What the Gospel Is and Isn’t

June 18, 2009

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


Gospel-Driven Quote of the Week

June 7, 2009

“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.

The gospel is what God has done, supremely in Christ, and especially focused on his cross and resurrection.

Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, 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.”

D.A. Carson, Themelios, 34.1


Gospel-Driven Quote of the Week

May 17, 2009

“The gospel is saying that, what man cannot do in order to be accepted with God, this God himself has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be acceptable to God we must present to God a life of perfect and unceasing obedience to his will. The gospel declares that Jesus has done this for us. For God to be righteous he must deal with our sin. This also he has done for us in Jesus. The holy law of God was lived out perfectly for us by Christ, and its penalty was paid perfectly for us by Christ. The living and dying of Christ for us, and this alone is the basis of our acceptance with God.”

Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, p. 86


Gospel-Driven Quote of the Week

April 5, 2009

“…much of the glory of God appears in the works of creation and providence, but much more in the gospel, where it shines in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, “1 Timothy,” p. 651


The Gospel and the Necessity of the Holy Spirit

March 26, 2009

In Galatians 1:16a, Paul writes, “[God the Father-J.F.] was pleased to reveal his Son in me,” (emphasis mine).

The verb translated to reveal (apokalypsai, see v. 12) speaks of an unveiling or disclosure of divine truth from God, which lies beyond human knowledge.

Paul’s language confronts us with the absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work to understand and receive Christ and the gospel.

The gospel is not difficult to understand it is impossible and incomprehensible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit!

We must never think that the gospel can be understood by human reason alone. The reason is because an unconverted mind is darkened by sin (cf. Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:17-18; cf. Gal. 1:13-14).

If we, as well as others, are to hear, believe, enjoy and proclaim the gospel, we must be fully persuaded of our absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating and empowering work for both conversion (1 Pet. 1:3) as well as edification (Eph. 1:17-18).

“The gospel is not difficult to understand it is impossible and incomprehensible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit!”

Martin Luther writes,

    “This sort of doctrine, which reveals the Son of God, is not taught, learned, or judged by any human wisdom or by the Law itself; it is revealed by God, first by the external Word and then inwardly through the Spirit. Therefore, the Gospel is a divine Word that came down from heaven and is revealed by the Holy Spirit, who was sent for this very purpose,” (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 73).

The subjective appropriation and trusting of Christ takes place only by the inward working of the Holy Spirit.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:23 writes, “no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”

Again, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness/testify about me,” (John 15:26; emphasis mine).

In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul writes, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Just as our Creator, God the Father, spoke and created light so we could see, so as our Redeemer, He has, through the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, shone in our hearts so that we might see and receive the significance of the person and work of His Son.

Apart from the Holy Spirit, His gospel would come to us in vain. Apart from the Holy Spirit, our understanding would remain in a darkened state just as the world existed before God spoke and said, “Let there be light!”

But it pleased God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes in order to make us capable of understanding and receiving the light of the gospel!

The gospel is not difficult to understand it is impossible and incomprehensible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit!

In Luke 24:44, Jesus explains to His disciples that everything written in the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to Him. This was a truth that was neither self-evident to them nor to us.

The reason we know it was not self-evident is because in v. 45, Luke says “…He (i.e., Christ-J.F.) opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”

And, then in vv. 46-47, Jesus immediately interprets the gospel event that just took place as the fulfillment of all the OT promises (cf. Lk. 24:25-27, 31- of the two disciples on the Emmaus Road- v. 31, “their eyes were opened,” a passive verb, lit. “being opened.”).

In 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Paul says four times that after His resurrection, Jesus “appeared” (ophthe, a passive verb, lit., “He let Himself be seen”).

It was not until Jesus revealed His identity to Mary Magdelene (Jn. 20:14-16), the two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Lk. 24:15, 31) and His disciples (Jn. 20:19-20) that they recognized Him.

There is another truth that God supernaturally revealed to Paul on the Damascus Road.

In opening Paul’s eyes to grasp the significance of Christ, God also revealed to Paul that justification is not attainable by works (cf. Gal. 2:16).

It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to break man of his addiction to legalism and convince him that his “righteousness” is garbage (cf. Phil. 3:8). This was certainly the case for Paul (compare the difference between vv. 13-14 and v. 15-16)!

Whereas he formerly was steeped in establishing his own self-righteousness, God revealed to Paul that true righteousness comes solely through faith in Christ alone (cf. Philip. 3:4-9).

Whereas he formerly hated Christ and viewed Him as a fake, as a man accursed of God, he now embraced and proclaimed him as the true Messiah and Son of God.

Whereas he formerly persecuted and tried to destroy the church, he was now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy (cf. Gal. 1:23).

Instead of glorifying God, Paul came to see that he was actually denigrating God. Instead of serving God, Paul came to see that he was fighting against God. Instead of submitting to God, Paul came to see that he was in rebellion against God.

Whereas he labored for his own glory, he now labored for God’s glory (Gal. 6:14).

The gospel neither comes natural to us nor can it be logically deduced by mere human reasoning alone. The gospel must be revealed in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through His Word!

We must never take this truth for granted. And, we must never underemphasize the necessity of the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul continually prayed for the Holy Spirit to open believer’s eyes to the spiritual blessings of the gospel (cf. Eph. 1:15-23).

The gospel is not difficult to understand it is impossible and incomprehensible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit!


Gospel-Driven Quote of the Week

March 23, 2009

“…indeed none can receive Christ and reject his doctrine; but, in receiving Christ, must first receive his doctrine, and so Christ therein: and so he that receiveth Christ is said to believe the gospel, and every true receiver of Christ is a receiver of his doctrine, because that is the seed by which he is conceived and born, and it is the milk by which he is brought up and nourished to eternal life, 1 Pet. i. 23; chap. ii. 2. I need not here stand to commend the gospel doctrine; it is enough to say that, by the Lord’s blessing upon it, it is the seed to conceive and the milk to nourish all the children of God. Why? it is the channel in which the Spirit runs; “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” Gal. iii. 2. It is the organ of the almighty power of God; “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation, to every one that believeth;”

His power in working faith, his power in measuring faith, and his power in saving sinners in a way of believing, is put forth in the gospel; Why? “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith,” Rom. i 16, 17. The law hath convinced many, but never converted one to this day; and a gospel minister may preach the law for many good ends, but it is the gospel part of preaching that doth the business, if the power of God be going along with is; for the gospel is the only channel wherein the converting power of the Spirit runs; “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God:” Christ is revealed therein in order to his being received.”

Ralph Erskine, “Gospel-Principle, the Foundation of Gospel Practice; or, The Great Duty of Receiving Christ, and Walking in Him, Opened,” The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 4, pp. 181-182.


Gospel-Driven Quote of the Week

March 16, 2009

“The central message of the New Testament concerns God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, who did for us what we could not do for ourselves, in order to bring us, a lost people, back to God. The whole of Scripture is filled with the sense of the divine initiative in salvation. In the Old Testament the sin of Adam and Eve, which brings the judgment of God, is not the end of the story because God has a plan of mercy and grace. The narratives of Noah and Abraham are eloquent of the sovereign work of God to bring rebellious humanity back from the brink of destruction. The covenant of God made with a chosen people is before all else a covenant of grace…This primacy of grace, which is at work all the way through the Old Testament, points us to the centrality and primacy of the gospel of grace in the New Testament,” (Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 5).