I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon titled “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” recited entirely in rhymed couplets and delivered without a manuscript. Running for nearly eleven minutes, it was quite a remarkable feat.
The gospel text was John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The theme is introduced in this way:
Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
Herein these words from childhood dear
Contain the gospel message clear:
Mary, the mother pure and mild,
The lamb is Christ her sinless child.
Here are words to young and old,
A message that had been long foretold,
That God would send the holy lamb
Who would die for sinful man.
(You can see and hear the entire sermon here)
The point of the pastor’s message is that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. It proclaims that this was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth, essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die in a sacrificial death, enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For many Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:
He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.
But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament. As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus.
The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social gospel, announcing good news to the poor. It is the proclamation of the present and future kingdom of God—a just and peaceful human society. The most authentic message proclaimed by Jesus was never about himself or his role in the salvation of the world. Those ideas were later developed by his Hellenistic followers. Instead, the gospel of Jesus was about what he believed God desired in the world, about the radical transformation that God was seeking in human lives and social relationships. It was and is a gospel about redeeming our life together in the here and now. It seeks the common good by elevating the status of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor.
The gospel about Jesus changes all that. Paul is very clear about the gospel he is proclaiming. In a letter to the house church at Corinth, he says:
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)
The good news proclaimed by Paul puts the emphasis on Jesus himself and the salvation from sin that Paul believed resulted from the death and resurrection of the Christ. Someone once said that as Jesus taught his disciples, he pointed their attention toward the centrality of the kingdom of God, but all the disciples could see was his pointed finger. It was the messenger and not the message that ultimately dominated and shaped the history of the church. The gospel about Jesus is a message of good news that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything for humanity in relation to a wrathful God. It is a gospel aimed at individual lives and their eternal fate.
What is missing from the gospel about Jesus is the kingdom of God. Paul and John rarely refer to it. Paul, in fact, says little about the wisdom tradition of Jesus. The life and teachings of Jesus are not central to Paul’s message. John’s gospel includes none of Jesus’ parables but instead offers us lengthy discourses like those of ancient Greek philosophers. Together, Paul and John present us with a very different figure than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The distinction between these competing New Testament gospels and their images of Jesus is extremely important, because which message one hears and responds to will shape one’s Christian faith and life. The gospel of Jesus focuses on personal and social transformation while the gospel about Jesus focuses almost exclusively on individual salvation from God’s wrath. The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social and public gospel; the gospel about Jesus is an individual and private gospel.
One could term this division as the gospel of Jesus versus the gospel of Paul. Writer and activist Jim Wallis (b. 1948) uses a different terminology: the gospel of the kingdom as opposed to the atonement-only gospel. Wallis remarks:
There is the original New Testament message called the gospel of the kingdom, which was intended to transform both people’s lives and their societies; and there is a more modern message that concentrates mostly on individuals, a narrowly focused message we’ll call the atonement-only gospel. By focusing so much on what happens after we die, we have neglected the agenda of Jesus for how we live now. (On God’s Side, page 14)
One’s orientation to the gospel of or about Jesus will determine one’s central mission as a believer or a follower. The atonement gospel of Paul calls his adherents to a mission of evangelization and conversion so that others may experience a heavenly afterlife with God. The social gospel of Jesus calls his followers to transform both individual lives and social structures to deal with the pervasive issues of human suffering: poverty, hunger, shelter, education, and employment. One gospel is afterlife oriented; the other is centered in the present. It is all a question of whether one puts an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus or the teachings of Paul.
These two streams of Christianity have existed side by side since the beginning, often integrated by Jesus’ followers in the early church. But today, these two competing gospels are dividing Christians around the world into irreconcilable camps. Because we respond to different gospel messages, we often don’t understand one another, and wonder how those who represent a different gospel message can even call themselves “Christian.”
To fully understand the social gospel of Jesus and to follow the distinctly counter-cultural Way of Jesus, it is important to recover the message and mission of the kingdom of God that has been lost, hidden, or misrepresented in far too many Christian churches. The kingdom of God is not about personal redemption; it is about social transformation. It is about engaging in a conspiracy of love to change the world.
(More about this topic can be found in my book A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World.)