D. L. Moody once said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” Many of us were raised with the primary question of personal evangelism: “If you had less than a minute in the elevator with someone, how would you share the gospel?”

So how would you summarize the gospel—the very heart of the Christian message—in seven words?

A recent cover story (Aug 23, 2012) of The Christian Century, the magazine of mainline Protestantism, put that question to several leading pastors and theologians. The writer, David Heim, begins,

In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls how his friend P. D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long or fancy explanation. ‘I’m not too bright,’ he told Campbell. ‘Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?’ Campbell obliged his friend: ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said. To which East replied, ‘If you want to try again, you have two words left.’ Campbell and East eventually had an extended conversation provoked by Campbell’s summary. It had stuck in East’s mind. He wasn’t sure he bought it, but it gave him something to think about.

So now to the results of the Christian Century survey of answers—the seven words they’d use to summarize the gospel. I’ll leave the names out (you can find them at the link above) but give my thoughts concerning their submissions. Most of the statements cluster around the more therapeutic understanding I’ve described above:

  • “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” At least there’s the “through Jesus Christ” clause, but is there anything like this in the New Testament? Are people already “welcomed anyhow” apart from repentance and faith in Christ?
  • “We are the Church of Infinite Chances.” First of all, isn’t the gospel “good news” about what God has done in Christ to save sinners? Why does “we” become the subject of the seven-word summary of the gospel? Second, this response suggests, once again, that grace is a new opportunity for a fresh start, not God’s justification of the ungodly on account of Christ. Infinite chances for what? The idea implied at least is that God simply lets bygones be bygones and turns the page. Every day we blow it, but God is love.
  • “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.” I can’t imagine any non-Christian I know who would find this jarring, surprising, or anything qualifying as “good news.” It’s probably what they assume already—which is why they don’t take such things seriously. Not even Christ makes an appearance in this summary.
  • “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” I could hear Karl Barth offer this response. Yet without the gospel, this just sounds like fatalism. Why should I respond if, apparently, it doesn’t matter either way?
  • “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity.” Reflecting an Eastern Orthodox emphasis on salvation as the deification of human beings by Christ’s incarnation, this answer again could be easily taken by the average person (at least one capable of understanding the sentence) to mean that the “good news” has nothing to do with what God has done for us in Christ, but what he has made possible for us to do in cooperation with him.
  • “We live by grace.” True enough. The gospel of grace certainly gives us life and motivates our living. But what is the gospel?
  • “We are who God says we are.” The respondent fleshes this out a bit: “In the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ we see that God is so for us and with us that we can no longer be defined according to death, a religion-based worthiness system or even the categories of late-stage capitalism.” Again, this is so true, but is the good news that God ignored our debt (“worthiness system”), or that in Christ God has paid it through the Savior’s having fulfilled the law and borne its curse for us?
  • Wisdom become flesh, spirit roars, life transformed.” I know that it’s seven words, but…again, nothing about the cross and resurrection.
  • “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” After explaining that sentence to a stunned passenger on the elevator, I’d still be concerned that with a statement like this I was placing the emphasis—as many of these do—on the saving work of God’s people here and now (God’s continuing “world-making”) while marginalizing his saving work in Christ on the cross.
  • “To dwell in possibility.” The response continues, “When my daughter was confirmed in the Christian faith last spring, I gave her Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Dwell in Possibility.’” The horrible fact about me and the world in which I live is that I’m tormented by possibilities I fall short of. What I need is good news that someone has actually achieved something for me, not made it possible for me to achieve. In Christ, I dwell in divine accomplishments.

