What is the gospel?

When I was preparing my message for the youth Christmas service, I asked myself this question a couple of times: what is the gospel? You see, I decided a few years ago that I would always, always preach the gospel in a youth service, no matter what the topic was. And I have done so, to the best of my capabilities. But lately I’ve been wondering about the Gospel I’ve been preaching.

The more I learn about God’s Word and the depth of what Jesus has done, the harder it becomes for me to define what the Gospel is exactly.

The more I understand of the beautiful symbolism and deeper meaning of many events around Jesus’ death and resurrection, the more details I want to include in sharing the Gospel.

The more I grasp of the concept of grace (and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface), the less satisfied I am with my version of the Gospel.

The more I try to live out the Gospel, the harder it becomes to share it in only 5 minutes of a sermon.

All in all, I think I’m having a bit of a Gospel-crisis which boils down to this question: what is the Gospel and what does it mean to preach the Gospel? So, in the upcoming posts I will try and find some answers on what it means to preach the Gospel and what the Gospel is exactly (NB: all quotes are from the NKJ translation).

What is the Gospel exactly? And what does it mean to preach the Gospel?

What does ‘Gospel’ mean?

Now the Gospel literally means ‘the good message’ or ‘good news’ (Greek: euangelion). It’s a term that’s often used in the New Testament: 76 times as a noun and 54 times as a verb (‘euangelizo’: to bring or deliver good news). This good news then is the news of Jesus’ death for our sins and His resurrection.

Where do we find the Gospel?

Usually in Christianity, we use Jesus as our ‘standard’ on how to do anything, but with the issue of the Gospel that’s a bit complicated. After all, most of Jesus’ teachings were before His death and resurrection. Jesus does use the term Gospel however, mostly as the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We should look to New Testament writers then for clues on what the Gospel is, especially Paul since he is what you could call an expert on the Gospel. Let’s have a look at several qualifying terms Paul uses for the Gospel, two ways in which he describes the Gospel and a practical example of how he preached the Gospel.

Terms for the Gospel

Here are four terms Paul uses to further qualify the Gospel:

  • The Gospel of the Son (Romans 1:9) or The Gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:12)
  • The Gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24)
  • The Gospel of your salvation (Ephesians 1:13)
  • The Gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15)

From these descriptions we could conclude that the Gospel is Jesus-centered and should proclaim grace, salvation, and peace. These concepts are of course further explained and taught in Paul’s many letters, especially his letter to the Romans.

Descriptions of what the Gospel is

In Romans 1:1-4 Paul introduces himself as follows:

“Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”

Here, Paul includes these elements in the Gospel:

  • The Gospel was prophesied in the Scriptures
  • Jesus was David’s descendant
  • Jesus is Gods Son, as proven by His resurrection

There’s also a passage in the first letter to the Corinthians where Paul summarizes the Gospel he brought them:

“(…) that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.” (verse 3-5)

Paul’s Gospel to the Corinthians has these elements:

  • Christ died for our sins
  • He was buried
  • He rose again
  • Everything happened according to Scripture
  • There were witnesses

These two examples show that there are certain key elements, most notably the complete focus on Jesus as the center of the Gospel. But there are also details that are included for a specific audience. To many of our audiences, the fact that Jesus was David’s descendant won’t mean anything. It did mean a whole lot to the Jews however, who were after all expecting David’s heir to appear as Messiah.

The same goes for the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Of course there’s still much debate about this, but I don’t think it’s that big an issue amongst youth for instance. It was however a big issue to the Corinthians, because the Greek philosophers in that time didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. Even some Christians were denying Jesus’ bodily resurrection and proclaiming a spiritual one instead. That’s why Paul thought it necessary to stress the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.

It seems safe to conclude therefore that it’s okay to stress certain elements based on what matters to your audience.

