A Closer Look at the Expression “Gospel Values”

Douglas P. McManaman
May 5, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Throughout this course, you will often come across the expression “gospel values”. Although it is not an expression that I’ve been particularly fond of over the years nor an expression that I have ever employed or would employ, strictly speaking there is nothing wrong with it. The way this expression has often been interpreted is somewhat problematic; its use has often had more to do with a person’s imagination than it does with the reality of Christ’s life as documented in the New Testament, and so at this point I think it would be best to do a very thorough analysis on what “gospel values” really means and what it does not mean.

Values are subjective. We don’t all value the same things. There are, to be sure, values that are intrinsically good and thus ought to be valued by everyone, for example, human life, truth, sociability, integrity etc., and so although values describe something subjective (i.e., what the subject values), values have to be taught--at least if we are talking about “moral values”. But are “gospel values” and “moral values” interchangeable terms? Do they mean, ultimately, the same thing? Most people believe they do, because most people have reduced the gospel of an ethics, a moral doctrine. But the gospel cannot be reduced to a morality, and so “gospel values” and “moral values” do not refer to the same thing. Allow me to explain.

Gospel, from the Old English ‘godspel’, means good news. The Greek word evangelion , from which are derived the words evangelist, evangelization, etc., means “extraordinarily good news”. In short, the good news of the gospel is the resurrection of Christ, his victory over sin and death. To believe in the gospel is to believe in a Person, namely, the Person of Christ himself. It is to believe that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, joined a human nature to himself and “dwelt among us”.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1, 1-14)

Christ came to redeem the lost sheep of humanity from eternal death, by offering himself as a sacrifice of reparation for sin. His death, the shedding of his blood (the giving of his life), makes reparation for sin. Christ offers our humanity to the Father, and he does this in his own flesh and blood. His death was a religious act, the perfect act of religion.

St. Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5, 20). St. Paul also says in his letter to the Romans: “...by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Rm 8, 3-4). In the high priestly prayer in John’s gospel, Jesus says: “I consecrate myself for their sakes now, that they may be consecrated in truth” (17, 19). Now, to consecrate is to make holy, which means to “set apart”. Of course, Christ does not need to be made holy, since he is holiness itself, the fount of all holiness. But he does set himself apart here in this, “his hour”. Christ is leaving something behind, namely “the likeness of sinful flesh”. He was made sin for us in order to be immolated, that is, in order to destroy that sin, to swallow it up in death, so that our humanity may become, in him, a glorified humanity, permeated with the divinity. Christ, in his death, which is a coming to the Father, is bringing our humanity into the very holiness of God. The unredeemed world is a world that is cut off from God and his divine life; it is a world given over to death, “closed in on itself, in an autonomy of wretchedness”, imprisoned, with sin, death, and the law as its prison guards; and behind all these powers is the shadow of another, the “prince of this world” of despair (Durrwell), an enemy that man cannot hope to defeat. Man cannot save himself. But Christ entered into human darkness to free us from captivity. This entering into death, this consecration, is a transformation of our humanity into a glorified humanity. Christ rose from the dead; he had a glorified body; for they did not recognize him on the road to Emmaus. He still had his wounds, but they were glorified wounds: “...then, to Thomas he said: “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!” (Jn 20, 27).

And so, the good news (gospel) is that death no longer has the final word over my life or your life, precisely because Christ rose from the dead. Christ’s death is our justification. We are justified in him, for it is in him that all has been made right (jus). It is up to us to receive that glorified life, to enter into his death in order to rise with him as a new creation, a new creature.

In short, the fundamental and ultimate meaning of human existence is Christ. Reality is all about him. So, what then are gospel values? These are those things that one who has died in Christ and lives in him would necessarily value. Such a person has the mind and heart of Christ, and so he or she will value what Christ values. Hence, all we have to ask ourselves is “What does Christ value?”

The best place to begin such an investigation is the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes, the first of which is “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Mt 5, 1). Evidently, Christ values poverty of spirit, that is, a heart that recognizes its poverty, its utter need for God, thus a heart that is open to his “kingdom”, his redemptive presence, the deliverance he offers us. Continuing on, Christ values a heart that mourns sin (Blessed are those who mourn); he values meekness and humility, and he values those who hunger and thirst for what is right. He values those who are willing to suffer persecution and die on account of his name; he values mercy, but not a mercy that contravenes justice, which is leniency, but a mercy that transcends justice. Christ values repentance, for his first words were: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”, and he assures us that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.