There were other responses that certainly included elements of the gospel:

  • According to one, “The wall of hostility has come down.” Shaped by Paul’s marvelous celebration of the “mystery” in Ephesians 3, this response certainly gets at something that the apostle considered part of the gospel itself. The wall separating Jew and Gentile has been torn down, with one new body with Christ as its head. Yet Paul saw this as possible only because of the salvation that we have in Christ by election, redemption, and calling of those “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 1 and 2).
  • Another answered, “He Led Captivity Captive,” adding, “Among Gospel epitomes I especially love the Jesus prayer, the Agnus Dei and “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive”–the good news as I first heard it from Paul (Ephesians 4:8) and Christ’s Jubilee proclamation (Luke 4:18).” It can hardly be denied that Christ’s victory over the powers of death and hell are part of the gospel, but as Paul explains in Colossians 2:13-15, this victory over the powers was accomplished precisely because at the cross God cancelled the debt we owed to the law and its verdict against us.
  • “Once dead. Now alive. Christ reshaping people.” Again, part of the gospel in the broader sense: it’s certainly part of the good news that we are raised from death to life in Christ. However, sanctification (“Christ reshaping people”) is not the biblical answer to the question, “How can we as sinners be justified before a holy God?”
  • “Christ offers new life for all.” Like the previous answer, this offers regeneration without justification.
  • God enters history; renewed covenants promise salvation.” Having written a lot on covenant theology, I like this one a lot. It might be a good conversation-starter to get to the gospel, but I’m not sure I would adopt this as my seven-word summary.
  • “Christ was born. We can be reborn.” The response adds, “Birth is a messy, painful affair, fraught with risk and danger. Yet Jesus was born.” Actually, I was surprised that “messy” didn’t make it into more of these, along with adjectives like “radical” and “wild.” It’s true enough that our Lord’s incarnation and our new birth are part of God’s good news, but again, without the stuff in the middle (faithful life, a messy crucifixion for our sins and victorious resurrection for our justification), what’s the connection between his birth and our new birth?
  • “God is love: This is no joke.” The only reason that so many people in our society might think it’s a joke—or at least not take it very seriously—is that they already think that God loves them. Apart from Christ, why should they? Now that might get the conversation going after the elevator arrives!

Other responses were did not even include the gospel as announced by Scripture:

  • “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation” is the gospel according to a noted Emergent church leader. Here we meet the familiar refrain of old liberalism (and increasingly some forms of newer evangelicalism): the gospel is a call to do something, not good news about something that God has done for us and for the world already.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Although Jesus said this was a summary of the law, this response offers it as the summary of the gospel. The respondent adds, “This always seemed like hard moral advice that very few of us were really able to follow. But in recent times its meaning seems clearer.” Clearer? Easier? Hmmm.
  • “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Imagine Jesus (not mentioned here) gathering a multitude to announce the good news of the kingdom. The crowd hushes, waiting for the words, as Jesus opens his lips to speak: “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Is there anything vaguely like that in the New Testament? What religious leader or motivational speaker could not fill this bill? This is the surprising news brought from a herald on behalf of the King who has reconciled enemies to himself in his Son? As if this were not enough, the respondent adds, “But not everyone will grow and change.” Indeed. Is there any good news for that person?

There were two responses that expressed what seems clearly to lie at the heart of the gospel according to Scripture. I was encouraged (but not surprised) to see William Willimon break away from the pack to say, “God refuses to be God without us.” It assumes, of course, that he could be if he wanted to. That is a direct shot at the human-centered message that pervades Christian speech today. Willimon added, “We asked God to say something definite and God, getting personal, sent Jesus Christ. We were surprised.” The one response that hit the nail on the head, in my view, was that of Yale missions professor, Lamin Sanneh, who quotes Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world.”

The Gospel of “God Loves You Anyway”

We saw that David Heim began his article introducing these responses with the summary by Will Campbell in Brother to a Dragonfly: “‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said.” Interestingly, Heim notes, “Our respondents were not so blunt in diagnosing the human condition. Many seem determined to make grace, not sin, the prominent feature. Nevertheless, sin is acknowledged in some way.”

As I read through the responses, that summary seemed justified. “Grace” is one of those words you can still hear quite a lot across the spectrum today. Mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics sing “Amazing Grace” and appeals to God’s grace are often heard in liberal as well as conservative circles.

