Peter Enns has a recent blog post answering the question: What is the gospel? According to Dr. Enns, Martin Luther (and all the Reformers and all pretty much all the church since the time of the apostles) were wrong. The gospel is not about how people are saved from their sins:
Rather, the common Christian way of answering the question–like the example I give above–misses a lot of what the New Testament says about the gospel. Which, if true, is a big problem.
That is what Williams is getting at in his posts, and they’re well worth reading.
Williams points out that “gospel” as it is commonly understood, at least among conservative Protestants, is tied to issues that were big during the Reformation. Martin Luther and others were struggling with the question of how we are made right before God, or as we might put it today, “how do you get saved?”
To make a long and complicated story short and simple, Luther argued that we are justified before God by faith alone, not by works. As we might put it today, “good deeds don’t get you to heaven.” Luther got that idea from the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters–or better, how Luther understood Paul’s letters given the kinds of questions he was asking, but I digress….
Here is the point: How Luther understood “gospel”–how someone gets right with God–is not really “the gospel.” Rather, it is part of the gospel, an implication of the gospel. Luther talked about the gospel the way he did to address a theological concern of his time, but that doesn’t mean Luther’s definition gets to the heart of the matter. In other words,
…the gospel is not about how you get saved.
If the gospel is not about how you get saved, then what is it about? According to Dr. Enns (and N.T. Wright, among others):
According to the Gospels, the gospel is not about the afterlife, but what “kingdom” you belong to here and now. Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” (or “of God”), and this is commonly misunderstood as a kingdom “up there” somewhere. But read what Jesus says about the kingdom. It is about the rule of God on earth, with Jesus as king. “Kingdom of heaven” doesn’t mean “kingdom that is IN heaven” but “kingdom FROM heaven.” God’s reign, though King Jesus, is setting up shop here and now. The question Jesus asks the people is, “Do you want in or not?”
I once asked a pastor two questions to clarify what he was teaching on the gospel: what is the gospel, and what is the mission of the church? He answered that the gospel is the Good News that Jesus has broken into history and has ushered in the Kingdom of God and begun His work of redeeming the cosmos. The mission of the church, according to this pastor, was to invite people to join in this work of redemption. What about salvation and the forgiveness of sins? Well, that’s part of the whole thing, of course, just not central. That’s when we decided to leave.
The church has one thing it can offer that no one else can: forgiveness of sins and salvation. Any secular organization can rectify social ills, provide basic human necessities, and build parks and schools. I’m not saying that these are not worthy goals. We should not forget about the physical needs of the people we minister to. What I’m saying is that if we forget that we have a mission and that that mission is preaching the Good News of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, then we are salt that has lost its savor. If we are not reconciled to God, no amount of clean water, social justice, and redistribution of wealth will save us. We will have stored up our treasure here on earth and kept the most important treasure hidden from those we are helping.
Is our sin so minor a thing that our salvation can be treated so contemptuously? May God have mercy on us all.