What is the Gospel?

I have resisted getting into this because I keep telling myself, “This is not what you do here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.”  Normally, I don’t engage in theological discussions, particularly those that are the equivalent of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.  But, today I can’t help myself because some discussion is taking place around the interwebs about “what is the gospel?”

A couple of new books that seek to define the word “gospel” are out, which no one has asked me to review, so I’ll just let those go unmentioned.  But, I do want to weigh in on the question, “What is the Gospel?”  Because, generally, I haven’t found a response that satisfies me, or gets at what I think “good news” is, or was, for those who first heard the words of Jesus in Mark 1:14-15 —

14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Okay, so there it is, the first mention of “good news” or as we call it now, the “gospel.”  What would have been good news to the first century Jews of Jesus’s day?  What would have been good news to those to whom Jesus spoke?  What was the bad news they needed to repent from, and turn to believe the good news?

What The Gospel Is Not

Okay, let’s start with what the gospel is not because that’s always a good place to start.  The gospel was not, and is not, the Four Spiritual Laws. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws, but that is not the gospel.  Why?  Because the whole deal, from Law #1 — God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. — is too individualistic, too personal, and not addressed to the community that was Israel, God’s people.  Jesus came to the Jews first, so the good news had to be good news for them before it was good news for individualistic, 21st century Americans who believe that everything is about us — or more precisely, me.

Secondly, the gospel is not Jesus died on the cross.  Nor is it that he was raised from the dead. Both of those events are part of God’s salvific work, but they are not, in and of themselves, the gospel.  But, here’s a disclaimer — both the cross and the empty tomb are expressions of the gospel.  Remember that because it will make sense pretty soon.

Criteria for Good News

If the word we know as “gospel” — from the Greek euangelion — means good news then it had to be good news for those who heard it.  And the good news itself had to have meaning for the Jews for whom it was intended first.  Paul, of course, carries the good news to the Gentiles later, but first the message was to the Jews.

Secondly, good news had to be something they did not expect, or had given up on, because Jesus tells them to “repent” — change their way of thinking and acting — and believe it.

Two criteria then:  good news had to have meaning and it had to be the opposite of what they expected or were living.

The Situation Into Which Good News Came

The situation in first century Judea was no secret, and that’s obvious, but important to our discussion.  The Jews were in a period of “captivity” or “exile” in their own land.  The Roman Empire’s legions occupied the city of Jerusalem with Antonio’s fortress right beside Herod’s Temple in the city.

The Roman occupation was cause for anxiety, and attempts to liberate themselves from Rome had failed, but were still being planned by Zealots, among others.  Good news would have been that God delivered his people from “bondage” just as God had done in the Exodus experience.  Good news would have been that God heard the cries of his people, just as he did in Egypt.

Many arose, the Bible tells us,  who claimed to be “messiahs” — those who would lead the Jews to victory and freedom.  All were proven to be false messiahs, and their movements were crushed by a collusion between Rome and the Jewish leaders.  But the Jewish people still longed for freedom.

The Good News Is Simple

In light of the first century situation, here’s my definition of the gospel, or the good news brought by Jesus:  God keeps His promises.

I take my definition of the good news, the gospel, from Acts 13:32-33a —

32“We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.”

There it is, simple, straight-forward, and precise.  Paul could not be more clear — “We tell you the good news:  What God promised…he has fulfilled.”  In other words, “God keeps His promises.”

When Jesus proclaimed, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” he was saying three things:

  1. The time is right, and the kingdom of God is coming, which is a new thing;
  2. Repent — change what you believe about your situation, change what you believe about God’s abandoning you, change what you believe about what God is going to do for his people;
  3. Believe the good news (which is “God keeps his promises.”)

Of course, the primary promise God kept was to send the messiah to the Jews.  Paul outlines that in Acts 13:23 —

23“From this man’s (David’s) descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.”

There it is, again — “as he promised.”  God keeps His promises. That definition of the gospel fits our criteria.  The Jews would have understood it, and it was somewhat unexpected, which is why they had to repent.

As a matter of fact, Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 is one of the best examples of presenting the “good news” to anybody, especially non-Jews who knew nothing of God’s history with Israel.  Paul is preaching to a Gentile audience, but he makes the case that God had promised the messiah to the Jews, that Jesus’s resurrection was God’s way of validating Jesus as that messiah, and that God kept the promise he made to Israel long ago.

That’s it, I think — the definition of the gospel, or the good news is God keeps His promises. Of course, as I said earlier, the cross and the empty tomb are expressions of God’s promises being fulfilled.  And so are the life and ministry of Jesus, the miracles, his teaching, and all of the ways in which Jesus was “God with us.”

What do you think?  Do you like the idea of good news being  “God keeps his promises?”  Or does that not work for you?  I’d be interested in what you think because I believe the message that “God keeps his promises” would also resonate in this generation.

23 thoughts on “What is the Gospel?”

