What is the gospel?
“There is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the gospel,” so wrote John Calvin (Institutes, 4.3.3.).
Yet, regrettably, there is also nothing more misunderstood and so easily distorted. There is a great deal of confusion among believers about what the gospel is. It is quite easy for the gospel to become mixed with other vital truths that are related to it but that are not part of the gospel itself.
Therefore, before answering what the gospel is, we must answer what the gospel is not, so that people are not required to believe more than is necessary for salvation. On the other hand, we must answer what the gospel is so that people know what is necessary to believe for salvation.
What is not the gospel?
The gospel is not man’s response to it. The gospel is not about what man does but rather about what Christ did. Faith and repentance are the proper responses to the gospel (Mk. 1:14-15) but neither faith nor repentance are part of the gospel.
The response demanded by the gospel is not the gospel. The gospel is not simply calling on people to make a decision. Establishing man’s alienation from God and his need of the gospel is not the gospel. Calling people to repent of their sins and to trust Christ is true and necessary but neither is the gospel. Calling on people to obey and live upright moral lives is not the gospel.
The distinction between the content of the gospel and its demands must be kept utterly distinct. To confuse one’s duty with the gospel is to leave the impression that the essence of the gospel and the Christian faith is what a man does rather than what God has done in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19).
The gospel is not the new birth. People often hear preachers telling people, “You must be born again!” However, this is neither the gospel nor something man is capable of doing. Regeneration (Jn. 3:3-8) is the glory of God’s amazing grace that reaches down and brings a dead heart to life. In regeneration the grace of God enables the sinner to receive and rest in Jesus Christ as He is freely offered in the gospel. It is therefore closely related to the gospel (and faith) but it is not the gospel.
The gospel is not the work of the Father or Holy Spirit. God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three persons of the one God are intimately involved in the gospel, but their roles are different. For example, the Father sends the Son (Jn. 4:34) and the Holy Spirit testifies of Christ and baptizes believers (Jn. 15:26; Acts 1:5). Yet while preaching of the Father’s love (e.g., Jn. 3:16) or the Holy Spirit’s witness of Christ in men’s hearts are all true and necessary for the gospel to be the gospel they are not themselves the gospel but rather fruits of the gospel.
D.A. Carson provides the following helpful summary concerning the importance of understanding what is not the gospel:
“By contrast, the first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel. Similarly, the gospel is not receiving Christ or believing in him, or being converted, or joining a church; it is not the practice of discipleship. Once again, the gospel faithfully declared and rightly received will result in people receiving Christ, believing in Christ, being converted, and joining a local church; but such steps are not the gospel.
The Bible can exhort those who trust the living God to be concerned with issues of social justice (Isa 2; Amos); it can tell new covenant believers to do good to all human beings, especially to those of the household of faith (Gal 6); it exhorts us to remember the poor and to ask, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whom am I serving as neighbor?” We may even argue that some such list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel. We may preach through the list, reminding people that the Bible is concerned to tell us not only what to believe but how to live. But we may not preach through that list and claim it encapsulates the gospel…
Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, is to replace the good news as to what God has done with a moralism that is finally without the power and the glory of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning, (Themelios, 34.1, April 2009).
What is the gospel?
The gospel is the saving event of Jesus Christ (i.e., Messiah), which is rooted in the Scriptures concerning His life, death, burial and resurrection.
It is the proclamation concerning this past, perfect, finished historic event of what God in Christ did for sinners for which they could not do for themselves.
In I Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul provides one of the clearest and succinct summaries of the gospel in the Bible. He reminds the Corinthian church of what is of paramount importance concerning the gospel.
Christ’s Death- 1 Cor. 15:3b
The gospel announces that Christ died on the cross for sinners and paid in full the penalty they deserved for their sins (Rom. 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13-14; 1 Pet. 2:24a). He died on the cross as the sinner’s substitute for the life sinners do live but shouldn’t.
In order to qualify as an acceptable sacrifice for sinners, Christ had to be personally perfect (Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19). The Scriptures teach that Christ lived a perfectly obedient and sinless life on behalf of sinners (1 Pet. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). He lived the kind of life for sinners that sinners don’t live but should (Matt. 5:48).
Christ’s Burial- 1 Cor. 15:4a
The gospel announces that after Jesus’ death, He was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb (Acts 13:29). Jesus’ burial certifies the reality of His death and points forward to the reality of His resurrection.
Christ’s Resurrection- 1 Cor. 15:4b
The gospel announces that Christ rose from the dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and appeared for forty days to a host of eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:4a-7; see also: Matt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-12; Jn. 20:1-10; Acts 2:24-32).
The death of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, faith and the preaching of the gospel are futile without His triumphant resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12-19). Therefore, the resurrection is the central fact of the gospel. Christ’s resurrection (and subsequent ascension, cf. Acts 1:9) completes the gospel.
The resurrection vindicated Jesus’ teaching, His sinless life and atoning death. In the resurrection, God the Father proclaims that He is fully satisfied with Christ’s atonement for sin. On the cross, Christ cried, “It is finished,” and in the resurrection God the Father proclaimed, “It is accepted!”
The resurrection was the fulfillment of OT prophecy (Acts 13:30-37). It declared Jesus to be the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4; cf. Jn. 20:31), the risen Lord of the world (Acts 2:22-36, cf. Matt. 28:18) and is thus the basis for the believer’s justification before God (Rom. 4:24).
What is your response?
The gospel is not a value-neutral historic event (e.g., like knowing who won the first American Idol contest). As noted previously, the gospel demands a response. How then will you respond? Will you believe the gospel? Will you trust in Jesus alone to forgive your sins?
The gospel’s invitation is free. You do not have to delay. You do not have to prepare yourself to come. All that a man brings to the Lord in salvation is his sin, sheer disgrace and emptiness.
Jesus calls you to freely believe in Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). He does not require you to be godly before you believe. Jesus is a kind, gracious, merciful saving Lord. If you come, He will receive you. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” (Matt. 11:28) is both Christ’s invitation and promise.
* Copyright Paramount Church 2009