If you had asked my twelve-year-old self how I’d have summarised the gospel, I would have said something along these lines:
‘God loves me enough to have sent Jesus to die for my sins, so that I could know God and have a personal relationship with God, and inherit eternal life.’
Amen, little guy. That sounds pretty great. But look again at the language used. ‘me ... my ... I ... personal’. That gospel is all about me.
You can forgive a twelve-year-old for thinking the gospel is ‘all about me’. It would have been hard to think otherwise while singing songs like ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ at church all the time. Certainly there’s plenty in the bible that supports this personal approach to the gospel. Think of the single lost sheep, for whom the good shepherd cares so much that he leaves all the others to rescue it. Remember the famous picture of the solitary prodigal son, and the heart-wrenchingly personal love for him that the father shows.
However, there is a danger in investing too much focus on this personal gospel. Its realm is in the heart and the head, and bears little influence on the outside world. It only has two actors in shot - God and you - and ignores all the billions of others on the stage. I believe it must be balanced with what I shall call the familiar gospel. God loves not just a collection of individuals, but a community of people, and invites us not just into a personal relationship, but into a family. Once we start recognising that the gospel is for people and not just for persons, its influence transcends from our hearts into our lifestyles and our communities. The gospel calls not only for the repentance of our hearts, which is a personal challenge, but of our communities, which is a communal one.
Time and time again throughout the bible, humanity’s relationship with God has been collective and familiar. In Exodus 6:7, God declares that ‘I will take you as my people, and I will be your God’. God takes the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert, where they are challenged to live differently, under their new covenant with God. Note that God doesn’t take a bunch of persons, but a people, together.
The book of Revelation echoes God’s calling of the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead of Egypt, Babylon is the symbol of the sinful world, personified as a prostitute. A voice from heaven is heard saying (evocatively) ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins’ (Rev. 18:4). From Exodus to Revelation, there is a calling from Heaven for God’s people to be different from the surrounding world, to be God’s people by name and nature.
So the Exodus story is our story too. However, that doesn’t mean to say we should literally move to the desert. What it means is our attitude towards the world should change. Jesus prayed that God would not take us out of the world but declared that we ‘are not of the world any more than I am of the world’ (John 17:14-16). John urges us to ‘not love the world or anything in the world... for the world and its desires pass away’ (1 John 2:15, 17). And Peter puts it this way; ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God’ (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
You are not just a person of God, but you are part of the people of God. You have now not only a divine relationship with God, but a divine relationship with your brothers and sisters around the world. The gospel not only transforms your heart, but transforms the community around you.
A word used to describe God’s people set apart from the world, pulled out of the prostitute, protected from the evil one, is holy. ‘Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters’ (Hebrews 2:11).
So ask me how I might summarise the gospel now.
God loves us enough to have sent Jesus to die for our sins, so that we could know God and have a familiar relationship with Him and with each other, and inherit eternal life.