What Is the Gospel?

Editor’s Note: This article accompanies FBFI Resolution 09-01.

The word evangel means gospel. Therefore, to be evangelical is to be defined by the gospel. At minimum, those who claim to be Evangelicals should have a very clear idea of what the gospel is.

Within today’s Evangelicalism, however, the content of the gospel is the subject of significant disagreement. Many contemporary Evangelicals are attempting to create an understanding of the gospel that is much more inclusive than the message of personal salvation. While these Evangelicals do not always deny a personal gospel (and some are fervently committed to it), they think that the gospel must also deal with other issues, including problems of a psychological, social, and environmental nature. What they proclaim is neither simply a personal gospel nor a social gospel. It is a both/and gospel.

The basic argument for the both/and gospel is that sin has done more than to disrupt our personal relationship with God. It has disrupted the inner integrity of each individual, resulting in the disintegration of emotional wholeness. It has disrupted the relationship between humans, resulting in oppression and exploitation. It has disrupted our relationship to the created order, resulting in the ruination of nature through human abuse. According to proponents of the both/and gospel, a meaningful gospel must address each of these issues directly.

A common maxim of the both/and gospel is that the gospel is not (only?) about getting people to Heaven when they die, it is about getting Heaven onto earth right now. The mechanism through which this heavenly arrival is supposed to occur is the Kingdom of God. According to the theory, the Kingdom is already present in the world, particularly among the people of God. Therefore, the main business of God’s people is to put the Kingdom on display by modeling emotional wholeness, social justice, and environmental concern.

To be clear, those who incorporate social elements into the gospel do not necessarily deny that personal sin has condemned individuals. Nor do they necessarily deny that the gospel includes the element of personal redemption through the propitiatory death of Jesus. What they do, however, is to place their emphasis upon the psychological, social, or ecological dimensions of the gospel. The effect of this shift is to diminish the importance of personal sin and personal redemption. Some of the more extreme advocates of the both/and gospel display a profound reluctance to engage in personal evangelism, substituting social engagement for direct proclamation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the advocates of this “enlarged” gospel rarely appeal to 1 Corinthians 15. This failure is unfortunate, because 1 Corinthians 15 is the key Biblical passage for understanding the content of the gospel. It is the one passage in which a New Testament writer deliberately aims to tell us what the gospel is.

As Paul explains it, the gospel revolves around two historical events: the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. Each of these events is supported by empirical evidence: the death of Jesus is demonstrated through His burial, and the resurrection is confirmed by the testimony of the eyewitnesses. Each event also has far-reaching theological implications.

The death of Jesus was “for our sins.” This statement implies that we were sinners, that our sins condemned us to a horrible fate, and that we could do nothing to help ourselves. It implies that the guilt of our sins was imputed to Christ. It implies that Christ was a qualified substitute for sinners, a truth that carries with it an understanding of His theanthropic person and His virgin birth. The sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice implies that salvation is applied “by grace, through faith.”

The resurrection of Jesus also carries significant implications. The risen Christ is the first-fruits who guarantees the resurrection of His people. He is the Head of a new humanity, over which He stands as the second man and the last Adam. The resurrection is proof of the victory of Jesus, evidence that He has triumphed and that death is a defeated enemy.

The apostle Paul saw the death and resurrection of Jesus primarily as the solution to personal sins. Personal transgressions, not social structures, were at the root of the problems the Corinthian church was facing. Personal guilt—the violation of God’s just law—is the fundamental difficulty with which Paul is concerned wherever he teaches about salvation. For Paul, personal redemption was not merely an aspect of the gospel, it was the gospel itself.

So what should we make of the “gospel of the Kingdom”? Did not John the Baptist and Jesus preach the Kingdom itself as the good news? Did their preaching not imply the full blessing of the Kingdom in all of its emotional, social, and environmental dimensions? Or did Jesus preach a different gospel than Paul?

John and Jesus did indeed preach the imminent Kingdom as good news. This Kingdom was not good news for everyone, however. John warned certain teachers that, for them, the Kingdom meant impending judgment (Matt. 3:7–12). The Kingdom could be good news only for those who were personally just. For the guilty, the Kingdom had to be bad news, for there can be no Kingdom without justice, and there is no justice without judgment.

