I have recently been reading up on Islam--what kind of thinking American hasn't in the wake of 9/11?--and actually have come to recognize a few commonalities between that religion and the kind of liberalized Christianity prevalent in the America of my childhood and youth.
One of the chief commonalities is a misconception that the "original Gospel" was a set of humanly accessible rules given by a uniquely good man named Jesus or Nazareth/ Jesus Son of Mary/ Jesus the Carpenter, etc.
But, later, I discovered the much-maligned Evangelicalism. This is the belief that salvation is applied to us by receiving the Word of God rather than the practice of a certain set of ceremonies under the direction of a specially ordained set of men (sacerdotalism), or our following a prescribed set of ethical rules which, it seems, nobody knows for sure (theological liberalism). The word "Evangelical" means "of the Gospel". Hence, it is the view that the Gospel saves.
But what is the Gospel, really?
Here is the New Testament's own answer to that question:
"Moreover brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
And that he was seen of Cephas [not me; the original one--UC], then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto the present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time."
(I Corinthians 15:1-8)
Paul here tells us that the Gospel is not a code, but an announcement. It is the story of the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ.
First of all, note the stress on the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. This is truly crucial (pun intended). The Gospel is not about people "cleaning up their act" by performing a checklist of do's and don't's, but of the atonement for our sins by Jesus' satisfaction of divine justice in bearing the death and curse due to all those who violate the divine law. And it is also about his triumph over death, which assures us that not only is our penalty paid; but that the sins and condemnation which he bore for us remain buried, while Jesus himself, our substitute and representative, rose body and soul from the dead. As God and man in one person, Jesus is the lens through which God now looks at us; seeing our sins paid for and accepting us as righteous in Jesus.
The words "according to the Scriptures" cast us back to the Old Testament; especially the system of sacrifices for kipporeth (atonement) described in Leviticus and passages such as Psalm 22, Hosea 6:2,and Isaiah 53. Jesus' saving work is not something that hangs in a vacuum, or stands as an abstraction, but stands in the flow of a specific history of divine acts that are recorded for us. This Gospel does not nullify the need for the previous revelation, but appeals to it, and calls us to make use of it in our worship, worldview, and ethics. How different is the Christian church from Islam, in that the first freely uses what it sees as prior revelation while the latter discourages such use!
And the Gospel is something to which God left witnesses. First there were the living apostles and five hundred to whom Paul points his original first century readers. Since then, there remain the New Testament writings.
If the Gospel were merely a set of rules about meat and drink, the proper posture for prayer, and how to wipe out which sins by the practice of certain good works of our own doing, it truly deserves to perish. But this is not what the Spirit of God has proclaimed. Rather, the Gospel is the announcement of God's saving work in Christ. May many, many more embrace this glorious news that in Jesus Christ, God has truly visited and redeemed his people.