since my last post and the comments that ensued, i’ve been thinking about the gospel. specifically, the word “gospel” and what it means. the question came up specifically when i posed the question “and if the best way i find to live out the gospel is outside of the church? what then?” and mb, in response, asked:
The question for me is, what is essential gospel? What are the parts that are most essential to God? What are the parts that I feel most instructed by him personally (not by my particular passions) to devote my soul to?
in true english geek fashion, i started by turning to the oxford english dictionary (i do love the OED), which defines “gospel” in several ways, including:
1. ‘The glad tidings (of the kingdom of God)’ announced to the world by Jesus Christ. Hence, the body of religious doctrine taught by Christ and His apostles; the Christian revelation, religion or dispensation. Often contrasted with the Law, i.e. the Old Testament dispensation.
2. The record of Christ’s life and teaching, contained in the books written by the ‘four evangelists’.
4. Something as ‘true as the gospel’; a statement to be implicitly received.
5. Something that serves as a guide to human action; something that men swear by. b. A doctrine ‘preached’ with fervour as a means of political or social ‘salvation’.
the OED also clarifies that the old english etymology originated with god + spel, meaning good tidings; however, when god-spel became the standard translation for the latin evangelium it’s indeterminate written form led to mistaking it for a compound of god (the deity) and spel (story or discourse), or god-story. this definition was reinforced by the fact that god-spel was a “word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy.”
in true mormon geek fashion, i turned to the LDS bible dictionary, which defines the word “gospel” as
good news. The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a perfect atonement for mankind that will redeem all mankind from the grave and reward each individual according to his/her works. This atonement was begun by his appointment in the premortal world but was worked out by Jesus during his mortal sojourn. Therefore, the records of his mortal life and the events pertaining to his ministry are called the Gospels
both the OED and the bible dictionary definitions would lead to the conclusion that all the writings of the gospels (at least matthew, mark, luke, and john; and, for some, the other non-canonized gospels) are the gospel. or at least all of the teachings of jesus as contained in the gospels are gospel. for mormons, this would have to extend to jesus’ teachings in the americas, too. i suppose some could argue that this extends to the teachings of jesus’ anointed prophets, but it could be argued that prophets’ teachings expound the gospel, rather than are the gospel.
but for me, this answer is unsatisfactory–that the gospel includes all of the writings of the gospels or even everything jesus taught in the gospels. and i don’t think it really answers mb’s question, which is about essence. so what is the essence of the gospel?
i think we can take guidelines for our definition from both the OED and the bible dictionary definitions. i think the gospel can be found in the gospels and, specifically, in christ’s teachings. and i particularly think that the gospel is both something implicitly to be believed and something which functions as a guide to human action. but what is that guide in its purest, most essential form?
my answer is simple: love. in my mind, the essence of the gospel is love. everything else–and i mean everything–is secondary to love. and i think the scriptures back me up on this.
in matthew 22:37-40, when the lawyer asks christ to identify the most important commandment, jesus answers:
in romans 13:8,10 we learn to “owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. . . . love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” and galatians 5:14 reiterates the idea: “for all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” it seems very clear to me that to love will naturally lead to living christ’s teachings, to living a christlike life.
the scriptures also make it clear that love is the avenue to knowing god and thereby gaining eternal life. john 3:16 teaches us that “god so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” and john 17:3 clarifies that eternal life is to know god and jesus christ. 1 john 4:8 clarifies that he that loveth not knoweth not god because god is love.
so what’s the upshot of all of this? what does it mean to know a god who is–who must be at least in part–unknowable because distant from us? what does it mean to love god with all our heart, soul, and mind? i think the answer is buried in a phrase usually overlooked–specifically the phrase “and the second is like unto it” used to introduce the second great commandment (to love thy neighbor as thyself). i think the first and second great commandments are literally equivalent. when we love our neighbor, when we love ourself, we love god. and i don’t mean this in the typical “when ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me” sense. i don’t think that somehow loving others becomes an act of transference by which we love god. i literally believe that we know god by knowing that which is divine in ourselves and in others, and because we know it we love ourselves and others. simply. purely.
this is a hard gospel. but it’s a beautiful one. it’s a guide to human action. it deserves implicit reception. and far too often it is overlooked in the name of ritual and form, conformity and obedience. because i believe that this is the essence of the gospel–to love self, other, and, therefore, god–i do not believe that living the gospel is constrained by certain religious teachings. because i embrace this simple, essential gospel, i do not believe that there is only one way to believe or to live. all there is, is love. and love is the grace and light and goodness of all humanity, not of any one creed or religion.