What Is the Gospel?
There has been much conversation in evangelicalism recently about how Christians should define the gospel—whether we should say that the gospel is purely the message that sinners can be forgiven of sin through repentance and faith in the crucified Christ, or whether it is something broader.
The conversation has gotten pointed, if not heated, at times, with those in one camp saying that those in the other camp are being “reductionistic” about the gospel, and those in that camp retorting that their accusers are actually diluting the gospel and distracting the church from its God-given mission.
It seems to me that we can untangle some of the confusion by making some careful observations. I believe the two major camps in this conversation—those who say the gospel is the good news that God is reconciling sinners to himself through the substitutionary death of Jesus (call them “A”) and those who say the gospel is the good news that God is going to renew and remake the whole world through Christ (“B”)—are largely talking past one another.
In other words, I don’t think the As and the Bs are answering the same question. Of course both camps say they’re answering the question “What is the gospel?” and thus the tension between the two different answers. But if we pay close attention, I think we’ll see that they are actually answering two very different and equally biblical questions.
Those two questions are these:
- What is the gospel? In other words, what is the message a person must believe to be saved?
- What is the gospel? In other words, what is the whole good news of Christianity?
When an A-person hears the question “What is the gospel?” he understands it to mean “What is the message a person must believe to be saved?” and he answers it by talking about the death of Christ in the place of sinners, and the call to repent and believe.
When a B-person hears the question “What is the gospel?” he understands it to mean “What is the whole good news of Christianity?” and he answers by talking about God’s purpose to renew the world through Christ.
You can understand why there would be tension between the two. If you answer question (1) by talking about the new creation, people are understandably going to say that your answer is too broad and that you are pushing the cross out of its central place. When people in Scripture asked the question “What must I do to be saved?” the answer they received was to repent of sin and believe in Jesus—not something about the coming new creation.
Yet it’s also true that the Bible sometimes (even often) talks about “the gospel” in terms of the new creation. So to answer question (2) by only talking about Christ’s death in the place of sinners, and to say that everything else is by definition not-gospel (but merely implication), is indeed too narrow. That would be to say that promises such as the resurrection of the body, the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, the new heavens and new earth, and many others are somehow not part of what the Bible holds out as the “good news” of Christianity.
What we need to understand is that neither of these two questions is wrong, and neither is more biblical than the other. The Bible asks and answers both of them. Let me show now from Scripture why I think both these questions I mentioned are legitimate and biblical.
As I read it, the Bible seems to use the word “gospel” in two different, but highly related, ways. Sometimes it uses “gospel” in a very broad way, that is, to describe all the promises that God intends to fulfill in Christ, including not only forgiveness of sin, but also everything else that flows from it—the establishment of the kingdom, the new heavens and new earth, etc. There are other times, though, where it uses “gospel” in a very narrow way, that is, to describe specifically the forgiveness of sins through the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ. In those places, the broader promises don’t seem to be so much in view.
Here are some of the clearest places, I think, where the Bible uses the word “gospel” in the narrow sense:
1. Acts 10:36-43: “As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), . . . To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter says that the gospel he preaches is that of “peace through Jesus Christ,” by which he means specifically the good news “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
2. Romans 1:16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”
Paul defines the gospel in terms of “salvation” and the righteousness of God being revealed through faith. It becomes clear through the rest of the book that he’s talking here about forgiveness of sins (justification) being through faith, not works. His focus in Romans is not on the coming kingdom, but on how one becomes a part of it. And that he calls “gospel.”
3. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel Paul is sent to preach is “the word of the cross.”
4. Corinthians 15:1-5: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
The gospel Paul preached to them and which they received was that “Christ died for our sins . . . was buried . . . [and] was raised.” The continuing references to the appearances shouldn’t be taken as part of “the gospel,” as if we have to tell someone that Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, and James or we’re not telling them the gospel. Those references are meant to establish the resurrection as real and historical.
And here are some of the clearest places, I think, where it is used in the broad sense:
1. Matthew 4:23: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
This is the first mention of the word “gospel” in Matthew’s account, so we should expect some contours to be given to the term. To fill in the content of the “gospel of the kingdom” which Jesus preached, we look back to verse 17, the first mention of “kingdom.” There, Jesus is recorded as preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
The gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached was the message that a) the kingdom had dawned, and b) those who repent could enter it.
2. Mark 1:14-15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'”
With the exception of the very first verse, this is the first use of the word in Mark’s account. The “gospel of God” which Jesus proclaimed was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
The gospel of God is the message that a) the kingdom has dawned, and b) those who repent and believe can enter it.
3. Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”
This is the OT passage from which Jesus launches his public ministry. The word “good news,” as it’s used in Isaiah 61, is I think referring to the full-orbed establishment of God’s kingdom-rule.
4. Acts 13:32: “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus. . .”
Verse 38 is very clear that the good news Paul brought was that forgiveness of sin comes through “this man.” But also, in verse 32 the “good news” is said to be “that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled . . . by raising Jesus.” Surely God’s promises to the fathers, now fulfilled in Jesus, included but were not limited to forgiveness of sins?
So looking carefully into the New Testament, it seems to me that the word “gospel” is used in both a broad way and in a more narrow way. Broadly, as in Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4, and Acts 13, it refers to all the promises made to us through the work of Jesus—not only forgiveness of sins, but also resurrection, reconciliation with both God and others, sanctification, glorification, coming Kingdom, new heavens and new earth, and so forth.
You might say that in those cases, “gospel” refers to the whole complex of God’s promises secured through the life and work of Christ. We might call this broader sense the Gospel of the Kingdom. In the narrow sense, such as we see in Acts 10, the whole book of Romans, 1 Corinthians 1 and 1 Corinthians 15, “gospel” refers specifically to the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus and the call to all people to repent and believe in him. We might call this narrower sense the Gospel of the Cross.
Now let me make two other things explicit.
First, the broad use of the word “gospel” necessarily includes the narrow. Look at those examples from Matthew and Mark. Jesus does not just proclaim the onset of the kingdom, as many have said. He proclaims the onset of the kingdom and he proclaims the means of entering it. Look closely: Jesus did not preach the gospel saying “The kingdom of heaven has come!” He preached the gospel saying, “The kingdom of heaven has come. Therefore repent and believe!”
This is crucial, the difference indeed between Gospel and not-Gospel:
To proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom and the new creation and all the rest without proclaiming how people can enter it—by repenting and being forgiven of their sins through faith in Christ and his atoning death—is to preach a non-Gospel.
Indeed, it is to preach bad news, since you give people no hope of being included in that new creation. The Gospel of the Kingdom is not merely the proclamation of the kingdom. It is the proclamation of the kingdom together with the proclamation that people may enter it by repentance and faith in Christ.
Second, it’s worth noting explicitly, again, the fact that the New Testament calls the specific, narrow message of forgiveness of sins through Christ “The Gospel.” Therefore, those who would argue something like, “If you’re just preaching the forgiveness of sins through Christ, and not God’s intention to remake the world, you’re not preaching the gospel,” are wrong. Both Paul and Peter (just to mention names from the above examples) seem quite happy to say that they have preached “The Gospel” if they have told people about the forgiveness of sins through the substitutionary death of Jesus, full stop.
If it is true that the New Testament uses the word “gospel” in both a broad and a narrow sense, how are we to understand the relationship between those two senses, between the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of the Cross? That’s the next question, and once we answer it, I think it will help us to be clearer in our own minds about some really important questions.
So how do the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of the Cross relate? I already have argued that the Gospel of the Kingdom necessarily includes the Gospel of the Cross.
But more specifically, is the Gospel of the Cross merely a part of the Gospel of the Kingdom, or something more? Is it central to it, peripheral to it, the heart of it, or something else? And for that matter, why are the New Testament writers willing to apply the word “gospel” to the particular promise of forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ, and not to other particular promises that are included in the broad gospel? Why do we never see Paul saying, “And that’s my gospel: that humans can be reconciled to each other!”?
I think we can get at an answer to all those questions by realizing that the Gospel of the Cross is not just any part of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Rather, the gospel of the cross is the gateway, the fountainhead, even the seed, so to speak, of the gospel of the kingdom. Read the whole New Testament, and you quickly realize that its univocal message is that a person cannot get to those broad blessings of the Kingdom except by being forgiven of sin through the death of Christ. That is the fountain from which all the rest springs.
That, I think, is why it is perfectly appropriate for the biblical authors to call that fountainhead “The Gospel” even as they also call the whole package—including forgiveness, justification, resurrection, new creation and all the rest—”The Gospel.” Because the broad blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of the narrow (atonement, forgiveness, faith and repentance), and because those blessings are attained infallibly by means of the narrow, it’s entirely appropriate for the New Testament writers to call that gateway/seed/fountainhead promise “The Gospel.”
It’s also perfectly appropriate for the New Testament to call that fountainhead “The Gospel” and at the same time not call any other particular blessing of the broader package “The Gospel.” So we don’t call human reconciliation “The Gospel.” Nor do we even call the new heavens and new earth “The Gospel.” But we do call forgiveness through atonement “The Gospel” because it is the fountainhead of and gateway to all the rest.
