Gospel: noun or verb?
Here’s a question that ought to be simple. Is Gospel a noun or a verb? I trust you answered, “A noun.” Gospel is a noun just like news is a noun. The Gospel is announced just like news is announced. You don’t do Gospel, you tell Gospel; you don’t obey news, you spread news. So Mark says Jesus “went into Galilee, to proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). When we turn to Acts, we see the early church, according to Luke, proclaiming/telling/teaching/announcing/and testifying to the good news of Jesus. OK, this part is simple.
However, the next part is not so simple. If we agree that Gospel is a noun, why do we keep trying to turn it into a verb? These days, doing (a verb) all sorts of things is Gospel. Doing justice, doing art, doing business, doing pretty much anything, is Gospel. Last year, a Christian musician intoned, “As long as we are preaching the Gospel with our actions, I think we're fulfilling the Great Commission, which is to go out and make disciples.” Notice, news is reduced to deeds with no seeming recognition that deeds are mute without explanation. It’s important to notice Jesus didn’t simply go about Palestine healing the sick, freeing the demon-possessed, and multiplying loaves for the hungry (which he could have done and by which he could have been perpetually popular). He also went about announcing the kingdom (which made him ultimately unpopular enough to be put to death). Notice the same pattern, for example, at the end of Acts 4. The church doesn’t simply do good through acts of charity and kindness (which would have likely assured its ongoing popularity) but announces the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (which ensures its unpopularity and consequent persecution a few chapters later). There is something about putting the noun on the table that doesn’t happen when we deal only in verbs.[i]
All this sometimes descends into the ridiculous. Just the other day, I saw a discussion on the web encouraging us to develop a theology of dessert that would provide pastry chefs with a theological framework for their daily labors. When we connect Gospel with dessert making, we’re told with breathless wonder, that we create a taste of the divine. See the pan of tiramisu on your counter that you just made? Gospel.[ii] If baking needs redeeming, perhaps it would be helpful for us to reflect on what it means for an éclair to be fallen in order that it might be redeemed through theological engagement (and Gospel baking, apparently, whatever that might mean).
Why “Gospel” must be a noun
But there is a more serious conversation to be had than simply pondering the mysteries of Gospel baked goods. James Turner’s helpful book, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America[iii] is one helpful guide into that conversation. The burden of Turner’s work is to answer a simple but important question: How did unbelief come to be an available and plausible alternative to the prevailing theism of American culture; how did the almost universal assumption of God disappear? I suspect that many evangelicals would offer various answers from modern science to political liberalism to secular education and any number of others. Turner’s startling thesis is that unbelief didn’t happen to religion but that religion caused unbelief. It is God’s defenders, Turner says, who strangled Him to death.[iv]
That’s a pretty sobering analysis to take in. But let’s follow his argument a couple more steps. How did God’s friends commit deicide? By trying to make the Gospel relevant to the reigning assumptions of a changing cultural setting.[v] In addition to rationalizing and psychologizing belief, one of the ways they sought relevance was by moralizing belief[vi] or, put more simply, changing the Gospel (noun) into behavior (verb). However, once Christian faith has been reduced to a reasonable morality, God is no longer necessary for morality or for much of anything. Because, of course, one way the Gospel was psychologized (among others) was a functional loss of the idea of sin. Some good folks might like a God who cheers us on from the sidelines in our moral pursuits. Most of us, though, since we’re good anyway, can manage our moral lives quite nicely, thank you very much. And we can do that without the burden of having to get up on Sunday morning, tithe, worship, and serve on church committees let alone needing a distant, invisible God to enforce it all.[vii]
A problem long in the making—but much longer in the solving
It’s hard to read Turner, look at the current church scene, and not cry out, “Oh no, here we go again.” This pernicious tendency in the church to reshape the Gospel from noun to verb has no good end in view for God, for his church, or for our culture. To take one example, we feed our children a steady diet of moralistic Sunday School curricula over years, let the nice-people behaviorism of Veggie Tales be their babysitter while we’re busy,[viii] and encourage the youth pastor toward lots of talks laced with appeals to fear and bad consequences in order to get them to behave. Then we scratch our heads when Christian Smith concludes they’re committed to what he calls therapeutic, moral deism rather than historic Christian faith.[ix]
To those more historically inclined, none of this is really new. The issue of reducing the Gospel to ethics was a major issue at the heart of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century. As J. Gresham Machen warned then, this is not a choice between competing views of Christian faith. It is a choice between the historic Christian Gospel and an altogether different religion. Jesus did not come to bring guidance but redemption. He is not an example for faith[x] but the object of our faith. He is not our guide, he is our Savior. To reduce Jesus to something akin to the first disciple[xi] is to eclipse his identity as the eternally begotten Son, the Lord of Glory, who entered history to accomplish the world’s redemption in His dying, rising, and ascending to rule from the Father’s right hand.[xii] That’s the good news we have been given to declare; the Gospel is our privilege to tell. It’s a noun, not a verb. Grammar matters.
[i] The answer to one imbalance isn’t another—speech without action—so we need to remember that words explain deeds and deeds validate words.
[ii] http://theGospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2014/03/31/toward-a-theology-of-dessert/ Given that I read this on April Fool’s Day, I wondered if it was meant to be a parody of faith and work discussions since it seemed more like something you might encounter at Lark News or The Onion. However, it isn’t and seems rather to reflect more troubling trends in faith and vocation conversations. More on this in a future article.
[iii] Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
[iv] Ibid, p. xiii.
[v] Turner outlines the kind of socioeconomic, epistemological, scientific, and moral challenges that make up the new environment with respect to which Christians sought to make the Gospel relevant.
[vi] Ibid, pp. 82-95.
[vii] Think of the way Christopher Hitchens considers the Kingdom of God as something akin to a celestial North Korea.
[viii] See R. Russell Moore, The Gospel’s Bigger Idea (http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=21-08-018-f). To his credit, the creator of Veggie Tales, Paul Vischer, is creating a new series of videos, What’s in the Bible, that seek to tell the story of the Bible in a manner less moralistic and more focused on the story of redemption.
[ix] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[x] Imitating Christ is an important New Testament theme that is a far cry from the moralistic and often legalistic patterns of WWJD thinking. Jason Hood’s helpful volume, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing the Biblical Pattern (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013) places imitation in its necessary theological context.
[xi] In Islam, Muhammad is the first Muslim. However, Jesus is not the first Christian. He is not a follower of the Way, He is The Way.
[xii] See Machen’s, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 69-98
Do you know what the Gospel is—the full Gospel, not just the invitation to believe through the salvation plan? Try explaining it to a friend. Especially, in view of the article above, how does the Gospel inform our moral choices?
Further Reading: If you find you’re not able to explain the Gospel—not just the plan of salvation—listen to the first booklet on the audio book, The Gospel Coalition Series 1. It’s called What Is the Gospel by Brian Chapell.