We as pastors had a very thought-provoking and edifying conversation the other day about the elements of the gospel - what it includes and what it does not include.
All evangelicals would agree that the gospel is paramount in the life of the church - after all it is central to the name evangelical. Yet I believe a fruitful discussion involves what exactly this gospel constitutes. After all, if it is central to everything we do, and we are supposed to fiercely guard against any tampering of the gospel, we must study and seek a Biblical definition of the gospel.
This post is not designed to define the gospel comprehensively, but instead to initiate discussion about the nature of the gospel, particularly in relation to whether the gospel includes physical redemption or merely spiritual redemption. In other words, does our presentation of the gospel need to be accompanied by a physical display of love and good works, or is the gospel in and of itself a bundle of truths or concepts that address the mind, heart and soul?
We pastors all agreed that the gospel (good news) is in its essence truths that must be communicated to an unbeliever, and unless those truths are communicated (via spoken word or written word) the genuine gospel has not been relayed. We cannot give a cup of cold water to someone and legitimately claim to have shared the complete gospel with them - yes, we served them in the name of Christ, and God's Word even says that act of service was done unto Christ, but there was no truth communication about sin or redemption. We redeemed their pallet, but that was about the extent of it. Yet, can we say that in some valid way (even if seminal in form) the genuine gospel was shared? If Christ brings redemption to every part of creation, was our act of service a gospel work in essence?
Let's tweak the scenario - what if we share the cup of cold water and then preach the good news of Christ with our lips. When did the gospel begin to be presented? The moment we opened our mouth, or even before that when we gave them a compassionate look and handed them some water?
What about Jesus' call to ministry found in Luke 4:18? Jesus says:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus is of course quoting Isaiah here and I believe that He is speaking fundamentally of the spiritual healing and redemption that He imparted. Yet it is surely no accident that Jesus also physically healed multiple blind men and spent most of His time with poor people. Jesus is the gospel, and He embodies for us a holistic presentation of the gospel - redemption of all creation - both spiritually and physically.
All of this discussion led me to consider that perhaps the relationship between physical redemption (gospel acts) and spiritual redemption (gospel words) is similar to the relationship between faith and works in a believer's life. Faith without works is dead (i.e non-viable), and yet Scripture teaches very clearly that it is faith and not works which is the stimulus for salvation. I have also heard it explained with the analogy of a horse and cart. The cart (works) will always accompany the horse (true saving faith), and yet it is only the horse that drives the operation. There is nothing that is energizing in the cart, and yet it completes the process and serves a distinct purpose.
Could it be the same way with the relationship between the works and words of the gospel? Is it possible that it is only the message of the gospel that initiates a heart change in somebody, yet the accompanying gospel action completes it?
We certainly want to present a holistic gospel, and we want to guard from erring to either extreme of the spectrum.
So what do others think? Is the gospel only the message of the good news? Or is it both the message of good news and the redemptive acts that accompany? Or should we keep our definition of the gospel separate from acts of mercy?