The. Gospel?
It’s a question I’ve pondered since seminary days, when I told my theology professor I thought salvation had to be toward something good rather than simply away from something bad. Salvation from hell wasn’t enough; there had to be something we were striving to move into, and not just heaven.
He agreed. My fellow students looked at me funny. It wasn’t the first or last time. I didn’t know I was thinking outside of the box of orthodox evangelicalism. I had no box for reference—I hadn’t grown up in one like most of these guys had. I only knew they looked at me funny, which, if you know me, you know felt a little bit like a badge of honor.
Now, twenty- and thirty-somethings are daring to say those things I said when I was twenty-something, only now people are listening and nodding. Could we be stripping gospel of its power, and its truth, when we reduce it to the Romans Road?
What is the gospel? Really? We need to go back and ask that question from time to time. The Easter season, when we celebrate the power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is a perfect time to ask. What part of that triad do we leave out? Do we focus on one aspect of Jesus’ ministry to the detriment of the others?
Ask the question again and again until we know we’ve left behind our assumptions and boxes and easy three-step answers and are left naked with nothing but the Word of God and open ears.
What is the gospel? One hundred words of fewer?
I’m giving it a shot.
The Beginning. God created. Everything. He had a plan for perfect balance and a relationship with humans—His image-bearers. We messed it up by trying to be the image itself, not content with the grandness of image-bearing. We wanted to run the show. We forgot we didn’t create it and didn’t know how to run it. Dumb. (Fyi—We still do this. Daily.)
God sent His image again—Jesus—perfect man and God in one piece. I don’t quite get how either. But he did. Jesus said, “I know your lives are broken, and your relationships are broken, and your everything is pretty much broken because that first relationship that all good things come from is broken. I’ll fix it. You didn’t keep your agreement with your Creator, but I’ll keep it for you; I’ll die to keep it. Only I can fix the completely broken.
“And when I come back (which is going to be sooner than you think, three days in fact, and it will blow away ALL your assumptions), I’ll start really shaking things up. I’ll start planning for and expecting the Kingdom that God meant to happen here will happen. Here. Now. And I’ll give you the power to help me make it happen, if you believe me. One more time, you will be my image bearers in this place.
“In the end (or just the beginning), it will all come full circle, and you will return to the perfection I created, finally ready to live there, with me. The End.”
OK, that was more than 100 words. Still, four paragraphs is not too bad, when you consider my theology book in school was about four inches wide. So 25 words or fewer? How about:
God created. We broke. God loved. He fixed. We love back—we help fix.
Fourteen words. Boom.
It’s not just an exercise in brevity. It’s an exercise in being able to explain to another person, coming from another mindset entirely, what is at the heart of what we believe. We can’t make disciples if we can’t convey clearly what we are discipling for. We can’t bring a person on a lifelong journey if we have only a quick prayer and a fire insurance policy in our gospel arsenal. It’s not the whole gospel, and it’s not very compelling.
There is no such thing as discipling someone away from hell. It’s like sending a person on a trip by telling them, “I don’t know where you’re going, but I know you’re going away from Chicago.” (Which, as I write this in February, is kind of like hell. Really.) Who is going on that trip with no idea of an itinerary or a destination? Maybe the reason we’re having such a tough time making disciples is that we focus on what we’re directing them away from and have no real clue what we’re directing them toward.
Thus, the gospel. The whole gospel. The one that shows us how Jesus lived and what he lived for as well as what he died for. The one that assures us that as he healed brokenness and brought purpose in his earthly life, so his resurrection life gives us that same directive.
It’s almost Easter. More and more, the people around us have no idea why we continue to celebrate it. They don’t even know what it means. The average Westerner cannot put together an Easter narrative other than one that involves eggs and giant bunnies. It’s a brave new world. So we must be people who are able to put together that narrative. A compelling one. A complete one.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.