March 14, 2008

What is the gospel?

Posted in The Basics, Theology at 6:47 pm by Matt Porter

CrossPage(This is the next stop along the way to my idea of presenting the gospel. It appears to be more related to the topic; never fear, I’m sure we’ll meander a few different directions before we get “there.”)On our path to deciding how to present the gospel, it’s necessary to settle on just what the gospel is. This is not important merely to determine the content of our presentation; it also affects the context and the method of presentation.

There are several competing views of the gospel, with plenty of shades in between. First, the gospel is frequently seen as the message of justification—Christ died so we might be reconciled to God. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some view the gospel as the message that Christ came to make things right, end poverty and injustice and tyranny, or correct other social ills. In the last couple of decades, the New Perspective on Paul has emphasized the social and cultural context of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, arguing that Paul’s writings on the gospel were intended to announce Christ as Messiah-King and were a direct challenge to the rising emperor-worship flooding the Roman Empire.

While I think each of those views grasps some aspect of the gospel, none of them works for me as a whole. So, now that you’re all drifting off to sleep (certainly not waiting with bated breath), let me attempt my non-theologian’s non-theological perspective of the gospel.

To me, the central part of the gospel is not just the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I don’t think that 1 Cor. 15:3-4 is intended to be a exhaustive statement of the gospel (not least because it’s two verses picked out of a sentence). The gospel, as I understand it, is God’s statement that he’s fulfilled his promises to mankind—the seed promised to Adam and Eve, the blessing for all nations promised to Abraham, the king promised to Israel. I believe the word “gospel” (euangelion) was not intended to be understood as its root words of “good news,” although it certainly came from that. A “gospel” was the term used for a joyous proclamation of the Roman Empire, one of a victorious battle or a new heir or a new ruler. The gospel from God was his declaration that he has sent his ruler, his Christ, his Messiah, to earth. In establishing his new kingdom, he was making good on his promise to redeem creation.

So a full presentation of the gospel should include the facts about Christ’s coming, including the death, burial, and resurrection from the 1 Cor. passage above. It should also include the implications of his coming, specifically the purpose of redemption. That redemption should include not just the aspect of reconciliation, but also sanctification and glorification—in short, God’s entire plan for us. When we focus exclusively on reconciliation, we leave believers without purpose (or we fill that purpose with man-made standards of behavior). When we focus on sanctification, we give the impression that God wants better people without the context of the impossibility of self-improvement. When we focus on glorification, we ignore the problem of man’s sinfulness and fruitlessly attempt to fix the broken world around us. God’s full purpose for man needs to be expressed in order for the gospel to be understood.

So there’s how I understand the gospel—what God has done, in the context of why he did it. Both aspects are important to understanding the gospel. We’ve moved a little closer to our destination, for the time being; there are still some side roads to traverse before we get there, but we’re making progress.


  1. Victor said,

    Just a couple of thoughts.

    I agree 100% with your idea of the gospel, but I disagree in what a full gospel presentation should include. I think it is not wise to limit ourselves to a specific list that we need to include in a gospel presentation. The best examples of this are the gospel presentations in the Bible and seeing how flexible the Apostles were to present the “good news”.

    I think of Paul’s presentation of the gospel to the people of Lycaonia (Acts 14) in his first missionary journey where he found himself needing to clarify something as basic as who God is (very different presentation to the others in his first missionary trip). While I agree that focusing on one particular area can affect the new believer’s view, don’t you think the same will apply to any Christian in his natural growth process? How much will then be enough to explain to the unbeliever to settle him in a “balanced” view of God? Is that even possible?

    I finish my comment with a quote from the early church father, Clement:

    For when the pagans hear from our mouths the oracles of God, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But when they discover that our actions are not worthy of the words we speak, they turn from wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is a myth and a delusion. For when they hear from us that God says, “It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you,” when they hear these things, they marvel at such extraordinary goodness. But when they see that we not only do not love those who hate us but do not even love those who love us, they scornfully laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed. (2Cl 13.3-4, Holmes’ 3rd edition)

  2. Matt Porter said,

    Ah, my attempt to remain vague and not give away the rest of my series seems to have backfired. 🙂 First, I don’t necessarily equate “presenting the gospel” with evangelism/soul-winning/preaching to the lost. I avoided making that point here because I’ll get to it in a later post. I also didn’t intend that the aspects of the gospel that I mentioned should stand on their own; they obviously have to fit into a cultural context to be understood by the listeners. Bah, that sums up half my gospel-for-the-lost post 😛 So I don’t disagree with you; I just haven’t gotten to that part yet. And your Clement quote fits nicely with the end of my first post, about spoken vs. acted gospel.

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