The word “gospel” is an important word in Christianity; yet, surprisingly not every Christian packs the same ideas into this word. For some “gospel” is the name given to the first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For others “gospel” is anything that the preacher says that was convicting to us, that we think was supposed to be convicting to us, or that we think might have (or should have) been convicting for whoever we are talking to, so we say, “Boy he was really preaching the gospel this morning.” While for some, “gospel” is a word that we hear used a lot, and that we may even have figured out how to appropriately use a lot, but we often do not have any working definition of what the “gospel” actually is. To some this may not be a big deal. However, not being clear in our answer to the question, “What is the gospel?” is having profound negative effects on the church in general, resulting in a Christianity that one sociologist has said is actually “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”* Several Bible passages highlight the importance of getting the gospel right.
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’” (ESV).
Jesus commands His followers to believe in the gospel. He had something particular in mind when He commands this belief.
Mark 16.15, “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation’” (ESV).
Like the passage in Matthew, this passage assumes a particular content. When Jesus commanded His followers to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” He intended for them all to proclaim the same thing.
Romans 1.16, “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” (ESV).
It is the gospel, a particular thing, which is the power of God for salvation. If we proclaim something other than the gospel we are not proclaiming something that has the power to save and are putting people in danger of having false assurance, an assurance based on something or someone other than Jesus Christ and His work as taught in Scripture.
Galatians 1.6-9, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (ESV).
Yet again, the gospel is something specific. Paul’s sentiments are clear. If we proclaim another gospel, which is not actually a gospel, then we are to be accursed. Note that it is not the message that is to be accursed but the messenger. The old adage, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” will not cut it when the messenger gets the gospel wrong.
So, what is the gospel?
In the English Standard Version of the Bible, which is a relatively new but excellent translation of the Bible, the word “gospel” and all the cognates of that word translate a word or idea (in one place for clarity) that is directly related to the Greek word euaggelion (the transliterations of the Greek words are given in this article). There are three cognates of euaggelion used in the New Testament – euaggelion, euaggelizo, and euaggelistes. Euaggelion is the noun form and literally means good news. Euaggelizo is the verb form and literally means to proclaim good news. Euaggelistes is also a noun form that literally means evangelist, or one who proclaims good news. English words such as evangelist, evangelism, evangelize, evangelistic, and evangelical all come from this Greek root and are also used to translate these Greek words in places. A few other words that are used are “preach the good news,” “proclaim the good news,” and simply “preach. ”
As you can see, these Greek words all have to do with good news. The good news that is in view can be anything. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these same Greek words (with one other cognate) were often used to talk about messengers bringing news of military victory. There is even an instance in 2 Samuel 4.10 where the word is used of someone who thought they were binging “good news” when in fact they were not. There are even examples in ancient Greek literature of euaggelistes, from which we get the word evangelist, being used as titles of polytheistic priests and priestesses. Today however, most people think of an evangelist in a much more narrow sense than simply someone who brings good news. For example, if you said, “I met an evangelist today.” Almost everyone would understand “evangelist” as a person who preaches “the gospel,” such as Billy Graham.
In the New Testament the “evangelism/gospel” word group takes on a technical meaning because of the qualifying words that are used with it. The gospel is called the gospel of Christ, of His Son, of God, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of peace, of Jesus Christ, of the kingdom, and a few others. Further, Jesus and the apostles are said to have preached (the verb form of our evangelism word group) the word of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus and the resurrection, peace through Jesus Christ, etc. Finally, Paul writes, “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” (Romans 1.16, ESV).
So, the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news by which we are saved, that God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to earth in the form of a man in order to atone for the sins of His people by dying for their sins in their place, thereby giving His people peace by satisfying God’s holy wrath, and after having died Jesus rose again from the dead and ascended to heaven from where He reigns as King over His eternal Kingdom. Paul sums up the gospel this way. “Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you-unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received-that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15.1-4, ESV).
By contrast, it is important to note a few things that the gospel is not. The gospel is not a message of financial freedom. The gospel is not a message of marital bliss. The gospel is not a message of political and social liberation. The gospel is not a 12-step program. The gospel is not a message of national prosperity. The gospel is not a message of positive thinking. The gospel is not a message of self-improvement, self-satisfaction, or self-esteem. The gospel is not a means to worldly success. The gospel is not about living a life that is satisfied with tainted things of this world. The gospel is not about living your best life. Coffee, donuts, websites, cool buildings, or clever pastors do not improve the gospel. The gospel is not irrelevant to the unchurched.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus came to earth in the flesh, died for the sins of His people, rose again, and ascended into heaven. The gospel is the good news of Christ. The gospel is the good news of God!
All of this begs the question, “Why is this good news?” Quite simply because we all are sinners deserving eternal death and judgment as objects of the wrath of the almighty God, but God sent His Son to die in our place. Paul writes in Ephesians, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2.3-5, ESV).
In light of this we may also ask, “What is evangelism?” Evangelism is proclaiming the good news of Christ, that is it! Evangelism is not renting a billboard that says “JESUS;” that is renting a billboard. Evangelism is not leaving a fake twenty-dollar bill with John 3.16 printed on the back as your waitress’ tip; that is stiffing your waitress. In fact, no matter what we do, if we do not proclaim the good news of Jesus, then we are not doing evangelism. Evangelism is not yanking a person’s heartstrings until they pray with you; that is manipulation. Evangelism is not “saving” people; that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Evangelism is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
Know the gospel. Preach the gospel.
*Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2005).