What is the biblical gospel?

One would have thought that after all these centuries the church would have arrived at a consensus in answering that important question. This is not a question that is exclusively the topic for discussion among ivory tower theologians. It is a topic that concerns the eternal destiny of sinners. Mistakes here have devastating consequences.

There are, of course, those obvious departures from the biblical gospel such as those perpetuated by the Roman Catholic message. Such departures are bound to occur once a person, group or organization adopts a standard of authority other than the Word of God. This is true whether that standard be experience, feelings, tradition or something else altogether. The departures I am talking about are perhaps a bit more subtile but nonetheless devastating to the biblical message.

The term “gospel” itself is quite easy to define. It is simply God’s good news. The difficulty arises when one inquires about the content of this good news. The specific message to which I am referring in this article is defined by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He wrote,

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, 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. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15: 1-8).

Still, the specifics of this statement are a bit difficult to define. First, there are occasions when the New Testament writers used the term “gospel” to refer to messages that were not the New Testament gospel at all. For example, Paul wrote in Galatians 3:8, “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.'” In Hebrews 4:2, the writer tells us, “For good news [gospel] came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” The messages they heard were clearly messages of good news, but they cannot be identified with the message God has given us to proclaim.

Also, Paul does not elucidate in this statement what he means by “. . . .that Christ died for our sins. . . .” Does he merely mean Christ died to forgive our sins, or does he mean he died to deliver us from our sins altogether? I believe other passages make it clear he referred to the latter. Justification is not full-orbed “salvation.” It is only one aspect of that redemptive work Jesus has accomplished.

Before we consider the content and concern of that message, perhaps it would be helpful to consider the question negatively. There are several erroneous concepts we should dismiss out of hand. For example, the gospel is not “Jesus died for you. If you will only open your heart and let him come in, God will take you to heaven when you die.” You will search the New Testament Scriptures in vain to find any gospel preacher proclaiming such a message. This message is deficient at a number of points.

First, it makes the issue in salvation whether sinners will accept Jesus. In reality, the issue is whether he will accept sinners. That may sound strange to you if you were brought up in a modern evangelical church. You may have been led to believe that somehow God at least owes everyone a chance to be saved. Of course, he will accept sinners because that is his job. All sinners must do is give Jesus a chance. You may recall a situation recorded in John 2 in which many believed on Jesus because they had seen the miracles he had done, but Jesus did not commit himself to them. In other words, they accepted him, but he didn’t accept them.

Second, nowhere in the New Testament is a crowd of sinners told indiscriminately, “Jesus died for you.” The gospel is, “Jesus died for sinners.” By his sacrificial death, he has accomplished the salvation of the most guilty sinner who will believe God’s promise. The message is, “All things are now ready; come to the feast.” Sinners need not bring anything to him but their sins. As Horatius Bonar wrote, “That [my sin] is the only thing I can truly call my own.”

Third, the issue in gospel proclamation is not deliverance from hell and a free ticket to heaven when we die. Instead, its goal is to turn us sinners from our sins and turn us into worshippers of the sovereign of the universe. It intends to break us of our egocentricity and make us Theocentric in our focus. Forgiveness of sin is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. The goal of gospel proclamation is to make us bold worshippers of the living God. Listen to Paul’s description of “the circumcision,” i.e., the true people of God. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3).

It should, of course, go without saying that any message that suggests that belief in Christ will deliver us from material, physical, psychological, and relational difficulties is far removed from the biblical gospel.

Another erroneous concept is that the faith the gospel demands is a mere one time decision through which all our sins will be forgiven. A popular idea is that once sinners have registered their decision, justification is a done deal. It is as if once we get our ticket punched, we don’t need Jesus any more. The New Testament concept of faith is entirely different. The true believer is one who goes on trusting in Christ. Though he never becomes any more justified than he was the moment he first believed, if he truly belongs to the company of true believers, he will trust in Christ no less today than he did the moment he first believed. The question should not be “Have you trusted Christ?” but “Are you trusting Christ?” Those who fail to persevere in faith, never had true faith to begin with. True faith perseveres. The writer of the Hebrews expressed the nature of true believers this way, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Heb. 10:39). Notice, he does not say “had faith” but “have faith.” Faith doesn’t shrink back.