Christ values the Torah: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Mt 5, 17). Christ values integrity: “Say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ when you mean ‘No’. Anything beyond that is from the evil one” (5, 37).

We know from the parable of the Last Judgment that Christ identifies with those who are hungry, thirsty, naked and in prison, and he values those who are moved by their suffering. A look at the parable of the talents seems to reveal that Christ values risk, not safety--not any kind of risk, but risk for his sake. And so, he exhorts us not to worry about what we are to eat or drink or wear, but to seek first the kingdom of God and trust that He will provide us with all that is necessary. He values fasting (“But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” Lk 5, 35) and persistent prayer (Lk 18, 1-8).

Of course, Christ values sacrifice, for he says: “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16, 24); he values childlike openness and rejects the prideful self-sufficiency of the sin of Adam: “Unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18, 3). We know Christ values marriage, for his first miracle took place at the wedding of Cana. He changes water into the finest wine, thereby announcing the coming of the Messiah, for in the book of Isaiah, we read about the arrival of the Messiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations. He will destroy death forever. Let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” (Is 25, 6-9). He values the indissoluble bond of marriage: They said to him: “Moses permitted a man to write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.” But Jesus told them, “Moses wrote this commandment for you because of your hardness of heart. However, from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mk 10, 4-5).

Christ values the Temple of Jerusalem, for he drove out the money changers. He referred to his own body as the Temple, and of course in him, our bodies become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. And so Christ values chastity, for he said: “Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him, ...What comes out of a man, that is what defiles him. For from within the hearts of men come evil thoughts, fornication (sexual immorality), theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly” (Mt 15, 19-20). He also said: “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you: anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5, 28). He values marital fidelity, for he forgave the woman caught in adultery, but he instructed her to “sin no more” (Jn 8, 10-11).

Christ exhorts us to stay awake (Mt 24, 42), for we do not know the hour of his return. This is very different from the postmodern “wokeness” that we hear so much about today; it is the vigilance of one with a living faith, one who is careful not to “fall asleep”: for when we sleep, we lie horizontally, as do the dead. Sleep in Scripture is a symbol of death, and so, staying awake refers to perseverance, constant vigilance over our own tendency to sin, persisting in faith and the state of divine grace, which is a sharing in the divine life.

Christ does not necessarily value peace, for he said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Lk 12, 51-53). He values peacemakers (Mt 5, 9), but not those who are ready to compromise the truth that Christ proclaims for the sake of their job or their livelihood, or who remain silent for fear of “upsetting the applecart”, for he said: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet lose his soul? If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Lk 9, 25-26).

Obviously, Christ values deliverance from the slavery of sin, freedom from the power of Satan--for that is the reason he came among us (1 Jn 3, 8; Col 1, 3). The principal value that governs the life of Christ is the will of God the Father: “...it is not to do my own will that I have come down from heaven, but to do the will of him who sent me. It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of what he has given me; rather, that I should raise it up on the last day. Indeed, this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life. Him I will raise up on the last day” (Jn 6, 38-40).

It should be abundantly evident that the values of a person who lives his/her life in the Person of Christ are very different from, if not diametrically opposed to, the values of one who belongs to this world. As Christ said: “If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (Jn 15, 18-19). Furthermore, one’s understanding of the expression “gospel values” will be as profound as one’s understanding of the gospel. Unfortunately, many do not take the time to read and study Scripture, and so their understanding of the gospel is rather vague, general, very selective, and sentimental. The gospels are sober, often challenging, not easy to embrace, divisive and rather offensive to unbelievers. It is best not to rest content in one’s current understanding of Christ’s proclamation, but to study it more fully, to pray the Scriptures and penetrate more deeply into their meaning. This is a marvelous process to be engaged in and thankfully there is no point at which we can say that we have “arrived”; for God is the unutterable mystery, and Christ is God, the Second Person of the Trinity. The gospel is an inexhaustible reservoir, and if we do not go forward in our understanding of the mind of Christ, we tend to drift backwards.