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Evangelicals love to speak in theological shorthand. We employ phrases and terms that become popular, become a badge of identification, and over time get emptied of their meaning.

Obedience Fueled by the Gospel?

Take “gospel-centered” language as an example:

  • Our obedience is fueled by the gospel.
  • The gospel is what motivates our obedience.
  • We need to be captured again by the gospel.
  • We need be refreshed in the gospel every day.

And on and on.

The more I hear this kind of talk, the more I’m convinced that we are using the word “gospel” where we really mean the Holy Spirit. We often talk about the gospel doing stuff when actually it’s the Spirit who is working. So we say, “The gospel fuels our obedience,” but what we really mean is the Spirit captures our affections with the gospel in order to fuel our obedience. 

Now, knowing the Spirit, He probably doesn’t mind all that much that we’re devoting so much attention to Christ. That’s who He’s about, after all. But I do think we can overlook the Spirit in such a way that believers miss out on the Spirit’s work in their daily lives.

The Powerful Gospel and the Empowering Spirit

There is certainly biblical precedent for thinking of the gospel as having a power of its own – an innate power inherent to its message. Paul spoke of it as “the power of God unto salvation.” The Book of Acts refers to the Word “increasing and multiplying.” So there is nothing unbiblical about using “gospel” in a way that gives the good news a personification.

But let’s make sure we don’t get carried away with our lingo to the point that we give short shrift to the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

If we only think of power as flowing from the gospel (which is a message), we might unintentionally communicate that we are changed by knowledge of a message and not by personal acquaintance with the Messenger.

Is it possible that we are using “gospel reflection” language as buzz words that reduce the Christian life to continual reflection on a set of propositional truths instead of the dynamic Word that brings us into relationship with Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit?

Knowing the Spirit

Some might push back and say that we are really using the word “gospel” as a synonym for “the Scriptures.” Okay. I agree that the Holy Spirit is the One who is working in and through us. And I agree that the instrument the Spirit uses is the Word. And yes, within the Word, the gospel is the central message of the Bible. Granted. So don’t think I am pitting the gospel over against the Spirit.

My point is to make this truth explicit rather than implied – to show the Spirit is the actor and the gospel is the instrument. In other words, to make the relationship front and center again.

Why does this matter? Because the point of knowing more about God is that we would know God more. The point of reflection on the gospel is relationship with the God of the gospel.

All this talk about being constantly reminded of the gospel and refreshed in the gospel is another way of saying we need the Holy Spirit to bring to mind the good news of Jesus and what He has done. (According to John 17, that is one of His roles.) So yes, we need to be refreshed by the Spirit as He once again applies the truth of the gospel to our wayward hearts.

Here’s my concern: If we lose the personal connection to the Holy Spirit, we miss the intimacy God wants with His people as well as the power God intended us to have.

So, by all means, let’s be all about the gospel. But let’s make sure that whenever we talk about the gospel, we have the God of the gospel in mind. He is the unchanging substance behind our changing terminology.

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33 thoughts on “When We Say “Gospel,” Do We Really Mean “The Spirit?””

  1. darren says:

    Such a good word Trevin… thanks

  2. Steve says:

    Amen. This is something that I had been thinking about a lot lately and you nailed it. Thank you.

  3. Sam O'Neal says:

    YES! As both an editor and a Christian, I don’t understand the Evangelical church’s constant attempts to find new labels for what has already been made clear in Scripture. We don’t improve the Christian life or experience by finding new names for those experiences. We improve things through submission and obedience to what has already been made clear.

    1. Susan says:

      Well said, Sam! I’m often frustrated by that.

  4. Good word, Trevin. Part of the solution here is having a more expansive, New Covenant/Creation view of the gospel that includes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, something Darrell Bock highlights in his new book on defining the gospel.

    But even so, given that “[w]e employ phrases and terms that become popular, become a badge of identification, and over time get emptied of their meaning,” we certainly need to speak more precisely, more helpfully, less clique-ishly, and more personally of our triune God, his identity and his work.

