Beyond the Bumper Sticker Gospel

February 25, 2019

Personal experience and a half century of study convinces me that the good news of Yeshua can and does revolutionize one's life in ways beyond prior imagining. Furthermore, I believe this good news has implications for restructuring reality as we have known it. It is much bigger and utterly other than providing a platform for boisterous religious zealots seeking slogans and pretexts for some sort of triumphalist campaign. It is not meant to be a basis for assigning to others categories of insider or outsider. In the deepest sense, the truths about Jesus of Nazareth that are alluded to in the gospel, the good news, are radically revolutionary, and will eventually reshape the cosmos itself. Yes, I really mean that.

So you can understand why I am determined to stand for the good news of Yeshua and against the hackneyed sloganeering to which it is often reduced in our day. Let's get beyond bumperstickers and bullhorns.

Denounced By a Doctrinal Vigilante

Once upon a time I was denounced by a doctrinal vigilante over my discussion of the good news of Yeshua in a paper I wrote, now found in my book, Converging Destinies. Here is part of what my critic said of me:

What is the Good News? It is the simple message that the Seed of the Woman, the long-expected Redeemer, the One who is truly called Immanuel, who is fully God and fully man, came to save mankind which is dead in trespasses and sins! By means of His incarnation, sinless life, death, burial and resurrection, He has made salvation possible for Jews and Gentiles who hear this Good News and believe it. This is the simple Gospel. Every one of our children should know this before they become a Bar Mitzvah. When a rabbi no longer is able to articulate this, but instead minimizes it, confuses it, undermines it, or adds to it, something is seriously wrong.

In answer to this simple question Stuart presented a 48-page paper which revealed some of the reasons for the serious divisions within our movement. I would like to comment on Stuart’s paper and then make some recommendations.

Stuart refuses to give a clear simple definition of the Good News. In fact, he advises us against having a simple definition of the Gospel. He claims that most of us are confused about the Gospel, particularly the Evangelical Church and Jewish Missions. “Conditioned by evangelicalism and Post-Enlightenment conceits, we may at first think that defining the gospel is a straightforward matter, and simple, really … I advise against this approach! The gospel should not and cannot really be defined in the same manner as other terms” (p. 22). In fact, he claims that “it is and always will be more than we can grasp and define” (p. 23). When describing the Gospel, he says it is “fundamentally a report we have received and which we pass on, an authoritative, empowered, but always fragmentary report concerning God’s saving intervention in Jesus Christ.” (pp. 22-23; emphasis mine).

To evaluate this indictment stigmatizing my reluctance to corral the gospel into a brief transactional formula, I recommend we all consider the following questions:

  • Is the gospel precisely as we see it and say it is? Or is it vastly bigger and in some ways other than what we think we can see? Consider, for example, Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 13:12 – “For the present we see things as if in a mirror, and are puzzled; but then we shall see them face to face. For the present the knowledge I gain is imperfect; but then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (Weymouth Translation). Or in the Amplified Version – “For now [in this time of imperfection] we see in a mirror dimly [a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma], but then [when the time of perfection comes we will see reality] face to face. Now I know in part [just in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].”
  • Can we give an adequate summation of such a gospel on a bumper sticker or in a brief formula?
  • To what extent do we tend to see the gospel through cultural filters which alert us to some things and desensitize us to others?
  • Have we been conditioned by our communities and contexts to see the gospel in certain ways so that our rendition of the gospel says more about our context than it does about the biblical context?

I will leave it to you to consider and discuss these questions. In this series of blogs, my responses to each of them will become readily apparent.

Bill Bright and the Bumper Sticker Gospel

In 1959, Bill Bright, an evangelist who had been a candy manufacturer, developed the Four Spiritual Laws as talking points for explaining the gospel, with a view toward getting someone to "pray to receive Jesus as their personal Savior." They were so widely distributed and have become so familiar that many of us can recite them from memory:

  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  2. Man is sinful and separated from God, thus he cannot know and enjoy God's plan for life.
  3. Jesus Christ is God's provision for man's sin through whom man can know God's love and plan for his life.
  4. We must receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord by personal invitation.

These Four Spiritual Law presented a four-step "plan of salvation." If we will step back to gain perspective, there are some questions that cry out to be answered.

  • What fundamental question does the Four Spiritual Laws seek to answer?
  • Who is the main character in these Four Spiritual Laws?
  • What are we told here about Yeshua/Jesus?
  • Do you need the Old Testament for this approach?
  • Is the people Israel and God’s dealing with them part of the message, or a necessary part of the background of this plan?
  • Is this the gospel? Or is it instead a method for us to use to get people into the category “saved?”
  • Does this formula have anything to do with the kingship of Yeshua and the redemption of the cosmos he is brining to pass, or is it instead a narrow, selective, and individualistic, fragmentary at best?
  • Finally, did Yeshua send his disciples into the world to get people “saved”, or was it to make disciples—obedient, worshipful followers?

