On the dangers of Christian shorthand: ‘The gospel’, ‘gospel work’ and ‘gospel workers’

Continuing our series of articles on Christian shorthand and its dangers, Christopher Ash explains why we should be careful of talking about the ‘gospel’ too much.

At the end of his most helpful analysis of alternative spiritualities, Stirrings of the Soul, Michael Raiter adds a perceptive chapter of self-criticism in which he turns the spotlight onto our evangelical ways of speaking of, and relating to, God. One of the points he makes is about what he calls our ‘Evangelical God-talk’ (pp. 228-232). He notes how we tend to slip from speaking much of the One we trust to talking about What we believe. In particular we speak of ‘gospel-minded’ people, ‘gospel ministry’, ‘gospel growth’, promoting the ‘gospel’, ‘gospel harvest fields’, and ‘gospel workers’. But we do not speak so much of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Sometimes,” he writes, “evangelical Christians talk about their faith as if it is essentially a creed we subscribe to, rather than a person we belong to”. Indeed, we “could easily get the impression that the chief end of man is ‘to read the Bible and study it forever’”!

“But whenever we use gospel language, we must remember that ‘the gospel’ is shorthand for ‘the gospel of the Lord Jesus’.”

Before I consider Raiter’s critique, let me first affirm the great value of speaking of gospel work and gospel workers. Christian shorthand has its value, and we must first affirm that value before we note its dangers. The frequent use of the word ‘gospel’ protects us against the elastic use of the word ‘Jesus’. All Christians claim loyalty to ‘Jesus’. But the many different types of ‘Jesus’ to whom we claim loyalty vary rather widely. Often the ‘Jesus’ whose approval we claim is a Jesus shaped by our own imaginations and our own subjective and selective use of scripture, rather than the authentic Jesus of the whole biblical testimony. But the Jesus of the apostolic testimony associates himself very closely with the gospel he came to bring. For example, in Mark 8:35 he promises a blessing on all who will lose their lives, not simply for him as a person, but “for my sake and the gospel’s”. The authentic Jesus is the Jesus of the Christian gospel. And therefore I cannot be a Jesus Christian without being a Gospel Christian, and I cannot be a Jesus Worker without being a Gospel Worker.

But whenever we use gospel language, we must remember that ‘the gospel’ is shorthand for ‘the gospel of the Lord Jesus’. And the primary ‘word’ is not ‘gospel’ but ‘the Lord Jesus’. It is very instructive to see how Luke speaks in Acts of the proclamation of the apostles and the early disciples, for he uses language with characteristic care and artistry.

Fundamental to Luke’s theme in Acts is the kingdom of God: he begins with Jesus speaking to the disciples about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). This rule of God is being re-established in a rebellious world through the public declaration that Jesus is God’s chosen King, his Messiah or Christ, whom he has chosen and appointed to be Lord of the whole world. This is why Luke concludes (Acts 28:31) with Paul in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ …”. These two are the same thing. For the rule of God is established by the man Jesus whom he has appointed and declared by the resurrection (Acts 2:36; cf. Rom 1:4) to be both Lord (the non-Jewish word for ruler) and Christ (the word of Old Testament expectation for world ruler).

This is the message of Psalm 2, quoted in the disciples’ prayer in Acts 4:25f and applied to Jesus in verse 27f. The God who made the world (Acts 4:24) has made a public declaration. And the punchline of that declaration in Psalm 2 is that “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6). And the implication is that if I have any sense at all I will bow before that king, submit to him, kiss him in homage (Ps 2:10), and pay tribute to him. For if I do I will find refuge (Ps 2:12b), and if I do not I will be destroyed (Ps 2:12a). This is the message of Psalm 2 that was proved at the resurrection and preached in the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

This is why in Acts 8:12, Philip “preached good news (literally ‘gospelled’) about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ”. For this is the name by which God rules the world. In fact “the name of Jesus” is a great motif in Acts, for example 2:38; 3:6; 4:10, 12, 18; 5:40; 9:27; 16:18. “The name of the Lord Jesus was extolled” (19:17) as a result of the prophetic preaching. It is “for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13; cf. 5:41 and 3 John 7) that Paul is willing to suffer.

This is why “the word of God” (e.g. Acts 4:31; 6:2, 7) is equivalent to “the word of the Lord” (8:25; 13:44, 48f; 15:35f; 16:32; 19:10). For the word that God speaks is precisely the message and declaration that Jesus is Lord. The gospel, the word of God, is the message that the man Jesus is both Lord and Christ.

It may be significant that the noun ‘gospel’ (euangelion) appears only twice in Acts (15:7 and 20:24), whereas the verb ‘to gospel’ or ‘to preach the good news’ (euangelizomai) appears 15 times. Our activity in Christian ministry of the word is ‘to gospel’. But the content of that gospel is not just a set of propositions (as we might think of ‘the gospel’) but rather the world Lordship of a Person, the Lord Jesus. We are gospellers of Jesus (Acts 8:35). We call men and women to bow before the Jesus who has been declared Lord, and thereby to find refuge in him.

How ought Luke’s language in Acts shape the way we speak of our Christian witness and ministry of the word? I want to suggest a practical way forward, which combines the value of the ‘gospel’ shorthand with the corrective of Luke’s language in Acts. Let me do this by first considering two unsatisfactory alternatives. The first we have already touched upon: speaking overwhelmingly of ‘the gospel’ to the exclusion of ‘Jesus’. Raiter is correct to point out to us the inadequacy of this way of speaking. The fact that the balance of Luke’s language in Acts is so different ought to caution us against allowing ‘gospel’ language to become the dominant way in which we speak of our work.

Having said this, I want also to caution us against simply replacing ‘gospel’ language with speaking about ‘Jesus’. For if we do that, we risk retreating again into a privatised and pietistic spirituality, in which the dominant idea is me and my personal experience of the ‘Jesus’ I love and who loves me. When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost his first word was ‘Jesus’ (Acts 2:22); but only so that he could end by affirming that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ (v. 36). If we begin with ‘Jesus’ and end with ‘Jesus’, repentance will be marginalized, the obedience of faith will disappear, and the outward-looking world vision of an evangelizing church will be blunted and turned in on itself as we retreat into a cosy ghetto. John Wesley could say repeatedly in his diaries, “I offered them Jesus”, because in his age that shorthand was better understood. I doubt we can risk the same today.

One remedy, I suggest, is to re-educate ourselves and our churches into the distinct meanings of the words ‘Jesus’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’. My guess is that most Christians in our churches use the words, ‘Lord,’ ‘Jesus,’ and ‘Christ’ interchangeably. (Indeed most of the children I know in our churches use the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ interchangeably too!). But the word ‘Jesus’ refers to the man Jesus of Nazareth in all his real humanity. The word ‘Lord’ refers, in terms that the Greco-Roman (non-Jewish) world would have understood, to the world rulership of Jesus. And the word ‘Christ’ refers to the Anointed King, the Messiah of Old Testament expectation, the world rulership of Jesus understood in terms of Old Testament promise.

If we educate ourselves to hear again the important meanings of these words, then we may begin to speak of our work as “the proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ”, “speaking the good news of the Lord Jesus”, or even (for a biblically literate audience) “teaching that Jesus is the Christ”. Instead of always saying, “I preached the gospel”, we may say, “I preached the Lord Jesus Christ”. Not just “Jesus”—for this is another dangerous shorthand—but “the Lord Jesus Christ”. May God help us to use ‘gospel’ shorthand with care, alert both to its value and its shortcomings. And may he put in our hearts a passionate longing for the honour of the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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