Is the gospel relative?

As you may know, one of the most talked-about debates between the traditional church and the emerging church has to do with the gospel. Traditionalists claim that emergers have reduced the gospel to social justice to the neglect of atonement soteriology and personal salvation, while emergers claim that traditionalists have reduced the gospel to personal fire insurance to the neglect of Jesus’ teachings regarding the Kingdom of God.

It’s a topic that Jim Belcher recently explored in Deep Church, and it’s a topic that has led to some theological hair-splitting over the past few years, as NT Wright and John Piper debate the meaning justification. (For a comprehensive discussion of Deep Church, check out Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. For a nice overview of the justification debate, check out this article from Christianity Today.)

I always get a little nervous when I encounter a bunch of theologians arguing over the meaning of the gospel, each armed with his own sophisticated definition of it. I suppose that it’s the recovering fundamentalist in me that wants to ask, “Shouldn’t the gospel be simpler than this?” “Shouldn’t it be easy to understand and explain?” “Shouldn’t we all be on the same page on something this important?”

Having grown up in the conservative evangelical subculture that cast salvation as little more than a ticket out of hell that you cash in on Judgment Day, I’ve personally been enthralled and challenged by the emerging church’s perspective on the Kingdom of God. It has inspired me to reconnect to the life and teachings of Jesus, as opposed to only focusing on his death. And it has encouraged me to think of salvation in terms of God’s plan to restore and repair the whole world, as opposed to thinking of it in terms of individualistic escapism. With the help of NT Wright, I feel that this perspective has complemented, not replaced, my belief in atonement. In fact, discovering the gospel of the kingdom has been a bit like being born again…again. It’s like encountering, dare I say it, GOOD NEWS for the first time!

It seems to me that both the emerging and traditional perspectives on the gospel are important, and that perhaps the novelty of one appeals the most to those who started with the other. In other words, folks who grew up with the social gospel might need a dose of stubstitutionary atonement to save them from pride, while folks who grew up with the fire insurance gospel need a dose of the kingdom perspective to save them from self-focused individualism.  In this case, it seems to me that the gospel, or the “good news,” is a bit relative—because the part of it that isnews is relative to the person receiving it.

In fact, I think we could resolve some of the current conflict by acknowledging that there is no one set definition for the gospel, that everyone experiences Jesus a little differently.

Matthew responded to the good news that Jesus did not come to call the righteous but the sinners. The bleeding woman responded to the good news that her simple act of faith in touching Jesus’ clothes had made her well.  The Samaritan by the well responded to the good news that everyone who drinks of the water of life will not thirst again, no matter how sinful their past. The Apostle Paul responded to the good news that Jesus loved his enemies enough to transform and use them. The Athenians responded to the good news that God does not dwell in temples made with hands.

For years I just assumed that the Gospels were incomplete, that we only caught a glimpse of Jesus’ interaction with these people. I figured that some time after the initial meeting, he must have sat down and walked his new converts through the Romans Road, just to make sure they really understood the gospel in all of its soteriological glory. In fact, it used to frustrate me that the story of Jesus contained no one-size-fits-all method of evangelism. But now I find it quite beautiful.

It seems to me that what makes the gospel good and what makes the gospel news is relative to the person receiving it. 

For the legalist trying to earn God’s favor through good behavior, the bad news is that works of righteousness are not enough impress a holy God; the good news is that salvation is a gift.  For the victim of war struggling to connect with a God who allows so much evil in the world, the bad news is that mankind’s rebellion has turned the planet into battlefield; the good news is that God loves the world and has a plan to ultimately heal, restore, and redeem all of creation.

For the child of fundamentalism whose self-loathing and guilt keep her from experiencing God’s peace, the bad news is that God is angered by sin; the good news is that her sins were atoned for on the cross. For the child of rape who struggles to forgive, the bad news is that she suffered a terrible injustice; the good news is that Jesus did too and he wants to fellowship with her in her suffering. For the elderly facing death, the bad news is that everyone dies; the good news is that Jesus rose. For the relief worker who strives for decades to help bring peace into the world, the bad news is that his work is not done; the good news is that God will complete it.

Some discover the good news in the story of the incarnation. Some discover the good news in the Sermon on the Mount. Some discover it in the cross. Some discover it in the resurrection. Some discover it in the kingdom to come.  And some rediscover it every day in all kinds of surprising places.

While the gospel always includes themes of sin and redemption, brokenness and setting things right, we cannot be so arrogant as to expect everyone’s experience with it to look just like ours.

What do you think? Is the gospel relative? Can you think of some examples of ways in which you have observed this to be true?

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