“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)
“It is now possible for ordinary human beings like you and me to live in the presence and under the authority of the God of the Universe.” —John Ortberg
This may sound like a funny question, or at least a question with an obvious answer, but I don’t think so. Between experiences I’ve had over the last several years and the reading I’ve been doing lately, particularly for my Foundations of Evangelism class at TEDS, it’s become clear to me that the question isn’t as simple as you might think.
What does the word “gospel” even mean?
To get to the term “gospel”, we have to start with a different but related set of terms: “evangelical”, “evangelism” and “evangelist”. These are all common words in 21st century English-speaking countries, but they are no longer very well understood. What’s worse, they have for the most part been thoroughly imbued with negative connotation. Increasingly, the secular public equates these terms with bigotry, homophobia, fanaticism, and other negative ideas. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be much better understood in Christian circles than they are in secular ones. In my experience, if you ask most church-going Protestants these days, they would define these terms as follows:
- Evangelical (n) — the state of being a “real” Christian (vs Catholic, Muslim, atheist, etc)
- Evangelism (n) — the act of sharing one’s faith with people who don’t know God
- Evangelist (n) —
- a professional “preacher” (vs a pastor or priest)
- someone who yells about Jesus from a soapbox on a city street corner or on a TV station few people watch, and who is either a) crazy, b) a well-dressed silver-tongued charlatan, or c) both
These terms are all, of course, related. They are all rooted in the Greek word group whose noun form is εὐαγγέλιον (transliterated, “euaggelion” or “evangel”). This is a special word meaning “good news”. It’s not the same word translated “message” (ἀγγελία) or “news” (λόγος) elsewhere in Greek writing (the original language of the New Testament). The “good news” of Scripture is not a neutrally-communicated piece of information, like you might hear on CNN tonight after work. It’s a special kind of news — good news — and a special kind of message — the heralded proclamation of a king!
So, all these words — evangelical, evangelism, and evangelist — are related to this concept of good news. I would define them as follows:
- Evangelical (adj) — of or related to the good news
- Evangelism (n) — the proclamation of the good news
- Evangelist (n) — one who proclaims the good news; also, an Evangelical (n)
So these terms are highly focused on the concept of “good news”, and the word “gospel,” which significantly predates the time of Jesus, is what is used in Scripture to refer to this very specific good news.
Good news about what?
Most Christians, when asked, “What is the gospel?” will immediately reply, “Jesus”. But let’s also double click on that … “the good news about Jesus” … meaning what exactly? What Jesus did? Who Jesus is? What Jesus did for you? Who Jesus is to me? How Jesus affects ones life today? What are we really talking about?
This may shock you, but although “Jesus” is clearly the Sunday School answer to this question, and in some sense “Jesus” is the right answer to every question, I don’t think simply responding “Jesus” is the best answer. At least, it’s a fairly cryptic, deep, mystical answer that most people wouldn’t be able to build there life on.
Another very common (most common?) answer given by adult Christians (not in Sunday School) to the question “What is the gospel?” is what Christians call “the plan of salvation”. This is the “plan” or process or steps by which someone is “saved”. Over the years, the plan of salvation has been clearly and concisely stated by many people in many ways (for example, the Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road). Here’s how I would quickly summarize it:
- God … created everything, is completely good, and deserves our uncontested worship
- Man … was created by God, rebelled, has become entirely corrupt, and needs saving
- Jesus … died on the cross to save man from His sin and restore Him to God
- Receive … Jesus personally to be forgiven of sin, to be reconciled to God, to realize God’s plan for your life, and to go to heaven when you die
This is incredibly important truth, and no one will be rescued from sin and death (the consequences of sin) or have any meaningful relationship with God (now or in eternity) without believing (by life-changing action, not academic ascent) each of these things and appropriating them personally into their lives. BUT — and this too might surprise you — as critical and essential as salvation (and the plan of salvation) is, I still don’t think we have arrived at a definition of “the gospel”.
