Because the gospel is talk about what God has done in Christ, it must be multi-faceted, diverse, and versatile. The gospel speaks with many voices. That’s not to say that there are different gospels or that there are different “takes” on the gospel that are mutually contradictory. Nothing like that at all.
I mean that the profundity and richness of what God has done in Christ can’t be captured by just one formula or any singular message. God has made his climactic move in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit to bring about new creation reality in the church in anticipation of fully restoring creation at the day of Christ.
This reality meets and transforms every contingent situation in our world today and it will always do so in ways appropriate to each exigency. The gospel is not merely one singular message that we repeat at every opportunity. The gospel overwhelms, absorbs, reconfigures, and redeems each and every situation, always in ways that fit the moment.
Just a brief survey of how this works throughout the NT, in no particular order:
When Paul confronts a church going wildly off the rails–the Corinthians–he speaks gospel words of warning. A judgment is coming and even if you profess to be part of the people of God, if you are flirting with sin you run the risk of judgment (1 Cor. 9-10).
Paul writes, alternatively, to a suffering church–the Philippians–and speaks words of comfort and grace. Based on their participation in the gospel, Paul is confident that it is God himself who is carrying them and sustaining their faith. While he exhorts them to conform to the pattern of Jesus, he also assures them that God is empowering them and will uphold them until the day of Christ.
In a totally different situation, before a pagan ruler, Luke depicts Paul speaking before Felix and his wife, Drusilla:
Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come . . . (Acts 24:24-25).
How odd! Who knew that talk about self-control was one of the stops on the Romans Road?
For Paul, however, the gospel involves talk about the entire reality that God has brought about in Christ and by the Spirit–the new creation reality God’s people inhabit by God’s grace. And the gospel involves talk about any one aspect or any combination of aspects of that reality at any given time, whatever the needs of the moment.
At another point when Paul sort of sums up his gospel message, he formulates things in a somewhat surprising way:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:11-14).
The gospel instructs in self-control and wise living. It also envisions a key component of gospel life to be the active longing for the day of Christ when God will transform creation. How often do we hear basic gospel presentations associated with instruction in how to be “sensible?” Considering the public profile of evangelicals in books like unChristian, we may do well to revisit this aspect of the gospel.
Just one more passage to consider, though others could be cited–and we haven’t even touched the Gospels:
Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh (Jude 22-23).
Again, what’s interesting here is that gospel realities will adjust to the situation. When we encounter those who are being beaten up by life, we speak gospel words of mercy and grace. Others we encounter are playing with sin and seeing how close they can get to destruction without crossing certain lines. With such folks, we speak gospel words of strong rebuke.
All this is to say that the gospel is not one single formula. The gospel is talk about the profoundly world-altering, cosmos-transforming reality that God has brought about in Christ. Growing in the grace of God means exploring this new world into which we’ve been brought by the Spirit. God sets us free to begin learning how to speak to one another in his Kingdom, how to reconcile with one another now that God has fully restored us to himself, how to exploit the resurrection power of God in order to see people and relationships redeemed and reclaimed for God’s glory.
It is our responsibility to explore the profundity of the gospel–its wideness and its depth, its height and its breadth–in order to gain the skills necessary to envision how unpredictable situations can be overwhelmed, reconfigured, and transformed by the gospel of Christ.