Repent of Bad Religion! Part 2: Dismantling the Bad News Gospel

This is the second in a series of posts about repentance. In the first post we clarified the notion of “repentance” itself, using Jesus’ message as recorded in the bible to demonstrate that true repentance means embracing good ideas and killing off bad ones, even (or especially) bad ideas about God and religion. Today I want to focus on a central but often poorly-defined element of Christian religion: “the gospel.” [NOTE: I teased last time that we would be talking about “salvation” in part 2, but I changed my mind (repented?) and chose a different topic. “Salvation” and “the gospel” are not the same thing, which is one of the points I will be pushing here!]

“The Gospel” in Contemporary Christian Parlance

In Christian nomenclature, “the gospel” is a phrase that carries a lot of weight but is often very flexible in its meaning. Most people in the church and outside know that “gospel” means something like “good news,” but what precisely that good news is changes radically depending on whom you ask. For most evangelical Christians (my people, that’s why I pick on them so much), the gospel is something like this: “You are a depraved sinner with a grim future but God loves you so much he provided the possibility of salvation!” Not only is this a specious representation of some important biblical ideas, the biggest problem is that this news isn’t very “good” at all!

Many factors (biblical misunderstanding? individualistic Western worldview? obsession with legal sin guilt and personal morality?) seem to have conspired to weaponize our gospel. The “good news” is actually the worst news you’ve ever heard: the universe itself is against you and we’ve got a bunch of hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want a shot at the “free gift of salvation.” In practice this gospel is little more than a burden we place on our neighbors, or worse a club with which we pummel them in the name of God.

Meanwhile, in the church, the meaning of “gospel” is stretched even thinner and it becomes a tool of destruction among those who consider themselves its ambassadors. Inside Christian culture “the gospel” has become a codeword for everything that will be lost or compromised if your terrible ideas and preferences win out over my terrible ideas and preferences. Don’t agree about which people should be excluded from our church? You’re compromising the gospel! Disagree with my stance on a social issue? There’s a hole in your gospel! Think the napkins should be blue? That’s an affront to the gospel!

When it comes to “the gospel,” some clarification is in order. If only there were some ancient documents we could consult…

The Gospel of Jesus

According to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus’ “gospel” was a single simple (but huge) idea:

15 “You’ve waited long enough!” he said, “God’s kingdom is here! Turn back and believe the good news!” (Mark 1)

17 From that time on Jesus began to make his proclamation. “Repent!” he would say. “The kingdom of heaven is here!” (Matthew 4)

43 “I must tell the good news of God’s kingdom to the other towns,” he said. “That’s what I was sent for.” (Luke 8)

The gospel according to Jesus of Nazareth was the “kingdom of heaven” or “God’s kingdom.” As we’ve noted elsewhere, this is not a reference to a far off supernatural location but a present reality. God is becoming king of the earth. A million and one things pour out from this declaration, but if we want an authentic and pure definition of “the gospel” as Jesus understood it, here it is.

Of course, Jesus’ proclamation is only good news if the God it envisions is good. An angry and retributive God taking over the world is not terribly good news, and many before and since Jesus have imagined just that type of hostile takeover. But in his “kingdom manifesto” (in Matthew 5-7), in his “kingdom parables,” and in his boldly selfless life and death, Jesus insists that the God of this kingdom is a God of peace, love, forgiveness, and inclusion. In direct contradiction of the modern Christian sensibility, Jesus says that his gospel is good news for sinners and screw-ups and normal people – their rescue is here! – but bad news for the religious gatekeepers who would force others to jump through hoops to obtain God’s grace. Check this out:

13 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus continued. “You lock up the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You don’t go in yourselves, and when other people try to enter you stop them!” (Matthew 23)

So Jesus’ gospel isn’t good news for a small number of devout VIPs and horrible news for everyone else. It’s excellent news for all of creation, and bad news for anyone who doesn’t want to live in a world where peace and forgiveness flow like a waterfall. Most of all, it’s bad news for religious spoilsports who would wield “the gospel” as a weapon against their fellow humans.

But what about the apostle Paul? Most contemporary Christian defense of “the gospel” appeals to the thoughts and writings of Paul. Notwithstanding our tendency to overemphasize and even absolutize Paul’s message to the point where it threatens to eclipse even that of Jesus, the question is pertinent: what is “the gospel” according to Paul? Is it different from the one proclaimed by Jesus?

Paul’s Gospel

The temptation with Paul is to allow Reformation theology (and its many modern mutations) to put words into the apostle’s mouth or to perform origami on his epistles until they say what we’re expecting them to say. Most of us who grew up in the American evangelical church have been trained to think that Paul’s message is about “justification by faith, not works” according to a multi-step “plan of salvation” that moves the individual from the “damned” column into the “saved” column. As a result, it has been difficult for some of us to reconcile the radically simple and joyous gospel of Jesus with the seemingly technical and burdensome “gospel” of Paul. Are the two really so different?

We don’t have room in this short essay for a full exploration of Paul’s thinking and writing (though something like that will happen soon on the podcast). For now, however, it’s quite possible to get a handle on Paul’s understanding of “the gospel,” as he was kind enough to spell it out for us in the opening verses of his letter to the Roman church:

1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings; 3 the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord! (Romans 1)

Paul’s gospel is Jesus himself, the embodiment of the good God he proclaimed, and the king of the good kingdom he announced. The message is the same, though the focus is different. In historical context, it’s as if Jesus said “God’s kingdom is here, you don’t have to live in the Roman empire anymore!,” and Paul said, “Jesus is king, you don’t have to serve Caesar anymore!”

Paul does go on to craft many complicated arguments about life in the early church, mostly about how Jews and Gentiles could possibly live together and get along as followers of Jesus. But these arguments and their details should not be mistaken for “the gospel.” Paul’s gospel boils down to the same news as Jesus’ gospel: the peace, love and forgiveness of God himself have been unleashed into creation and it’s time to celebrate!

Conclusion: What Do We Do With This Gospel Today?

The way many Christians “preach the gospel” is actually antithetical to the good news found in the pages of scripture. Having clarified the fundamental goodness of the news proclaimed by Jesus and echoed by Paul, we might ask: how do we embrace, proclaim, and live this gospel today, here and now? Jesus himself gave us a beautiful glimpse at what life in God’s kingdom looks like. There is no anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Neighbors choose to love rather than condemn one another (Matthew 7:1-6). Evil is non-violently resisted and enemies are loved (Matthew 5:38-48). These things don’t come easily or naturally, and so this “gospel” manifests as a life-long journey rather than a forced, one-time decision.

The gospel of the Good Kingdom of the Good God calls everybody to repentance. But this is not the shallow, burdensome contrition imposed by religious hypocrites. It’s a rejection of that poisonous gospel, that bad news, and all “gospels” of shame and domination. If it’s not good news that sets captives free – here, right now, today – then it’s not the gospel.

NEXT TIME: Rescuing ‘Salvation.’