In other words, if you were to ask Jesus or Peter or Paul or the early church fathers or Martin Luther or Augustine or scores of other prominent theologians through the ages, I don’t believe many of them would say that “the plan of salvation” is what the apostles meant by “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
I contend that the gospel is bigger than the plan of salvation … that two very important elements are missing from a “salvation gospel”. Unfortunately, that means they are also missing from the modern Christian’s belief, life and practice. These two concepts might be labeled “context” and “conclusion”. They aren’t optional. Their absence critically depletes power from the gospel message and has (in my opinion) helped to create a world in which millions of people claim the name of Christ (call themselves “Christians”) but are not necessarily all that different from those around them who don’t care two bits about Jesus. Even those who are very sincere in their devotion to Christ struggle to understand how to read the Old Testament or apply a practical theology of sanctification or build effective evangelism and discipleship strategies in part because their gospel is very limited, focused only on personal salvation. If we view the gospel merely as the steps of a plan, resulting in a (typically highly emotional) moment of decision for Jesus, then we miss key elements of who Jesus is and what God is doing in our midst, and we weaken the power of “the gospel” to impact our daily lives.
The gospel is not a set of steps, it’s a story. Jesus is absolutely the lead character in that story. What Jesus did to save us (“salvation”) and how a person turns from their sin and throws them on the grace of God to appropriate it (“the plan of salvation”) are critical parts of the story. But these are elements of the story, not the story itself.
1) A salvation gospel lacks context
Jesus didn’t just come out of nowhere to become the Savior of the world. Nor ware His life and work a reaction to your sin (or mine). God’s plan to create a people for Himself “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) began long before your bad choices, and long before the manger in Bethlehem or the cross of Calvary. Before even the Garden of Eden, God planned to create for Himself a family of kings and priests. And that’s where the story of the gospel begins…
Before the ultimate beginning, there was only God. Perfectly satisfied and perfectly loving. Because love gives (by definition), God created the world and all that is in it. And what He created was good. Astoundingly, God then created human beings in His image to rule the world God owns as “underkings” and to mediate between God and His creation as “priests”. And the kingdom of Adam was born. But we rebelled, rejected God’s authority, and broke everything.
God then selected one man, Abraham, and promised that he would be the father of a great nation of kings and priests. Abraham’s grandson Jacob was renamed Israel, and the kingdom of Israel was born. God gave this nation His law and His word, settled His presence among them, worked astounding miracles, provided for their every need, and protected them against a hostile world. But despite all that, Israel’s descendants were no less wicked and idolatrous than were the descendants of Adam.
Eventually, God acquiesced to the peoples’ demands for a king (other than God). After demonstrating how bad an idea the whole thing was (in their first king, Saul), God appointed David (a man after His own heart) to the throne and the kingdom of David was born. Knowing it would continue to break bad, God promised David that from his descendants would one day come a Messiah, or “Chosen One,” who would reign forever in righteousness, peace and justice, as both priest and king … the way God designed the human race to live, but which no descendant of Adam had yet even approximated. Within a matter of years, however, the kings who should have been setting the example for the people instead were leading them to new heights of evil and idolatry. Eventually, the nation of Israel was destroyed, and God’s people scattered all over the earth. And for a time, it appeared that God had had enough.
Until one day a poor ordinary teenage peasant girl from an obscure village in the Middle East was chosen by God to miraculously bear a son named Jesus. But not just any son, but God clothed in human flesh. God Himself entered human history — retaining all of His God-ness, yet becoming fully human. This God-man Jesus “recapitulated” (relived the important moments of) the life of Adam and Israel and David (and others), facing over and over again the same choices they faced, but with one key difference … without sin. Where Adam had attempted to ascend God’s throne, Jesus emptied Himself of glory and descended to be a servant of all. Where Israel had turned to idolatry while wandering in the desert, Jesus turned to God’s Word and remained strong when tempted in the wilderness. Where Israel’s kings had been wicked and her priests had been blasphemous, Jesus was righteous and just and perfectly submissive before God. Where mankind under Adam had failed at living under God’s rule, Jesus succeeded gloriously in living human life as it was meant to be.