These are dangerous questions. For some people, even asking such questions will stigmatize you. And coming up with answers contrary to the way people are accustomed to think will get you in trouble. That's what happened to me.

Stay tuned for more blogs in this series. This is likely the most consequential topic we could consider. Let's do it together. Look for another blog or two later this week.

And for a video peek at some of these thoughts and ideas, visit here, and watch some of our Red Door Diaries!

14 comments on “Beyond the Bumper Sticker Gospel”

  1. Is your "48-page paper" available somewhere online? I do believe I'd like to read it. I wrote a significantly shorter paper myself (only 6 pages, Hebrew and English), entitled "One faith, Two Gospels". It offers succinct definitions, though perhaps your "doctrinal vigilante" would be no more satisfied with them than with your response. However, statements and definitions of good news cannot do more than point toward something that is much more complex, which is a description of soteriological mechanics and how they interact psychologically and behaviorally with a halacha suited to an ecclesial demographic.

  2. I've just viewed the "Red Door Diaries" FaceBook videos in your link above, pertaining to this topic, and it struck me that the summaries of gospel that you are addressing are Rav Shaul's summaries on behalf of his gentile disciples. He was elaborating on how the good news, to which Rav Yeshua referred as "the good news of the kingdom of heaven" for his Jewish audience, may be perceived and applied by these gentile disciples. He was not addressing the good news as Shimon-Kefa would present it to a Jewish audience (i.e., "the gospel to those of the circumcision" by the apostle designated to address that demographic), but rather he was describing the elements which he incorporated into his presentation of a "gospel to the uncircumcised" for whom he had been designated as an apostle. The gentile disciples required a lot more background explanation than would Jewish ones to understand the implications of Rav Yeshua's good news and its application specifically to their social and spiritual conditions.

    I would agree with you that neither gospel is bumper-sticker material. I would say further that neither is about salvation, per se, though that is one consequence which may be obtained thereby. I would suggest that the good news is more about fulfillment and abundance of the blessings of life lived in alignment with HaShem both individually and communally.

  3. I think the answer here is that, biblically speaking, it is both. The basic gospel message should be fairly simple and straightforward. There is plenty of biblical basis for this - For example, 1 Cor. 1-2: "And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (NIV) Additionally, when we look at Acts 2, or Acts 10 - Peter's proclamation of the Gospel, to Jews and Gentiles respectively, we see nothing complex, nothing regarding the questions asked above. I suggest that the reason for this is that the Gospel is meant to be proclaimed, not examined, because its efficacy is the brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit making the truth of the gospel real in the heart of the hearer. - No I am not a Calvinist - but I do assert that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts or circumcises the heart if you will. This is then is the point of the need of simplicity - so the hearer can believe and receive the Holy Spirit - See Galatians 1-3, especially chapter 3.
    But I did say "both." - And I suggest that what is really at issue here is not about the gospel itself, but rather its context, its historical place regarding the people of Israel . This has certainly been misused by some gentile Christians who are anti-Judaism/anti Jewish. So certainly, this needs to be corrected, and I appreciate the work of the author of this blog who's ministry I am new to. But I do think it is a mistake to make this an issue about the "entirety of the gospel" if you will. These are deep, complex issues that I feel come after, the presentation of the gospel - as we see in scripture itself.

  4. I always enjoyed Robert Webber who said (if I remember correctly), if asked by a unbeliever what the gospel is he would invite them over to his home on a regular basis where they study together one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Once they read through it, he would say this is the Gospel. Isn't this why the early church called them gospels? Dallas Willard mentioned a major turning point in his life was having a time of solitude where he read through the the Gospel of John. Once he complete his reading, he arose from his chair a different man. Narratives and stories transform.

  5. I always enjoyed Robert Webber who said (if I remember correctly), if asked by a unbeliever what the gospel is he would invite them over to his home on a regular basis where they would study together one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Once they read through it, he would say this is the Gospel. Isn't this why the early church called them gospels? Dallas Willard mentioned a major turning point in his life was having a time of solitude where he read through the the Gospel of John. Once he completed his reading, he arose from his chair a different man. Narratives and stories transform.

  6. I suggest that the gospel needs to be simple/brief because it is a proclamation more than an intellectual argument. The Holy Spirit convicts and reveals the truth of the gospel to the heart of the hearer. And what is that truth: See Acts 2:36/37
    Now that said, the implications of the gospel are not simple - because the death and resurrection of Yeshua is part of the historical context and promises made to the Jewish people. Therefore concepts espoused by many Christians such as the nullification of the Torah, the church having replaced Israel, whether as a people or as a halachic authority must be confronted and demonstrated as false.

