What is the Gospel? – 01 – Introduction and Book Survey

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“‘Gospel’ is one of those words that is so basic, so fundamental to Christian life that it can be taken for granted. It can become the term for just about anything at all in the Christian faith. ‘Gospel’ can become so full of the meaning I want to put into it that it can be emptied of meaning altogether. Like the word ‘love’ in popular music, ‘gospel’ can mean everything and nothing at the same time.” (Dickson, J. The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips)

What is the gospel? What did the apostles deliver as the gospel?

Today we begin a series on – What is the Gospel? The series will have several posts and it forms the biblical basis for my Gospel page.

The posts are as follows;

  1. Introduction and Book Survey
  2. Method, Categories and Framework
  3. Step 1 Gospel in the Gospels
  4. Step 1 Gospel in Acts and the Epistles
  5. Step 2 Look for Definitions of the Gospel
  6. Step 3 Look for examples of gospel proclamation
  7. Step 4 Look at the evangelistic sermons in Acts (Part 1)
  8. Step 4 Look at the evangelistic sermons in Acts (Part 2)
  9. Significant Passages that Shape the Gospel
  10. Synthesis and Conclusions

(If you want a quick and juicy overview I suggest you look at posts 1,2,5,9 and 10).

The Greek word euangelion was not invented by the gospel writers. It was already in use in the Roman world. It referred to an announcement of ‘glad tidings’ regarding a birthday, rise to power, or decree of the emperor heralding the fulfillment of hopes for peace and well being in all the world. (‘Gospel’, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words)


Books on the Gospel

There are lots of the books on the gospel. Here is a whirlwind tour of some of them.

Tom Wright

Book Wright What Saint Paul really saidTom Wright is a historian. He is also a narrative theologian. He defines his understanding of the gospel by quoting Romans 1.1-5;

Paul, a servant of Messiah Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures – the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David’s seed according to the flesh, and marked out as God’s Son in power, according to the spirit of holiness, through the resurrection of the dead, Jesus the Messiah our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name (Rom 1.1-5)

“God’s gospel concerning his Son. A message about God – the one true God, the God who inspired the prophets – consisting in a message about Jesus. A story – a true story – about a human life, death and resurrection through which the living God becomes king of the world. A message which had grasped Paul and, through his work, would mushroom out to all the nations.

That is Paul’s shorthand summary of what ‘the gospel’ actually is. It is not, then, a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved – Paul says as much a few verses later. But ‘the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus.” (Loc 720, Wright, T., What Saint Paul Really Said)

Here we see Tom Wright clearly distinguishing between the content of the gospel message (‘a narrative proclamation of King Jesus’) and the effects of believing the gospel message (‘results in people being saved’). Wright later released this youtube video.

His book caused a kerfuffle among the reformed today.

John Piper

Book Piper Future of JustificationJohn Piper wrote a response to Wright. Piper insists ‘justification by faith’ is communicated in every one of Paul’s gospel messages.

“Without at all insisting that Paul always announced the truth of justification in every gospel message,

I would still want to insist from Paul’s own words that his announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news in Paul’s preaching precisely

because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification.” (p90)

Piper also defines the gospel from 1 Cor 15.1-3.

“The closest Paul comes to a definition of his gospel seems to be 1 Corinthians 15.1-3:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.

Unfortunately he truncates the remainder of what Paul says the gospel is;

that he was buried,

that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and

that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15.4-5)

Trevin Wax (Gospel Coalition) tries to explain why Piper acted as he did.

“The real reason why, in Piper’s view, the doctrine of justification must be the very essence of the “gospel message” is because Wright’s definition (and I believe the apostles’ definition too) that “Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen for us, is the Lord of the world” is agreed on by Christians of all stripes.

If we define the gospel message this way, then Roman Catholics are right on the gospel.

For those in the Reformed camp, it is unthinkable that we would share common ground with the Roman Catholics (or the Eastern Orthodox for that matter) on the very essence of the gospel of Jesus’ lordship.

Out of necessity, Piper must bring justification into the center of the picture – otherwise, the ecumenical implications are too startling and controversial.” (Trevin Wax, The Future of Justification Series)

Roman Catholics

104 the popeSo what does the Roman Catholic church believe the gospel is?

“The first word common to the headings of our four Gospels is Euangelion, some meanings of which remain still to be set forth. The word, in the New Testament, has the specific meaning of “the good news of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15).

