Our Common Understanding of the Gospel
The key message of the Christian faith is the “gospel” (or good news). This inevitably leads us to the question, “What is this good news about?”
For many Christians in Singapore, our answer is likely to proceed along the following lines: “The gospel is clear and simple. Because of sin, we human beings are guilty in God’s sight and are destined for the punishment of hell. Out of his grace, God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to our world. Jesus died on the cross, where he paid the penalty for our sin and also transferred to us his righteousness. All those who acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Saviour obtain the salvation won by him at the cross, and our spirits have a place in heaven when we die. At God’s appointed time, Jesus will come again, destroy our evil world and pluck the remaining Christians up with him into heaven.”
Problems with this Understanding
This “clear and simple” understanding of the gospel contains many valid truths. It is, however, also inadequate and problematic. This is so for many reasons; we mention three in this short article.
A. Strong Gnostic Influence
There is, firstly, the strong influence of Gnostic ideas in this account of the gospel. Gnosticism is a system of belief which draws a stark distinction between material existence, which is considered evil, and spiritual existence, which is good.
Gnosticism teaches that it was a good deity who created the spirit component of human beings, while an evil demiurge brought into being material existence, in which our spirits were trapped. Salvation, for the Gnostics, consisted of gaining the correct knowledge to enable our spirits to escape the prison of our material existence and return to the pure spiritual realm of heaven.
Gnostic versions of Christianity presented a major threat to the true Christian faith in the early centuries of the Church. Although they eventually faded away, the influence of Gnosticism on Christianity is still evident.
This is seen in our tendency to “over-spiritualise” the gospel. As in our “clear and simple” account, we often present the gospel as promising salvation only for the “spirit” part of human beings, with everything else in the world (i.e. the material bits) going into oblivion at God’s final judgement.
This fits perfectly with the Gnostic narrative, since the destruction of this material world represents the defeat of the demiurge and his evil schemes. The Christian faith, however, has always affirmed the one true God as the Creator of all that exist, both spiritual and material (which are both good). When we teach the final destruction of creation (save the redeemed human spirits), we unwittingly promote the notion that our God has suffered an ultimate defeat at the hands of evil.
B. Failure to Deal Comprehensively with Sin
The second thing wrong with our “clear and simple” gospel account is that it does not deal comprehensively with the problem of sin. It is standard Christian teaching that sin has two key aspects: It is the wrong we human creatures freely choose to do, leading to our guilt and need for forgiveness. It is also the power over our lives which significantly influences our decisions and behaviour. We are (what the Bible calls) “slaves to sin” and stand in need of redemption.
The gospel account presented above addresses only the first aspect of sin. It tells us how the work of Jesus on the cross leads to us being cleansed of our guilt and receiving God’s forgiveness. But it says almost nothing about the second aspect of sin.
This kind of imbalance in the treatment of sin has led to a version of Christianity in our day which questions why anything matters once we have been forgiven of our sin. Why is there a need continually to confess our sins to God and to one another? Why do we even strive to live in a manner pleasing to God, if all of our sins (past, present and future) have already been forgiven as a result of the cross? These questions arise out of our obsession with the problem of our guilt, with little corresponding attention paid to the predicament of our slavery.
C. Lack of Guidance for the Here and Now
The third shortcoming of our “gospel” summary is related to the first two. Because of its Gnostic overtones and inadequate treatment of sin, it does not give much guidance for our life in the here and now.
Our guilt has been remitted, and our spirits have a place in heaven. All these are well and good, but what (on earth) do we do while we are still here on earth? Are things like Church membership and attendance, participating in the sacraments and prayer, embarking on social action and creation care, understanding and reforming our cultures and societies, undertaking our studies, work and recreation of any relevance to the gospel at all?
If we are true to our “gospel” summary, all we can say is that these commitments might at best be useful, if they help sustain us spiritually until we get to heaven. Otherwise, frankly, they are a total waste of time, as they have little bearing on the ultimate aim of getting our spirits to heaven.
It is no surprise that our common understanding of the gospel has led to an individualistic and consumeristic form of Christianity, where everything is measured according to its usefulness in helping to enrich our “spiritual lives”. It has also resulted in a severely privatised and truncated Christianity, which has nothing meaningful to say to the major concerns of our age, beyond the message to individuals that “your spirit can also get to heaven if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour”.
What Then is the Gospel?
The summary set out above does contain key truths of the Christian faith: We are guilty of sin, God’s grace has indeed led to a “wondrous exchange” taking place on the cross, we need to embrace Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour and Jesus will indeed come again to consummate God’s plan of salvation. But truths presented in a partial way, with other key aspects neglected or misrepresented, can sometimes be more dangerous than outright heresy, since the errors of the latter are far more easily detected.
If this common presentation of the gospel is inadequate and problematic, how then should we understand the good news of Christianity? I will end with this tantalising question, in the hope that it will push us to ask, to discuss, to study and to reflect, to the end that we discover (to our never-ending amazement) how deep, wide, rich, all-encompassing, powerful and utterly wonderful the gospel truly is.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.