  1. Yes! You hit the proverbial nail on the head with this definition. Thank you pastor for keeping it simple. I agree.

  2. I love what you say and find it cool to pair down the good news to the fulfillment of God’s promise. But I wonder: if Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), how would that be a fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel that they would be freed from their physical bondage? I do think Jesus, spiritually speaking, brought a release from the bondage of sin–but is that the freedom Jesus speaks of and what he hopes will turn the minds of the Jews from an earthly expectation into a divine one?

    On a more practical level, I do believe we can be transformed into persons that free others from an earthly bondage–a bondage in which sin shackles one’s faith and situation in life. Is this your point?

  3. I think you’re absolutely right about God always keeping his promises, and that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are “in accordance with the Scriptures” as a fulfillment of God’s OT promises. I think your definition would fall short of being good news to all because God promises judgment for unredeemed sinners, he will keep that promise and those who suffer because God always keeps his promises will not see it as good news. In fact, it isn’t good news for them. I think Paul’s definition to the Corinthians is as simple as the gospel can get – life, death and resurrection of Jesus in accordance with the Scriptures. Great point, btw, about not confusing the gospel with our response to it, like the four spiritual laws.

  4. I don’t disagree with you regarding your definition of the gospel that was expressed in Mark 1.

    Yet, you say that Jesus dying and rising again are not the gospel. What do you do with 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; (2) By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. (3) For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; (4) And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

    Paul says the gospel that he preached was that Jesus died for our sins and that he was buried and rose again. According to this passage. The gospel IS that Jesus died and rose again.

    I’m not looking to create a theological debate, just curious on your thoughts.

  5. I would respectfully add – Now, walk out the “good news” as if it has meaning in your life.

    Too many of us want to say, I have been saved. Saved? Saved from what?

    It is not – saved from… it is saved to…

    To become His witnesses as the Holy Spirit has empowered you (Acts 1:8)

    Not to brag that you know, but that you show what the gospel has done in your life.

  6. I gree with what you said, but the gospel can not be said in just one simple sentence. The good news is that God kept his promise by sending his son Jesus to die for our sins on the cross(the ultimal sacrifice for our sins), and like you said to validate it, Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus resurection is what empower us to continue.

  7. Hey Chuck! Thanks for the thought-provoking sermon. I am more inclined toward the 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 interpretation. While it is true that “God keeps His promises,” that information wasn’t enough…we had to know what the promise was, for it to mean anything to us. And to me the Gospel means the “Good News” that God has provided a Savior, and that is Jesus Christ; that He came from God, lived an earthly life, was crucified – dead and buried. And then He rose and ascended to the Father! And the Good News continued when He sent the Holy Spirit to remain with us and in us. If all I knew of God was that He keeps His promises – well, it wouldn’t mean much to me if I didn’t understand how He did it – and he did it through Christ, because the prophets, judges, kings, etc., could not…they were part of it…but Christ was the real deal!

    I’m enjoying the conversation!


  8. Jimmy, thanks for your always encouraging comments. Good to hear from you, again.

    Bo, you make a good point, and obviously I was not clear enough. I agree with you that Jesus did not come to build an earthly kingdom, which was a disappointment to his followers and others. But my point was that “good news” to the Jews of the 1st century would have been deliverance from the Roman occupation, which (and here’s where I didn’t connect the dots well) which the messiah (in their minds) would have brought about. So, the good news for them is that “God kept his promise” and sent the messiah, but with a twist they did not expect. Thanks for helping me be more clear on this point.

    Darby, yes, God’s promises aren’t necessarily good news to all, and neither were Jesus’ comments to the Pharisees, et al, who failed or refused to hear and understand. So, the good news is only good if you “repent and believe” it. That’s when it truly becomes good news. For the Jews who missed the significance of Jesus, his life was not good news to them, or even the fulfillment of God’s promises.

    Paul, I’m not disagreeing that the good news contains the story of Jesus, but I am saying that the “good news” — the gospel — begins first with the belief that God kept the promises he made to Israel by sending Jesus as the messiah. Then, all the other falls into place. And, I believe that there is no difference in the way “good news” is used by Jesus and Paul. To make that separation is to change the continuing story of God acting from Genesis through Revelation to create mankind, call Abraham, build God’s people into a nation, continue to call them back to Himself even after their many failures to be faithful, and to finally send Jesus as the messiah. All of this is part of God keeping his promises to Israel first, and then by extension to all who follow Jesus. Just to make my point — try to substitute in Mark 1 where Jesus says “repent and believe the good news” the phrase from 1 Cor 15 — “repent and believe that Christ died, was buried, and rose again.” It doesn’t make any sense because they would have had no way to understand what the future for Jesus held. But, substitute “repent and believe that God keeps his promises” and it makes perfect sense to the 1st century Jews. I don’t disagree that part of the promise keeping is in what the promise produced — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — but the good news to the Jews (and to the Gentiles in Acts 13) is God keeps (or kept) his promise to send the messiah.

    Johnny, I agree that the promise, as I said in the previous paragraph includes the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, for Mark 1 to make sense to the Jews of the 1st century, who did not share our historical vantage point, the good news had to do with God and his relationship to Israel. The good news was that God had not abandoned them, had not forgotten them, and that God kept his promise by sending the messiah who was Jesus (who would live, die, and rise again).

