Just what is “the gospel?”
A rather common refrain these days is that we need to “focus on the gospel, and stop spending so much time on the other stuff.” Usually that claim seems to be made by fundamentalist believers, insisting that all problems are solvable by just focusing on the gospel.
But what, exactly, IS the gospel?
“Gospel” originally just meant “the good news,” but the word itself has become overloaded with a rather wide variety of meanings, so which good news exactly? I recall that the “gospel” I kept hearing as I grew up in evangelical churches was to tell the unsaved about Jesus, how they could be saved and go to heaven if they just trusted in Him, and more specifically, in His death on the cross. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, and more Jesus.
I’ve been told several times lately that this focus on the historical person named Jesus is the gospel of Jesus – meaning “the gospel about Jesus.” Alternatively, since this focus is all about salvation based on Jesus, I suppose you could call this “the gospel of salvation.”
So what is “salvation?”
If you look holistically at the first four books of the New Testament, Jesus only talked about being “saved” a few times, and most of those might more properly be translated “your faith has healed you” or “made you well” or “made you whole,” and almost certainly do not have an eschatological thrust. Many of the New Testament uses of the word that is translated as “saved” (Greek “sozo“) can also be translated “healed” or “restored.” (1)
Instead, He spent nearly all His time telling people about two things: the coming Kingdom, and what His Father was like. So the good news according to Jesus – the Gospel of Jesus, if you will – wasn’t the good news about Jesus, it was Jesus’ own good news about the Kingdom and the Father. In fact, in the book of Matthew, Jesus’ own references to the gospel are to “this gospel of the Kingdom” (Matt 4:23, Matt 9:35, Matt 24:14), not referring to salvation at all.
Over the remainder of the New Testament, the term “gospel” began to take on wider meaning as Jesus’ followers attempted to describe their new faith to their own followers. “Gospel” begins to appear with new descriptors, being referred to as the “gospel of Christ,” “gospel of God,” “gospel of peace,” and even “gospel of your salvation.” But these ultimately all point back to Jesus and His ministry.
So what was the gospel that Jesus himself taught, instead of the gospel ABOUT Jesus? Is it possible to better understand salvation from what Jesus did while He was alive, not just what He did in dying?
Note that the Jewish faith at Jesus’ time had no concept of the salvation of the soul. There was little discussion in the Jewish faith about the afterlife, and none recorded at all prior to about 200 BCE. (2) The soul and spirit and body were thought to be inseparable and death was an end not only of the body but also of any chance of communion with God. So “salvation” was entirely a matter of healing and restoration in present circumstances.
“Based on God’s unique relationship with the people of Israel as presented in the Tanach (Old Testament), salvation is almost always understood as collective and national, not personal and individual. Thus, the Lord hears the cries of the children of Israel and delivers them from bondage.” (3) Only later in the pre-Jesus era did Greek and Roman ideas of eternity begin to creep into Jewish thinking.
It’s also notable that Jesus never once referred to Himself as “savior” or “deliverer” in His recorded words – those appellations were only applied to Him later by others. Perhaps the closest such instance was allowing Himself to be referred to as Messiah by the Samaritan woman in John 4:25-26 – and His response, while often translated, “I am He, the One speaking to you” could just as easily be translated “I am the one speaking to you,” omitting a claim to be “He, the One, the Messiah” and simply redirecting her to focus on Himself and not the prophecy. The Greek is simply not absolutely clear.
So what does this all tell us?
When Jesus used the word “saved” or “salvation” or referred to His ministry, it’s pretty certain that He wasn’t talking about the eternal destiny of the soul, but rather the temporal matters of those with whom He was interacting: their mental and physical health, their freedom from Roman or social or cultural oppression, and so forth. And when He discussed the coming Kingdom, since the Hebrew theology didn’t have a significant concept of eternal destiny, He was likely referring to the Kingdom arriving on earth during the lifetimes of those to whom He spoke.
So why is this definition of “salvation” important?
I think it’s a matter of where we put our attention and effort.
When a Christian is laser-focused on eternal salvation from hellfire, and therefore in doing whatever is necessary to tell people that believing in Jesus will “save” them with regard to eternity, then the stakes are so high that people will do anything to meet that goal. In fact, too often care for the individual in this time and space takes a back seat to the attempt to ensure their soul’s eternal destination. One must convince them to “name the name of Jesus” or pledge fealty to Him in some way, usually with a phrase like “Jesus, I give my heart to you and submit to you as my Savior;” if one walks away feeling confident that the person had the chance to make an intelligent choice between believing and not believing, then the job has been done and it’s their fault if they don’t choose salvation. And even if their body and circumstances suffer, that’s forgivable because the Christian believes that they have ensured the person’s eternity.
But when our mission ignores the here-and-now, it seems like an awful lot of ugly stuff creeps into how that gospel is presented. The resulting process no longer looks LIKE Jesus or his focus, and the Kingdom and the Father are not being well-represented. Why would anyone want to follow a God that ignores their very real earthly needs and simultaneously sends to them a servant who browbeats them into parroting a few sentences that will somehow ensure their destiny sometime in the future? Why would they be persuaded to follow a God who cares little about their circumstances?
By contrast, if we’re focused on what Jesus focused on – in other words, spending our energy on being LIKE Jesus, instead of talking ABOUT Jesus – then the goal becomes accurately representing the Father and modeling all the things that Jesus talked about, specifically representing the Kingdom that arrived when Jesus’ death on the cross fulfilled all the requirements of the Law. Accurately representing the Father in the way that Jesus did has a vastly different appearance – the “salvation” looks a lot more like healing and rescuing and restoring people in their current lives.
And it’s much more likely, in my opinion, that an unbeliever will want to follow and serve this God being represented personally in front of them with love and self-sacrifice and care and grace and mercy.
But what I see being represented across too much of Christianity is “You need Jesus to go to heaven, and I will use any and all tactics to get that message across, even if it is harmful to your body and mind and earthly interests.”
As a simple example, consider the Crusades, which expended between 1 and 5 million European lives and uncounted thousands of Muslims and Jews over hundreds of years. Even fellow Christians were slaughtered in the Crusades, especially in the 4th Crusade in 1202-1204 AD in which western papal fores attacked eastern Constantinople.
Or consider the rampant colonialism of the 17th and 18th centuries, of uprooting entire peoples across the Americas and the Caribbean, destroying their way of life, taking their lands, “in the name of Jesus,” to bring the gospel to them (and coincidentally to seek riches and lands for rulers).
Or the argument from thousands of southern American churches in the 1800s that raiding Africa and subjecting millions of Black Africans to dehumanizing chattel slavery in America was a good way to ensure that they would learn about the true God and thus be saved in eternity – while being subjected here on the earth to utterly inhuman conditions?
Okay, those are ancient examples, right?
What about the war in Ukraine, which is being conducted mostly on Christian nationalistic grounds by Putin and the Russian Orthodox church, who have portrayed it to the Russian people as a fight against Nazi sympathizers and gays in Ukraine. The result is inhuman bombing of hospitals and schools and power plants and apartment buildings, and forced relocations of Ukraine citizens to Mother Russia, where they can be reprogrammed. These are all facts and well-proven.
Or closer to home, the war on gays and trans people in this nation, with the denial of basic human rights to people – in the name of Jesus. It truly doesn’t matter whether they are sinning – that’s not how to treat a fellow human being made in the image of God, and it’s not how Jesus treated even the worst sinners.
Here’s the bottom line.
The point is not to get the work done. The point is represent the Father.
One might ask “what would Jesus do?” I believe the answer is quite simple: He would represent the Father with utter perfection, and continually point people to the Father and His Kingdom, and trust the Holy Spirit to win them towards righteous living. (I don’t recall any scriptures that refer to Jesus setting up an accountability program for those over whom He proclaimed salvation and forgiveness of sins.)
So maybe we need to stop trying so hard to talk ABOUT Jesus, and start trying to be exactly LIKE Jesus. If it is “all about Jesus” and “all about the Gospel” as so many Christians claim, then let’s actually make it about faithfully representing Him. As it’s said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” We don’t need to get people to say a magic set of words. We do need to personally be an accurate representative – an accurate representation – of God in this time and space. I honestly don’t care if someone says Jesus’ name in my presence: if they put their faith in Jesus’ representation they see in me, then it’s Jesus in whose name they are trusting. Only THEN can we have a conversation about Jesus and – eventually, perhaps, maybe, and only once a relationship of trust has been established – about the choices they are making in their lives.
Thus, that’s the essence of making disciples, and that’s the mission that Jesus gave us. He never said “go and get people to pray the sinner’s prayer.” He DID say “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20) Notice that His command has nothing about them saying His name or accepting something we call salvation.
A mentor of mine has said that the essence of being a Christian is being an ambassador of the Father’s Kingdom. An ambassador is one who embodies the authority and character of the ruler of their home nation in a foreign land. The ambassador doesn’t just represent the King; they physically embody the King to a different nation. Anything that THEY do and say is effectively done BY the King in that remote land; anything that is done to them is done TO the King. And in like manner, we Christians are meant to actually embody Christ to a different culture, not only carrying His authority, but actually being an extension of Him. As such, being a completely accurate version of Him is critically essential to carrying out that ambassadorship to our American (or any other earthly) culture.
Seeing the command in Matthew 28:19-20 in this light has transformed my view of what is happening in Christianity today, and I find that it has completely changed my assessment of the tactics used by many Christians today. I’m unwilling to participate any longer, when the primary goal is getting the work done in a manner that doesn’t look like Christ. I’ll only participate in representing the Father.