The gospel is not a minor theme that deals with the point of entry into the Christian way, to be followed by a lot of material that actually brings about the life transformation. Very large swaths of evangelicalism simply presuppose that this is the case. Preaching the gospel, it is argued, is announcing how to be saved from God’s condemnation; believing the gospel guarantees you won’t go to hell. But for actual transformation to take place, you need to take a lot of discipleship courses, spiritual enrichment courses, “Go deep” spiritual disciplines courses, and the like. You need to learn journaling, or asceticism, or the simple lifestyle, or Scripture memorization; you need to join a small group, an accountability group, or a women’s Bible study. Not for a moment would I speak against the potential for good of all of these steps; rather, I am speaking against the tendency to treat these as postgospel disciplines, disciplines divorced from what God has done in Christ Jesus in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord. We have already caught a glimpse of the way our living ought to be tied to the gospel in the several texts that speak of living a life in line with the gospel, worthy of the gospel (e.g., Gal. 2:14; Phil. 1:27). Moreover, the gospel is regularly presented not only as truth to be received and believed, but the very power of God to transform (see 1 Corinthians 2; 1 Thess. 2:4).
Failure to see this point has huge and deleterious consequences. I shall mention only two. First, if the gospel becomes that by which we slip into the kingdom, but all the business of transformation turns on postgospel disciplines and strategies, then we shall constantly be directing the attention of people away from the gospel, away from the cross and resurrection. Soon the gospel will be something that we quietly assume is necessary for salvation, but not what we are excited about, not what we are preaching,
not the power of God. What is really important are the spiritual disciplines. Of course, when we point this out to someone for whom techniques and disciplines are of paramount importance, there is likely to be instant indignation. Of course I believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, they say. And doubtless they do. Yet the question remains: What are they excited about? Where do they rest their confidence? On what does their hope of transformation depend? When I read, say, Julian of Norwich, I find an example of just how far an alleged spirituality may be pursued, in medieval form, directly attempting to connect with God apart from self-conscious dependence on the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus—the very matters the apostle labels “of first importance.” Wherever contemporary pursuit of spirituality becomes similarly distanced from the gospel, it is taking a dangerous turn.
One of the most urgently needed things today is a careful treatment of how the gospel, biblically and richly understood, ought to shape everything we do in the local church, all of our ethics, all of our priorities.
Second, a rich grasp of what it means to “preach the gospel” (εὐαγγε-λίζω) ought to be definitive for establishing our strategy. We are constantly urged to develop mission strategies, vision documents, strategic plans, and the like. At a certain level, I am all for such encouragement, so long as the primary strategy of God, disclosed in Scripture, is preserved, such that what we are really doing is nothing more than carefully working
out tactics in submission to the grand strategy that God himself has laid down. That gospel strategy, laid out again and again, is the heraldic announcement of the gospel. It is gospeling; it is εὐαγγελίζω in the most comprehensive sense.