So how do we go about looking at the scriptures to work out what the gospel is? You would be surprised. Most of the books I read seemed to care little about deriving from scripture what the gospel is. Rather they just lay it down as they believe. Lets see what the scriptures say shall we?
Good news could be assumed to be anything. For example it could be;
- someone has won the lottery, or
- ‘Romans road to salvation’, or
- It could be a brand new car, or
- a cure for a sickness has been found, or
- a woman delivered a baby girl, or
- double imputation, or
- a friend has decided to forgive you, or
- someone has found their lost dog, or
- John 3.16, or
- some trial or punishment is over, or
- penal substitutionary atonement, or
- the exact opposite of the bad news.
The gospel could be anything! Anything you want it to be.
How do you know what the gospel is? What assumptions are you making? Can you show what the bible says the gospel is? Can your understanding of the gospel passages in scripture which refer to the gospel? Does it match the views of the early church?
Lets have a look at a few passages.
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.” (Lk 24.45-48)
Jesus relates his suffering and resurrection. He commands his followers to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. Is this passage the gospel? Maybe, maybe not. This passage doesn’t mention ‘gospel’. Does it say anything about the gospel? How do you know it says anything about the gospel?
What about this passage?
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3.16)
Jesus speaks about God’s love. God gave up his son so believers may have eternal life. It sounds really nice. But, is this passage the gospel? Once again this passage doesn’t mention ‘gospel’. Does it say anything about the gospel? How do you know it says anything about the gospel?
What about this passage?
15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1.15-16)
Paul says Jesus Christ came to save sinners. What a great verse. Yes he did come to save sinners. But, this passage doesn’t mention ‘gospel’. Does it say anything about the gospel? How do you know it says anything about the gospel?
Ive heard people base their understanding of what the gospel is on these and other passages a number of times. How can a person be sure the gospel is about these things when the passages they quote don’t even mention the word ‘gospel’?
How do we know some peoples understanding of the gospel is not governed by their own presuppositions or is a self fulfilling prophecy? They may tell us what the gospel is. We may assume the gospel is something.
But in the end a lot of people have no idea how to derive what the gospel is from scripture.
For our purposes I want to look at what the New Testament scriptures say the gospel is and what the apostles preached as the gospel. What do the scriptures say the gospel is?
To answer the question – ‘What is the gospel?’ I will approach the scriptures with a worked out Method.
Throughout the process I will seek to understand
the bare minimum elements of what makes something the gospel and
the ways in which the gospel is employed and used.
To distinguish concepts associated with the gospel I will use a set of predefined categories and an eschatological framework.
I will quote a number of significant passages and comment on how they shape what the New Testament is saying about the gospel.
What method would you use to work out from the scriptures what the gospel is?
Given the New Testament scriptures as a whole, how do I determine from scripture what the gospel is? Where do I look? How do I look? What do I look for? What assumptions will I make?
My method is the way I will approach the scriptures and the New Testament in particular. Stating upfront the method for approaching the scriptures and understanding the gospel is an important first step in verifying if it is really the biblical and historical gospel.
I try to start with a blank slate. The key word here is objectivity. If we really want to let go of our presuppositions and let the scriptures dictate to us what the gospel is we need to start with a blank slate.
(I recognise this is difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes its helpful to ask non-christians to look at the relevant texts and get their opinions. Reason being, they have not been influenced by years of teaching from churches telling them what to believe.
- They don’t care if they leave out various doctrines important to Christians.
- They don’t care if they think the emphasis is on one thing or another.
- They don’t care about being alienated by Christians if they believe something different.
Non-Christians can be more objective in reading the scriptures than Christians. At the end when I quote the significant verses associated with the gospel, that is something we could do. Give the list to some non-Christians and ask them, ‘Here are the most relevant texts, what do you think?’ sort of thing.)
My method will take us through these steps;
Step 1) Do a word search on the noun gospel in the New Testament and comment on repeated themes.
Lets just say for example the scriptures consisted of these passages (P1-10).
- P1) A, B, C
- P2) J, S
- P3) D, X, Y, Z
- P4) K, O, G
- P5) E, F, G, H
- P6) S, J,
- P7) G, X, Y, Z
- P8) A, G, X
- P9) I,
- P10) X, Y, Z
If we let G be the gospel, a word search would bring up P4, P5, P7, and P8 on the first pass. The other passages would be initially ignored.
We then look at themes associated with G. These would be K, O, X, Y, Z, and A.
Step 2) Look for definitions of the ‘gospel’ (from results of 1).
Using the example above, we would find the definition (P7) where it says;
G = X + Y + Z
So now we can discover that passages P3 and P10 are also the gospel on a second pass. The reason we believe these are the gospel is because of the definition G = X, Y, Z. The definition is therefore important for working out what the gospel is and looking for the gospel when it is not explicitly named.
