In many ways and on many different occasions, I have heard people speak of the Gospel as something so easy to comprehend that a child can understand it. Often such sentiments are heard in reaction to theologians and scholars who appear to make the Gospel seem difficult. I have no doubt that those who preach and teach the gospel, whether from a church pulpit or a university lectern, have been guilty of making the gospel more difficult than it is. I know I certainly have. Nevertheless, I want to explain why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is difficult and why we do others a disservice when we try to simplify it.
So let’s start with a very quick and selective survey of the New Testament. Probably the most oft cited passage when asking “What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” is 1 Corinthians 15. This chapter is very important as it speaks about Jesus’ death and resurrection as the victory over death and hence, the hope for resurrection from death. However, this chapter is far from the only biblical talk on gospel. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel message Jesus proclaims is the Kingdom of God. So the reign of God is very important to the Gospel as well. In Acts, the apostolic preaching of the Gospel includes not only proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus but also the proclamation that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope (prophesy), calls for repentance, Jesus’ ascension, the restoration of all things (for example, see Acts 3.11-26). So certainly these ideas belong to the understanding of the gospel. And let’s not forget that the Apostle Paul did speak of the Gospel as a “mystery” (see Ephesians, Colossians).
Added to that is the fact that when speaking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are making claims about the work of one God (monotheism) in three persons (Trinitarian) which incorporates Christology and Pneumatology (doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit). Further more, because God as Father, Son, and Spirit is now at work in and through his people, the church, our understanding of the Gospel needs to at some point explain God’s purpose for the church. Lastly, because the Gospel always comes with a call to repentance, the gospel we proclaim must demand a fundamental and radical change in the way we think and live life.
While none of what has been pointed out is so difficult that it requires a theology degree to understand, it is far from simple or easy to comprehend. The proof is in the fact that the Apostles had to write numerous letters to churches, in addition to their preaching/teaching, explaining and reexplaining what this Gospel is that these new Christians were are part of. Some of these new Christians were Jewish people who even had the Old Testament scriptures and a long history of knowing God, yet they still struggled to understand. Imagine then what it would have been like for a pagan Gentile coming from a polytheistic and hedonistic worldview?
So I contend that the Gospel is rather difficult to understand for new people being initiated into the life of Christ, the life of discipleship. The fact that some would say otherwise is probably more reflective of the Christendom worldview many of us have grown up in.
Of course, the era of Christendom is quickly fading. More and more, the people Christians encounter as the proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and call people to follow Jesus will be people who come with a worldview that is completely foreign to the Gospel. That means that they will require much more teaching before they can be expected to understand in a way that yields a mature faith.
Further more, I am afraid that when we try simplifying the difficulty of the gospel, all that we are doing is actually eliminating those parts of the Gospel that are incompatible with the __________ worldview (fill in the blank) so that our Gospel for the most part actually harmonizes with that worldview rather than calls us out of it and into the worldview of the Gospel (and let’s face it, one of the saddest realities of Christianity in North America is that the Church actually appears to be more and more American than it does to be like Jesus).
So rather than avoiding the conversation of what it means to believe in and live under the Kingdom of God or what it means for God to be at work in Christ and now the church by the power of the Holy Spirit, we should accept the difficult nature of understanding such ideas that belong to the Gospel. In accepting the complexity of the Gospel, we should then make it a priority in our teaching so that the spiritual formation of disciples is thoroughly rooted in the gospel rather than some truncated form of the gospel that has eliminated any difficulties. Only by embracing the difficulty will we learn to trust God (rather than ourselves) to bring about the fruit that only the difficult Gospel can produce in us.