While I didn’t grow up with a TV, I did occasionally get to watch the iconic, classic show, The Smurfs, especially at my grandparents’ house. Now my own kids have discovered it on Netflix and are enjoying it. Watching it the second time around I’ve noticed something peculiar: the word “Smurf” and its various derivatives is used for everything. It is the primary verb, adjective, and adverb. And of course it’s a proper noun too.
I don’t think I would have paid this much mind except that I’ve seen the same thing happening in certain, largely reformed, church circles with the word “gospel.”
We have gospeled the gospel into every gospel-shaped corner of our gospel-centered ministries. We are gospel centered, gospel focused, gospel driven people who lead gospel initiatives to share the explicit gospel as part of our gospel project to do gospel centered discipleship so that people understand the gospel deeps and don’t believe any subversive gospels. Our pastors preach the gospel, but not the gospel according to The Simpsons, Coco Chanel, Peanuts, Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien. We live gospel lives dealing with gospel issues (whatever those are). Ironically, gospel music is the one form of gospel we don’t really participate in much because it’s not very gospelly.
I assume you followed all that.
None of these efforts, publications, or verbiage cheapens or in any way detracts from the actual gospel. Each one, in fact, seeks to explain it clearly and put it into practice. However, when you add them all up what we have is a cliché instead of something profound. We’ve smurfed the term, gospel. If it means everything it doesn’t mean anything.
We need to move beyond the shorthand, the catch phrases. Every time we use the term “gospel” we actually mean something profound by it, but we risk losing that significance. We need to narrow the obtuse, specify the vague, and clarify the nebulous.
The term “gospel” shouldn’t be avoided, but we need to stop abusing it. It is not a catch all for theology. Salvation, redemption, soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, spiritual disciplines, the fruits of the Spirit, sanctification, glorification, obedience, faithfulness, grace, and so many other terms have their own nuance and import in explaining the Christian life and the wonder of God’s work. When we put them all under the banner of “gospel” we leave people wondering “what does that even mean?”
At its essence the gospel is “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Everything that follows is connected to it and deserves its own narrative and explanation. If we label them all with “gospel” it’s kind of like calling them “a God thing.” Ok, great. What?
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, will be richer to us and to those we talk with if we take the time and put in the effort to be clear and deep and wide. People will see more clearly the implications and applications of it if we are willing to nuance. But if we keep smurfing around with the gospel all we will have is a vague sense of God doing something through Jesus for some folks. And that’s not what we want.