Do We Overuse the Word “Gospel”?

File this under the hashtag #confessyourunpopulartheologicalopinion, but I think we sometimes overuse the word “gospel.” Think of all the hyphenated adjectives we have invented with the word “gospel” on the front end (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-saturated, etc.). Think of how many organizations and local church ministry initiatives have been framed by the word “gospel.” Think of how often we use the word in sermons and Sunday School lessons and small group meetings, often without taking care to define precisely what we mean by the term.

Obviously the Greek term euangelion (“good news”) and its cognates constitute an important theme in the biblical story of redemption. It is rooted in the Messianic promises of  the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9, LXX). It is the title affixed to the climactic story of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It is used by Paul dozens of times to describe the core of his apostolic message. So I would never want to displace what Paul says is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). My concern is not so much with the concept itself but with how we employ the specific English word “gospel.”

As I see it, the word “gospel” exerts an outsized influence in our theological vocabulary. There are several potential weaknesses in the overuse of the word “gospel.”

  • It is a derivation of an Old English word. The word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means “good news.” What if we just translated euangelion directly into modern English as “good news”? What would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having good-news-driven ministries? It seems that nothing would be lost and much would be gained by simply providing a gloss of the term when we use it.
  • It can become cliche. This is actually true of any term. If you use a word often enough, without explaining its content, it becomes hackneyed. So maybe this point is not so much a knock on the word “gospel” per se as it is an encouragement for Christians to define carefully and consistently what we mean by it. Which brings me to a third potential weakness.
  • It is a disputed term. The gospel means many things to many people. It can be used as short-hand for individual salvation (God, man, Christ, response). It can be employed to speak of the overarching storyline of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). It can be used to describe the anti-imperial overtones of the church’s confession of the Lordship of Christ. It can be used to tease out the social and even political implications of the Christian message. It can expanded into a summary of the entire Christian worldview, as nearly everything important becomes a “gospel issue.” If we overuse the word “gospel” and under-explain it, we risk being misunderstood. We also risk becoming untethered from how the term is actually used in the New Testament. This point, like the last, may not be a direct criticism of the word “gospel” itself, since many important terms are disputed and in need of constant definition. But we can’t simply use the word and expect people to know what we mean by it.
  • It can unintentionally displace God’s activity in redemption. We often use the word “gospel” when what we really mean is “Christ” or “the Holy Spirit” or “God’s grace.”  The New Testament sometimes personifies the word euangelion and has it doing certain things (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17), but most often the NT writers speak of God’s agency in and through the gospel message. We don’t construct our theologies by simply counting verses, but it does seem instructive to compare the number of times Paul, for example, uses “Christ” (370x) versus “gospel” (~70x). Again, what would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having Christ-driven ministries? What if we strove to cultivate Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification? Don’t get me wrong. I still use the word “gospel,” and I am not on a campaign to have it retired. It is a beautiful word with a rich history in English-speaking Christianity. But I wonder sometimes if “the gospel” doesn’t sort of take on a life of its own that obscures the direct agency of the triune God in our salvation.

So what do you think? Do we overuse the word “gospel”? Do we do a sufficient job explaining in precise biblical terms what we mean by it? Do any of these potential weaknesses miss the mark?

5 thoughts on “Do We Overuse the Word “Gospel”?

  1. I definitely agree, Matt. My previous uncertainty was limited to the cliche aspect you mentioned, but I appreciate the full-orbed, thoughtful presentation you give; and I especially find value in differentiating things:

    “Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification”

    Such clarification offers a full, helpful way of thinking about the Christian life.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. General agreement here, especially insofar as we (and by “we” I mean myself and those I’ve worked with in Church and academy) often use “gospel” a) without considering what we actually mean by “gospel” and b) as shorthand for whatever our particular pet project is.
    Great post. JJP

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  4. As it stands, I wonder whether this constitutes an argument that “gospel” is being overused. The latter three weaknesses can be applied to most theological terms–“redemption” as disputed between evangelical and liberation theologians or “Spirit-empowered parenting” between Pentecostals and non-Charismatic Reformed. The real takeaway, it seems to me, is to not let any doctrinal language become cliches detached from the larger theological framework. Even the ability of “Spirit-empowered” to protect divine agency depends upon a broader account of divine agency.

    To claim that “gospel” is being overused requires an argument that it is not this central in Scripture. And that–as you partially conceded–will take more than a word count, especially since there is always the possibility that “gospel” is being used in a different, broader sense than Scripture, much like theologians’ use of “sanctification. However, given that the relevant evangelical circles emphasize biblical theology, the usage of “gospel” is probably intended to be as close to the scriptural language as possible.

    In sum, I wonder whether potential misunderstanding is relevant to making the case for an outsized influence of a theological term since this potential is inherent to all theological language.

  5. I wonder whether these weaknesses can establish outsized use since potential misunderstanding is inherent to all theological language. Just about every term is disputed, and thus can become a misunderstood cliche when separated from grounding in its broader doctrinal framework–e.g. “redemption” for evangelical versus liberation theologians. Even the ability of “Spirit-empowered” to guard divine agency depends upon articulating a broader account of the Spirit’s agency vis-a-vis creation and creaturely agency. In some accounts, “Spirit-empowered” could essentially function as a cipher for an emphasis on human surrender and yielding.

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