In his book God is the Gospel, John Piper argues that the Gospel is ultimately a vision of the beauty and desirability of God above all other desirable things. But, Piper continues, it is possible to present the Gospel in such a way that it simply compliments our selfish desires or assuages our fears as we pursue our own “desirable things.” Indeed, the gospel has been presented so often in that way to so many, that it seems nothing more than another self-help program promising to calm our frazzled nerves.
But the calming effect that such a gospel might bring is temporary at best. What is worse, it is a message that does not seem to align well with the New Testament gospel. But this is the age of stress, if it is anything, and so the best we can imagine is relief from that stress, and it is the best that many of our preachers and writers choose to offer. They are simply playing to their audiences and measuring their success by book-sales and guest-appearances on day-time television. A careful scan of the Christian section at your local Books-a-Million will only confirm this assessment.
Well, it is the tendency of Christianity, and always has been, to wander from the New Testament gospel. That alternative to which it is attracted in any particular age becomes a sort of Christianized version of the idol of that age. The idol of this age is perhaps simply relief from anxiety, for each successful idol promises what we most highly desire. If our imaginations are so limited that our highest “vision of beauty and desirability” is merely self-satisfaction masquerading as contentment, then that is the fulfillment our most successful idols will promise us. But isn't it a shame that so much of the church so willingly takes part in this masquerade?
There is a way to read the Bible that serves to under-gird this way of thinking. You simply look for verses that seem to promise what you desire: peace, plenty, a large family, influence. You browse your Bible looking for these “mountain-top” verses. You highlight them, you memorize them, and you quote them often to others as encouragement. What can be more “Biblical” than that?
For me, this all began to seem one large and increasingly depressing culture-shift within Christianity. I came to realize that the gospel that Jesus and the disciples announced was something very different, and I was determined to hear it whole again through the pages of the Gospels themselves, reading them as stories—start to finish—not cherry-picking favored verses.
I don't mean to describe myself as some sort of lonely truth-seeker in a world of the mistaken or the dishonest. There are many like myself. A veritable gospel-movement seems to be taking place within the church. Something like this critique is a part of what lies behind the missional movement in our day, as well as all the folks who have taken to using terms like “gospel-centered,” “gospel-driven,” or “gospel-focused” to describe themselves. These are corrective terms that would never have been needed if there hadn't been such widespread drift from the message of the New Testament in our churches.
Now I w don't want to dwell any further on this critique. The obvious next step for me was and is to go back to the source, to Jesus himself. What did he talk about most often, even when it was bound to get him into trouble? He talked a lot about a kingdom, for one thing, so we will have to ask ourselves what he meant by that, and he talked a lot about himself; about who he was (identity), and about what he came to do (purpose).
The gospel is wrapped up in these two questions: who was Jesus, and what did he accomplish? The answers to these questions are in large part what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were intent on communicating.