I assume the gospel is some sort of proclaimed message, so…
Step 3) Look for examples describing someone proclaiming the gospel (from results of 1).
I assume the apostles proclaimed the gospel in some of their sermons in Acts, so…
Step 4) Look at the evangelistic sermons in Acts.
Likewise we can flag the sermons in Acts that are closest to the definition of the gospel. This will be quite helpful, because from this we can see how they apply the gospel in their preaching.
Step 1 should give us a broad look at all the themes associated with the gospel.
Step 2 should give us clear definitions and outlines of the gospel message.
Steps 3 & 4 should give us concrete examples of the gospel message and how to preach it.
Any good biblical arguments will always come down to a select group of passages which exert control and define boundaries over how we understand a given topic. So…
Step 5) Compile a list of significant passages and verses to give direction.
These steps together will help us piece together the answer to ‘What is the gospel?’
Bare Minimum Elements
Let me use an analogy.
We can all agree on what an airplane is, right? Wings, engines, has full flight capability. A fighter jet is a plane built specifically for speed and blowing things up. An airliner is a plane built specifically for moving people quickly and economically. They’re both still basically airplanes. But is a car just an airplane with the wings removed? Obviously, the answer is no. You’ve taken away so many aspects of what makes an airplane an airplane that you’ve turned it into something else.
The gospel could be a pretty fluid thing. But while the gospel is pretty malleable, it could be knocked all out of shape if you work hard enough at it. There’s a moment when you strip the wings and jet engine from your gospel, and it stops being an airplane and becomes a car.
You all followed that analogy, right? Okay, good, carry on.
What actually makes a gospel message a gospel message? What are the absolute bare minimum requirements of the gospel?
The gospel could be almost infinitely malleable. But while you can keep adding things to a gospel message and still (probably) have a gospel message.
There must be a point where subtracting elements leaves you without one.
Otherwise the words don’t mean anything. So what are these bare minimum elements?
Although each element we may find is important, the gospel may not have to have every single one of them to be a gospel message. Neither do all the elements have to be of equal intensity. But you do require a quorum of these elements and at least a few of them. Otherwise your airplane is just a car.
Will there be fringe cases that could go either way? Sure thing. But I think they’re going to be the minority because I am aiming squarely for a baseline definition of the gospel that makes sense with its history as well as pointing into the future of how we should be presenting the gospel.
As I work through my method I will describe what I see to be the prominent themes associated with the gospel. I have also attempted to categorise my findings with respect to three categories.
These categories are;
- The Background to the gospel message (What was the historical context of the gospel message?),
- The Common Form of the gospel message (What did they actually say when proclaiming the gospel? What is it common to each and unique to some? What is are the bare minimum components necessary?),
- The Application of the gospel message (For what purpose did the apostles use the gospel message? People assume the gospel is a method of persuasion designed to bring about conversion. Is this what the scriptures present?).
I have set up these categories to help us to distinguish between each. Throughout this series I will be taking special note of various themes and concepts. I will be assigning these to the relevant category.
The framework locates people according to various salvation events.
I name people who have not yet believed the gospel, who are not saved and who do not have a relationship with God – ‘Sinners’ (C1; e.g. Rom 5.8,19; 1 Tim 1.9,15; Heb 12.3; Jude 1.15). I do so because that is the name given them in the scriptures.
Saints on the other hand, do believe the gospel, are saved and have a relationship with God (C3). (e.g. Rom 1.7; 1 Cor 1.2; 2 Cor 1.1; Eph 1.1; Phil 1.1; Col 1.2; This article should give a good description of what the scriptures say regarding this issue.)
On the framework I have distinguished three different tenses – past, present and future with respect to the present state of saints.
Saints can look back into the past and remember their former states as ‘Sinners’ (C3 to C1) and their past tense salvation when they heard the gospel (C3 to C2). Saints can consider their current present state and relationship with Christ and the Spirit. Saints can also look forward to the future events of Christ’s second coming, end time judgment and resurrection.
As I work through my method I will impose this framework on the results where necessary. I make the following assumptions;
a) The biographies of Jesus and Acts describe historical situations where the gospel is mainly proclaimed to people who do not follow Jesus. We can locate these people in the C1, ‘sinner’ category above. We should expect references to the gospel will adopt a forward looking perspective (C1 to C2, etc) in these historical situations. Proclamations of the gospel in this context are to people who are not yet saved or have received any of the benefits and effects associated with believing the gospel.
b) The Epistles are written to existing saints. We locate these people in the C3 saints category above. We should expect the audiences being written to all know what the gospel is already. References to the gospel in the epistles we should expect to note their past experiences in hearing and believing the gospel. Therefore these passages should adopt a backward looking perspective (C3 to C2, etc). Reminders of the gospel will assume the audience are already saved and have received some of the effects and benefits associated with believing the gospel.
In the next post I will start to work through this method. Starting with step one.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2014. All Rights Reserved.