But what exactly is grace? It seems to be as vague as “love” and “being nice”: reduced to subjective feelings rather than God’s objective stance toward and gift to sinners. At least Will Campbell mentioned our sinfulness as the problem that the gospel answers. Yet even there, the good news skips over the way in which God’s love and justice embraced through Christ’s cross. Someone once quipped, “I like to sin; God likes to forgive. It’s a great relationship.” It’s as if God exists to make us happy and when we mess up, he just brushes us off and gives us another chance to do better this time. “Grace” becomes forgiveness and empowerment, but a forgiveness without a costly cross and empowerment of the old self rather than its death and the resurrection of the new self in Christ.

Several years ago, sociologist Marsha Witten concluded after surveying scads of sermons (both mainline and evangelical churches) that much of Protestant preaching today has transformed theological categories of sin and grace into therapeutic categories. Conservatives and liberals nuance it differently: for example, sin and grace in more individualistic versus social terms, but the underlying philosophy is similar: Grace is God’s letting bygones be bygones, giving us a chance to turn over a new leaf and give it another shot. (One famous evangelical leader said at Christmas on a network TV morning show that Jesus came “basically to give us a do-over, like in golf.”) Basically, grace is God’s “forget about it” and his empowerment to be all we can be, individually and collectively. The title of her book alone tells the story she documents so well: All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1995).

To grasp something definite about grace (at least in biblical terms) presupposes something about the problem that it answers. So if we’re good people who could be better (lacking only the right formula, motives, and strategy), grace will mean something rather different than it would if it were the answer to, say, God’s just wrath against all unrighteousness.

The worldview that many of us assume—again, across the liberal-conservative spectrum—is that God presides over a world of cause-and-effect. He built laws into the cosmos that work pretty much like clockwork. In a culture defined by Christian Smith as “moralistic-therapeutic-deism,” sin has very little to do with God—other than the obvious fact that he created the universe somehow to run like this. God is very concerned that we don’t hurt each other or his creation, but our wrongs are only indirectly an assault on God himself.

When sin becomes reduced to the horizontal aspect (the second table of the law), we can’t even conceive of the orientation that might lead David’s confession in Psalm 51. Although his penitence is provoked especially by his adultery with Bathsheba and indirect murder of her husband, the heinousness of it all is measured by its offensiveness to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v 4). Sin doesn’t offend God because it violates the law of human flourishing; it violates human flourishing because it is first and foremost an act of treason against God. If that sentiment seems foreign to us, what are we to say of his additional lament in verse 5—”Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”? David is not just wracked with a subjective sense of shame, but the experience of being objectively guilty before God. Further, he realizes that he is not admitting he has morally “bad hair days”—committing particular sins that provoke God’s anger, but that he is morally unclean and guilty even from birth.

Far from ignoring the seriousness of our offenses against each other as individuals and societies, this vertical definition of sin—as an offense against God—is what makes such actions so reprehensible. Not only in what we do to harm others, but in what we leave undone for their welfare, we sin against God. Apart from this vertical reference—”Against you, you only, have I sinned”—there can be no such thing as sin at all. There can only be violations of social contracts and customs.

Yet this view of sin—as first and foremost against God, and as a condition that gives rise to certain acts rather than vice versa—presupposes a certain view of God that our culture no less disdains. A gospel that does not have Christ’s vicarious substitution for sinners at its heart reveals a truth-suppressing denial of sin as bondage and guilt from which none of us can escape by our own efforts. And a therapeutic view of sin, reduced to the private and public health of human beings, has not yet reckoned with the God of the Bible whose love cannot be divorced from his holiness, justice and righteousness. As Anselm responded in the eleventh century to the moralistic rejection of Christ’s vicarious atonement , “You have not considered how great your sin is.” We can only add, “You have not yet considered how holy your God is.”

It’s not just being cranky to comb through these published responses to the most central question of the Christian faith with a critical eye. It’s a great question. It should make us think about how we would summarize the gospel in those brief encounters with strangers, friends, co-workers, and relatives.

So, if anyone cares, here’s mine, drawn from Romans 4:25: “Crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.” Sure, it’s nine words, but two more can make a lot of difference.

Now it’s your turn to offer a seven word summary—and we’ll even let you take nine if you need them.