Please understand my point here. I am not suggesting that justification is progressive but that it is perpetual. That is, it does not gradually increase but it is ongoing. It is a judicial standing that has been objectively accomplished by Jesus’ redemptive work and is applied to the believer in union with Christ. It is not merely that I was declared righteous when I first believed, but that I now stand justified in God’s presence because of my union with Christ. On more than one occasion, Jesus made it clear to his disciples that faith is to be ongoing and that it is our responsibility to remain united to him by faith. In John 6:54, he described those who have eternal life as those who feed on his flesh and drink of his blood. This is an obvious reference to the believer’s appropriation of Jesus’ sacrificial death. He used the present tense of these verbs to describe this action. In Greek the tense of the verb is concerned not so much with the time of the action as it is with the kind of action in view. The present tense denotes continuing action. Thus, Jesus described an action that was to be ongoing. If your faith was merely a decision that occurred in the past, it wasn’t justifying faith. Similarly, he taught his disciples it was their responsibility to continue in their union with him by faith. In John 15:4 he said, “Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, neither can you, unless you remain in me.” He was not describing some super spiritual experience enjoyed by those who have dared to delve deeper into the Christian experience and become “Spiritual Christians.” He is describing the responsibility of every believer to go on believing in him. The good news for true believers is that not only is such perseverance in faith necessary, it is also certain. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints was never intended as a guarantee that all who ever walked an aisle or signed a decision card would be saved for eternity no matter what they do. Instead, it concerns the assurance that those who are true believers will persevere in faith unto the end.

Some have questioned whether this righteous standing must be maintained or is it an act that is now behind us. In the sense that nothing more needs to be accomplished to keep us justified for eternity, it needs no maintenance. In the sense that there is a current and continual application of Jesus’ finished work through faith, there is an ongoing maintenance of our standing before God. In reality, what must be maintained is not justification, but our union with Christ. In union with him through faith, we enjoy all the blessings of his redemptive accomplishments. His current and continuous ministry of intercession is simply the application of his redeeming work. It is not that justification must be maintained in the sense that each time a believer falls, something new must be done to restore his righteousness. It is simply that Christ continues to present the evidence of his finished work in God’s presence and thus maintains our standing before God in him. We are accepted in the beloved one.

We must be clear that faith lays hold of every benefit of Christ’s redeeming work, not merely the forensic aspects of that work. We are not justified because God accepts our faith in place of the righteousness he demands. Instead, we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight because by faith we are united to him who is righteous and has satisfied every demand of God’s holy law.

This union also applies Jesus’ death to sin to the believer. Paul wrote, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:10-11).
Because believers are “in Christ,” his death for sin has become our death to sin. This does not describe something we must do; it is a simple statement of fact in God’s reckoning. By faith, we are to account this to be true and act accordingly. We don’t act as we do because we feel like we are dead to sin because we believe God’s declaration that it is reality. This does not mean believers have no responsibility to obey God’s commandments. What it does mean is that any attempt to obey God apart from this reality will fail. It is cruel to tell slaves to stop acting like slaves, but to tell former slaves to act as freemen is an exhortation that is necessary to implement their freedom. Paul’s argument is, “Since you are no longer slaves, stop acting like slaves.” We don’t free ourselves by obeying; we obey because we are free. This is what Paul wrote,

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness (Rom. 6:11-13).

What, then, is the gospel? It is God’s published intent to completely restore to a right relationship and holy fellowship with him every sinner who believes and returns to him through the redeeming work of Christ. It is his gracious promise to welcome, pardon, restore, and crown with glory the most vile sinner who will return in saving faith. It is the message of mercy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, even the most despicable of sinners. It is the good news that it is God’s work from first to last. It is according to his plan, under his control, purchased by Jesus’ blood, applied by his effectual call, sustained by his Spirit and crowned by his grace.


3 Responses to “What is the biblical gospel?”

  1. November 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I have long used this definition of the gospel to define the gospel that has the power to save(that includes the issue of sin) v. the ‘sinless’ gosp[el that has not the power to save, but that does give a ‘macro’ view of the gospel manifested in works performed that glorify God. . It is necessary to confront one’s personal sinful condition in coming to Christ, not merely come to Christ to enhance/improve one’s lot in life. The gospel is manifested and shown by the works of believers, but even pagans perform some of the same works. The gospel that saves and that must be preached is a declaration of what God has done on the behalf of sinners.

    Good post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: