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Preaching the Gospel: Past, Present, and Future

A look at current conversations about the gospel and what they might mean for our preaching

Editor's note: In the months ahead, Preaching Today will be wrestling with the idea of preaching the gospel. What does that really mean? Is our gospel too small? Is it too big? To help us get a feel for the terrain we'll be exploring, we asked Skye Jethani, managing editor of Leadership journal, to discuss critical names, resources, terminology, and ideas to keep in mind. 

Preaching Today: A number of Christian authors, pastors, and theologians are raising critical questions about our understanding of the nature of the gospel. What do you think has stirred such passion?

Skye Jethani: A lot of passion has been fueled by the angst produced from conversations about how to reach younger, postmodern generations. Two schools of thought emerged from the beginning. One group opted for the conservative approach: we just need to be more relevant, repackaging the same gospel message in a manner or style that's going to be appealing to the next generation. Another group insisted the church needed to go deeper than repackaging the content. They felt we needed to rethink the content. A lot of today's conversations about the gospel were born out of the early tension between the two schools of thought.

Our gospel arsenal is a lot bigger than it used to be. We can choose to preach the Good News from a number of different angles, according to the audience we've been given.

These two groups were not unlike the two groups that formed during the modernist/fundamentalist split that happened a hundred years ago. Think about the massive cultural changes that were going on: Darwinism, Marxism, textual criticism of the Bible, psychology. Many Christians looked at that tangled mess and concluded they needed to adjust the gospel. In doing so they ended up forming mainline, liberal theology. The fundamentalists among them said, "I don't care what's happening to the culture. The gospel's the gospel, and we're not changing it!"

It's quite similar today. One side prides themselves on not changing the gospel but only the style in which it is preached. In their eyes, anyone who adjusts their perspective on the gospel represents a new liberalism. The other side responds with a certain degree of disdain over what they feel is stodgy fundamentalism blind to its own modernist bias. 

Another factor that explains why we're currently engaged in gospel-oriented conversations is the revival of interest in spiritual formation. Decades ago, Richard Foster and others at Renovaré were not asking, "How do we reach younger generations?" They were asking questions like: "Why aren't we seeing Christians living in Christ-like ways?" "Why is the church so culturally captivated?" "If we've been preaching the gospel all these years, why aren't we seeing much change in people?" Their conclusion was that we had been preaching a limited gospel—one that didn't bring about radical transformation. Foster and others were questioning whether or not we were preaching a gospel of transformation for the here and now and not just for life after death.

Who are the particular individuals or movements that continue to ask hard questions about the gospel, pushing the issue forward from the past into the present?

Dallas Willard has certainly played a pivotal role. In the opening chapters of The Divine Conspiracy, Willard challenges what he feels is a false view of the gospel. In his own upbringing in ministry years ago, he was taught that the gospel was all about finding an answer to this question: What do you think is going to happen to you when you die? The gospel was mostly an assurance of salvation after death. You pray the prayer, and when you die, you're with Christ. There was little about the present life that was inherent to the gospel—issues of discipleship, sanctification, or transformation. Willard challenges us with the idea of "the eternal kind of life now." That's a totally different way of thinking about things, and it has huge implications. If we're to live in the kingdom of God now, that has major implications for the Christian life and mission now, rather than just later. Think about how radical it is now to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Willard has also played a pivotal role in putting "the kingdom of God" back into people's vocabulary. He's pushed his readers to figure out what Jesus meant when he said, "Behold! The kingdom of God is at hand." In his opinion we've neglected a theology of the kingdom of God. Brian McLaren has picked up on this level of thinking in many of his books, like The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren has tended to take a more politically active direction than Willard, but kingdom theology is a big piece of the puzzle. These convictions concerning the gospel show up in the work of another key figure, Tony Jones. The Emergent folks have continued to champion a gospel that includes issues of social justice. They seek ways to manifest the kingdom of God here and now through the love and good deeds of the church.

The list could go on and on: George Hunter, who introduced the idea of belonging before believing in The Celtic Way of Evangelism; Robert Webber, with books like Ancient-Future Faith or The Younger Evangelicals; Mark Driscoll and the New Reformed movement; Lesslie Newbigin and his many works.

You've mentioned a few categories of the gospel like the kingdom of God and "the eternal kind of life now." What are some of the other categories that people are challenging us to take a second, deeper look at?

Generally speaking, a lot of folks are challenging us to reconsider the scope of our gospel. When I was growing up, the gospel was very individualistic. It was about my salvation, my soul. Now many are wondering if there is more to what Christ accomplished through his life and ministry. In Romans 8, we read of creation groaning and waiting for renewal. A lot of writers and thinkers point to that as proof of a more cosmic scope to the gospel. They speak of the redemption of the whole world—not in a universalistic fashion, but in the idea that all things will be made right. This manner of thinking has gone on to reintroduce ideas of creation care or environmental stewardship into the ecclesial conversation. Most recently, N. T. Wright has wrestled with concepts of new life and new creation in Surprised by Hope

Another category of intense debate is the nature of sin. Robert Webber devotes an entire chapter in The Younger Evangelicals to this topic. He points out that the boomer generation generally used the word brokenness when referencing sin. This offered a more therapeutic notion of sin: you weren't evil; you were just broken. Christ was elevated as the way to "fix" you or your marriage or your finances. The younger generations—particularly those in a post-9/11 world—don't see sin primarily as brokenness. Webber says that's much too passive in their eyes. They see sin as active rebellion. They don't shy away from the presence of evil in the world, and they wrestle with its reality from a gospel perspective. They want to deal with the rebellion in humanity.

Shane Claiborne and others talk about how the implications of the gospel challenge the powers of the world—the "empire," as they like to put it. In his book Jesus for President, Claiborne focuses on how the designation of Jesus as Lord was a subversive statement in Roman society. Until Jesus came along, it was only Caesar who was considered lord. Claiborne translates this into modern day language of Jesus being a president of sorts. He says the empire, our country, our economy, and other cultural forces need to be deconstructed by the gospel of Christ and not vice versa. So, here we have a category of politically subversive activism that is brewing at the edges of our conversations about the gospel.  

The prophetic nature of the gospel is also being reintroduced back into conversations about the gospel. In his book A Peculiar People: The Church As Culture in a Post-Christian Society, Rodney Clapp talks about our living in a post-Constantinian world where Christianity is no longer the chaplain to the powers that be. We now rest on the margins, causing us to rethink our gospel. Because of this, Clapp insists we're starting to foster a more prophetic gospel that challenges the nation-state.

Still others are speaking to the missional flavor of the gospel. They feel that the marginalization of the gospel is reinvigorating the mission of the church. Building on the work of people like Lesslie Newbigin, the missional folks argue that the church is an instrument employed by Christ to advance the kingdom. That radically changes our understanding of both the gospel and the mission of the church. In most cases we've been taught that the mission of the church is to grow the church, and mission is an instrument employed by the church to do such a thing. The missional folks are reversing it, making everything go haywire for those who have always seen gospel and mission the other way around.

What about some of the Reformed groups that are coming together—groups like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel (T4G)?

They seem to be playing a pivotal role of safeguarding the gospel. While some are arguing that our scope of the gospel has been too narrow, they are warning us not to let it get too wide. They probably represent the more conservative end of things, making sure that the church isn't guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They're a helpful corrective that anchors those on the other side, saying, "Okay, go ahead and rethink some things, but there are certain boundaries we shouldn't cross." I think it's a helpful role. I'd be scared if the revisionist side didn't have an anchor on the more conservative side. Both sides need each other.

Let's talk about how all this intersects with preaching. To begin with, what has most often served as our definition of preaching the gospel, and what's been good and bad about that working definition?

Preaching the gospel has often been preaching: (1) we're all sinners; (2) we're all separated from God as a result of that sin; (3) Christ has made the way for us to be reconciled to God; (4) if we accept Jesus through faith, our sins will be forgiven and we will be reconciled to God; (5) we have assurance of unity with God throughout eternity.

I find it hard to take issue with that definition. It's certainly accurate. The problem lies more in whether that's the only way to present the gospel. I don't take issue with that presentation theologically, but it's merely one facet of a multifaceted jewel. It's appropriate to turn the gospel in our preaching to reflect a different angle of light—an angle that doesn't contradict the previous one but allows the truth to shine through in a different manner and to a different effect.

With that in mind, then, I preach the gospel even if I'm not calling nonbelievers to a moment of salvation where they can profess their faith in Christ by coming forward or raising their hand. There's a place for that, but I think that narrow definition of preaching gospel takes away a lot of the beauty and strength and power that the gospel holds.

How does today's conversation about the gospel potentially affect our preaching?

If the gospel isn't as individualistic as we've made it out to be, then our preaching must offer a more global reach. If the gospel speaks to the rebellion of humanity, then we can't preach a passive solution of accepting our brokenness and Christ "fixing" it. Our application has to be an aggressive one. If the gospel aims for spiritual formation, we need to preach in such a way that people are transformed for the here and now and not just eternity.

In all of this discussion about different categories of the gospel, however, we need to realize that some things aren't black and white. I don't think it's appropriate to pit one type of preaching against another. Tim Keller has talked about employing a different gospel presentation for different audiences. In the past we probably wouldn't have thought that way; now the preacher is being taught to think in certain dichotomies: preaching the gospel is about a person's soul, but it's also about the rest of the cosmos. It's a moment in time, but it's also a process. We are broken, but we are also rebellious.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.

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