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Theological Thursday: “Obeying the Gospel” My Not-So-Favorite Phrase

I remember hearing a preacher many years ago speaking at a gospel meeting and he used this phrase over and over again. He urged us in the church that if we didn’t know who Jesus is then we needed to “obey the gospel” and find a relationship with him.

Obey the gospel.

Have you heard preachers use that term before? I am going to make a bold assertion and say that when most people use that term they really are not using it in a way that Paul, or any New Testament author, intended.

Let me explain. When I hear people use the term “obey the gospel” I think they are using it in a way that means, “become a Christian.” If pressed hard in Churches of Christ most would say that “obeying the gospel” is synonymous with the five steps of salvation (i.e., hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized). So in my circle when I see an Instagram/Faceboook/Twitter post of a baptism many times I will see the caption on it as: “________________ obeyed the gospel.”

There are three places in the ESV where the term “obey the gospel” is used. Paul says in Romans 10:16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” There is a lot going on in Romans 9-11 but the context seems to be that the Jews have a stubborn refusal to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Implicit in the gospel is making Jesus king. Simple as that. The Jews were not making Jesus king and so they refused to obey (Gk., “hear under”) the good news of Jesus.

Paul again states that,  in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). The context is Paul’s discourse on judgment in 2 Thess. 1:5-12. The same Greek word used in Romans (ὑπακούω) is used here to mean that they did not listen to the gospel’s demand of placing Jesus as king. Peter uses the same phrase in a similar context of judgment: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). The word Peter uses (ἀπειθέω) is different than Paul’s in that it is a negative word denoting more of a stubborn, willful disobedience like rebellion.

So where does that leave us with the phrase? First, there are only three occurrences and it is hard (not impossible) to equate “obeying the gospel” with becoming baptized. I think the problem with this view is that it is a reductionist debasement of the gospel…at best. I think N.T. Wright worded it well when discussing the current milieu of how many define gospel: “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel.’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 41).

Scot McKnight in his book King Jesus Gospel outlines some of the issues I think we are wrestling with. He states that many evangelical churches have a salvation culture that pushes people into a “decision” (i.e., baptism, becoming a Christian) instead of encouraging them to be disciples.

  • I believe the gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” (p. 26)
  • We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person — me — and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. (p. 62)

In Dallas Willard’s seminal work The Divine Conspiracy he outlined what he called the “gospel of sin management” as a dangerous shift in evangelical thought:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects.  Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally….When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins.  On the left it is removal of social or structural evils.  The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.”  Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. (p. 41).

So here is the thrust of what I think is happening when we use the term, “obey the gospel.” While our intentions are good, we are making the gospel an eternal punch ticket and waiting until God takes us home. The gospel is so much more than a get out of hell free card. Matt Chandler explained it well:

The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in includes talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad—especially about feeling good about oneself—and God factored into all of that, but the gospel message simply wasn’t there. What I found was that for a great many young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. (Emphasis Mine. The Explicit Gospel, p. 13)

The gospel is that we radically pledge our allegiance to King Jesus who died, was buried and rose again (1 Cor. 15) and everything we do bears witness to that good news. We participate with him in bringing in the new creation. So when we love our enemy we are obeying the gospel. When we visit the widow and the orphan we are obeying the gospel. When we walk with people who are new to the faith we are obeying the gospel. When we practice holiness with our minds and our bodies we are obeying the gospel. When a neighbor is stricken with cancer and has nobody to watch her kids because her husband has to work to keep their insurance and so you volunteer to watch the kids…that is obeying the gospel. When someone sees the painful ramifications of their sin and rests in the grace of God then that is obeying the gospel. When we gracefully walk with the addicted, we are obeying the gospel.

It is much more than salvation folks. Much more.

“Moralists see the fall and believe that the Father is ashamed and thinks they’re foolish. So, more often than not, they stop trying to walk because they can’t see the Father rejoicing in and celebrating his child. Church of Jesus, let us please be men and women who understand the difference between moralism and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s be careful to preach the dos and don’ts of Scripture in the shadow of the cross’s “Done!” Resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ crucified. We are not looking to conform people to a pattern of religion but pleading with the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives. Let us move forward according to that upward call, holding firmly to the explicit gospel.” (Explicit Gospel, p. 221).