A practical example of Paul preaching the Gospel

In Acts 13 we read about Paul preaching the Gospel to the Jews in Antioch. Paul’s message to them is about showing that Jesus is the foretold Messiah and then he says this:

“Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses.” (verse 38 and 39)

This passage shows us that Paul’s Gospel is again Jesus-centered and focused on grace and being saved by faith, as opposed to works. Again, Paul adapts his message to his audience, because he spends a lot of time explaining that Jesus is the foretold Messiah. There are other examples of Paul adapting his message like that, for instance when he addresses his audience on the Areopagus (Acts 17: 22 and further).

Interestingly, Paul again quotes from Scripture many times to support his Gospel. Paul’s audience knew Scripture of course, as he was preaching to Jews here. But it’s interesting that the fact that Jesus death and resurrection happened according to Scripture is also mentioned in the two descriptions above, who were not specifically aimed at a Jewish audience. This makes wonder of the reference to Scripture is an essential element of the Gospel.

Based on these passages from Scriptures, these seem to be key elements of the Gospel:

  1. Jesus is God’s Son
  2. Jesus death for our sins
  3. Jesus resurrection
  4. Forgiveness of sins and justification through faith in Jesus Christ
  5. Salvation by grace, not works

What do you think the Gospel entails, do you agree with my conclusions? Do you know any other relevant passages that provide answers to this question? I’d love to hear your thoughts as I’m truly wrestling with this issue! Stay tuned for more tomorrow…

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing your heart on this. It is hard to get to the tough things. But we need to realize that we are at one state with our faith, questioning the little details and applying the big stuff in our lives. Students probably are not at that level though. Preaching the contents of Nicene Creed for 9 weeks is a good basis for getting to the Gospel. Go through the Sermon on the Mount. And remember where your teens are at.

    • Rachel says

      Thanks for your comment Jeremy! I must admit that even though it’s something I wrestle with, it’s a good wrestle if you know what I mean. I love understanding more and more and digging deeper. And you’re right that my students aren’t where I am. I just want to make sure I’m preaching the ‘true’ Gospel to them.

      But I’m curious about your advice to read the Sermon on the Mount, I agree there’s tons of great stuff in there, but how would you describe that as ‘the Gospel’? Isn’t it more about how you should live out the Gospel?

      • says

        I’d say the Gospel is more than words, it is actions. So it is a way to live out the Gospel, but in itself contains the Gospel through a medium that is better than just words.

    • Rachel says

      No, I haven’t seen that one, thanks for sharing it Paul. I’ll be sure to watch it and let you know what I think…

      • Rachel says

        I just watched it Paul, wow that’s very challenging. It gave me lots of stuff to think about, thanks again for pointing me towards this link!

  2. says

    I have had the same journey in expanding my view of the gospel. It seems more and more to be the good news for people – specifically now and the in the eternity for them starting now. Great post!

    • Rachel says

      I love how you worded it: ‘expanding my view of the Gospel’, that’s exactly how I’m experiencing this process. What resources helped you get a more complete perspective if I may ask?

      • says

        Ok, I’m weird. So my top reads have been equally weird. Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus started it. I also got a lot out of Purple Cow. Basically, he says marketing is dead. The product needs to be good so that it sells itself. I thought, “The gospel is the best thing (product) anyone could receive.” But somehow it became more like marketing and lost its remarkableness. So I pondered what would make the gospel remarkable again.

        I also got a lot out of Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor. It’s a little raw, but it really changed the way I view grace.

        Sometime we should connect on this. I could talk forever about how wrong I have been in my view of the gospel.

        • Rachel says

          No worries, I love weird :) I’m not completely ordinary myself either…

          It only shows that it’s not always the standard books that trigger us to change our views or inspire us to dig deeper to find answers!

          I’d love to connect with you and hear your story, and how you’ve come to view the Gospel!

  3. Sjoerd says

    Hey Rachel,
    I love this blogpost because I have the same purpose in preaching as you have: I always want to bring the gospel, no matter what the specific subject of the churchservice is.