  5. Chris Julien says:

    This is spot on. Really good post Trevin.

    “If we only think of power as flowing from the gospel (which is a message), we might unintentionally communicate that we are changed by knowledge of a message and not by personal acquaintance with the Messenger.”

    Right, and then we are making Christianity into some kind of gnostic higher ascent to knowledge, instead of intimate and true knowing of God himself, which permeates all areas of our lives.

    After all, we know what Jesus will say to many who will see him on the last day: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23.) As you said, we must know God himself, the Messenger of the gospel.

    God bless.

  6. Steve Martin says:

    “If we lose the personal connection to the Holy Spirit, we miss the intimacy God wants with His people as well as the power God intended us to have.”

    We Lutherans feel the same way.

    That’s why we believe the Lord had a purpose in commanding that we do baptism and His Supper.

    So we could have a tangible Word of grace (Himself), so that we could have assurance totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

  7. j. mcguire says:

    Mark 1:8 “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Does this verse apply? John seems to say that the Holy Spirit makes the difference as we treasure the knowledge of Christ.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Right on. It’s all about God

  9. This is a great reminder to be explicit about what we commonly assume in our preaching and teaching. Working with College kids, I have to constantly work at looking at my language and preaching in order to make sure I’m being understood, not giving anything up, but not misleading my hearers with helpful short-hand. I mean, I think it’s still fine to talk about “Gospel-powered” this and that, but any opportunity to show the way our Trinitarian God saves us AS Trinity, is one we should be taking.

  10. Nathan says:

    Love the post, and I agree vehemently, but there is one point I would like clarification on: “And I agree that the instrument the Spirit uses is the Word.” My question is simply this, are you saying that the only instrument the Spirit uses is the Word? Or are you saying that one of/ the primary instruments the Spirit uses is the word?

    1. Max says:

      “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 8:13-15).

      Thus, salvation depends on believing depends on hearing depends on preaching depends on preachers who are sent! It is necessary for Truth (the Word) and the Spirit of Truth (Holy Spirit) to work in tandem in all these steps to bring a soul from darkness to light.

      1. Max says:

        Whoops … the passage quoted should be Romans 10:13-15 … although the Romans 8 verses have some application here.

  11. Lee Furney says:

    Many thanks. A similar post on When We Say “Bible Teaching,” Do We Really Mean “Proclaiming Christ” would be similarly helpful. Some level of shorthand is helpful as precision eats up time. We can’t explain everything every time. However, if we are habitually imprecise then it is unhelpful both to those in the know and those in the dark.

  12. another darren says:

    Love it! Glory be to the Triune God – Father, Son and let us never forget the Spirit.

    Although more precisely, when I think of the Gospel fueling obedience and such, I mean it more specifically than the Holy Spirit broadly or even his work through Holy Scripture. I’m thinking good news. I’m thinking of the story that takes captive our thoughts and imaginations and redefines our own stories in its light; the announcement of freedom from the Law through the cross; the victory over death in His resurrection.

    And that can begin to answer Nathan’s question. Sure the Spirit does all sorts of things apart from Scripture, like creating, sustaining, etc. (although if by “Word” you mean the Son, then they do nothing apart from the other). The Gospel, however, is the sine qua non instrument that the Holy Spirit uses for our salvation, from new birth (Gal 3:2; Jam 1:18) to sanctification (John 17:17).

  13. Ditto to another darren,

    Most biblically based Christians whose sole use of common venacular is to avoid weirdism and novelty and to connect with people who apperantly understand all that the gospel intails, which is the person and work of Christ, and is therefore not merely the closing call to commitment in a sermon reiterating the historical facts of his death and resurrection,

    However to the authors point, we are always to be on guard for the “peril of the pendulum” from gnostic and esoteric talk to the mystical gobbly goop which accuses the Spirit of being in places and affecting events that are unbiblical.

    A subtle fettish to get away from the boundaries of propositional truth as our neccesary restrainer is the danger.

    I see the new calnivinst movement headed that way.

    Honoring the Spirit means honoring the Son and scripture.

