What is the Gospel?

Paul’s big concern for the Galatian church was that they risked being captured by a different Gospel.  The other day, I wrote something about this and observed that if we are to avoid falling for different, false Gospels, then we need to know what the true Gospel is.

Now, we might assume that the answer to the question is obvious.  Ask any Christian from a reformed, evangelical background and they are likely to give an answer along the following lines

“The Gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died on the Cross in our place, bearing the penalty of sin so that we can be forgiven.  He took our guilt on himself and in exchange gave us (credited/imputed) his righteousness so that we are now right with God, we are justified through faith.” 

Like I said, that sounds fairly straight forward and to be clear up front and to avoid mild peril, that’s pretty much how I would describe it too.  However, that working definition has been challenged from within Evangelicalism in recent years, particularly when it comes to what the New Testament and Paul mean by the word.  NT Weight says:

“I am comfortable with what people normally mean when they say “the gospel.”  I just don’t think that it is what Paul means. In other words, I’m not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.”[1]

Now, at first glance, we might think then that this doesn’t matter too much, it all sounds a little academic.  Wright isn’t saying that we shouldn’t preach what we call “the Gospel” as an evangelical he still believes in salvation and conversion. However, I want to suggest that it does matter. You see, whilst Wright is allowing us to continue saying and assuming certain things, he is in effect breaking the link between what we believe/say and what Scripture says. He seems, from all that I’ve read of Wright to do this without coming back to where in Scripture we would find those things.  When that happens, we risk moving to assuming certain things and the things we assume in this generation tend to be forgotten in the next.

That’s one good reason for challenging and questioning Wright but his approach to the word “Gospel” also matters as we seek to understand what Paul is saying in letters like Galatians.  It will affect our understanding of the danger that the Galatians were in and of what Paul means when he talks about things like faith, works and justification.

Wright says that:

“The ‘Gospel’ itself strictly speaking is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus.”[2]

It’s not that it has nothing to do with people getting saved, people do get saved as a result of it but that’s not what the message is. [3]  Now, it is worth observing at this point what Wright gets right because there is something important that he is on to here. It’s why I said that the description of the Gospel I suggested is “pretty much how I would put it” rather than “how I would put it.” In his response to John Piper on justification, Wright uses the example of someone who is convinced in a pre-Copernican kind of way that The Sun goes round the earth. Sometimes our presentations of the Gospel can give the impression that God orbits us when the truth is the opposite.  So, Wright has a healthy desire to see the Gospel become first and foremost about God again, to ensure that we proclaim Jesus.[4]  This good and healthy desire, in fact, reflects the Reformation desire to put the focus back on God as sovereign and supreme.

This means that the primary issue with human sin and why we need a saviour is not so much that we need help with the problems in our lives and nor even about getting our ticket to heaven in order to escape hell. Rather, the primary issue is that we are not worshipping God as we should.  However, it is still the case that primarily, the Gospel is about good news for us.  You see, if I do not worship God, then that’s not really a problem for him.  He’s still God, he’s still king, in fact there’s a sense in which I cannot help but glorify him, even in my rebellion.  But my attitude doesn’t matter too much, first because God has other options, he could have chosen to wipe us out and start again but he didn’t. Furthermore, God is not dependent upon us, he is, to use the theological term “A-Se”, he is self-existent, he has his life from within himself.

So whilst the Gospel is about God, it is also the Gospel, or good news for us.  It might be helpful to use an example from history. In fact, this is the one that Wright and others have tended to rely on.  Whenever a new Roman Emperor came on the scene, through birth or accession to the throne,  or whenever they won a great victory, this was announced as “good news” or “Gospel” in a declaration, heralded to the Empire.[5]

Yet, this begs the question as to  the declaration of the Emperor’s arrival, accession or victory was good news for.  To be sure, it was good news for the Emperor himself but obviously, the suggestion was that it was good news for others too and indeed not just for his armies or the inhabitants of Rome itself. Rather, it seems to have been seen as good news (gospel) for the entire Empire and indeed for the whole world, even beyond the Empire’s borders at that time.

So, why was it good news? Well, helpfully the example that Wright cites tells us.  The message was good news because the Emperor (in the specific example, Augustus) was a saviour who was bringing peace and ending wars.

Similarly, check out Isaiah 52:7, also cited by Wright as an example of Gospel. There the prophet says: How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
    who publishes salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Did you notice it there? Just like with the Roman Emperors (and long before they came on the scene), Scripture told us that Gospel or Good News is all to do with salvation.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the New Testament writers would be drawing far more upon the origins of the word in Isaiah than on what Roman Emperors had to say.

Therefore, whether implicit or explicit, the good news needs to tell us how it is good news for us and in effect how we come under it. Now at one level, the answer is that we do nothing, we believe in God’s grace to us. Jesus is the one who has won the victory and so we have nothing to add to that.  However, there is a response.  Just as Roman Citizens or the liberated people of Jerusalem benefited from the salvation of their rescuer/king/emperor by giving their loyalty to him, so too must we surrender our lives to king Jesus

Coming back to Galatians then, we would do well to observe how Paul is using the word “Gospel” in the letter. As we saw in the previous article, it becomes clear that Paul’s “Gospel” is not just a bare bones description of Jesus’ Kingship, an announcement of who he is and what he has done, it certainly involves that but it is more than that. Paul says:

“we know that a person is not justified[a] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”[6]

And then

“19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”[7]

In those verses, Paul shows that the Gospel involves an explanation of how we are included in it. Furthermore, it is also clear that it is this particular issue of our inclusion that is at stake when another Gospel is introduced.

To come back to our starting question, what is the Gospel?  As I said, my original definition was close to how I would put it but not quite. So, how would I phrase it?  Well, I’d suggest something along these lines.

“We have good news to share because God is eternal, sovereign and good. He is sovereign because he is without rival and he is good because he is love. This loving God created a good world and placed us in it to care for it, to love each other and most of all to love and glorify him. We have failed to do this, rebelling against God in sin, we have failed to love him with our whole being or our neighbours as ourselves.

 So, God in the person of Jesus came to deal with the problem of sin.  Jesus’ death on the Cross and resurrection means that he took our place, he lived an obedient life on our part and died in our place for our guilt. He bore the penalty for sin and so we are justified, declared right with God because in effect we died to ourselves with him and rise to new life with him.

The promise then is that if we repent from sin and believe in Christ, then we will be forgiven and Christ, through the Holy Spirit comes to indwell us. Believers are part of the Church, God’s new people and so are raised up to be able to fulfil their original purpose of caring for this world, loving each other and loving/glorifying God.  We can enjoy his presence with us now in this life and look forward to eternity with him too in his wonderful new creation.

[1] NT  Wright, What Saint Paul really said, 41.

[2] NT  Wright, What Saint Paul really said, 45.

[3] NT  Wright, What Saint Paul really said, 45.

[4] Tom Wright, Justification: God’s plan and Paul’s Vision, 3-9.

[5] NT Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 43.

[6] Galatians 2:16.

[7] Galatians 2:19-20.

%d bloggers like this: