The Gospel is never tame. It has always been a voice on the fringes, speaking prophetically from the wilderness. This is where wild-eyed prophets roam the desert, the muck of the Jordan becomes a makeshift Baptismal font, and the perfume of prostitutes substitutes for anointing oil. The Gospel cannot be grasped from the comfort of the hearth. It is not suburban. It is not safe. In fact, it is very, very dangerous. It is far from the well-manicured, perfectly-coiffed, cul-de-sac existence of alternate theologies of glory. The Gospel is a lion; reckless and free. And in order for the Gospel to do its work, Aslan has to be un-caged.
But a lion on the loose sounds terrifying. Those claws look strong, and those fangs are sharp. So instead of setting the Gospel free to do its work of bringing dead sinners back to life, we herd it into a nice little fenced-off area where we can control it, keep an eye on it, and make sure that it never gets out of its pen to run amuck. We let the Gospel do what it does as long as we can handle it with bit and bridle, but above all, it must be safe and manageable. None of this kicking and bucking and unpredictable behavior. It is too wild, powerful, virile, and free. So—at the risk of mixing our metaphors—let’s take our scalpel to it, and let’s turn this stallion into a gelding.
For the uninitiated, a gelding is a castrated horse. The procedure is fairly common, and there are many practical benefits. It changes the horse’s temperament, making them calmer and more predictable. Geldings are quieter, gentler, and more docile than stallions, making them significantly better-behaved and a lot easier to handle. And above all, a gelding has lost its virility.
That is the temptation we face as well: To geld the Gospel. To empty it of all potency. To water it down until there’s no Gospel left. When we use the word “Gospel” (which, by the way, literally means "Good News") without speaking of the death and resurrection of one man on a cross two thousand years ago FOR YOU and FOR ME, we're not speaking of the same Gospel that the New Testament authors did. When "the Gospel" means "living a moral life" or "helping others" or "celebrating God's diversity," we've emptied the Cross of its power, and we’re left with the bitter dregs. We’re left with something tame and gentle and manageable. But whatever it is, it’s not the Gospel.
So what is the Gospel? The Apostle says it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you… that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."
This is the beating heart of Christianity. This is the Gospel, in all of its raw power, pumping blood and life throughout the rest of the body. Without this beating heart—without justification and forgiveness solus Christus—everything else is in vain. Completely and utterly in vain. With the Cross, we have a stallion. Without it, all we have is a gelding—a beautiful creature, to be sure, but with no power to reproduce and no hope of spreading its seed.
The gelded Gospel is shiny and attractive and compelling, and we can perform the procedure in any number of ways.
We might slice to the right, transforming the Gospel of Jesus Christ into a morality-based creation of our own making, distilling the salvation narrative down to bite-sized pieces of pious living. We can learn to live the victorious Christian life. We can ascend the ladder of sanctification one step at a time as we make our way heavenward, turning the teachings of Jesus into a how-to manual for virtuous living. “10 Steps to Becoming a More Godly Mother.” “7 Ways to Become a Man of God.” “12 Steps to Becoming a Disciple and NOT Just a Follower” (I would highly recommend this one to the original twelve). This kind of “Gospel” is safe. It’s something we can measure, monitor, and keep tabs on. We can self-assess and check our progress, making small adjustments here and there but always pressing onward. In this way, the Cross becomes a springboard to better living. We need Jesus to be sure, but once we’ve progressed sufficiently along the road of self-improvement, we can toss Him away like a crutch. He’s a means to an end, and the Cross becomes a starting point rather than an end. There’s no room for stallions in this pen.
Or, we may slice to the left. This is what some have termed (for better or worse) the “social” Gospel, and it distills Christianity down to a set of social programs. In other words, the Christian faith is useful only insofar as it is able to bring meaningful improvement to people’s earthly lives. This gelded Gospel isn’t primarily concerned with the Biblical meta-narrative of sin-fall-redemption. Rather, the earthly supersedes the eternal, and humanitarian action is equated with salvation. And, to be sure, after the gelding wakes up from this procedure, it’s a very beautiful animal which is still, by all appearances, a stallion. It can whinny. It can trot. And people from all walks of life—religious and non-religious—want to ride it. Who doesn’t believe in working for justice and clothing the homeless? These are urgent needs in our day and age, and—after all—isn’t this exactly what Jesus did? This is a tempting way to reason. Yet, as people of the Word it is always to the Word we must look, and when we do so we realize that neither Paul nor Jesus ever defines the Gospel in terms of OUR action at all. It’s all GOD’S action; that’s monergism by definition. It’s a divine, one-way rescue. And without the Cross—without the shed blood of another to cover over all of our failed attempts at doing good deeds and to satisfy all righteousness—there is no Gospel at all.
The true Gospel cannot be tamed. In fact, it’s quite dangerous, as Mr. Beaver knew so well: “Safe…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
The forgiveness of sins is a risky thing. After all, what if people abuse it? What if they enjoy their forgiveness a little too much? Shouldn’t we at least put SOME kind of fence around this stallion? To co-opt a favorite phrase of the Apostle Paul: “By no means!” The solution to the sin problem is not to water down the Gospel. We need the good news, full-strength & unfiltered, to daily drown the old Adam and raise us to new life in Christ.
Only the true Gospel brings forth streams in the wilderness, bread in the midst of famine, rain in the midst of drought, and life to dry & dusty bones. And that power, life, and virility comes from the veins of one man, spilled on a wooden cross two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. Only this Gospel brings forgiveness. Only this Gospel sets captives free. And only this Gospel, unleashed in all of its raw, unbridled power, can give what it promises.
So let’s open that pen, and let the stallions run wild.