In that sense, which may be considered as primary from the Christian standpoint,

Euangelion denotes the good tidings of salvation announced to the world in connexion with Jesus Christ, and, in a more general way, the whole revelation of Redemption by Christ (cf. Matthew 9:35; 24:14; etc.; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 16:15; Acts 20:24; Romans 1:1, 9, 16; 10:16; etc.).

This was, of course, the sole meaning connected with the word, so long as no authentic record of the glad tidings of salvation by Christ had been drawn up. In point of fact, it remained the only one in use even after such written records had been for some time received in the Christian Church: as there could be but one Gospel, that is, but one revelation of salvation by Jesus Christ, so the several records of it were not regarded as several Gospels, but only as distinct accounts of one and the same Gospel.” (New Advent Encyclopedia, Gospel and Gospels)

They believe the gospel is the good news of salvation connected to Jesus Christ. They also refer to the ‘several records’ (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as the one and the same gospel. The Roman Catholic church must be wrong. Luther opposed this didn’t he?

Martin Luther

Book Luther Preface to RomansWhat did Luther believe is the gospel? Well Michael Bird quotes him saying;

“‘The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell …And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.’” (p77-78, Bird, M., Birds Eye View of Paul)

But for most protestants, Luther’s understanding of the gospel is better known by his interpretation of Romans 1-4.

“This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that everyone can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture. …

The first duty of a preacher of the Gospel is, through his revealing of the law and of sin, to rebuke and to turn into sin everything in life that does not have the Spirit and faith in Christ as its base. Thereby he will lead people to a recognition of their miserable condition, and thus they will become humble and yearn for help. …

Next St. Paul teaches the right way to be virtuous and to be saved; he says that they are all sinners, unable to glory in God. They must, however, be justified through faith in Christ, who has merited this for us by his blood and has become for us a mercy seat in the presence of God, who forgives us all our previous sins.” (Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans)

According to Luther Romans is the ‘purest gospel’. Luther is better known for promoting Romans as the gospel, not the story about Christ.

Gospel Coalition

Book GC Chapell What is the GospelThe Gospel Coalition (incl. John Piper, Don Carson, Tim Keller) have come out with their understanding of the gospel.

Chapell defines gospel somewhat as follows: “the message that God has…

  • (1) fulfilled his promise
  • (2) to send a Savior
  • (3) to rescue broken people,
  • (4) restore creation’s glory, and
  • (5) rule over all with compassion and justice.

He argues “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) is a good summary of the gospel.

Then Chapell breaks the gospel chapter into three parts:

  • What God requires, he provides;
  • What God provides, he perfects;
  • Whom God perfects, he uses.

The Gospel Coalition has issued a statement on what they think is the gospel.

The Gospel

We believe that the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ—God’s very wisdom. Utter folly to the world, even though it is the power of God to those who are being saved,

this good news is christological, centering on the cross and resurrection: the gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is: “Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised”).

This good news is biblical (his death and resurrection are according to the Scriptures),

theological and salvific (Christ died for our sins, to reconcile us to God),

historical (if the saving events did not happen, our faith is worthless, we are still in our sins, and we are to be pitied more than all others),

apostolic (the message was entrusted to and transmitted by the apostles, who were witnesses of these saving events), and

intensely personal (where it is received, believed, and held firmly, individual persons are saved).

Scot McKnight has said a few things in agreement and disagreement with their gospel (The Gospel of the Gospel Coalition, The Gospel of the Gospel Coalition 2)

Greg Gilbert

Book Gilbert What is the GospelGreg Gilbert has been endorsed by Don Carson of the Gospel Coalition. He follows Luther thinking Romans is the gospel.

Gilbert chooses Romans 1.16-4.5 to define the gospel.

‘One of the best places to start looking for a basic explanation of the gospel is Paul’s letter to the Romans. Perhaps more clearly than any other book of the Bible, Romans contains a deliberate, step-by-step expression of what Paul understood to be the good news.’ (p26)

He breaks down Romans 1-4 into four main points.

First, Paul tells his readers that it is God to whom they are accountable. (p28)

Second, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God. (p28)

Third, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation.

This becomes;

God. Man. Christ. Response.

I’m not a big fan of Gilbert’s book.

