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What is the Gospel?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

At the heart of Christianity is "the Gospel." The word occurs many times in the pages of the Bible1 and is obviously an important teaching for those who mention it. But what exactly is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the Core Teaching of Christianity

The word "Gospel" is the translation of the Greek New Testament word euangellion, and means "good news" or "glad tidings."2 This good news is nothing less than the essential teaching of Jesus Christ and Christianity. According to the New Testament, this Gospel was Christ's core teaching, indeed, His reason for teaching.

As we read the pages of the Bible we find ample evidence of this. As He begins His ministry we find Him preaching, "Repent and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).3 In Nazareth, He quotes Isaiah 61 to show that His mission as Messiah is to preach the Gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18). On another occasion, He tells His disciples, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent" (Luke 4:43). In general and in many places, the evangelists picture Jesus busily at work preaching the Gospel (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Luke 8:1; Luke 20:1).

When we turn to His followers, we find that they too understood the preaching of the Gospel as their focus. Even before Christ's death and resurrection, we see His apostles preaching the Gospel (Luke 9:6). And after His resurrection, in obedience to Jesus' commission,4 we see the apostles and all His followers preaching and sharing the Gospel (for example, see Acts 5:42, 8:12, 8:35, 10:36, 11:20, 14:7, 14:21, 17:18). The apostle Paul especially writes a great deal about it (as an example, see 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2:2, 2:4, 2:8, 2:9, 3:2, 3:6).

What Good News?

But none of this yet tells us what the Gospel is. What is this good news about? Fortunately, the Bible itself tells us. In two key passages, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 and Romans 1:16-17 Paul reveals much about the Gospel.

    Now, brothers, 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, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

    I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith (Romans 1:16-17).

From these passages we learn that at the heart of the Gospel is the message that Jesus, the Christ, died on the cross for our sins and that he rose from the dead. "Christ died for our sins" means that He took our sins upon Himself and served the sentence of punishment that we deserved. Every last drop of eternal judgment and punishment that we deserved was poured out on Jesus instead of us. He was the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sins. Because of His blood shed in death for us, no judgment, guilt, or punishment remains. We are fully forgiven, innocent, not guilty. What makes this such sweet good news is that God offers all this by grace (in other words, as a gift). That is why Paul calls it the Gospel "about the grace of God" (Acts 20:24; cf. Gal. 1:6). Every time the Gospel is proclaimed God freely offers the completed forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for us by His substitutionary death. Everyone who believes this Gospel and applies it to himself, has forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

We also learn that the Gospel is far more than a message that provides information. The Gospel actually is God's power: it has the power to give salvation and save those who hear it And it has the power to work faith in the hearts of those who hear it. It is for this reason that the Church has long called the Gospel a "means of grace." For through it God graciously works faith in those who hear.

When we search elsewhere in the New Testament, we find this short definition confirmed. The Gospel is variously described as:

  • The good news that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:42);
  • The good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35);
  • The good news of peace through Jesus, who is Lord of all (Acts 10:36)
  • The good news about the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20);
  • The good news that God has fulfilled His promise by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 13:32);
  • The good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18);
  • The good news concerning God's Son, who also was man, raised from the dead (Romans 1:1-4; 2 Tim. 2:8);
  • The good news of Christ (Romans 15:19; 1 Corinthians 9:14);
  • The good news, which has to do with the cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:17);
  • The good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4);
  • The good news of your salvation, the word of truth (Ephesians 1:13);
  • The good news of the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8);
  • The good news about the hope that is reserved for you in heaven (Colossians 1:5);

The Bible is full of Gospel and not only in passages that explicitly mention salvation through Jesus. Every passage and section of Scripture that emphasizes what God gives freely to us is Gospel. What a feast awaits the one who sits down at this banquet table with a hearty appetite!

The Gospel is Only Good News to Those Who Have Believed the Bad News

This Gospel should be good news to everyone. But it is really only good news to those who have believed the bad news (but the truth) about themselves.

A medical analogy might help to better explain this. The announcement of a miracle cure is only good news to the one who has believed the reality of the disease. It is good news above all to the one who knows he has the disease. Similarly, a reputable doctor regularly engages in two functions: (1) He diagnoses sickness; (2) He prescribes a cure - if there is one. When he diagnoses a sickness or injury, he is duty bound to tell the patient the "bad news." This bad news may be unpleasant, humiliating, or depressing. The patient may be tempted to deny the sickness, or to view the doctor as an enemy and seek a more favorable opinion. But the sensible patient eventually must accept the bad news before he sees a need for the cure - the good news.

The Law of God5 in the Scriptures tells us the bad news. It diagnoses our spiritual sickness; it tells us that each of us is sinful and guilty in God's sight and deserving of eternal punishment. Because of our fallenness, God's Law can no longer save us. It shows us what God wants and what we should be (perfect!); but it does not give us the power to do what it demands. Therefore, it's main function is to diagnose disease, to show us our sin: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:19-20).6

Ultimately, the main purpose of the Law is show us that we cannot cure ourselves (by our performance) and to drive us to the One who can: Jesus Christ, our divine Physician. Galatians 3:22-24: "But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor [to lead us] to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. And Romans 8:3-4 declares: "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us . . .."

It is for those who have accepted their disease through the Law, have acknowledged their sin, and have admitted that they cannot cure themselves that the Gospel is truly good news. It is for these that Jesus came: "On hearing this, Jesus said to them, `It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners'" (Mark 2:17).