There are some important implications that flow from this.
First, it is worth saying again: Those who argue that “the gospel” is the declaration of the kingdom are simply wrong. The gospel is not the declaration of the kingdom; it is (in the broad sense) the declaration of the kingdom together with the means of entering it.
Second, to say that the Gospel of the Cross is somehow not the gospel, or less than the gospel, is wrong. So long as the question is, “What is the message a person must believe to be saved,” the gospel of the cross is the gospel. Jesus, Paul, and Peter say so.
Third, to say that the Gospel of the Kingdom is somehow gospel-plus, or a distraction from the real gospel, is also wrong. So long as the question is “What is the whole good news of Christianity,” the gospel of the kingdom is not gospel-plus; it is the gospel. Jesus, Paul, and Peter say so.
Fourth, it is wrong to call a person a Christian simply because they are doing good things and “following Jesus’ example.” To be a Christian, to be a partaker of the blessings of the Kingdom, requires one first to go through the gate—that is, to come to Christ in faith and be forgiven of sin and atoned for.
Bunyan tells the story in Pilgrim’s Progress about the characters Mr. Formalist and Mr. Hypocrisy whom Christian meets on the path to the Celestial City. After a moment’s conversation, however, Christian realizes that they had jumped the wall to the path rather than going through the Wicket Gate. The upshot: These two are not Christians, regardless of how well they are now navigating the path.
To change the characters a bit, there are many people out there who must realize that Mr. Jesus-Follower and Mrs. Kingdom-Life-Liver are not Christians—not unless they have come to the crucified Jesus in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of their sins. A person can “live like Jesus lived” all he wants to, but unless he goes through the Wicket Gate of atonement, faith and repentance, he’s not really come to Christ. He’s simply jumped the wall.
Fifth, I believe it is wrong ever to say that non-Christians are doing “kingdom work.” A non-Christian working for human reconciliation or justice is doing a good thing, but that is not Kingdom work because it is not done in the name of the King. C.S. Lewis was wrong; you cannot do good things in the name of Tash and expect Aslan to be happy about it.
Sixth, the ultimate goal of any mercy ministry—whether done by an individual Christian or a church—has to be to point the world back to the gate. Much could be said here, but I think understanding all this rightly can provide a powerful missionary motive and a penetrating witness to the world.
When you renovate a barber shop in the name of Jesus, for instance, you need to tell the owner (to put it sharply for brevity’s sake), “Look, I’m doing this because I serve a God who cares about things like beauty and order and peace. In fact, the Bible says and I believe that God is one day going to recreate this world and inaugurate a kingdom where paint won’t peel and trees won’t die. But [and here we get to the point] I don’t think you’re going to be a part of that. Because of your sin. Unless you repent and believe in Christ.” And then you tell him the good news of the cross. If you just renovate the barber shop and proclaim the coming kingdom, you’ve fallen short of proclaiming the gospel. The gospel of the kingdom is the declaration of the kingdom together with the means of getting into it.
Seventh, as I’ve argued before, I believe that many in the so-called emergent church—for all their insistence about how astonishing and surprising their gospel is—have missed entirely what really is astonishing about the gospel.
That Jesus is king and has inaugurated a kingdom of love and compassion is not really all that astonishing at all. Every Jew knew that was going to happen someday. What is truly astonishing about the gospel is that the Messianic King dies to save his people—that the divine Son of Man in Daniel, the Davidic Messiah, and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah turn out to be the same man. That, moreover, is ultimately how we tie together the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of the Cross. Jesus is not just King, but Crucified King. Next to that, what many in the emergent church are holding out as an astonishing gospel is not astonishing at all. It’s just boring.
Eighth, everything we’ve said so far drives toward the conclusion that evangelistic, missiological, and pastoral emphasis in this age belongs on the gospel of the cross—on the fountainhead, the gateway of the broader gospel of the kingdom. That is because all the rest is unattainable and indeed bad news unless we point people there. Not only so, but this is the age in which God’s overarching command to every human in the world is “Repent and believe.”
There’s only one command that is actually included in the gospel itself (whether broad or narrow): Repent and believe. That is the primary obligation on human beings in this age, and therefore it must be our primary emphasis in our preaching, too.
 Jesus very clearly preaches the Gospel of the Cross (in Mark 10:45, for instance) even if he doesn’t explicitly tie the word “gospel” to it in his recorded words. On a more general note, even as we recognize the benefit of word-studies, we should not tie our definition of the gospel and our identification of it in the text too tightly to occurrences of the word “gospel.” Otherwise, we’d have to say that John never talks about it, for he never uses the word in all his New Testament writings.