    1. You are right that it is a proclamation, but it is a proclamation wrapped up in a context--the context of he story of Israel and also of the story of Yeshua, who he is, what He did, is doing, and will do. One of the uses of euangelion (the Greek term for what we call, "gospel") is the good news of having been victorious in battle. But coming out of a Starbucks and a man running down the street shouting "We won! We won!" You might smile at his affect and feel good for him, but in order for that proclamation to have any meaning for you, you need considerable background. So, although I myself have used Acts 2:36-37 as my own summary of the gospel, and taught others to do so, I now realize upon further reflection that, if standing alone, it is inadequate and lacks meaning for the reasons stated. Using that text in isolation also misrepresents the gospel and runs the risk of playing into the native narcissistic individualism of our day. I strongly recommend Salvation by Allegiance Aloneby Matthew Bates for a thorough going argument for what I am suggesting here. I also recommend my monograph "Son of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Jewish Movement" which supplies an essential aspect of the matter that Bates entirely misses due to supersessionist presuppositions, that Yeshua is not just the King. He is the triumphant King of Israel and only therefore the King of the Nations. The term "Messiah" has a particular meaning which Bates fails to explore. And the term Son of David ties into that in a way which insists that Yeshua is Israel's ultimate hero. Shalom.

      1. I greatly appreciate your response, but I am a bit nonplussed by it. It seems to me like we basically are saying the same thing - I stated that the gospel has to be understood in its proper historical context regarding the Jewish people - I stated that erroneous Christian attitudes, like the ones you mention need to be challenged...I do not think, nor did I say. that Acts 2:36-37 "stands alone." My point is simply that you start with a clear proclamation first... and then must necessarily expand on it - revealing its proper context as we both agree. This is essential because it is not a proclamation of "we won"...it is a proclamation of "save yourself...(Acts 2:40)" There is an immediacy to the proclamation of the gospel that can be seen in the texts. That is not to say it is simplistic, certainly we have to study how we should address the audience we are having the discussion with... but I see no need to set up a (I suggest false) dichotomy between a simple vs complex gospel. The gospel as a proclamation is simple - its context and ramifications are not.

        1. Consider, then, of what does this "simple proclamation" consist? It's not quite as pithy as "we won!", nor even "save yourself!" (nor "be saved!"). Rav Yeshua repeatedly said: "מלכות השמים לידיך" (or, "ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν" or "the kingdom of heaven is at hand"). This notion of the immediately accessible kingdom of heaven has a parallel in Deut.30:10-14, especially v.14 which says: "for this thing [i.e., Torah] is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it" -- and Rav Yeshua stated the implicit connection between them in Mt.5:19.

          However, the notion of the kingdom of heaven is a condensation of an entire worldview. In order to understand the pithy proclamation, one must know what this term means, as well as its relationship to Torah, and likewise what *that* means -- not to neglect additional related concepts like the circumcision of the heart cited in Deut.30:6 and its connection with Yirmiyahu's description of the Torah covenant written on the Jewish heart in Jer.31:31. Also to be traced is a concept of resurrection and its connection with the ongoing future realization of the kingship of HaShem throughout all the earth, which is the reflection of heavenly conditions on earth. As you can see, there is a world of information that is invoked by the pithy proclamation -- and we haven't even begun to unpack the aspect of how this good news can be appropriated and appreciated by non-Jews, though it is implicit in the phrase "throughout all the earth".

          So the problem of the bumper-sticker approach is similar to that faced by the sage Hillel when a man challenged him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot [ref: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a]. His answer was an overly brief summation, saying: "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and study it.". Perhaps what should be placed on a bumper-sticker is that final exhortation: "Go and Study!". If that seems to you too obscure, consider that other brief summations are no more enlightening until one does just that.

          1. Again, I don't see any conflict between what I am saying and what you are. I just don't see the need to set up a dichotomy of simple vs. complex. I am using, I think, the same reasoning as Hillel - You start with something simple and then study the rest - which is indeed complex.

          2. Thank you for your, as always, informed and articulate response.

            I would simply add (gently) that in addition to having a broad Jewish-cultural biblical understanding of terms like "malchut hashamayim" (the Kingdom of heaven), we need to be supremely attentive to how the term is being used in its particular context. Interpreters regularly err by reading lexcial data and findings from other contexts into the interpretation of biblical texts, and allowing those outside data to condition and determine their interpretation of the text in question, when what is most called for is "keeping your finger on the text" and paying supreme attention to what the text is saying here, what the human author intended it to mean to those hearing it, how they most likely heard the text, and so on. Importing other data into the equation, even impressive data, can create more problems than it solves.

            Yet, all in all, your point is very well taken. Bumper stickers can be dangerously reductionist.

