The Gospel of Jesus Christ – Article Series
1. What is the Gospel?
2. What does the Gospel mean? (Part 1)
3. What does the Gospel mean? (Part 2)
4. How should we respond to the Gospel?
5. Non-Gospels and False Gospels
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! ~ Galatians 1:6-9
What is the Gospel? From Galatians 1:6-9 we see the Apostle Paul’s warning that there is only one Gospel of Christ and that if anyone (even an angel!) should preach another ‘gospel’ then they call judgement on themselves. It is with great hesitancy that I now proceed to try and articulate what the Christian Bible has to say about this question.
The word ‘gospel’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘good message’ or ‘good news’ and was associated with victory in battle. To speak of the Christian Gospel is to speak of the good news of Jesus Christ. Curiously, the New Testament record seems to define this good news in various ways:
- According to Jesus at the start of His public ministry in Mark 1:14-15, the Gospel is that the time has come and the kingdom of God has come near.
- According to Peter in Acts 10:34-43, the Gospel is the message of peace about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the fact that Jesus is now the judge of the living and the dead who was prophesied to bring forgiveness of sins through His name. [We know that Peter considered this the ‘Gospel’ from Acts 15:6-7]
- According to Paul in Romans 1:1-6, the Gospel is the message that was promised beforehand by the prophets of God regarding His Son Jesus Christ our Lord who would be descended from David, and would be appointed the Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit through resurrection.
- According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, the Gospel is the message that Jesus died for our sins according to the Old Testament, was buried, and was raised on the third day, and appeared to many witnesses.
- According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, the Gospel is the message that Jesus Christ is Lord that brings the light of the knowledge of God’s glory as we see the glory of Christ.
- According to John’s writing in Revelation 14:6-7, the Gospel is the message that we should fear God and give Him glory because judgement is coming and we should worship the Creator.
Above are examples of passages that explicitly contain some explanation of the content of the Gospel. There are many more throughout the New Testament that don’t explicitly say that they are articulating the Gospel but could be seen to be doing so e.g. Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. Notice that there is no one definitive articulation of the Gospel! According to different speakers in different contexts the content of the Gospel that they wish to highlight is different. However, what is common to all of the passages above is this: all of them concern the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is to say, all of them are about who Jesus is and what He came to do.
Instead of trying to give a 1 sentence summary of what the Gospel is I believe it is more helpful, and faithful to the biblical picture, to say what it concerns:
The Gospel is the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In a real sense, what I am saying is that when we tell others something about who Jesus is and what He has done, we are telling them the Gospel. Jesus is the son of God, the descendant of David, and the promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and David. Jesus is the perfect man who lived the life that we couldn’t, died the death that we deserve for our sins, and was raised to life by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Lord of the world that ascended into heaven and will come back one day to judge the living and the dead. We see this in all the passages above, but we must also understand that we are looking back from the perspective as Christians who are on the other side of the cross and resurrection.
The Gospel was foreshadowed in the Old Testament in many ways. For example, in Isaiah 40:9-10 and Isaiah 52:7-10 it says that the Gospel is the message that God has come to Jerusalem to rule and judge the world and save His people. This makes sense of Jesus’ message in Mark 1:14-15 where He says that the time has come and the kingdom of God has come near. To a Jewish audience, Jesus is saying that the time has come and God is coming to rule, judge, and save. This is precisely what Jesus does at the Cross and in His resurrection, becoming crowned as the crucified king of the world, judging sins and disarming the powers that oppose God, and securing the salvation of His people.
We must be careful to avoid overly broad or narrow answers to the question of ‘what is the Gospel?’ that may even seem intuitive. Is explaining sin part of the Gospel? From the passages we’ve looked at, it is hard to see how that is the case. However, a right understanding of sin is important in order to understand the Gospel. I am not saying that sin is not important – rather, it doesn’t seem to fit with the biblical picture to explain sin and its implications and say that this is the Gospel. Likewise, there are many topics that are important in order to understand the Gospel (e.g. the history of Israel) but an overly broad understanding of it means that we can fall into the trap of saying nothing specific at all.
What about a narrow answer to the question? Does an explanation of what the Gospel is always need to include the forgiveness of sins? If so, then Philippians is devoid of the Gospel. How about justification by faith alone? If so, then John and Ephesians has a deficient Gospel. Don’t get me wrong – forgiveness of sins is essential when explaining the implications and achievements of the Gospel, as is justification by faith alone. But it isn’t the Gospel itself.
When we understand that the Gospel is the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ, then we understand why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called ‘Gospels’. We understand that unless we tell others about who Jesus is and what He has done then there is no power to save. We also understand that the Gospel is an incredible jewel that cannot be pinned down to one sentence or one way of explaining it. We can share the Gospel in 5 seconds (‘Jesus is God’s son and died to save you’ or ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’) or in 5 hours.
Three concluding points:
- The New Testament witness consistently points us to see the cross and resurrection as central to the person and work of Jesus Christ. An explanation of the Gospel that doesn’t lead others to see the significance of the cross and resurrection is an incomplete Gospel. This isn’t the same thing as saying that it has to be a false Gospel! e.g. You could be reading the Gospel of Mark with someone and take weeks to get to the cross and resurrection – you are still showing them the Gospel as you read about the person and work of Christ. But we really do want to ‘get to’ the cross and resurrection!
- We never just tell others what the Gospel is. When we see how the early Christians shared and wrote about the Gospel they always included an explanation of what the Gospel means and how we are to respond. In a very real sense, the entire New Testament is a set of reflections on what the person and work of Christ has achieved and how we are to live in light of it. That is why whenever we tell others the Gospel we must also explain the Gospel.
- If there is an error regarding the response of the Gospel, then there is probably an error in understanding the meaning/achievements of the Gospel. And if there is an error in understanding the meaning/achievements of the Gospel, there may be an error regarding one’s understanding of what the Gospel is. This is why matters like justification by faith alone are so important (a doctrine that concerns the achievement of the Gospel and the right response to the Gospel) and failing to agree on this means that Roman Catholicism are following a different Gospel.1
In the next two posts we will look more closely at what the Gospel means, looking at the present and the future. But for now, let me encourage us to marvel at the wondrous message of Christianity. Marvel at the Lord Jesus Christ, who He is, and what He has done. Praise God for His grace to us in giving us a saviour! May we never move away from this message. May we stand firm and believe it and proclaim it for all of our lives.
- Indeed, they don’t agree that on the Cross Jesus completely paid for the sins of humanity such that the Christian is completely free from guilt. At the Council of Trent they said that this view was false. ↩