Just what is the Gospel?

As Christians we often talk about the gospel, but I’m increasingly aware that this is shorthand for some fuzzy notion of a collection of ideas.  It’s something involving Jesus, being saved from an otherwise horrible future, the cross and eternal life.  That fuzziness isn’t very helpful, though.  What I’ve done below, therefore is work through this question – briefly – and come up with a concise statement that I can remember when I need it.  It’s helped me bring clarity for my own sake.   Even so, I think it’s probably better to have a handful of Biblical definitions up your sleeve.

Why don’t you have a go at answering this question?

Let’s start with the meaning of the word gospel: it is simply “good news”. Why? Three reasons.

  1. Every instance of the words translated as gospel or good news in the NT has at its root the stem εὐαγγελι-. There is no exception at all.
  2. In English Bibles, the verb tends to be translated as good news and the noun as gospel. Whatever, good news and gospel are interchangeable, so gospel simply means good news.
  3. The good news is a message, therefore, not an act or a movement or anything else. The Good News is not Christians being nice, those who bring social action, or being available for pastoral care. Those are good things, and they may be the means by which we share the gospel, but they are not the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News and remains just that – a good message.

Let’s go back to the question, then: what is the gospel itself? Why is the news good? There is no singular answer because the Bible tells us the gospel in many ways. Here are two great examples:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44 NIV11)

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7 NIV11)

For me, with the constant grating and awareness of my own moral failings, these two bits of scripture speak to my heart about the joy of true treasure – Jesus, and the cleansing power of Jesus’ life, poured out to death, so that I can be made righteous before God. There are others, of course. Mark’s gospel is a gospel: that’s the title Mark uses for his biography of Jesus. Freedom from poverty and slavery are good news, because in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaims that he brings this. Isaiah 53 is the gospel, because Philip explained how this pointed to the good news of Jesus to the Ethopian eunuch (Acts 8). The eunuch, in turn believed and was baptised.

It’s worth spending time survey what the Bible says is the gospel -the good news.  What I found was that although the Bible tells the gospel in different ways, it seems that there are five essentials.  I take it these are as follows.

  • The gospel focuses precisely on Jesus Christ, rather than the church or love or God generally.
  • The gospel is about the astonishing and much-needed human restoration that only God is able to bring to deal with the effects of our sin. In my first two examples see how much change comes through the good news: total handover of the old life for the treasured new one; and rebirth and renewal leading to a new eternal life.
  • The gospel is cross-centred. In all four gospels, as Jesus moved through his ministry, there was clearly a sense of his coming hour. That was undeniably the glory of Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection from it.
  • The gospel is God’s declaration, in which we trust or don’t trust. Our lives follow, but our minds must first grasp this declaration – this proposition- and be renewed.
  • Because of those, the gospel can only be held by faith and trust, and not gained by good works. Good news comes from God, following God’s actions alone and cannot be earned; the gospel always comes to us.

The gospel is often much more than this, but never less than this.  And when we share the gospel, this is the basis of the good message that we are to share. If  it’s not this, it’s not the gospel.    So having done some workings, here’s my Gospel summary.

Humans have no right to any eternal life with God our creator, because it is our nature to ignore him and his goodness. Either we do that on purpose or – more often – because we’re just not bothered. In turn he has every right to respond in the same way. In fact he cannot ignore this otherwise there would be no eternal justice. That’s the bad news for us.

However, the divine Son of God, Jesus, became one of us and died painfully on the cross as one of us. He took the blame for our wilful ignorance of God. God did more than that, too. Jesus rose from the dead and promised that if we trust him, we have new eternal life, starting now. That’s the very good news of Jesus, in which and whom we are asked to trust.

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Leviticus

Sounds like a good name for a bike, no?  ‘Levi-‘ seems to relate to ‘levitate’, which must be the ultimate feeling on a bike, and the ‘-ticus’ gives it a Greco- style gravitas.   If I ever own a bike company it will either be called Leviticus, or at least one model will sport the name.   Given that there is already a bike firm called Genesis, then Exodus (also a good name, I think) and Leviticus can’t be too long in following.

Of course though, it’s the third Bible book.  Here’s an untrue statistic that might ring true: 84.3% of people who start to read the Bible from cover to cover, flounder and splutter out in Leviticus.  So this post here is just what you need: a short summary of Leviticus which is helpful and enlightening.  (Although I’m not sure I agree with the distinction of food laws.)

Effort and power

In our staff meeting this morning, we wrapped up our study of Phillipians by looking at the last chunk of Chapter 4.   Phillipians 4:13 is a famous verse: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’.  It’s commonly used amongst sportsmen and women, and it’s one of my favourite as a cyclist, not least because Pinarello named one of their bikes after the passage a few years ago.   It got me thinking about one of the most maddening things about cycling; you can go out one day and apply a given amount of effort, and ride powerfully.  A few days later, same route, same effort, same conditions, and the power seems to have evaporated.  Why?  The strength doesn’t always seem to be there.