  7. Dr. Dauermann,

    Having read the initial post and responses, it seems to me that the gospel that Jesus preaches is the good news of the “besorah” for Israel as we understand Him to be the “One Man Israel“ as said by Will Herberg and others.

    As one who is not Jewish, the reading of Yeshua’s depiction of the good news of the kingdom is something that we who are not Jewish or that those who are Jewish can receive personally without grace. The initial message is not for non-Jews, though, apart from Israel, but includes non-Jews according to Acts 15. A distinction must remain in order for there to be life.

    Does Paul’s letters to the non-Jewish believers for intimacy of fellowship come without a deferential price for gentiles?

    Blessings,

    Jay

    1. Shalom to you Jay. Great meeting you in Dallas!

      I am not sure I understand your questions and need further clarification on the following before I answer:
      (1) Did you mean to say that "the good news of the kingdom is something that we who are not Jewish or that those who are Jewish can receive personally without grace?" If this be the case, what would the function of grace (seen as divine enablement) be?
      (2) What do you mean by "a deferential price for gentiles?" Did you mean differential? And if so, please DO explain what you are asking. I am not getting it, but will be happy to respond once I understand.

      Thanks.

      Rabbi Stuart

  8. For the sake of clarity in the discussion here, I'd like to define what is the good news that Rav Yeshua proclaimed to Jewish audiences. In Mt.4:23, and in a number of other passages, we find it called the "gospel of the kingdom". In Mt.5:19, we find Rav Yeshua observing that greatness in this "kingdom of heaven" depends on performing and teaching Torah. He observes in v.20 that righteousness or diligence even greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees is needed even to be entering into this kingdom. In the Greek text, the Aorist tense that is used for the verb "to enter" indicates that it is a continually repeated action that is never complete. This might be compared to the action of eating food. We do it, and we are satisfied, but we must do it again and again in order to live. I believe we can learn from this that the faithfulness we learn from performing and teaching the Torah helps us to develop maturity in the mindset which is basic to the repeated process of entering into and enjoying "malchut ha-shamayim", to rejoice in the Presence of our Father and King, just as we may enjoy a good meal. The good news, for Jews, was what Rav Yeshua instructed his Jewish disciples to preach in Mt.10:7, that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand". It is close by, it is immediately accessible -- though we see from Mt.3:2 and 4:17 that repentance may be required first.

    The idea of "malchut ha-shamayim" was not new to Jewish thinking. But some Jews may have associated it only with the end of days and the coming of the ben-David messiah. Such people would have been surprised to hear Rav Yeshua preach that it was close at hand. In our days we have an advantage they did not have, that allows us to understand more easily that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty under the rule of HaShem's anointed king messiah was not the only meaning of "malchut hashamayim", because we are aware that their view of the kingdom was not going to occur for at least another 20 centuries. Therefore we know to look for another meaning, which is the worldview or mindset that accompanies such a kingdom and makes its existence possible. It is something within each individual and thus it is immediately accessible. It is a mindset of obedience and faithfulness and moment-by-moment existential trust in HaShem as our King that must exist before the physical realization of the kingdom is possible, and it can exist even before any political conditions may make it possible. In this case, the kingdom of heaven is described as being accessible more than 20 centuries before the coming of the ben-David messiah. In fact, it may be considered part of Rav Yeshua's service as the ben-Yosef messiah that he should reveal to us this internal immediacy of the kingdom.

    This definition must be allowed to guide our interpretation of the message proclaimed to the Jewish audience in Acts 2, which differs in some degree from how Rav Yeshua presented it because it is focused on Rav Yeshua's resurrection event that validated the ancient promise of resurrection as well as reiterating its implications for his becoming the anointed Davidic king. Thus "malchut ha-shamayim" could be anticipated as more than only the internal attitudes of submissiveness to HaShem and the receipt of His Spirit as a wellspring of empowerment for internal renewal, but as an impending physical-political realization as well. However, only the former internal realization can be described properly as "close at hand" for the Acts-2 audience, in accord with Rav Yeshua's presentation of it. The only physical realization that can occur until he returns as the ben-David messiah is a communal emulation of it among his obedient disciples who are well-familiar with the internal experience of it.

    Only if we understand this characterization of Rav Yeshua's Jewish good news can we understand that the good news for Jews is not about Rav Yeshua but rather about our relationships with HaShem, with His Torah, and with each other. And only then may we begin to translate the applicable aspects of the Jewish gospel which may be appreciated by non-Jewish disciples as the "gospel to the uncircumcised" cited by Rav Shaul the designated apostle to the gentiles. Their relationship with Torah is not the same as it is for Jews, and thus even their intra-communal relationships with each other will differ from that between Jewish disciples and between the two segments of the broader ecclesia. We may ponder also whether this produces any difference between them for the individual's existential relationship with HaShem, but for that I can find no definitive answer so far.

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