A recent cover story in The Christian Century featured an engaging contribution, offered by several well-known writers, that attempted to “put the gospel in seven words.” You can read executive editor David Heim’s article, and the various blogposts connected with this story, online. Heim rightly says that summarizing the Christian message can have practical benefits. Business consultants often call on leaders to have an “elevator speech.” I have believed this exercise and approach is important for many years. I admit, however, that I am not very good at it. Some years ago I was challenged to summarize the vision of ACT 3 in seven words. We came up with the following: “Equipping Christian leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” Once we got that down on paper, and intentionally and carefully worked it over and over, these seven words helped me explain what I do and why I do it.
But what about the gospel itself? When asked to summarize the gospel most of us cannot do it. We try various words and ideas and then often fall back to simplistic formula’s that do not do justice to the biblical narrative. The respondents to the Christian Century question tended to stress grace more than sin. Nevertheless, sin was present in many of their varied responses. Martin Marty’s answer was one of the best: “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” Brian McLaren’s answer stresses the universal call to reconciliation when he says: “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation.” Environmental activist Bill McKibben seems to confuse sound moral advice, advice that is common to many faiths, with the good news. He answers: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Actually, that is a marvelous and central truth but it is not the gospel. Ellen Charry, one of my favorite modern theologians, says: “The wall of hostility has come down.” She is, of course, referring to Ephesians 2:14-18. Scott Cairns, an English professor, author, poet and Orthodox Christian, provides an answer consistent with Orthodox theology when he says: “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity.” This will seem odd to many Protestants but the Church fathers and mothers repeatedly stressed that the purpose of Christ’s coming was to endow us with life, divine life, a life that is endlessly becoming. Lamin Sanneh, another one of my favorite modern theologians, says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world.” Sanneh adds in his comments about his seven words that Christ, by his atonement, effects our reconciliation and invested in us–without counting the cost–so that we may become teeming vessels of witness and service to others.” He then refers to Augustus Toplady’s famous hymn line: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”
Try to see what you can come up with on your on. Stating the gospel in seven words is not easy at all. I made several stabs at it for the past two weeks. I have continued to think about it every day.