Getting the gospel right? Or telling the story well?

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When I was in seminary, we talked a lot about “getting the gospel right.” We read books about it. We wrote papers on it. We attended conferences about it. We each had our own (often conflicting) ideas of what it meant.

It’s easy to see why “getting the gospel right” is such a big deal for Christians. We believe the gospel has the power to change everything. So it’s worth making an effort to get it right—or at least try.

Yet the older I get, the less at ease I am with this phrase, for a couple reasons. I’d rather talk about “telling our story well.”

For one thing, I’ve seen firsthand how “getting the gospel right” nurtures a particular kind of arrogance. I’ve seen it in myself. I became convinced that me and my like-minded cohorts were the only ones who had it right. Everyone else was “compromising” the gospel in some way. After a while, even minor theological disagreements were conflated with the gospel itself. Soon, everything was a gospel issue. “Getting the gospel right” became a euphemism for agreeing with me on, well, whatever I decided you had to agree with me on for the sake of the gospel.

Two, we talked about “getting the gospel right” in the same way you’d talk about getting the answers right on a test. “Getting the gospel right” meant ticking the boxes next to a list of propositional statements, making sure we thought the right kind of thoughts about abstract theological concepts.

There’s just one problem. The gospel, as defined by scripture itself, is not a list of abstract concepts. It’s not something you can reduce to a few spiritual laws or sum up with a handful of verses extracted from the book of Romans.

What we often call “the gospel” is really just a set of propositional statements that we’ve separated from the story.

None of which is to say these statements are unimportant. But abstract theological concepts are NOT the gospel.

The gospel is a story.

Which means if we care about “getting the gospel right,” then we need to tell the story well.

This is not a new idea. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the people of Israel were told to share their faith with the next generation by telling their story of rescue. Not by delivering a theological treatise. All the decrees, laws, and rituals—they were not the story itself. They were not “the gospel,” as it were. They were prompts to tell the story:

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Getting the gospel right means telling the story well. It means telling the whole story. It means it matters what kind of story we tell. For example…

  • Is our story about personal salvation only? Or is it about something bigger?
  • In our story, are we saved from something, or are we also saved for something?
  • Is the story we tell about escaping this world or transforming it?
  • Do we begin our story in Genesis 3 or in Genesis 1?
  • Are we passive agents in our story, or does God invite us to play a meaningful role?

I want to tell the story well for my children, which is what led me to write The Story of King Jesus.

Over the next few posts, I’d like to share some aspects of this story that came alive for me as I wrote. We’ll look a few key phrases from the book, which I believe are central to the story we should be telling our kids:

“God made the world to be his home.”

“Taking care of his good world.”

“Making the world right and good again.”

“Our king gave us a job to do.”    

When we make these things part of the story we tell, I believe we can offer our kids a faith worth living for.

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Image by Nick Lee

21 thoughts on “Getting the gospel right? Or telling the story well?

  1. Looking forward to this series, Ben. Just curious, what do you mean by starting the story at Genesis 3? My mind jumps to a common gospel presentation that says, “First off, everyone’s a sinner,” but I wonder if I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeffrey – you guessed right. I hope to unpack this in the next post (or the one after that…don’t underestimate my ability to not plan ahead!) But the short version is this: I think our presentation of the gospel needs to start where the story starts: God made the world good. Yes, it went wrong. Humanity went its own way, to disastrous effect. But I think our choice of starting point affects the rest of the gospel we share. As for how, well…spoilers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Points one and two are so important. So glad you understand that. Just bought your book “The Story of King Jesus” for my granddaughter. She’s a pretty tough critic but something tells me she’s going to love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ben,
    Thank you for your posts. I’m not even sure how I ran across them, but as former RC priest and pastor, your words are gentle, healing balm. Now? School Counselor, in the rough and tumble world of education. Thank you for offering your words of wisdom and insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ““God made the world to be his home.”/“Taking care of his good world.”/“Making the world right and good again.”

    Compare: Joh_15:19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

    I know you probably mean not polluting or recycling and that sort of thing, but it seems strange to focus on a material world rather than the spiritual. Our priority is not our physical well-being, but spiritual, and thus preaching the Gospel is, in fact, our primary mission. It is what we are explicitly commanded to do. Christ does not say “Go forth and pick up your trash off the side of the road,” or “go forth and embrace some political/charitable cause of dubious value,” but “Go forth and baptize all nations.”

    This isn’t to say that charitable causes are good causes. But acting like our primary mission is the physical, the material, the therefore temporary and passing away, is a serious error. Let us declare Christ and Him crucified, and then, in not so bold words, we worry about the laws, the rituals, and the good works, in their proper places.

