When I was in my 40’s, I vividly remember the sudden onset of farsightedness – words on a page being blurry the closer they got to my eyes. It was so discouraging, not just because it happened so quickly, but also because I was already nearsighted. So, I went to my eye doctor, and he explained how common this was, why it happened, and how I could address it. And my discouragement quickly faded.
Just like that doctor did for me, I want to provide you some comfort as to why you may have lacked confidence in defining the good news, if that has been the case with you. It’s actually quite common and here are four reasons why:
1. The Gospel Is Simple and Deep at the Same Time.
It is a straightforward, easy, and uncomplicated message. Yet, it also dense, unfathomable, and profound. I explained the gospel to all four of my children when they were young, and they readily understood it. However, I also produced a doctoral project of 100,000+ words that still hasn’t even come close to exploring all the depths of its meaning and application.
In that way, the gospel is like the ocean or the universe. A child knows the joy of sandcastles at the beach with the calming sound of the waves, but the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced oceanographers would never say they truly know all that the ocean is. Likewise, most people know the wonder of looking up at a dark night sky filled with bright stars and a full moon, but would any astronomer ever proclaim to understand the cosmos?
How do you define the ocean? How do you sum it up in a way that is faithful to its depths? How about the universe? What can one succinctly say to describe it in all its immensity? Though both ocean and universe are easy to experience, they are also quite overwhelming and, thus, difficult to define. I think that simple, but deep aspect also makes the gospel hard to keep straight in our mind.
2. The Gospel Is Not Regularly Emphasized in Churches.
Some churches don’t hold the Bible in very high regard. They believe it is merely man’s word about God, not God’s definitive Word to humanity. The result of that worldview is they don’t feel compelled to preach the gospel of the Scriptures. They don’t emphasize it because they have little motivation to know it or believe it. They don’t think it’s that much more important than their own thoughts about what constitutes good news from God. So, of course, their congregations are unclear about what the gospel is.
Other churches know it and believe it, but think it is primarily a message for non-Christians. They only preach the gospel for outreach events or during worship services when they think more unbelievers will be there. They don’t regularly proclaim it because they aren’t convinced it is a message for Christians too. Instead, they focus their teaching on how believers should live their lives. Therefore, their congregations can also be prone to being unsure about the content of the gospel. Perhaps you have attended a church like one of these two examples. That could be a second reason why it’s been unclear.
3. The Human Heart Drifts from the Gospel.
So, even if you attend a church that does emphasize it, another challenge to certainty about the good news is that your humanity does not help you in your effort. There is a tide in our very nature that is consistently pushing against us thinking clearly about it. We are bent away from clarity on it.
The sea provides a helpful analogy. In college after a doubleheader in Panama City, Florida, my baseball teammates and I swam straight out into the Gulf of Mexico to reach a sandbar, but we could never quite get there. When we returned to shore sometime later, we found ourselves 1/4 mile away from where we left and exhausted. Unbeknownst to us, the tide was pushing us back to shore and East.
It’s a bit like that with our fallen human nature. We drift away from God not towards God. So, it is a regular battle to maintain clarity about the message of Jesus. It is like swimming against the tide. You are in that battle every day. It is certainly one reason why you may struggle to keep the gospel clear in your mind.
4. The Bible Is Not a Dictionary.
So, it is not like you can simply turn to the “G” section signified by a tab sticking out of the book and get the definition of the gospel. It is much harder than that.
And if you look up “Gospel” in the table of contents, you may be slightly misled as to its meaning because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are sometimes called Gospels, even though these books aren’t entitled ‘gospel’ in the original language, nor are they limited to the gospel in their content. They are theologized biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, not good news lexicons.
The Bible is a collection of 66 books written by about 40 authors over 1500 years in 15+ genres. Determining the meaning of a word used in this vast and diverse book requires more than scanning the table of contents or doing a quick search. It warrants studying all the occurrences of that word, its cognates, and its idioms across all that material, each in its context.
If you do that, you will find that the Bible doesn’t contain one, explicit, repeated definition of the good news. Though most of the information on the gospel is in the New Testament, even there it isn’t easy to quickly identify. The Apostles explained it in different ways without contradicting each other. Synthesizing their views into one concise definition faithful to all the Bible teaches about the gospel is quite a difficult task—very hard indeed.
Furthermore, when you do that kind of research you will also discover that the gospel is an eternal message that is progressively revealed, both in the Bible and in history. This dynamic may present the most significant challenge of all. It is not as simple as just taking the last “definition” we see in Scripture. We need to take great care that the last revelation is also informed by all the previous revelations of it and that we are identifying the difference between the headlines of the good news and the depth of the details about it.
All the occurrences of the message in the Bible have consistency since they are the same message. At the same time, some of those occurrences are more well-developed and each one is contextualized to the situation and the specific time-period of salvation history. That makes it extremely difficult to define. It could be why you have had some trouble.
Is your head spinning even more right now? It is not hard to understand why. If you have had difficulty maintaining clarity about the message of Jesus, there are at least these four reasons for that. That’s one reason I wrote Always Good News. To make the gospel clear to as many people as possible.
Editor’s Note: Get your copy of Always Good News: Why the Message of Jesus is Good Every Day by Scott Lothery this month for a gift of any amount. Also consider taking Scott’s course in Open the Bible for Leaders called Grasp the Gospel or hearing how Always Good News can encourage your whole church.