    But i know that many people use the term gospel for everything that’s written in the bible or the new testament. That’s what kept me uncertain about the brightness of grace. A real revelation to me was that Paul wrote not only 1/3 of the New Testament, but also his letters were the first New Covenant scriptures. Matthew, Mark, Luke (and Acts) and John were written to support Paul, not the other way around. Because of that, I always ask myself the question what the context of a biblebook or a letter is, from the perspective that Paul wrote the fundamentals.

    For example, when I face a verse that gives me an impression that I have to do something good enough to not be rejected by God, I know that I have to look at the context, because it is not in agreement with the gospel of grace. Let’s take Mark chapter 10 about the rich young man (who could be Paul, by the way). This guy has, in his own thinking, done everything he could to serve the Lord, but Jesus says he has to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and only then he will have a treasure in heaven. The guy walks away disappointed. The twelve disciples asked Jesus: who than can be saved?

    This is an example of a text which can be misinterpreted when not looked through the lenses of the New Covenant. What Jesus is doing, just as throughout almost all his teachings, is preaching the law in the way God wanted it. He preached the law so that people would get desperate for a Saviour and turn away from their own pride and ‘self-righteousness’. Most of the sermon on the mount has to be read that way. Otherwise our churches should be full of people who’ve cutten off their hands and plucked out their eyes. I would go this far to say, that Jesus was in most of his teachings a law-teacher, not a grace-teacher. This is, as you said Rachel, because he lived before his own death and resurrection (duh!) and subjected to the law. He spoke in riddles, which had secrets of grace but were mostly teached to convince people that they needed forgiveness.

    On the cross, Jesus radically took away the sins of the world, and that’s why we can now always preach that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto His self, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation”.

    Every religion can tell us how to be a better person and even how to love others better and be a nice, good citizen of earth with good manners. The Gospel is all about what Christ has done for us and that he clearly succeed in that mission so that we can now live in total union with God, free from every sin, debt and fear of jugdement and full of His goodness and abundant life. That Word has to resound in every preaching, because therein is love: “not that we loved God (the great commandmant) but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

    So, what is my conclusion? First of all that I totally agree with your fundamental points of the Gospel. Second, that the Gospel of Grace (in other words: Gods fully acceptance towards us) has to be preached straight, without any mixing of our own works or even our own willpower (willpower is not the same as faith, because the flavour of faith is rest). My opinion is clear: the gospel will be a self selling product when it is preached in ‘virgin clean grace’. That’s the power en solution of God for this world.

    May grace and peace be multiplied through the knowlegde of Jesus :)

    P.S.I’m sorry for the length of this post, but I guess you already expected this from me. I’m still Sjoerd :P

    • Rachel says

      Thanks for your insightful reply Sjoerd, I’m learning from you as always (Sjoerd is a former intern of mine in youth ministry and a brilliantly gifted teacher – I don’t always agree with him but he sure knows how to make me think my viewpoints through!).

      So to summarize your point: you’re saying that the gospel is indeed the message that we are saved by grace through Christ and that Jesus’ teachings were meant to make the need for grace clear, since no one could possibly live up to His standard of the Law.

      That’s something else entirely than Scot McKnight is saying in his video (see link above or next blog post), so that’s something to study further :)

  4. Joleen says

    Hi Rachel,

    I sometimes read your topics, and this one seemed to me a nice one to reply on, as the gospel is my favourite ‘christian’ topic ;)

    In line with the reason you wrote this for instance, that is your intention to always preach the gospel, I think the gospel is that part of information you feel you always should preach.

    I know this sounds a bit of a circular argument, but the only thing I do is reversing the question. In opposition to what Scot McKnight says, I thus don’t think the point is defining the word ‘gospel’ correctly, because it would be overshadowed by the interpretation people lay on it, but indeed preach the biblical truth about Jesus and His forfilled work, and if you like afterwards call it the gospel. (This can of course only be done if the preaching is true, according to what the Bible says ;) )

    But still, you might think, then what is the part of information I should always preach? Well, you pointed it out very well in your first post. The five points you have listed above are true and I agree with you that those should always be said in a sermon. Point 4 and even more point 5 are truths that are not always well understood, therefore in my opinion they should get more attention.

