As much as we hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ one would think that everyone is on the same page when it comes to defining this word. Sadly, that is not the case. So just what is the gospel? How might we define it? Here are ten things to keep in mind.
(1) The “gospel” is the gloriously great good news of what our triune God has graciously done in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to satisfy his own wrath against us and to secure the forgiveness of sins and perfect righteousness for all who trust in him by faith alone. Christ fulfilled, on our behalf, the perfectly obedient life under God’s law that we should have lived, but never could. He died, in our place, the death that we deserved to suffer but now never will. And by his rising from the dead he secures for those who believe the promise of a resurrected and glorified life in a new heaven and a new earth in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever.
(2) The gospel is fundamentally about something that has happened. It is an accomplished event, an unalterable fact of history. Nothing can undo the gospel. No power in heaven or earth can overturn or reverse it. But as a settled achievement it also exerts a radical and far-reaching influence into both our present experience and our future hopes. Central to why it is the “best” news imaginable is that the glory of what God has already done in and through Jesus transforms everything now and yet to come.
(3) This gospel is not only the means by which people have been saved, but also the truth and power by which people are being sanctified (1 Cor. 15:1-2); it is the truth of the gospel that enables us to genuinely and joyfully do what is pleasing to God and to grow in progressive conformity to the image of Christ. Thus we must never think that the gospel is solely for unbelievers. It is for Christians, at every stage of their lives. There is nothing in the Christian life that is “post” gospel!
(4) It would not be an exaggeration to say that the gospel is the gravitational center of both our individual experience and the shape of local church life. We see this in numerous biblical texts. For example, the gospel is Christocentric: it is about Jesus, God’s son (Mark 1:1; Rom. 1:9). Both Mark (Mark 1:14) and Paul (Rom. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:2) describe it as the gospel “of God” insofar as he is its source and the cause of all that it entails. Humans do not create or craft the gospel: they respond to it by repenting of their sins and believing its message (Mark 1:15) concerning what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel, then, is “the word of truth” that proclaims our “salvation” (Eph. 1:13). It is marked by grace (Acts 20:24), which is to say it is the message of God’s gracious provision, apart from human works, of all that is necessary to reconcile us to himself both now and for eternity. Indeed, the gospel is the foundation, pattern, and power for how we respond to unjust suffering (1 Pet. 2:18-25; 3:17-18), the way we relate to our spouse (Eph. 5:25-33), how we use our money (2 Cor. 8:8-9; 9:13), the manner in which we forgive those who’ve sinned against us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13), and the zeal with which we serve others (Mark 10:43-45; 1 John 3:16-18). This “good news” of what God has done in and through Christ’s death (1 Cor. 2:2) and resurrection (2 Tim. 2:8) brings peace (Eph. 6:15), life, and immortality (2 Tim. 1:10) to those who receive it.
(5) These truths are of paramount and eternal importance, for to “distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7) or to preach one that is “different” from or “contrary” to what the apostles made known (Gal. 1:6-7) is to come under a divine curse (Gal. 1:9).
(6) So, how does the gospel change us? Of what practical, daily importance is it? Tim Keller reminds us that many Christians live in an “if / then” relationship with God. If I do what is right, then God will love me. If I give more money to missions, then God will provide me with a raise at work. If I avoid sinful habits, then I will be spared suffering and humiliation. It’s a conditional relationship that is based on the principle of merit.
The gospel calls us to live in a “because / therefore” relationship with the Lord. Because we have been justified by faith in Christ, therefore we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Because Christ died for us, therefore we are forgiven. Because Christ has fulfilled the law in our place, therefore we are set free from its demands and penalty. This is an unconditional relationship that is based on the principle of grace.
(7) The gospel is rooted in the call of Israel and is consummated in the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the old covenant. As such, the gospel must never be thought of as an abstract, a-historical idea, as if it were disconnected from or unrelated to the concrete realities of life on earth. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are thus to be seen as the pivotal chapter in the unfolding story of God’s redemptive purpose for humanity.
(8) The gospel is not what God requires. The gospel is what God provides. There is of course, an intrinsic demand built into the gospel. The good news that is proclaimed calls for a response of faith and repentance. But our faith and repentance are not themselves the gospel. Our personal testimony is not the gospel. We cannot be the gospel but we bear witness to it. This means that the gospel is not an imperative, demanding things you must do. The gospel is an indicative, declaring things God has done. Again, of course we do things because of the gospel. But our doing things isn’t itself the gospel.
(9) The gospel is not about human action. The gospel is about divine achievement. Or again, the gospel is about God’s provision, not man’s response. The gospel is not a moralistic Do! The gospel is a merciful Done! There are undoubtedly multiple consequences of the gospel that extend beyond its impact on the individual and his relationship to God. The gospel invariably issues a call for human action. Among the implications or results of the gospel are the cultivation of humility (Phil. 2:1-5), the pursuit of racial reconciliation (Eph. 2:11-22) and social justice (Philemon 8-20), a commitment to harmony and peace among men (Rom. 15:5-7; Heb. 12:14), and the demonstration of love one for another (1 John 3:16, 23). But we must never confuse the content of the gospel with its consequences, or its essence with its entailments.
(10) Finally, whereas the gospel is God’s redeeming act in Jesus on behalf of sinful men and women, we must not overlook the fact that it is only because of the gospel that we have a sure and certain hope for cosmic transformation. The good news of God’s saving act in Christ is thus the foundation for our confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 15:20-24), the end of physical death (1 Cor. 15:25-26; Rev. 21:4), the defeat of Satan (John 16:11; Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8), the eradication of all evil (Rev. 21:4, 8), and the removal of the curse that rests on our physical environment and the consummation of God’s purpose for all creation in the new heavens and new earth (Rom. 8:18-25).
[This article is an adaptation of my contribution to The ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible recently published by Crossway. I highly recommend it to everyone.]