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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.