What is the Gospel? Part One: News
Note: From September 9–11, a large chunk of Westgate Church traveled up to Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire for our annual Sandy Island retreat. The focus of our time was “What is the Gospel?” Since not all were able to attend (and not every reader attends Westgate), I’m posting the sessions here—one per day for the next four days.
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? PART ONE: NEWS
Defining the Term
As is often noted, the word “gospel” simply means “good news.” It is in its essence an announcement, a message, news.
But good news about what? The Bible uses this word in a couple different ways. On occasion it is used in the Old Testament to refer to an announcement or report given to a king. For instance, in 2 Samuel 4:10, when a couple of guys had killed Saul’s son, Ish-Boseth, and brought his head to David looking for a reward, David tells them what happened when someone came to report Saul’s death: “when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his [good] news” (cf. 2 Sam. 18:19, 20, 26, 31).
Far more often the significance of the message is not just political, but theological—not just good news from the human plane, but good news about what God has done. For instance:
- Psalm 40:9: I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.”
- Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (cf. Isa. 60:6; 61:1).
When the New Testament uses the word, gospel, it uses it exclusively in this broader theological sense. It is good news about what God has done—a royal announcement about the King of the Universe.
The New Testament of course tells us a lot about the gospel—it’s the power of God for salvation in Romans 1:16; it deals with God’s kingdom in Matthew 4:23. 1 Corinthians 15 provides one of the most concise summaries of the gospel message in the New Testament: it is to be preached and believed, by it we are saved, it centers on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is historical, it is biblical (“according to the Scriptures”), it was handed down by the apostles, and so on.
We’ll look at several passages of Scripture throughout this series in our efforts to understand what the gospel, but I want to start with one key word and a concise definition:
First, the key word: NEWS. The gospel is not advice; it’s news—news about what God has done. This is critical, and we’ll explain the significance of this momentarily. But, next, our definition: The gospel is the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom and deal with our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The rest of this series will attempt to unpack what this definition means and why it matters. We’ll look at the whole biblical story to get our context, then we’ll narrow our focus to the person and work of Jesus (the heart of the story), and finally we’ll think about our proper response (finding our place in the story). But to get us rolling I want to highlight very briefly four myths about the gospel.
Four Myths about the Gospel
The Gospel is…
1. Private. The cultural current of what’s been called secularization has over the last couple of centuries tried to squeeze things like faith and religion out of the center and into the margins of life. Out of the public square and into the private closet. So you don’t talk about religion at the dinner table or with strangers. That’s a “private” subject.
But the idea that one’s faith is private is neither possible nor biblical. What we believe affects everything about us (whether that faith is in Jesus or in something else). So the gospel is not private; it is a public announcement. What God did, he did not do in secret. Jesus said in John 18:20, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” Jesus’ teaching was public. The cross was public. The resurrection was public. It really happened in real history. 1 Corinthians 15:6 describes how the resurrected Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time.”
Moreover, when the Bible talks about advancing the gospel it often uses the language of testifying or bearing witness to Christ and his work—that’s a very a public activity (e.g. Acts 20:24). That’s the language of the courtroom—telling others what you saw. In fact, by nature, the gospel must be proclaimed verbally. That’s what you do with news—you proclaim it. The old saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel, if necessary use words,” is nonsensical—there is no proclamation without words. A news reporter can’t give the news without using words. So the gospel is not private; it’s public. It’s an announcement, and all humanity will be held to account for whether or not they believe it and surrender to Christ.
2. Optional. Another massive cultural trend is what’s called pluralism—the idea that you can’t really know truth objectively, so no one system of belief has a corner on truth. No one is right or wrong; there is not one correct way; there are many ways—so truth is plural. That means you should not attempt to impose your belief system on someone else or suggest that theirs is incorrect; rather we should tolerate one another and just get along. In this light the gospel is seen as optional. You can believe it if you want but it doesn’t really matter. This is almost law in New England. This is the air we breathe—what we see on TV, read in the papers, and even hear from a lot of churches.
But look at several Scriptures here:
Galatians 1:6-9: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
There is only one gospel, and it matters whether or not you believe it. And that one gospel comes from God, with his authority—it is not the invention of men.
Galatians 1:11-12: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
And this gospel is made known to us by God “in accordance with the Scriptures.” It is a biblical gospel; we find it in the Bible, in God’s inspired Word.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
What Jesus did, he did in accordance with the Scriptures. The biblical story gives us the context and authority for knowing and understanding and believing the gospel of Jesus.