But the religious power brokers of the day hated the threat Jesus posed to their well-managed system of looking good rather than being godly … so they killed Him. And when Jesus died, He took with Him into the grave all the failure and destruction, consequences and death that was owed to Adam and his race (that’s you and me) as wages for their sin. But Jesus didn’t stay dead. Three days later, when He rose form the dead, He inaugurated a new humanity in a new kingdom … the firstborn from among the dead … the firstborn of the regenerated human race. And the Kingdom of Heaven was born.
Most people I know would view the story to this point as “optional back story”. Many Christians these days don’t even really think the Old Testament (where this story is told) is necessary or particularly nurturing to the Christian faith. That is so far from true!
The story of the Old Testament is the story of God’s plan for mankind. It’s the story of a kingdom gone wrong and of God’s restoring it. It’s the story of God’s great promises. It’s the early chapters of the story of God’s people, who are now called “the Church”. It’s where we came from and why we’re here. It’s the story that makes sense of the story of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the opening act(s) of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden, I can imagine their looking back to catch one last glimpse of paradise and the flaming sword that ensured they would never re-entered it. I bet they mourned bitterly. I can almost feel their shame and regret. Or when the people were forced to wander in the wilderness because they didn’t believe God would provide a place for them… Or when the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God were destroyed by the Babylonians… Or when good kings died at the hand of evil usurpers, who then rebuilt the pagan altars the good kings had torn down… Or when enemy armies invaded… Or when God’s people felt the crushing weight of yet another consequence of sin… Can’t you just hear the people crying out loud, “Woe to us! What shall we do? How will we ever get home? How will we ever find our way back to God?”
And this is not just the cry of the psalmist or the ancient Hebrew people, it’s the heart’s cry of every person in all of history who has looked at their lives or their world or up at the sky and realized that life isn’t what it is supposed to be.
They were right. And the story of Israel and of the Old Testament tells us why. When we arrive in history at the birth of Jesus, we have come to the fulfillment of millennia of promise, and a great turning point in the story … but not the story itself.
2) A salvation gospel lacks conclusion
Because of the life of Jesus (getting right what we couldn’t) and the death of Jesus (dying in our place) and the resurrection of Jesus (inaugurating the Kingdom of God), anyone who falls on the grace of God will have their sins erased (transferred to Jesus from our accounts) and receive righteousness from God (credited to us from Jesus’ account). This person is saved from death and enters into a new life. But neither these moments of realization, decision and commitment, nor the process of arriving at them in my personal life, are the gospel. This is just one chapter in the gospel story.
The Story of the Gospel starts with the God who created the world, climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, includes you (if you follow Christ), and results in the invasion of a new kingdom under the perfect rule of the Messiah, the long-awaited King.
We are in the second to last chapter of this story — what the Bible calls “the last days” (Hebrews 1:2, and many others). After His resurrection, Jesus met with many people, continued to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and then returned to His Father. He sits bodily in heaven today at the right hand of God, reigning over and building His Kingdom. What was inaugurated with His rebirth (the resurrection) as the smallest of all seeds is now working through the universe like yeast works its way through dough (Matthew 13:33). When we put to death our lives of sin and rebellion (with Jesus on the cross), we are reborn (with Jesus in resurrection), and God adopts us (with Jesus as sons) … legally transferring us from the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God (John 3:3; Colossians 1:13; Galatians 4:5).
But to live in this new kingdom means to accept the rule of a new King. To be a Christian means explicitly that you are no longer in charge. You no longer rule over or own your life. There is no sense in which Jesus is your savior unless He is also your absolute monarch. There is no hint of democracy in the Christian life. King Jesus is “the Messiah,” which means “the one chosen to be the ultimate prophet, priest and king.” Not just for the whole world, but for you and me personally. The gospel story extends far back into the past to setup the problematic of false kingdoms and false kings, moves forward through the saving work of Jesus and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth, draws into His kingdom through the ages all those who believe on and follow Jesus (from every corner of the earth and history), and culminates in the final regeneration of all things.
The final chapter is this consummation – when King Jesus returns to the earth in power, defeats every enemy with finality, defeats with finality all earthly kingdoms, regenerates even space, time and matter, and reigns over His people in righteousness forever.
