The Gospel Today
Many have commented on the fact that the church in the western world is going through a time of remarkable fragmentation. This fragmentation extends to our understanding of the gospel. For some Christians, "the gospel" is a narrow set of teachings about Jesus and his death and resurrection which, rightly believed, tip people into the kingdom. After that, real discipleship and personal transformation begin, but none of that is integrally related to "the gospel." This is a far cry from the dominant New Testament emphasis that understands "the gospel" to be the embracing category that holds much of the Bible together, and takes Christians from lostness and alienation from God all the way through conversion and discipleship to the consummation, to resurrection bodies, and to the new heaven and the new earth.
Other voices identify the gospel with the first and second commandments—the commandments to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. These commandments are so central that Jesus himself insists that all the prophets and the law hang on them (Matthew 22:34-40)—but most emphatically they are not the gospel.
A third option today is to treat the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels as the gospel— yet it is the ethical teaching of Jesus abstracted from the passion and resurrection narrative found in each Gospel. This approach depends on two disastrous mistakes. First, it overlooks the fact that in the first century, there was no "Gospel of Matthew," "Gospel of Mark," and so forth. Our four Gospels were called, respectively, "The Gospel According to Matthew," "The Gospel According to Mark," and so forth.
In other words, there was only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This one gospel, this message of news that was simultaneously threatening and promising, concerned the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the long-awaited King, and included something about his origins, the ministry of his forerunner, his brief ministry of teaching and miraculous transformation, climaxing in his death and resurrection. These elements are not independent pearls on a string that constitutes the life and times of Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they are elements tightly tied together. Accounts of Jesus' teaching cannot be rightly understood unless we discern how they flow toward and point toward Jesus' death and resurrection. All of this together is the one gospel of Jesus Christ, to which the canonical Gospels bear witness. To study the teaching of Jesus without simultaneously reflecting on his passion and resurrection is far worse than assessing the life and times of George Washington without reflecting on the American Revolution, or than evaluating Hitler's Mein Kampf without thinking about what he did and how he died. Second, we shall soon see that to focus on Jesus' teaching while making the cross peripheral reduces the glorious good news to mere religion, the joy of forgiveness to mere ethical conformity, the highest motives for obedience to mere duty. The price is catastrophic.
What is the Gospel? A Summary and Breakdown of the Gospel Message
There are many biblical texts and themes we could usefully explore to think more clearly about the gospel. But for our purposes, we shall focus primarily on 1 Cor 15:1-19.
I shall try to bring things to clarity by focusing on eight summarizing words (six of which were first suggested by John Stott), five clarifying sentences, and one evocative summary.
What Paul is going to talk about in these verses, he says, is "the gospel": "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you" (v. 1). "By this gospel, you were saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you" (v. 2). Indeed, what Paul had passed on to them was "of first importance"—a rhetorically powerful way of telling his readers to pay attention, for what he is going to say about the gospel lies at its very center. These prefatory remarks completed, the first word that appears in Paul's summary is "Christ": "I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins" and so forth. That brings me to the first of my eight summarizing words.
1. The Gospel is Christological; it is Christ-centered.
The gospel is not bland theism, still less an impersonal pantheism. The gospel is irrevocably Christ-centered. The point is powerfully articulated in every major New Testament book and corpus. In Matthew's Gospel, for instance, Christ himself is Emmanuel, God with us; he is the long-promised Davidic king who will bring in the kingdom of God. By his death and resurrection, he becomes the mediatorial monarch who insists that all authority in heaven and earth is his alone. In John, Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through him, for it is the Father's solemn intent that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father. In the sermons reported in Acts, there is no name but Jesus has given under heaven by which we must be saved. In Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, Jesus is the last Adam, the one to whom the law and the prophets bear witness, the one who by God's own design propitiates God's wrath and reconciles Jews and Gentiles to his heavenly Father and thus also to each other. In the great vision of Revelation 4-5, the Son alone, emerging from the very throne of God Almighty, is simultaneously the lion and the lamb, and he alone is qualified to open the seals of the scroll in the right hand of God, and thus bring about all of God's matchless purposes for judgment and blessing. So also here: the gospel is Christological. John Stott is right: "The gospel is not preached if Christ is not preached."