For guilty people (and that includes all of us), the Kingdom is good news only if guilt can be removed. The arrival of the Kingdom is precisely what dooms us unless we can be forgiven. We will never get to the point of enjoying the emotional, social, and environmental benefits of the Kingdom apart from personal redemption through the blood of Jesus. In other words, the gospel of the Kingdom includes and can exist only by means of the gospel of personal salvation. As Jesus Himself makes clear, entrance into the Kingdom is entirely contingent upon personal repentance and faith (John 3:1–21).

What the both/and gospel has done is to take the secondary effects of the gospel and to put them in the place of the gospel itself. Think of it this way: suppose you have been experiencing distressing physical symptoms such as fatigue and severe nausea. You go to the doctor, who diagnoses you as having parasites living in you and consuming your blood. By way of treatment, however, the doctor prescribes only stimulants for your tiredness and antacids for your nausea.

You would not think much of such a physician. You would look for a doctor who wanted to do more than treat the symptoms. You would want to find a healer who could remove the parasites. You would rightly regard your fatigue and nausea as secondary issues.

What the advocates of the both/and gospel do is exactly what you would not want a physician to do. They have invented a system for treating symptoms, but they have neglected the fundamental disease. Until the guilt of personal sin is erased, psychological, social, and environmental wholeness will remain an illusory dream. No amount of wrongly-founded optimism can help us sinners until our sin is forgiven and our guilt removed.

Even though both/and Evangelicals do not deny personal redemption, they certainly diminish its importance. Because they put the symptoms in the place of the disease, they end up diluting the gospel—and a diluted gospel is one that is robbed of its power. The irony is that, in their concern to treat the symptoms of sin, the Evangelicals “of the Left” fail to deal with the very thing that produces the symptoms: personal guilt. When they have finished their treatment, the parasite is still alive and well.

The gospel of the Evangelical Left is like a Picasso painting in which objects are recognizable but everything is out of proportion. This treatment of the gospel takes things that belong in the background and moves them into the foreground. It takes things that ought to be in sharp focus and blurs them. The result is a lack of clarity about what our need is and what Christ has done to meet it.

People can tamper with the gospel in more than one way. Some have denied the gospel outright. Others have denied the gospel implicitly by denying some truth that is essential to it. Still others have demeaned the gospel by refusing to recognize its role as the boundary of Christian fellowship.

The both/and perspective tampers with the gospel in a different way. On the one hand, it dilutes the gospel by adding to it. On the other hand, it often displaces the gospel by placing greater importance upon its supposed psychological, social, or emotional components than it does upon personal repentance and salvation.

Tampering with the gospel is not a matter that we should ever take lightly. To cloud the gospel is a serious thing. Therefore, we must evaluate the both/and gospel as a serious error rather than a minor mistake. We cannot afford to leave this error unaddressed, for if we value the gospel we must do all that we can to ensure that it is articulated clearly.

Kevin BauderKevin Bauder (MDiv, ThM, DMin, PhD) presently serves as president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, MN. He and his wife, Debra, have two children.

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There are 4 Comments

Wayne Wilson's picture

This is really an excellent article. A keeper. Thank you, Dr. Bauder

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate this clear delineation of what the real trouble is (and is not) in the various renditions of "both-and" gospel. And I appreciate, too, that it's expressed in terms that some of those sympathetic to both-and might well find persuasive.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Z. Stewart MacLean's picture

Thank you for posting, very well thought out Smile

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Joel Shaffer's picture

I wonder what Scot McKnight's response would be to this article (since he is one of the major proponents of a robust gospel) http://www.christianvisionproject.com/2008/03/the_8_marks_of_a_robust_go...

I think he would disagree that the both/and have put the secondary elements in place of the gospel itself, but rather they are elevating it to the same level as personal redemption. And he probably would feel misrepresented by making the charge that they are only dealing with symptoms.....especially if personal redemption is not being diminished, but rather the social elements are merely given equal treatment.

On the otherhand, one of the problems with the both/and gospel or an enlarged gospel is that those followers who embrace McKnight or others that are redifining gospel is that they take it to the level that Bauder is talking about. I have seen several of my evangelical urban ministry colleagues that embrace McKnight or N.T. Wright are so passionate for social justice (deeds) because they see it as part of the gospel, yet diminish the content of the gospel (word).....but see themselves as evangelists of the gospel because they are doing social action activities. sigh.........

Personally, I do not hold to the "robust" gospel or anything other adjective added to the gospel. I am with Bauder about I Corinthians 15:1-4 as the content of the gospel. However, we also need to be careful not to rip the gospel out of its context of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, which clearly points to many social implications of the gospel (even if it is not the gospel itself).

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