Then comes the end, when Jesus delivers His Kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under His feet … that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
Arriving at a Definition
So, any definition of “the gospel” cannot be limited to a single decision or a single act in history, even the cross or the resurrection.
- The gospel is NOT about sin management. It’s certainly not about erasing your personal sin, so you can get out of jail free.
- The gospel is NOT about a moment of decision … a point in time when you pray a specific prayer or chant a specific incantation that cancels your sins. It’s certainly not a once-for-all moment that frees you up to nurture sin (as long as it’s well-hidden) for the rest of your life, while handily claiming the perseverance of the saints.
- The gospel is NOT fire insurance. You can’t go to heaven because you were wise enough at one point to buy insurance against hell, even if it seems like you’ve kept current on your premium payments.
- The gospel is NOT membership in a club. Nobody goes to heaven because they joined a great church, hang out with really godly people, and/or faithfully devote themselves to some daily, weekly, or annual rituals — even really good ones.
The gospel is the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. What was lost to us in history (after exile from the garden) but promised by God to someday become available again has finally come upon us in power! The long-awaited day has dawned. The long-awaited King has come. The long-awaited Kingdom has been inaugurated.
- The gospel isn’t about sin management, it’s about the death of an old life and the inauguration of a new one, right down to our physical bodies.
- The gospel isn’t about a moment of decision, it’s about the reign and authority of King Jesus, and hundreds of decisions every day.
- The gospel isn’t about escaping hell, it’s about desperation to be granted entrance into the Kingdom of God, because that’s where we long to be and what we long to be like, and because no cost would be too high if it meant we could be with God.
- The gospel isn’t about membership in an earthly club, it’s about citizenship in a heavenly kingdom and belonging in a heavenly family.
The gospel isn’t just that we are saved. It must include what we are saved from (the rebellious act of setting up our own kingdom), what we are saved to (God’s kingdom and rightful rule), and the context in which we were saved (redemptive history).
The gospel isn’t about me. It’s about the King-dominion of Jesus, and His perfecting for Himself a kingdom of underkings and priests. Amazingly, His grace extends that opportunity to us … to all who desire to be ruled by Him the way we were designed to be in the first place.
If I had to sum up the gospel in a single sentence, I’d steal John Ortberg’s definition…
It is now possible for ordinary people like you and me to live in the presence and under the authority of
the God of the Universe!
If we limit this message to a personal salvation decision by removing from it the history of God’s promise of a King and the coming of His Kingdom, then (as D. A. Carson puts it) “we will invariably promulgate an anemic and truncated gospel.” In this mode, we may tell a good story about the saving work of Jesus on the cross, but we are not telling the story of the apostolic gospel.
A “anemic and truncated gospel” devoid of the King-dominion of Jesus is a gospel that demands relatively little from us. It opens us up to a life of conflicted priorities, lukewarm commitment, or even outright sinful rebellion … even after having “believed the gospel” and “committed ourselves to Christ.” A “gospel” that equates to the plan of salvation or a single, personal moment in the story of redemptive history results in the drive toward a single transaction before a judge, not a lifetime of submitted followership before a King. And I contend, as is demonstrated in North American Christianity today, that this makes a world of difference.
The true gospel is about the power of God in conquering our lives, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven and the Spirit of God within them, so that when God regenerates all things and we are ushered into His presence, there will be no place we’d rather go or be. we’ll have no need to look back, no thought of regret in leaving something behind, no preconditions for admittance. We’ll rush to God. We’ll finally be home. And we’ll know it’s “home” because the whole story of the gospel has been pointing us (and all of mankind) toward it since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden.
The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! —Jesus, in Mark 1:15
Many thanks to Dr. D. A. Carson (left) and Dr. Scot McKnight (right), on whose insightful works I have leaned heavily in this brief and comparatively shallow discussion. If you wish to pursue this topic further, I recommend Dr. Carson’s brief essay “What is the Gospel? Revisited”, chapter 8 in For the Fame of God’s Name by Storm and Taylor (eds.), and Dr. McKnight’s excellent book, The King Jesus Gospel, as great starting points.