Isn’t it the same in the Christian life?  As partners in the gospel with the Creator of the Universe (it’s like being asked by Steve Jobs if we could help him with creating the next iPhone, only better) we know that we are to put effort into His work, but that it is only His power that gives us strength and gets results.  It’s helpful to think about it that way, and avoid (1) the lazy trap of thinking that we need put no effort into God’s work, or (2) the megalomaniac trap of thinking that it’s our power that achieves things.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Cost of new Jerusalem’s new walls.

According to the specification laid out in Revelation 21 16-18 (here), the walls for the new Jerusalem are colossally expensive, almost beyond comprehension.  I’ve assumed:

– four walls of 1,400 miles (2253km) in length, with height and depth of 200 feet (61 metres).

– jasper density of 2.6 tonnes per cubic metres, and a cost of $20m per tonne.

The cost of the walls alone (excluding the City of gold, or any of the foundations) would therefore be $670 quadrillion.  If we assume that on any given day there is $8.3 trillion in circulation, then you would need to gather every single dollar in circulation every day for 221 years.  Just for the walls!

The QS is going to be busy in the new Jerusalem.

Passion for cycling vs passion for Jesus

Like many Christian cyclists I know, I often find that my passion for the sport is consuming.  Those of us that race will spend 10 hours or more a week training, just to keep up in the peleton/pack/gruppo (choose your continental cycling culture).   We will talk for years afterwards about cycling up near-mythical climbs, such as the Tourmalet, Gavia, Alpe D’Huez, or even the brutal early season slopes of the Koppenberg or Muur.  Thoughts of a near effortless ride as if there was no chain can often drift me into sleep, and I can’t be the only one. Few of us are ashamed to be associated with a cycling club.

However, we never seem to allow Jesus, who offers us more than these places ever could, to inspire quite such a passion.   I rarely think back to great services in the way I do to several great rides.  There’s a few moments to savour – mainly conferences – but for many, the Christian life lacks the passion shown in sport, or work.   Here, therefore is a great article, posted on Credenda|Agenda which finishes off with the pleasingly risque line: “it would be a sign of vitality if the church were more often mistaken for a lusty harlot than a shriveled spinster”.  Read it and be inspired.

Reading plan 2010

This is very much a Christian book list, and not a cycling one. I have no trouble whatsoever picking up a cycling book and reading it 🙂 This, therefore, is really a plan to get me through some books that have been piling up, unread, and gathering dust. Here’s my pop at a list, given the criteria I rustled up yesterday:

  • Introduction/overview apologetics: Mere Christianity C S Lewis; The God who is There Francis Schaeffer
  • Bible overview: Symphony of Scripture Mark Strom
  • Prayer: Our Father Richard Coekin
  • The Christian Life: The Ordinary Hero Tim Chester; How Long O Lord D A Carson
  • Doctrine: The Cross of Christ John Stott; Know the Truth Bruce Milne
  • Evangelism: Know and Tell the Gospel John Chapman
  • Church: 9 Marks Mark Dever
  • Christian Biography “Wesley and Men Who Followed” Iain Murray
  • Classics: The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter

What’s not there? Well if I was guaranteed to be a faster reader, then I’d add in one or two more historical classics. “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer very nearly made it (also recently purchased secondhand), and there’s not much on culture, or topical issues such as abortion or politics. It would be good to brush up on bible handling techniques, or have a month’s little project on improving my quiet times. There’s a good few books on this very helpful list that I’d like to look at – 100 great Christian books – but maybe next year. Nonetheless, here’s the plan in month order:

  • Mere Christianity CS Lewis (Jan)
  • Our Father (Feb)
  • Symphony of Scripture: Mark Strom (Mar)
  • The Cross of Christ – Stott (Apr)
  • Know and Tell the Gospel, John Chapman (May)
  • The Reformed Pastor (Jun)
  • The Ordinary Hero (Jul)
  • How Long O Lord? (Aug)
  • Know the Truth (Sep)
  • 9 Marks (Oct)
  • Wesley and Men Who Followed (Nov)
  • The God who is There (Dec)

I’ll endeavour to jot down some thoughts as I finish each book. In the meantime though, I’ve agreed to read another book with a Vicar from another church: the Shack. I’m half way through and really not sure what to make of it – some of it makes me want to say “come on, that’s just wrongheaded” and other bits genuinely seem to offer insight or remind me of God’s authority and breadth. I’m a third of the way though and need to finish it by next Monday.