What is the gospel? Some may wonder why I’ve started with such a simple question. Isn’t the gospel that we are justified by faith alone? Isn’t the gospel about personal salvation and faith in Jesus? Isn’t the gospel about how we can go to heaven when we die?
These are common answers to the question, but what if none of these are fully correct definitions of the gospel? What if these are true but minimize important aspects of the gospel needed to make disciples?
I want to contend that much of what we mean in evangelical Christianity by the word “gospel” is not how the word is actually used in the New Testament. Again, I’m not saying the emphases above are not true. They absolutely are! We are justified by faith alone; Jesus does give us personal salvation; and we will live forever with Jesus (in a resurrected body in a new heavens and earth). However, they cut short the full definition of the word “gospel” presented in Scripture.
Allow me to explain what I mean. We often use the term “gospel” to mean one of the following:
- Justification by faith – In this definition, the “good news” is that you don’t have to earn salvation.
- Personal salvation – In this definition, the good news is that you personally can be saved and escape punishment (usually by “inviting Jesus into your heart”).
- Going to Heaven – Here, the good news is that your soul can go to heaven when you die. (Though people unfortunately forget about the Bible’s teaching about bodily resurrection).
Now, some might respond with a possible fourth definition, much fuller than the other three presented, which is that the gospel is Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. This answer is absolutely true (1 Cor. 15:1-5), and it strikes at the heart of the gospel. Yet, even it must be understood in a larger theological context. Even the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus must be seen in light of the larger gospel theme of the kingdom of God.
HOW THE WORD “GOSPEL” IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Allow me to give just a few passages from the New Testament that show the above definitions of the gospel don’t work on their own:
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Galatians 3:8
What message was preached to Abraham in the Old Testament that Paul calls “the gospel” in this passage? Was it a message of personal salvation for Abraham? Was it a message of justification by faith? It is true that Abraham was justified by faith, but here the gospel message is that all the nations would be blessed by his seed and that “kings shall come from your own body” (Gen. 35:11).
“And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:9
What is the gospel according to this passage? Is it justification by faith? Is it personal salvation? I often like to tease my students and ask how many of them mention this woman’s story when they share the gospel with their neighbors. Jesus seems to think that her story will be proclaimed wherever the gospel is preached. Here the term “gospel” seems to be related to the entire ministry of Jesus and His program to renew the world.
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. Luke 9:6
In this passage, the disciples must preach the gospel, yet they didn’t preach justification by faith. They didn’t preach personal salvation. And, just to add a spark of controversy, the didn’t even preach about Jesus’ death and resurrection! They preached a message of the kingdom of God breaking into their current situation and demonstrated the kingdom coming by healing people and casting out demons. This is a message about the kingdom of God, and Jesus calls it “the gospel.”
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned . . . [his] conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. Galatians 2:11, 14
This is a fascinating passage because Paul had to rebuke Peter because he forgot the gospel. Now, what did Peter forget? Did he forget that Jesus saves people personally? Did he forget that Jesus died for our sins? No, he actually forgot that God’s kingdom is meant to go forth to all nations and that withdrawing from fellowship with Gentiles was tantamount to denying the gospel.
THEN WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?
We have seen some of the definitions above don’t work on their own with the way the New Testament uses the word “gospel.” So what is a better definition of the gospel? The way the gospel is described in the New Testament is a message about the kingdom of God. It is a message about how God is reestablishing His perfect rule (kingdom) over the cosmos and reconciling the world through Himself by defeating His enemies and reversing the effects of the fall through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son, King Jesus. To give the best definition of the gospel I can, allow me to quote G.K. Beale:
The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his Word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory. Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory.
Yes, justification by faith is true. Yes, Jesus saves individuals, and yes it is good that we don’t have to be condemned when we die. Yes, the gospel is absolutely the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Yes and amen to all these things. However, these must be related to the larger gospel message to make any sense and to truly preach the gospel the way the Bible does.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT FOR DISCIPLESHIP?
Discipleship flows from the gospel message. Until we teach this larger kingdom message, we will never make the kind of disciples we were meant to. In fact, the reason the church produces converts and not disciples is because we preach a gospel that produces converts and not disciples. We preach an individualistic gospel of justification by faith instead of a holistic gospel of God’s kingdom.
We often wonder why someone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus comes to church and reads his Bible but is also looking at porn and not serving the poor, not evangelizing his neighbor and divorcing his spouse, and not studying theology. We often wonder why someone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus can so easily separate their “spiritual” life from their “secular” life.
It is because we have preached a gospel that deals merely with personal salvation, so once someone is “saved,” there is not much else to think about. They “prayed the prayer,” and now it is “mission accomplished.” Yet, if we realized that the gospel is not just about our “spiritual” lives but about Christ redeeming everything that has gone wrong in the universe, it breaks down this sacred/secular divide.
Jesus isn’t just the “Lord of your heart.” He is the Lord of the universe. He is the Lord over your finances. He is the Lord over your sex life. He is the Lord over your marriage. He is the Lord over your hobbies. He is the Lord over your kids. He is the Lord over turtles, and chocolate, and electricity, and quasars, and grass, and everything that exists!
Before maturing disciples, we must teach the gospel in its fullness. A kingdom gospel will produce Kingdom citizens. May King Jesus give us grace as we seek to love and obey Him more.
This post originally appeared on the Gospel-Centered Discipleship website.