If your Christian experience has found you in a more conservative church that focuses on people asking Jesus into their hearts then you have probably been trained that the Gospel is all about loving God and making sure you will get to heaven. If your experience is more of a church that focuses on serving the poor and needy then you have been trained that the Gospel is all about loving your neighbor and making sure that they experience a bit of heaven right here on earth. Both of those understandings of the Gospel are mutated aberrations of what the Bible really teaches.
I have seen both of these extremes in action so many times that they have almost become cartoon caricatures in my mind. On the one hand you have the folks who regularly come up with some new gimmick for telling people about Jesus. It might be a Christian version of a Rubik’s Cube or multi-colored wrist band, or a little blue booklet that you pull out of your pocket at the most inappropriate times. In some cases it is the obligatory altar call at the end of a sermon. The message may have had nothing to do with the grace of God and the church may have the same 75 people who have been coming for decades, some of whom have walked the aisle multiple times, but we must have a chance for people to pray a sinners pray and punch their ticket to heaven. No consideration is given to the trauma or pain in their lives. No attempt is made to minister to the needs of the poor and broken in order to love them to Jesus. It is all about the message and getting that prayer done.
On the other hand there are growing numbers of people who are serving the needs of the poor and broken. They are offering the cup of cold water, giving shelter the homeless, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, and a host of other wonderful things. This is especially true in the under 30 crowd in Christianity, although it has a long history in the liberal branch of the faith no matter what the age. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but what you might never hear is anyone actually telling the poor, or the prisoner, or the homeless person that they need to submit to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and follow Him. We can’t say that for fear of sounding exclusive or arrogant and we don’t want to offend anyone.
Neither of those approaches is faithful to Jesus or the Gospel that He preached. When Jesus began His public ministry he gave a very clear picture of what the Gospel is in Luke 4:17-19:
17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus said that He was sent to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. They mean the same thing. So the Good News, the Gospel includes both speaking and doing. It is about telling people something and showing people something. You tell the poor the Good News, but you also set free those who are oppressed. It is about redemption. In the Old Testament there is a long history of the idea of redemption. It is about restoring something or someone to its rightful place. Often times people would have to sell themselves into slavery because of a financial disaster in their lives. If a relative came about bought them out of their slavery then that relative was called their kinsman redeemer. The idea was to restore the person to the completeness of what was lost. The got their lives back because someone paid a redemption price. The was certainly Good News to the slave.
Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. He paid the price for our restoration. We are restored through Christ to the relationship with the Father that was lost due to our sin. That restoration is not just about a place in Heaven with God. It is not just about having our lives in this world made better. It is both. The Gospel is holistic. The Good News is that life now and life to come are both to be changed by Christ. The implication of that for people who follow Jesus is that God cares about the spiritual and the physical. He cares about eternity and the here and now. He redeems our soul and our body. If God cares about such things then we should as well. We should be prepared to share the Gospel in word and deed. We should demonstrate the Gospel for our neighbor by showing them the love of Christ as we cloth them, feed them, house them and heal them. We should tell them of the love of Christ for them by proclaiming for them the message of liberty and freedom found in Christ.
That is the Gospel. It is not a lopsided mutation of only preaching or only serving. Jesus did both. He calls us to do both. If we serve people as He did, then like Nicodemus in John chapter 3, people will come to us. They will have been provoked to ask why we are the way we are. Then we can proclaim how we have been set free by Jesus.