What is “the gospel”?
We asked some African pastors the meaning of “the gospel”. They said, “The good news”. Technically, they were absolutely right. But we were more interested in hearing what they thought was required to receive eternal life. Then, in some recent reading, the topic of “the gospel” popped up repeatedly (as it should, I suspect, when reading “Christian” material!). David Platt, in his book Radical, says “We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel”. The back cover of Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel, asks this: “Have we embraced the whole gospel?” Plus, the support team of well-known speaker, someone with some “interesting” ideas about the Holy Spirit, said his campaign was simply a “gospel” presentation. The term “gospel” shows up repeatedly.
So, what is the gospel? Does it always mean the same thing?
I suspect when we hear or read the word, the first idea that pops in our head connects “gospel” with “what must I believe or do to receive eternal life”. I’ve concluded “gospel” is one of those words we often use, but we aren’t always clear about what we mean. And so we’re unintentionally fuzzy in our conversations about the gospel. Let’s get “unfuzzy”.
The basic meaning of “gospel” is, as the African pastors responded, “good news”. However, this “good news” often speaks of more than what we must believe for eternal life. True, it sometimes is a technical term with this meaning. But, in its broadest sense, the “gospel” refers to the full story of the person and work of Christ. Just as “salvation” has past, present, and future aspects, so too has “gospel”. It includes the past, present, and future aspects of our relationship with Him, based on His work on our behalf, and the past, present, and future work of God. The context must tell us whether the author is referring to the whole story or some part of the story.
Romans serves as one example where “gospel” means more than what I must believe to receive eternal life. In Romans 1:6-8 and 1:12-13, Paul calls his readers “called, beloved of God, saints, brethren”; he thanks God that their faith is being spoken of by others; and he says he longs to see them and be encouraged “each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (some translations use the words “mutual faith”). It seems clear in the introduction that Paul views the Roman readers as believers. It is to this believing audience that he says he is “eager to preach the gospel”! To believers??? He then goes on, in his magnum opus, to lay out the core truth of justification by faith alone, but so much more (just read Romans 6-8!). Thus, at least in this passage in Romans, “gospel” is much broader than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus or the requirements for justification. (Want a few more examples? Look at Mark 1:1, 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 2 Tim. 1:10, and 2 Tim. 2:8.)
Sometimes, then, “gospel” is much broader than the requirements for eternal life. When we read the New Testament, and we come across the word “gospel”, we need to think “the good news about Jesus Christ”. But we need to let the context tell us whether it refers to the whole story or some specific aspect of the gospel.
The “gospel of the kingdom” is one such specific aspect. The phrase itself occurs only four times (Matt. 4:23, 9:15, 24:14, and Luke 16:16), although other passages infer the idea (for example, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, Matt. 3:2). Both Jesus and John the Baptist declared to Israel that the promised King they were waiting for had arrived. Had Israel, as a whole, received Jesus as King, this promised form of the kingdom would have appeared. But she didn’t, she rejected Jesus (John 1:11), and the kingdom offer was deferred (Acts 1:6). Matthew 24 implies this “gospel of the kingdom” reappears at the end of the age, just prior to the physical return of Jesus. There is a yet-future kingdom on earth over which Jesus will reign, whether the new heavens and new earth (as some hold) or a kingdom on this earth before the new earth (as others, like me, hold). This message is still part of the gospel, the good news, but the “gospel of the kingdom” looks at a particular aspect of the gospel, pointing to some future time when Jesus returns. (On a side note – someone commented on another post that doctrine is a “hot topic” and is often divisive. However, we can’t avoid it. How one understands the doctrine of the kingdom influences how one understands this aspect of the gospel!)
The “gospel of your salvation” is another specific aspect:
13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13)
This is the aspect of the gospel most frequently thought of when we simply say “the gospel”. This is the message “for by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8-9) or “whosoever believes in Me shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This aspect of the gospel is necessary for someone to receive eternal life now, to enter into a relationship with Jesus, to be “justified” (declared “not guilty”, Rom. 5:1), to be ensured of an eternity in heaven (“and these whom He justified, He also glorified”, Romans 8:30b). This aspect of the gospel says, simply, we are “saved” by faith alone in Christ alone. Anything else is, as Paul calls it, a “different” (false) gospel!
So, what is the gospel? It depends! It is good news. It is good news about Jesus. If we mean, “what is the gospel that results in justification”, it is “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” If we mean, “what is the gospel as it relates to my life as a believer”, it might mean that Jesus ascended into heaven and gave each of us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to say “no” to sin, or it might mean that in Him we have the ability to be salt and light (in word and deed) in the world. If we mean, “what is the gospel related to the afterlife”, it is that we are guaranteed entrance into heaven because of Jesus’ completed work. If we mean “what is the gospel as it relates to the final outcome of this world”, it is that Jesus will one day physically reign on earth as prophesied in the Old Testament (the “gospel of the kingdom”) and that Satan will be bound. When we (or Paul, or…) preach “the gospel”, the message could well include the entire story, or we could limit ourselves to just part of the story. So, whenever we see the word “gospel”, think “good news”, but ask, “What aspect of the good news? Let’s get “unfuzzy” in our thinking!
 Our word “gospel” comes from two Greek words, euangelion (euaggelion) and euangelizo (euaggelizw). The first, a noun, means, “good news” and the second, a verb, means “to communicate good news about something”. Roughly half the time, this verb is translated simply with some form of “to preach”; the other half, it includes the phrase “good news” or “gospel”, as in “preach the gospel”. The two words show up 130 times in the Greek, and the word “gospel” shows up about 100 times in the English, depending on the translation. The word “gospel”, often has a descriptor attached to it, such as the gospel: of the kingdom, of Christ, of Jesus Christ, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His Son, of the glory of Christ, of God, of the blessed God, of the grace of God, of your salvation, of peace, etc. It most frequently stands alone (about 60% of the time).