  14. Chad says:

    I think the term is a catch all for everyone that wants to affiliate them with the TGC movement in general and in particular Tim Keller. I know some guys that like to even like to use the term as a verb. You’ve been “gospeled” or you need to get “gospeled.”

    In my experience the term is used by guys that are better at quoting(misquoting?) Keller than they are at parsing εύαγγέλιον.

  15. Johnny Wheaton says:

    I agree with Trevin When we say” Gospel ” We really mean the “spirit”.

  16. Wesley says:

    Perhaps we should be clear enough at least to say it is our understanding of the Gospel that fuels our efforts. This would, however, still include the work of the Spirit who gives us that understanding and – as you say – focuses our attention on Christ and His work on our behalf. Remember not long ago you could have substituted “missions” or “missional” for every sentence that uses gospel today that you mentioned? I agree, clarity in our language brings both clarity in our message as well as intellectual integrity.
    thanks for posting this bro.

  17. Al Gordon says:

    Let’s try using “Holy Spirit” in our conversation where we currently say “gospel” and see how it fits.

  18. Nick Chafralambous says:

    wonderful. clear. charitable.

  19. Graham says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong (certainly possible) but I do think the Gospel actually plays a part in our motivation Christian living. No doubt it is only by the Spirit that we can know God or be empowered for righteousness. But I do not think the Spirit and the message of the Gospel are interchangeable. Paul says that we offer ourselves in worship to God “in view of God’s mercy” (shown in the Gospel), he speaks of our adoption as sons as a motivation for putting of sinful desires, he speaks of our life in Christ as being a motive to rid ourselves of the sins for which Christ died, and he says that our citizenship in heaven by way of the Gospel should lead us to strive to put off the things of this world. The Holy Spirit is involved in the whole process; it is by Him that we see our need for Jesus and comprehend the Gospel, the Spirit empowers the Christian life. But Paul does put an emphasis on reflecting on what we have in Christ (adoption, citizenship, new life, approval, etc.) and being motivated unto holiness as a result of such reflection. Such reflection upon grace for motivation towards obedience is clearly seen in both Colossians 3:1-3 and Romans 12:1. I believe the Spirit is at work in such reflection and in the affection stirred and in the power to defeat sin. From a doctrinal standpoint however, the Spirit and Gospel do seem to be separate and Gospel-centered living and teaching ought to still be promoted. I would love to hear feedback if maybe I am missing something.

  20. Joy says:

    Amen, Trevin! Thank you for writing this! Another term people use is grace when they mean the Holy Spirit. At my church, we even sing a song occasionally that almost seems to worship grace instead of worshiping God. No doubt, I am thankful for God’s grace and for the gospel, but without the Holy Spirit, neither one can rescue or change people.

  21. Lee Furney says:

    Useful addition by Graham in my inadequate view. In defense, it’s worth noticing that the article is a form of shorthand itself, due to its length, and thus won’t close every door to wrong understandings. I took it to be a welcome corrective rather than to swing the pendulum to the other end of the spectrum. His central point seems to be “let’s make sure we don’t get carried away with our lingo to the point that we give short shrift to the person and work of the Holy Spirit”, rather than for us to simply substitute one word for the other, as the title for the post may seem to suggest. There appears to be a missing distinction between work and effect which might add further clarity. The effect of the gospel should be duly noted and emphasized, whilst also embracing that it is only applied through the work of the Spirit, lest we “unintentionally communicate that we are changed by knowledge of a message and not by personal acquaintance with the Messenger”.

  22. Luma says:

    “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the POWER of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16, emphasis mine.)

  23. Duane says:

    I have been commenting on this for some time. Trevin, you have such a great way with words and thank you for posting this and saying this although you might get some push back. It is only as we submit to the Holy Spirit of God within us can we truly understand, grasp, comprehend, etc. the gospel and all the ramifications that is holds to our salvation; past, present, and future.

  24. A group of us theologians have been saying this for years. Surprised (and encouraged) to see this here. We’ll see if it effects the way people tweet:).

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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