In the April 2009 edition of the journal Themelios, D.A. Carson ponders the meaning of the word ‘Gospel’.
We must distinguish between what God has done, Carson argues, and what we must do as a response to that. But only the first of these can properly called ‘the gospel’.
If the gospel is the (good) news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, there is ample place for including under “the gospel” the ways in which the kingdom has dawned and is coming, for tying this kingdom to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for demonstrating that the purpose of what God has done is to reconcile sinners to himself and finally to bring under one head a renovated and transformed new heaven and new earth, for talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, consequent upon Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and above all for focusing attention on what Paul (and others—though the language I’m using here reflects Paul) sees as the matter “of first importance”: Christ crucified. All of this is what God has done; it is what we proclaim; it is the news, the great news, the good news.
By contrast, the great commands to love God with all our being and to love our neighbour as ourselves, do not constitute the gospel. Nor is the gospel believing in Christ, or joining a church, or practicing discipleship. Nor, again is it the exercise of social justice. We may well regard all of these things as necessary consequences of the gospel, but they are not the gospel itself. The gospel is what God has done for us in Christ, and in particular his cross and resurrection.
Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, to replace the good news as to what God has done with a moralism that is finally without the power and the glory of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning.
Carson does not specifically identify those sections of the Christian church that are in danger of confusion at this point. But I would observe that many of the teachings of ’emerging church’ people come perilously close to such confusion. How many times do we hear these people suggesting that the good news consists of the exhortation to ‘be like Jesus’? No: that is a counsel of despair to those who stand in urgent need of God’s forgiveness and new life. Let God achieve those things for us, and then let us, with his help, joyfully respond in acts of love, mercy and justice.