    A last note to this: I said these points ‘should always be said’, but actually I would go a step further, which paradoxically makes preparing a sermon a bit easier, I think. Not only should it be said, these points should also be the lense from which preachers preach. There’s where I agree with Sjoerd, as he says man should always keep in mind what the context of a passage is. (I think everyone agrees with this, but still, it happens all the time that a passage is kept out of context, so that it becomes untrue. For instance the letter of Jakobus, as he says ‘faith without works is dead’ Jak 2:17. You might get to think that after all you must sum up your good deeds at Heaven’s gate, because only belief is not enough. But when you keep in mind that Christ has done it all for you and that with His dead you died, and with His resurrection you resurrected, and that you became a new person; you must fill in Jacobus’ words as the following: that it is impossible for a believer to stick in sin and passivity, because he is now as Jesus, who IS life and love. Summarizing, I belief Jakobus is just very clear about what happens when a person truely beliefs: he becomes true loving and helping etc. towards other people (I’ts kind of the same as Romans 6). Jakobus 2:24 is a tricky one, which opposites our agreement that man is saved by grace and not works. Still, my interpretation of this verse, especially when I read the verses around it, would be that true belief automatically bear fruit in works. What do you think about this one?) For me I rather don’t understand a passage or verse than doubt about the five points you put together. These statements resound though all Paul’s letters, and again, the whole Bible should be seen through that lense. Also the Old Testament? Yes, because (and here’s where I of course do agree with Scot) the Old Testament is pointing to Jesus, who fulfilled it. If we don’t look to the Old Testament with Jesus-lenses on, we again might get to think we should live under the law, and so on and so on.

    Finally ending my response, I would conclude to say that it’s just all about Jesus, His finished work and our Amen to that :)
    Keep up the good work, I listened to your preaching yesterday and liked it.

    Bless!

    • Rachel says

      Sorry for my delayed response Joleen, it wasn’t due to lack of interest! First of all, thanks for taking the time to reply and yes, you’ve about beaten Sjoerd I think :) Secondly, let me translate ‘Jakobus’ into ‘James’ so everyone knows which book you’re talking about (let me just note here that both Sjoerd and Joleen are Dutch like I am – their English is so good!).

      I love how you approach it, very practical…could have been my approach actually. As to what you say about the ‘Jesus-lens’, I agree with you up to a certain point. Of course the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of what was to come and one of its major functions is to prepare the way and point towards Christ. But I myself am careful to interpret every single story and passage through this Jesus-lens as you call it, because the stories and laws also had a specific function for the people at that time. We shouldn’t always look at it and interpret it with our knowledge from what happened afterwards, but also let the story speak as it did to the people at that time. Otherwise I think we will miss important lessons as well!

  5. Paul says

    A truelly interesting piece.
    Well written. In some way I reconize what you’re saying. I have times I am really wondering how to exlain the Gospel simply, but still with the full power and purpose of that what Jesus tried to show this world.
    Most of the time I dont know it and I am struggling big with that issue.
    But when I read this I just had one question for myself: ‘How would God explain it to me?’. I really like simple things and when something is becoming to difficult for me: I tend to not wanna do it anymore. I like being a child and being child and simpleminded. And for me it helps relating to God Himself. Giving me some big percy at times, but still I am longing to understand His heart for the people around me and what He thinks of the situation or the Gospel Himself. Like this piece though. Thanks for sharing.

    • Rachel says

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Paul, I appreciate it! It’s a really good and practical approach that you take: how would God explain it to me? I’ll have to try that next time I wrestle with presenting the Gospel in a sermon!

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