John Dickson

Book Dickson Promoting the GospelJohn Dickson is a historian like Tom Wright. He agrees with the early church on the gospel.

For him the gospel is both the narrative of Jesus and about salvation.

“The core theme of the gospel points us back to where this book began. In chapter 1 I asked: what is the single most important idea driving our mission to the world? I suggested that the answer has to do with monotheism (one God) or, more correctly, Christological monotheism – the lordship of the one true God through his messiah.” (Loc 1662, Dickson, J., The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips)

“The core content of the gospel is the work of God’s anointed king Jesus. Through his birth, miracles, teaching, death and resurrection God’s kingdom has been manifested (and will be consummated on his return.” (ibid, Loc 1680)

“There are really five parts to Paul’s summary (1 Cor 15.3-5) – this could easily provide a good modern outline of the gospel:

1. Jesus identity as the Christ

2. Jesus’ saving death

3. Jesus’ burial

4. Jesus’ resurrection

5. Jesus’ appearance to witnesses.” (ibid, Loc 1699)

“To flag where I am going with this: there is no such thing as a gospel presentation that does not recount (in broad terms, at least) the narrative of Jesus’ life.” (ibid, Loc 1774)

I highly recommend John Dickson’s book, The Best kept Secret of Christian Mission.

Michael Bird

Book Bird Birds eye view of PaulMichael Bird writes;

‘Some gospel presentations go like this:

1. God is holy.

2. Man is sinful.

3. The only way sinful man can stand before a holy God is if there is a mediator who stands in our place to remove our sin and is obedient to God in our stead.

4. The gospel declares to us that Jesus has perfectly fulfilled the law of God and his death has atoned for our sins.

5. Therefore, through faith in Jesus our sins are cancelled and his obedient life is counted as ours, so we can be at peace with a holy God.

The gospel is not an inference made from a deductive argument about God’s holiness and human sin. Such an approach is not so much wrong as it is deficient.” (p72, Bird, M. Bird’s-Eye View of Paul)

Bird takes aim at the typical reformed understanding of the gospel we’ve seen in Gilberts depiction.

“Instead, the gospel is the story of Jesus the Messiah,

his death and resurrection, and

faith and repentance towards him.” (ibid)

Like some others, Bird has described the gospel as the story of Jesus. In addition to the story he has included calls to faith and repentance towards him. He has based this addition on Acts 20.21.

Formerly of Brisbane School of Theology he spoke about the gospel in their Gospelizers Conference.

Scot McKnight

Book McKnight King Jesus GospelScot wrote a polemical book targeting the Romans understanding of the gospel. I’ve written a review on it.

This is a great book.

“The authentic apostolic gospel, the gospel Paul received and passed on and the one the Corinthians received, concerns these events in the life of Jesus:

that Christ died

that Christ was buried

that Christ was raised

and that Christ appeared.

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ.

Instead of ‘four spiritual laws’, which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four ‘events’ or ‘chapters’ in the life of Jesus.

We perhaps need to remind ourselves of something at the grassroots level: the word gospel was used in the world of Jews at the time of the apostles to announce something, to declare something as good news – the word euangelion always means good news.

‘To gospel’ is to herald, to proclaim, and to declare something about something. To put this together: the gospel is to announce good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ.

To gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.” (Loc 683, McKnight, S., The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited)

“So lets make this clear: salvation – robust salvation of God – is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament.” (Loc 723, ibid)

Scot has likewise released a youtube video.

And here is a copy of his talks at Tabor College, South Australia.

He has been criticised by the Gospel Coalition and interviewed by Michael Horton.

I found Wax’s ‘review’ a bit of a cop out really. The people who criticise McKnight like to make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. But they seem to think it’s wrong to make a distinction between the story of Jesus and the plan of salvation even when he backs up what he says from the scriptures.

Some Other Attempts

For some, the gospel is about falling plates

Others think the gospel is life in 6 words…

There are many people out there arguing about the gospel.

104 Surrounded by GospelThe gospel is the biblical high ground and bottleneck of Christian ministry. I say bottleneck because believe all evangelism and bible teaching should be based on the gospel. Therefore the way we understand the gospel shapes everything.

Sadly in some cases arguments over the gospel are a reflection of a grab for power and control over the masses.

104 Gospel high groundIn the next post I will start to outline a method for looking at the New Testament Scriptures to see what the scriptures say the gospel is.

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