If there is some other gospel that is equally true, then that means what Christ did on the cross doesn’t really matter. As Paul says aboutIsrael’s own law in Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” The gospel is news for everyone. It is not optional; it’s not one way among many—all will be called to account.
3. Something we do. One of the greatest temptations throughout history and into today is to turn the gospel into something we do. This is called moralism. The gospel is to live a certain way, to keep a certain moral code. It becomes a matter of performance—I obey God, and therefore I’m accepted. Sometimes that performance takes the shape of a personal piety; sometimes it takes an activist trajectory—joining God in his mission to fix all that’s wrong in this broken and fragmented world—that’s the gospel.
Now of course we’re called by Jesus himself to follow him and to obey. But following Christ is not the gospel. It’s a fruit of the gospel; a response to the gospel—and a necessary one. But it is not the gospel. The gospel is not something we do—it is not advice, or even law. Rather, again, it is news—a happy report of what God has done; not something we do for him.
Now this news changes everything, and it demands a response. The gospel is to be believed (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 11), and even obeyed (cf. Rom. 10:16). The gospel should affect every aspect of our daily lives (cf. Phil. 1:27). The gospel changes everything about who we are and what we do. We’ll at this closer in part four. But all that is the fruit of the gospel. And we must be careful not to confuse the fruit for the root.
Think of Jesus’ analogy in John 15—how can a branch bear fruit unless it’s connected to the vine? The vine is Jesus—the vine is the gospel. The whole purpose of a branch is to bear fruit, but if we confuse the fruit for the root, we actually cut ourselves off from the very life source that alone is able to produce the fruit. As Tim Keller puts it, the gospel is not, “I obey, therefore I’m accepted;” rather it is “I’m accepted through Christ, therefore I obey.” (Timothy J. Keller, Gospel Christianity [Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003], 1).
The gospel does call us to do something, but it is not something we do. Rather, it is news of what God has done to accomplish his purposes and deal with our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
4. Just for non-Christians. This is perhaps the biggest and most important misconception affecting Christians today—to marginalize the gospel as though it is just for non-Christians. So the gospel is what gets you into the kingdom—you use the gospel for evangelism, but then once you believe, you move on from it and look to something else to build your relationships or to grow in your personal walk with God, your spiritual formation. As some have said, we treat the gospel as the ABC’s of the Christian faith, rather than the A to Z. In my estimation, this is the one misstep that cripples the church in its life and witness more than anything else.
We rightly depend on the gospel of God’s grace to become a Christian, to meet God. But then we mistakenly think that it is now up to us in our own effort or our own strategy to grow with God and serve him. We just have to try harder. Of course we still believe the gospel—it’s there. But it’s not really relevant for what I’m dealing with right now. That’s what I mean by assuming it. We don’t keep it at the center, and so we allow ourselves to slip back into performing for God (back to myth # 3).
Our sinful hearts naturally gravitate toward legalism—that is our default mode. We treat the gospel like a door—it gets us into the house, but then we close the door since it’s served its purpose, and we move on to new and better things that will help us grow and walk with God—spiritual disciplines, new strategies, the latest book—stuff we do for God. Of course we do stuff for God—obedience is not legalism. But is what we do our identity? Does what we do define our acceptance? Do the things we do give us the power to do them, as though they somehow disconnected from the gospel of Jesus? As though we’re saved by grace, but then we grow by works? Do we treat the gospel like a safety net—it’s there to catch us if we fall, but it’s still really up to us, and we shouldn’t really need it if we can just keep our act together. We just have to try harder.
We never outgrow our need for the gospel. The same gospel that rescues us from the penalty of our sin also refashions us to walk more closely with God in our personal lives and relationships and readies us for our mission for Christ in the world—to make disciples of Christ, bearing witness to him in both word and deed (e.g. Tit. 2:11-14).
This is what we mean when we talk about gospel-centered living. This is why spending a weekend thinking about “what is the gospel” was not a waste of time for Christians. It’s essential to who we are, and it is the very power by which we live the Christian life. And if we allow ourselves merely to assume the gospel, and don’t realize that it’s not just the door, but the entire house, then we cut ourselves off from the very heart of who we are and from the ability to do what God is calling us to do.
The gospel is everything.
For further reading: see D. A. Carson, “What is the Gospel?—Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 147-170.