The Gospel as a Three-Legged Stool
Last week, we looked at three ways that Christians define the gospel:
- Story for the Individual
- Story of Jesus
- Story of Creation to New Creation
My online collection of "gospel definitions" has led me back to the New Testament, where I've spent significant time studying the way the word "gospel" is used. I've also compared New Testament usage to the gospel definitions on my blog. In the end, I am convinced that the different approaches to “the gospel” are more complementary than contradictory, but that we could be helped by a conceptual framework for the gospel and its implications.
Putting it All Together
From an exegetical standpoint, the word "gospel" is used in the New Testament primarily when speaking of the announcement of Jesus Christ. So, at its core, the gospel is the specific announcement about what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to bring about our salvation. The announcement of Jesus is the gospel.
Yet this Jesus-centered message needs context. The "Story for the individual" group is right to insist that the back story (God's character, our sin, etc.) is needed if the gospel announcement is to make sense. And the New Creation crowd is right to insist that we place our individual salvation within the bigger picture of God’s glory in the renewal of all things and the calling out of a people. This discussion brings us to the image that forms the heart of my book on the gospel.
The Three-Legged Stool
I propose that the gospel is like a three-legged stool. Each leg of the stool is important to understanding the message.
- The Gospel Story
First, there is the gospel story, the overarching grand narrative found in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us about God’s creation of a good world which was subjected to futility because of human sin. God gave the Law to reveal his holiness and our need for a perfect sacrifice, which is provided by the death of Jesus Christ. This same Jesus will one day return to this earth to judge the living and the dead and thus renew all things. The gospel story is the Scriptural narrative that takes us from creation to new creation, climaxing with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center.
- The Gospel Announcement
The second leg of the stool is the gospel announcement, namely that God – in the person of Jesus Christ – lived a perfect life in our place, bore the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross, was raised from the dead to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world. The announcement centers upon Jesus and what he has done to reconcile us to God. Our response to this announcement is to repent of our sins and put our complete trust in the work he has accomplished on our behalf.
- The Gospel Community
The third leg of the stool is the gospel community. Our response to the gospel announcement (repentance and faith) is not a one-time event, but a lifelong expression of gratitude that wells up from the bottom of our hearts and overflows into love for God and his beloved community. We are shaped by the gospel into the kind of people who herald the grace of God and spread the news of Jesus Christ. God has commissioned the church to be the community that embodies the message of the gospel. Through our corporate life together, we “obey the gospel” by living according to the truth of the message that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Lord of the world.
How They Relate
Here's how the relationship between the gospel story, announcement, and community work:
STORY: Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. This is the grand narrative of Scripture that provides context for the announcement.
ANNOUNCEMENT: Jesus Christ. The announcement of his perfect life, substitutionary death, resurrection, and exaltation is made within the context of the Story.
COMMUNITY: The gospel announcement calls for the response (repentance and faith) that God uses to birth the church. The church is the embodiment of the gospel. Though the church is not the "good news," it puts on display the good news. Thus, the church is a result of the gospel, but I want to reiterate that it is a necessary result.
Why It's Helpful to Think of the Gospel This Way
Thinking within the framework of the three-legged stool has helped me rethink lots of areas, including missiology. When we witness to the gospel, we need all three legs of the stool. We need to begin with the big story of Scripture, make the announcement of Jesus within that context, and then invite people to witness the gospel community in action, as we provide an embodied apologetic of the truth of the announcement.
Thinking within this framework has also helped me spot potential pitfalls in taking one leg of the stool to the exclusion of the others. The "story for the individual" can give the impression that the church is an optional implication of the gospel, not the necessary result of the announcement. Likewise, some can emphasize the vastness of God's redemptive work in a way that pushes out the cross and diminishes the practice of urging people to repent of sin and trust in Christ.
This framework has also made sense of my experience in times of suffering. When I'm facing a trial, the gospel story explains the fallenness of our world and reminds me of the future hope. The gospel announcement gives me the tools to deal with suffering, and also reminds me that my life has significance in relation to (not apart from) Christ as the focal point of human history. The gospel community has embodied the gospel to me during suffering by holding me up and reminding me of the promises I have in Christ.
In the next few weeks, I'll give you a peek into my my book, where I analyze "counterfeit gospels" by showing the damage they do to the three-legged stool.
For now, I look forward to your feedback. Does the three-legged stool approach help you think about the gospel and its implications? If so, how?