Yet this Christological stance does not focus exclusively on Christ's person; it embraces with equal fervor his death and resurrection. As a matter of first importance, Paul writes, "Christ died for our sins" (15:3). Earlier in this letter, Paul does not tell his readers, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ"; rather, he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Moreover, Paul here ties Jesus' death to his resurrection, as the rest of the chapter makes clear. This is the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again.
In other words, it is not enough to make a splash of Christmas and downplay Good Friday and Easter. When we insist that as a matter of first importance, the gospel is Christological, we are not thinking of Christ as a cipher, or simply as the God-man who comes along and helps us like a nice insurance agent: "Jesus is a nice God-man, he's a very, very nice God-man, and when you break down, he comes along and fixes you." The gospel is Christological in a more robust sense:
Jesus is the promised Messiah who died and rose again.
2. The Gospel is Theological.
This is a short-hand way of affirming two things. First, as 1 Corinthians 15 repeatedly affirms, God raised Christ Jesus from the dead (e.g. 5:15). More broadly, New Testament documents insist that God sent the Son into the world, and the Son obediently went to the cross because this was his Father's will. It makes no sense to pit the mission of the Son against the sovereign purpose of the Father. If the gospel is centrally Christological, it is no less centrally theological.
Second, the text does not simply say that Christ died and rose again; rather, it asserts that "Christ died for our sins" and rose again. The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events; they are historical events with the deepest theological weight. We can glimpse the power of this claim only if we remind ourselves how sin and death are related to God in Scripture. In recent years it has become popular to sketch the Bible's story-line something like this: Ever since the fall, God has been active to reverse the effects of sin. He takes action to limit sin's damage; he calls out a new nation, the Israelites, to mediate his teaching and his grace to others; he promises that one day he will send the promised Davidic king to overthrow sin and death and all their wretched effects. This is what Jesus does: he conquers death, inaugurates the kingdom of righteousness, and calls his followers to live out that righteousness now in prospect of the consummation still to come.
3. The Gospel is Biblical.
"Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, . . . he was buried, . . . he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (15:3-4). What biblical texts Paul has in mind, he does not say. He may have had the kind of thing Jesus himself taught, after his resurrection, when "he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself " (Luke 24:27; cf. vv. 44-46). Perhaps he was thinking of texts such as Psalm 16 and Isaiah 53, used by Peter on the day of Pentecost, or Ps 2, used by Paul himself in Pisidian Antioch, whose interpretation depends on a deeply evocative but quite traceable typology. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians Paul alludes to Christ as "our Passover . . . sacrificed for us" (5:5)— so perhaps he could have replicated the reasoning of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who elegantly traces out some of the ways in which the Old Testament Scriptures, laid out in a salvation-historical grid, announce the obsolescence of the old covenant and the dawning of the new covenant, complete with a better tabernacle, a better priesthood, and a better sacrifice. What is in any case very striking is that the apostle grounds the gospel, the matters of first importance, in the Scriptures—and of course he has what we call the Old Testament in mind—and then in the witness of the apostles—and thus what we call the New Testament. The gospel is biblical.
4. The Gospel is thus Apostolic.
Of course, Paul cheerfully insists that there were more than five hundred eyewitnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless he repeatedly draws attention to the apostles: Jesus "appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (15:5); "he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me" (15:8), "the least of the apostles" (15:9). Listen carefully to the sequence of pronouns in 15:11: "Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed" (15:11). The sequence of pronouns, I, they, we, you, become a powerful way of connecting the witness and teaching of the apostles with the faith of all subsequent Christians. The gospel is apostolic.
5. The Gospel is Historical.
Here two things must be said.
First, 1 Corinthians 15 specifies both Jesus' burial and his resurrection. The burial testifies to Jesus' death, since (normally!) we bury only those who have died; the appearances testify to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and his resurrection are tied together in history: the one who was crucified is the one who was resurrected; the body that came out of the tomb, as Thomas wanted to have demonstrated, had the wounds of the body that went into the tomb. This resurrection took place on the third day: it is in datable sequence from the death. The cross and the resurrection are irrefragably tied together. Any approach, theological or evangelistic, that attempts to pit Jesus' death and Jesus' resurrection against each other, is not much more than silly. Perhaps one or the other might have to be especially emphasized to combat some particular denial or need, but to sacrifice one on the altar of the other is to step away from the manner in which both the cross and resurrection are historically tied together.
