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.

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Comments

  1. Ben Toh September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Last year I read Trevin Wax’s compilation of “everyone’s” definition of the gospel by well known Christians, past and present. From J. I. Packer, I liked his 3 word summary, “God saved us” (Titus 3:5).

  2. Adam Shields September 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

    What I didn’t like about the exercise is the evaluation. Yes we have differences, but when we start evaluating orthodoxy based on short statements you start evaluating orthodoxy based on cariture, not actual theology.

    While I am increasingly convinced that Scot McKnight has done the church a great service with his King Jesus Gospel the reality is that most people use the world gospel to mean what it means to be a christian instead of proclamation of Christ as King. This is particularly a problem for reformed Evangelicals and exercizes like this just feed into the ‘we do Christianity best’ feelings of superiority.

  3. BrianK September 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    John, I’ve been on a quest to answer this very question: What is the gospel?

    I am excited to see Christians discussing this all-important topic. I believe we can forge a foundation on the gospel, and let the gospel permeate our lives.

    I think Apostle Paul summarized the gospel in the best way in
    2 Timothy 2:8. This could be read in 7 words:

    “Remember Jesus Christ, resurrected, descended from David.”

    I think Christians in this generation (including myself) have lost sight of the part of the gospel that declares Jesus as “descended from David” or another place “according to Scriptures”. The fulfillment work on the cross is sorely needed these days.

    • Michael September 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Two suggestions to consider:
      ‘God’s grace through Christ covers my sin’
      and
      ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our only hope’.

  4. Joe Schafer September 17, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Jesus overcame death and is re-creating everything.

  5. Kendall December 11, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    I blog quite often and I really appreciate your content.

    The article has really peaked my interest. I will book mark your blog and keep
    checking for new information about once per week.
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