the two gospels

Many Christians believe that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For these 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.)

11 Comments

  1. Joan Kindler

    Enjoyed the analysis of the gospels. I don’t know when Jesus said

    Love One Another…..It matters not but I will “research …”never hurts

    to get another’s knowledge. Thank you

    • admin

      “A new command I give to you: love one another.” (John 13:34)

    • Kurt Struckmeyer

      “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

  2. Max Peace

    I believe that the atonement is embodied no further than it may be understood by John 3:16 and that Paul made a meal from it to “theologically” win Jews and gentiles over. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” -Jesus, as espoused in Isaiah, Jeremiah and many other places in the Bible even to the extent of denying Moses and his regimen of animal sacrifice really ought to cast some light here. I think that Paul also taught the social gospel but was not really privy to what the “economy” or particulars of the heavenly kingdom was, in spite of his NDE. What Paul does is make a gospel message (and he did make it) which embodied complex theological reasoning, way beyond that which Jesus would have expected most people to understand. That’s why today we have two gospels. Those who obey Jesus and those who rely on a belief in a belief. Don’t get me wrong, we need God’s grace, his mercy and his forgiveness but that comes when we honestly and genuinely give ourselves over to imitating Jesus in our lives. We all fall down but God really does want us to try and get back up. He gives us power to do so when we genuinely want His Kingdom over anything we may have or be able to get in this world. We do this in this world, we kingdom build right here, like children of God and eventually God takes us home.

    • Jim Peyton

      Those are tremendous insights Max thank you so much you’ve given me much to ponder

  3. Gene Coleman

    A good friend of mine remarked, “Salvation is not about getting us into heaven; It’s about getting heaven into us.”

  4. Deacon Tim Coleman

    I disagree with your analysis. I see no distinction of two gospels in the text and I recognise that much of Paul’s teaching is very much based on the teachings of Christ. To be clear If Jesus was not crucified, dead, buried and raised to life then his teaching would most likely never have survived 2000 years. The problem isn’t the Gospels, or Paul’s letters but rather the particular theological interpretation that the Church has layered over them and in doing so has, for us, shaped the message of the Gospel in a way that doesn’t fit well with our time and culture. Our task is to read the text and interpret what Salvation looks like, what being a disciple looks like, what Church and the Kingdom of God looks like, in our time and culture. This is something that the Church has been doing for 2000 years in different places and cultures. No doubt in a hundred years or more Christian will be critical of our theological interpretations. I believe we need to be more generous about those who have handed on the faith to us, and pray that we have something worthy to hand on to future generations.

  5. RW

    That’s because Jesus was preaching to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles.

  6. Terry Wiggin

    I’m probably going to commit some heresy here, but what else is new. First, I really appreciate this analysis as I have been trying to explain this distinction for decades very poorly. One of its oversights however, is how the Gospel of Jesus demonstrates the evolution of God’s instructions to us. We receive a new and powerful, some would say overarching commandment to love one another. We see examples of what faith expects of us from those perceived to be not of the faithful, for example the Good Samaritan.
    What we don’t see…anywhere that I am aware of…is that God will stop providing inspiration to writers of religious thought. We don’t see anywhere that as God’s flock evolves that God will not inspire us to look at each other in new ways, but with the same commandments, including the overarching love one another as I have loved you…delivered by God’s Son. So while the Bible will always be the most important book I will ever read and re-read, I personally will not discount that there are other God-inspired sermons and writings out there…and personally I use the Gospels and that Overarching Commandment of loving one another as my test of their veracity.

  7. Chris Woodrow

    I agree that a Gospel of Atonement ONLY misses the point. Good theology has a robust Gospel of the Kingdom. However…

    I disagree (nowadays, at least) with the article. Paul DID talk about the kingdom, just in a different style, and he uses kingdom language at least 14 times in his letters and Acts.

    And it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Jesus was saying the kingdom of God has come *near*. And for Paul, the sacrificed/resurrected Jesus announces the *arrival* of the kingdom and the glorification of the king.

    Paul talks at length about how to be believers together—he’s focused on the church. The church as the embodiment of the kingdom on earth. Paul uses the death/burial/resurrection to point out that we’re not slaves to sin, we’re alive in Christ, and therefore there’s nothing holding us back from the kingdom life that Christ talked about all the time.

    (Paul was also deeply concerned with how the Gentiles could join the Jews in being a part of the kingdom. The cross, for Paul, was how that was made possible.)

    It’s worth pointing out that Paul talks about the kingdom both as a Now-reality and ultimate Future-reality. We are adopted—already—into God’s kingdom, and when we die we’ll enter a place where the kingdom is fully realized, until the kingdom is fully-realized here on earth as well.

  8. Edie Sadowski

    If you say the Our Father very slowly you will not miss the words ” thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven ” Jesus is telling us that God wants us to be just, kind, and to build the Kingdom of God here and now by helping our neighbors in need. When we do the things that Jesus did we see a better society

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