Above all the Gospel is good news to those poor souls who have energetically tried to keep God's Law but have failed. It is for those especially, who with all their hearts have wanted to be like Christ, have wanted to love God and their neighbor, have wanted to be holy, have wanted to be full of good works and spiritual gifts but the more they try, the more they fail, and the more the Law accuses them. To these the Gospel says, "Fear not! You have a Savior! Where you are unrighteous, Jesus was righteous. Where you are unholy, Jesus was holy. Where you are fruitless, Jesus was fruitful. Where you are inconsistent, Jesus was consistent. Where you succumb to temptation, Jesus was victorious. He didn't keep the Law perfectly as an example; He kept it to be your substitute. If you have believed and have been baptized, then know that God counts Christ's perfect life as yours. You are covered with His righteousness. To you who are crushed by the burden of the Law, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). God's love for you, His forgiveness of you, His heaven reserved for you, does not and never has depended on your performance. It depends on Jesus' performance on Jesus only.

How the Gospel is Perverted

Already during the lifetime of the apostles, a false teaching arose which threatened to distort the Gospel. Eventually this teaching was rejected by the first Christian Council in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). Some of the Christian Jews insisted that faith in Christ was not enough for salvation; according to them, Christians also had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.7

This teaching, which also went by the name of "Gospel," heavily infiltrated the Christians of Galatia. When this came to Paul's attention, he wrote an impassioned letter to them. In this he wrote:

    I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! . . .Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 1:6-8; 5:2-4).

Paul understood what was at stake. The moment it is taught or believed that our salvation, our entrance into heaven, or our status as a child of God depends on our performance (whether circumcision, Bible reading, prayer life, exercise of spiritual gifts, giving of money, attending church, avoiding sin, keeping ourselves pure, evangelizing, being loving, or any other work), we are severed from Christ and are no longer Christians! And when we call such a teaching "Gospel" we have perverted the Gospel by turning it into Law! As Paul also writes in Galatians: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:21).

The Gospel, if it really is the Biblical Gospel, NEVER tells us to depend on our efforts -- it directs us to trust in Jesus only; it proclaims that our salvation is a free gift, paid for by Christ's life and death, received by us through faith. That is why repeatedly we find the teaching in Scripture that we are "justified by faith apart from the works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).8 Saving faith is not a good work. In fact, faith is the opposite of works, as the above verse shows. The faith in Jesus that saves is merely the open hand that takes the gift. Faith is the simple but bold conviction that it doesn't depend on Me, it depends on Jesus only forgiveness, eternal life, God's love, salvation it all depends on Jesus only. Now that's good news! Faith is the only way to receive what Christ has done, for "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). The Gospel only benefits those who believe it (Hebrews 4:6). Eternal judgment and punishment awaits those who do not (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10).

The experience of the first Christians should teach us that the Gospel is very easily mutated into something that is no Gospel at all. It should also teach us that all of us are extremely prone to begin trusting in our own performance or experiences. For this reason, we need to hear and meditate on the Gospel OFTEN by making use of ALL of the ways that the Gospel comes to us: the Bible, Baptism, Lord's Supper, holy Absolution, liturgy, hymns, fellow Christians!

How Often Do We Need the Gospel?

There is a distressing tendency among many Christians to view the Gospel as useful only for conversion. In other words, the Gospel is viewed as message that tells me how to be saved, but it is of little value in the area of Christian living. Judging by popular "evangelical" literature, one gets the impression that Christian maturity comes about by the Law.9 How tragic! How unChristian!

The fact is, we need the Gospel just as much for Christian living as we do for salvation. Why? First, because as mentioned above, the Gospel easily slips through our fingers, and without our knowing it, we begin to depend on our performance. Second, the Gospel is God's pipeline of grace. The Gospel is not just information telling us how to be saved -- is "the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16; see also 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:10). Through the Gospel, the Holy Spirit takes what Christ did 2000 years ago, and brings it into the present. Through the Gospel, the Spirit works to create and sustain and grow our faith. According to Scripture, God calls people to salvation through the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:14). According to Scripture, the Gospel itself bears fruit and causes growth (Colossians 1:6; see also Acts 20:32; 1 Peter 1:23).

One last Word

To the Christian, the Gospel is everything! It is the source of our salvation, the power for Christian living, our greatest joy, our most enduring comfort, the object of our meditations, and the story of our lives. I hope this article has helped you to better understand it, and above all, to believe it!

1. The noun euangelion and the related verb euangelizo occur 130 times in the Greek New Testament.

2. In the NIV euangelion is often translated "good news."

3. This statement is intended to be a summary of Christ's preaching not only at the beginning, but throughout His ministry.

4. Mark 16:15: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."

5. By "Law of God" I mean any passage or section of the Bible in which God commands our obedience. Any passage that commands good works, holiness, or love is Law. Any passage that stresses our performance -- what we must do or not do -- is Law. Any passage that tells us to repent or threatens us with judgment, punishment, or retribution is Law. The Ten Commandments is a summary of God's Law. So is the Sermon on the Mount (though Gospel can be found in it also). According to Jesus, the two commandments that summarize the entire Law are: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:36-40). Similarly Paul writes, "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Compare the "golden rule" in Matthew 7:12. This is the way the Scriptures themselves speak.

6. Galatians 3 also speaks to this: "For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law" (Galatians 3:21b).

7. Acts 15:1,5: "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: `Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' . . . Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, `The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.'"

8. See also Romans 3:21-28; Romans 5:1; Romans 10:1-13; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3:1-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:1-14.

9. Many of the "Christian principles" which these authors espouse are Law principles, not Gospel.