Second, the manner by which we have access to the historical events of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, is exactly the same as that by which we have access to almost any historical event: through the witness and remains of those who were there, by means of the records they left behind. That is why Paul enumerates the witnesses, mentions that many of them are still alive at his time of writing and therefore could still be checked out, and recognizes the importance of their reliability. In God's mercy, this Bible is, among many other things, a written record, an inscripturation, of those first witnesses.
6. The Gospel is Personal.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not merely historical events; the gospel is not merely theological in the sense that it organizes a lot of theological precepts. It sets out the way of individual salvation, of personal salvation. "Now, brothers," Paul writes at the beginning of this chapters, "I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved" (1 Cor 15:1-2). A historical gospel that is not personal and powerful is merely antiquarian; a theological gospel that is not received by faith and found to be transforming is merely abstract. In reality, the gospel is personal.
7. The Gospel is Universal.
If we step farther into 1 Corinthians 15, we find Paul demonstrating that Christ is the new Adam (vv. 22, 47-50). In this context, Paul does not develop the move from Jew to Gentile, or from the Israelites as a national locus of the people of God to the church as in the international community of the elect. Nevertheless, Christ as the new Adam alludes to a comprehensive vision. The new humanity in him draws in people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. The gospel is universal in this sense. It is not universal in the sense that it transforms and saves everyone without exception, for in reality, those whose existence is connected exclusively to the old Adam are not included. Yet this gospel is gloriously universal in its comprehensive sweep. There is not a trace of racism here. The gospel is universal.
8. The Gospel is Eschatological.
This could be teased out in many ways, for the gospel is eschatological in more ways than one. For instance, some of the blessings Christians receive today are essentially eschatological blessings, blessings belonging to the end, even if they have been brought back into time and are already ours. Already God declares his blood-bought, Spirit-regenerated people to be justified: the final declarative sentence from the end of the age has already been pronounced on Christ's people, because of what Jesus Christ has done. We are already justified—and so the gospel is in that sense eschatological. Yet there is another sense in which this gospel is eschatological. In the chapter before us, Paul focuses on the final transformation: "I declare to you, brothers," he says in vv. 50 and following, "that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory." It is not enough to focus narrowly on the blessings Christians enjoy in Christ in this age: the gospel is eschatological.
So what Paul preaches, as a matter of first importance, is that the gospel is Christological, theological, biblical, apostolic, historical, personal, universal, and eschatological.
Excerpts are taken from "Eight Summarizing Words on the Gospel" by D.A. Carson. Discover the full article here.
According to Trevin Wax, there are Three Ways to Define the Gospel:
The Gospel as Telling the Story for an Individual
Some hear this question and immediately think about how to present the gospel to an unbeliever. Their presentation systematizes the biblical teaching of our sin and Christ's provision. They usually begin with God as a holy and righteous judge. Then we hear about man's desperate plight apart from God and how our sinfulness deserves his wrath. But the good news is that Christ has come to live an obedient life and die in our place. We are then called to repent of our sins and trust in Christ. (Greg Gilbert takes this approach in his helpful book, What Is the Gospel?.)
The Gospel as Telling the Story of Jesus
Others hear "What is the gospel?" and think of how the New Testament authors would define the word, which leads to definitions that zero in on the announcement of Jesus. They focus on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The gospel, according to this second group, is telling people who Jesus is and what he has done. (Martin Luther, Graeme Goldsworthy, and John Piper take this approach.)
The Gospel as Telling the Story of New Creation
Still, others hear the word "gospel" and think of the whole good news of Christianity, how God has acted in Christ to bring redemption to a fallen world. They focus on the grand sweep of the Bible's storyline and how Jesus comes to reverse the curse and make all things new. (Tullian Tchividjian, Tim Keller, and Jim Belcher take this approach.)