How would you express the core message of the Christian gospel?
Job counselors often advise job seekers to boil down their experience, skills, and job objective into a short two-minute presentation. That is the length of a short elevator ride. It may be all the time a job seeker has to make his or her pitch to a potential employer that they meet at a networking event.
It’s a useful exercise because it helps to separate the core of one’s appeal from its elaborations. And the focal point of that elevator speech is the benefit you can provide to this employer.
Recently I took part in a workshop at a national conference on Christian education. The speaker was Dr. John Vest, Assistant Professor for Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In an adaptation on that tool of the elevator speech, he challenged us to summarize the gospel in one or two sentences.
A newspaper reporter is reputed to have given that challenge to Karl Barth, whose systematic theology runs for several volumes. How, the reporter asked, would Barth summarize his massive theology in one short statement? Barth responded by quoting the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so.”
A biblical condensation of the gospel
So it should be easy to take up Vest’s challenge. But it is not, especially for Presbyterians like me who value a full-bodied theological education. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing with this challenge.
What is the core message of the Christian gospel? After turning over several alternative ways of expressing that core in my own mind, ways that invariably trapped me into a swamp of words, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel of John has done the job for me already. It does it in the classic words of John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
I am reluctant to use this verse in any discussion of the gospel because of how so many Christians, even well-intentioned Christians, have abused it. For example, I don’t hear the author of John saying: “You better believe in Jesus because if you don’t, God will be angry with you and damn you to hell. But if you do believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die. So give your life to Jesus right now before it’s too late.”
I read the verse in a different way. First of all, I hear John announcing good news in the very first words: God loved the world. John’s gospel is not about an angry God who is so enraged at sinful humanity that God will damn every one of them if they don’t repent. John’s gospel is about a God whose character and motives are all about love, love for the creation that God has made. Compassion drives God’s actions.
That love is not reserved just for the select few he has chosen (what traditional Reformed theology has labeled “the elect”). The object of God’s love is the world (in Greek the word cosmos). I read that as every human being, indeed the whole cosmos. What lies at the heart of the gospel message is good news that God is a God of love, not wrath.
A message for the world of the walking dead
Now it is also a given for John, as well as the other New Testament writers, that the world that God loves is a flawed world. It is a world of frustrated potential. All life is born just to begin its journey to death.
Human beings particularly fall short of their potential. We dream of a life of health, abundance, harmony, and peace. But our dreams are never fulfilled to the degree we dream them. That’s why I like the way Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, describes our lives as a kind of zombie life, a life of the walking dead.* This is how I understand John when he talks of perishing. It is to live life without hope of it ever getting better.
God sent his only son, Jesus, to address this dilemma. Jesus does so not by a gory death that will somehow appease God’s bloodthirsty anger. Jesus does so by opening a pathway into that potential we dream about. By his teaching, by his actions, by his example, including his submissive death by crucifixion, Jesus manifests the way of God’s love, and then invites us to enter into that same way. This requires a radical re-orientation of our attitudes as well as our behavior.
For John, eternal life is much more than just going to heaven when we die. Yes, there is a promise in the gospel of something glorious coming after death. But the concern of John is more with life here and now.
That comes through clearly if you pay close attention to the seven miracles that John labels as “signs of Christ’s glory.” They begin with the miracle at the Cana wedding when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). This signals the mission of Jesus to transform our ordinary, routine lives into something rich and Spirit-intoxicated. It is a wonderful affirmation of the goodness and potentiality of earthly life as we live it.
The signs continue with the healing of the royal official’s son (John 4:46-54), then the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-9). Jesus’ mission is about healing, both of our bodies and souls. Following these two miracles we get the sign of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) and then the sign of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16-24). Jesus addresses our physical needs as well as our fears and anxieties.
Then follows the two most astonishing miracles, the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of dead Lazarus (John 11:1-44). I call them the most astonishing, because although all the signs have double meanings (both literal as well as metaphorical), the spiritual references of these two last miracles become especially clear.
What all of these signs are pointing to is the rich and complex meaning of eternal life as we encounter it in John’s gospel. All of them are about entering into a depth of life here and now that begins to fulfill God’s creative intention. Jesus will call this living life abundantly (John 10:10).
John will bring this complex meaning of eternal life to a peak where John quotes Jesus as saying: This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). Eternal life is about a living relationship with the loving Creator. That relationship becomes a spring of living water within the believer’s heart (John 7:37-39).
For John, this focus on life is the core message of the gospel and its purpose, as John makes explicit in the concluding words of his gospel: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
What makes the gospel message persuasive?
The persuasiveness of this message comes, however, from the reality of the lives that Christians who accept this gospel live. If their lives manifest a sense of being more fully alive, of being people who are breaking out of the mass of the walking dead, who seem to experience enhanced living through knowing God in spite of whatever conditions of life they are living in, then their gospel will capture and attract the attention of others.
But when Christians live lives that seem to deny the love of God for humanity, lives that seem constricted, narrow, and judgmental, then their gospel will be drained of any attractiveness or power, no matter what scare tactics they may employ.
In conclusion, John 3:16 may be a superb summary of the gospel. But as my unpacking that verse shows, this summary is dense. I am stuck having to use a lot of words to explain what its means.
Which leads to my final point. I believe the simplest and clearest explanation of the gospel comes not from our words, but from the lives we live.
But now let me throw out John Vest’s challenge to you. How would you summarize the gospel in one or two sentences?
* I picked up this wonderful image from Brian Blount’s 2011 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School. The lectures were published in the book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).