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    • Hi Ricardo,
      This is something I may pick up in one of the posts in this series, but three comments for now…

      (1) We have different understandings of how Scripture uses the term “world.” I believe it most often highlights the tension between the dominant forces/powers/systems ruling the world at present vs. God’s rule, i.e. the already/not yet “kingdom of heaven.” This is the most natural interpretation of passage like John 15:19. Treating it as a reference to the whole physical realm doesn’t make sense in light of passages like John 3, which assert God’s love for “the world.”

      (2) The dichotomy between physical and spiritual well-being is not one we get from Scripture. It’s derived from Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies to confront the early church. Whole books of the NT, such as 1 John, were written to confront early Gnostic thought, which posited that spirit=good and physical=bad and that the goal of salvation was to transcend physical realm. This is not how the Bible approaches salvation, which is why bodily resurrection was so important to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. And why James insisted that religion which does not concern itself with a person’s physical well-being is worthless.

      (3) I think this view also ignores the trajectory of salvation in the NT, particularly at the end of Revelation. God’s people are not evacuated to some heavenly realm far from earth. Rather, God’s heavenly realm comes down to earth. This, in turn, is picking up on a theme that runs through all of Scripture: time and again, God dwells with us. In the garden. With the Israelites in the wilderness. With his covenant nation in Jerusalem. With his people once more as the incarnated Messiah. Salvation is not about escape from the world; it’s about God dwelling with creation as he always intended to.

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      • 2) “The dichotomy between physical and spiritual well-being is not one we get from Scripture. It’s derived from Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies to confront the early church.”

        I think you are stretching my statements to go beyond their intended purpose, which was only to show: the priority of the Gospel over material concerns. I did not say that material concerns were entirely useless, or even talked anything about us not being bodily resurrected or “ascending into heaven.” If that’s how it sounded, I misspoke. My point is only that, instead of placing worldly concerns as our priority, as the Prosperity heretics do, as the Right-Wing does who also wish to bring “heaven to Earth” their own way, and the left also seeks to do in their way (the former through morality laws, the latter through taxes and spreading of money), but that our chief concern should be the Gospel, and that all other issues, whether it is issues of good works, things we should or shouldn’t do, or the lamest of the lame political causes, should all be put “in their proper place.” If you want to go spearhead a movement to save the whales from being harpooned by the Japanese, go for it. But it’s not our chief-end. IOW, somewhere behind the Gospel is the only place your cause can go. Instead of telling people that “God put us on this Earth to make the world (physically) a better place, in the sense of it being our chief concern, you should be preaching “Christ and Him Crucified.” And, later on, or as the second item on your list, maybe even better as your 6th or 7th, you can go after any pet cause you want. This position of mine is quite biblical, and is supported by a vast array of scripture. I am only questioning your priorities, that’s all.

        As for the “current” world, quite clearly it awaits the wrath of God, recreation, the removal of the curse upon all creation, followed up by eternal peace and love. Unless you are expecting mankind to do this, I do not think that any effort to “transform” the world, outside of the Gospel, is going to make a big difference.

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      • As an afterthought to my previous reply, I wanted to say the following:

        I look at the world and I see Russians marching in Ukraine, torturing and murdering Protestants and Catholics, dragging people from their homes in the middle of the night, shooting people who make casual but incorrect remarks, and running torture chambers in the basements of newly captured churches, and all this done in order to establish the morally upright and God-ordained “NovoRussiya.” This NovoRussiya is to save the world from ‘western decadence,’ and establish Russia, an ‘Orthodox Christian’ nation according to them, as a new super power and beacon for the whole world. IOW, the Russians are actively fighting to bring “heaven down to Earth.” I see the Republicans at their national committee doing joint prayer sessions with representatives of the Latter Day Saints, who have no life in them, and declaring that we are a “Christian country,” and essentially arguing to “take back America” for the purposes of making us “more moral.” IOW, they want to bring “heaven down to Earth.” I see goodie goodie rich white liberals worrying about my tuition fees, helping me pay for a college education that spends all day telling me not to be a Christian, all for the purpose of “transforming the world,” or we can say, even though they often do not believe in Heaven, they seek to bring “heaven down to Earth.” I see Prosperity teachers telling the faithful to have “their best life NOW!,” provided they donate all their money to Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen, or, like Todd Bentley, these poor people believe that by getting kicked in the face (a Holy Spirit inspired kick!) you will have a better life, or we can say, “bring heaven down to Earth.”

        I think the wiser position to take is this: the Gospel isn’t about what we do for Christ, but what Christ has done for us. Once you acknowledge such a distinction, subtle though it is, you save yourself a lot of hardship.

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  5. Pingback: Telling the story well: “God made the world to be his home” | Ben Irwin

  6. Pingback: Telling the story well: God’s good world | Ben Irwin

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