What is the gospel?

Back at seminary I remember being powerfully struck by these words from one of my NT professors Don Carson, “The greatest danger of evangelical Christianity today is not an outright denial of the gospel, but rather the sloppy assumption of it.” In every age it is of utmost importance that we clearly understand what the gospel is. I find it helpful to think of it under the following three headings:

1. The gospel event

In 1 Corinthians 15:1 the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians saying, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand…” Then he proceeds to unpack precisely what this good news announcement consists of:

V 3 – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

Whatever else we say about the gospel, here is the very epicentre – The historic death of Jesus Christ for our sins and his resurrection. 

2. The gospel accomplishments

What does Paul mean when he says, Christ died for our sins? Or another way to ask this question is to ask, what did this historic death and resurrection of Jesus accomplish? Though we could outline several gospel accomplishments, here are four main categories:  

Forgiveness – Romans 6:6 – We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

Reconciliation – 2 Cor 5:18 – All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself

Adoption – Galatians 4:4-5 – But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

New creation – 2 Corinthians 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 

All these gospel accomplishments are experienced by means of union with Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 we read, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” If we are truly united to Jesus by faith, if we are in Christ then all these blessings are ours.

3. The gospel shaped life

The New Testament speaks of the gospel not just as a message by which we are saved but as a message by which we live. The gospel says something and does something. It speaks the truth (gospel doctrine above), but it also creates beauty in human relationships through gospel shaped living. 

As Ray Ortlund has said so well, “The vertical glories come down and spread out horizontally.” 

If we fail to emphasise this lived out dimension to the gospel, we will end up with churches that are orthodox in doctrine but pretty graceless in their culture. The gospel is supposed to create a whole new culture in our churches where we don’t just speak the gospel, we embody it. In Philippians 1:27 Paul urges his hearers to let the manner of their lives be consistent with the gospel of Christ and then proceeds to show what he means:

Phil 2:1-11 – Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

See how we are clearly called to embody the gospel shaped life in our relationships with others. Here are some other ways the New Testament calls us to embody the gospel in our lives:

Forgiveness: Eph 4:32 – Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Love: Eph 5:1-2 – Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…

Welcoming one another: Rom 15:7 – Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. This is a positive welcome. We move towards.

Dealing with injustice: 1 Pet 2:23 – When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Marital love – Eph 5:22-33 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Notice how in each instance the gospel gives us the template for how we are to treat one another in community. We think of how we’ve been forgiven and loved by God in Christ, and we extend that same kind of forgiveness and love to others. The gospel not only saves us, it shapes us. 

Considering this, in our churches we need to be intentional about cultivating the relational beauty that the gospel calls for. This relational beauty is not an afterthought, it is what the gospel is driving towards. 

So, what is the gospel? It is a good news announcement centred on the historical person and the historical event of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is good news because of the accomplishments of that event, forgiveness of sin and righteousness enjoyed in Christ. It is a message by which we are saved and a message by which we live. United with Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we live all of our lives to the glory of the God.