    Kim, good to hear from you. I think I’ve responded to your comment in the two paragraphs above, so no need to repeat myself which I do too much anyway. How’s the CPE going?

  9. Sherwood, didn’t mean to skip you, and thanks for your comments. Yes, and I think that is what Jesus meant when he called for his hearers to “repent and believe the good news.” Repentance involves changing the way we think and act, as you have pointed out. Jesus never preached an easy-believism which was only intellectual concurrence. His was a “doing repentance” that called for us to live out the implications of the newly revealed kingdom of God by practicing Kingdom values. Good point, and thanks.

  10. unsubscribe…

    “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this GOSPEL you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” 1 Cor 15:1-4

    For a great exposition of the gospel see D.A. Carson here: http://www.thespurgeonfellowship.org/Downloads/feature_Sp08.pdf

    And to address Sherwood’s point briefly, it is about being saved FROM:
    “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:9

    1. Oh, listen up, I understand the wrath of God, but let me share with you what 35 years of walking with Him, allowing His word to direct my steps, have proven to be – in fact, in reality.

      It means that on every step I take, every word I speak, I am confessing Christ to the world and what troubles me more than anything, is watching people go to church regularly and come away, unchanged. I know that desperation. It was my life for the first almost 45 years.

      Want to quote scriptures? I can quote scriptures, but I can also share in the life of my prisoner friend who faces the fact the State wants to kill him and when I plead the scriptures with the authorities – many professing Christians, they do not want to hear me. We have no problems, we both know for certain of his future life, but they are still laying the death sentence on others because that is what the Bible says – the old “eye for an eye” dictum. I show them what the Bible says in Hebrews 1 and all I get is a shrug and an excuse that the “visiting” hours are over.

      This is not for a theological discussion, it is Real Life 101

  11. Brian, sorry to see you go, but if you avoid everyone with whom you disagree, you’re going to be in a very small circle. Read the context of I Cor 15 — Paul is responding to the problem that some are saying there is not a resurrection. So, it is not surprising that the resurrection comes front and center there.

    Also, in Acts 13, Pauls says, “32“We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” So, there is the resurrection, again. The resurrection was God’s validation that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. So, God fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah when he sent Jesus and God confirmed Jesus’s Messiahship by raising Jesus from the dead. In other words, Paul is saying “God kept his promise to send the Messiah.”

    I’m amazed that you take one passage, which does not contradict my position at all, and ignore an even clearer passage in Acts 13 from Paul, who was the author of 1 Corinthians. Do you think Paul changed his mind about what the gospel was? Do you think Luke got Paul’s words wrong? Because if you’re going to reject my argument, you’ve got to reconcile the Acts and 1 Corinthians passages. To ignore the Acts passage because it doesn’t fit your post-resurrection viewpoint is to miss the grand story of God at work among his people down through the generations. It’s also to miss the only meaning of “good news” that would have made sense to the first century Jews. But, to each his own and thanks for your comment.

  12. One more comment: the link that Brian shared to the Spurgeon Fellowship’s article by D. A. Carson on the gospel is very good. Carson takes the 1 Cor 15 passage and builds a strong and valid argument for the pervasiveness of the “good news” in the life of the early church. He also addresses some short-comings of contemporary definitions of the gospel as inadequate. I would not disagree with anything Carson says, nor do I think that what Carson says disputes my definition of the gospel as “God keeps his promises” with the biggest promise being God sent Jesus as Messiah. So, thanks, Brian for sharing that, and I hope you’ll come back soon.

  13. The gospel of God is the explanation of the correct reason for Jesus’ crucifixion, but as Jesus said “only a few find it”.
    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous”. Rom. 2:13
    The only purpose for Jesus’ crucifixion was for the base fact to be in place of taking a man’s life by bloodshed so that the reasonable reason was established to make an addition to God’s law according to God’s set purpose for each man.
    “And for Your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man too I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.”
    Jesus upon his ascension into the true sanctuary of his God has added a Word to the law. Therefore the only Way the this law can be obeyed is by the faith of confessing directly to God that you are sorry Jesus’ life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified and be baptized into this Way. For if not you will disobey a law for which no forgiveness is possible.

  14. Pastor – I’m not a theologian, as you know, and I have not consulted an authority on this, but I’d like to contribute a thought. Could a finer point be made by stating the good news as, “God keeps his promise to redeem mankind?” This would seem to cover all of the biblical account and include the important reconciliation fulfillment (discussed earlier at this site) from the promise of the second Adam’s bruised heel in Genesis to the prophets’ foretelling of a Messiah. By redemption through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, we may, by faith, escape Divine wrath but also bondage from sin, the law and ultimate death. Furthermore, I would think the dispensation of grace as the means of salvation is also inferred in the good news proclamation. But it makes sense to me that the redemption concept additionally includes, as you describe, the coming of God’s kingdom that would manifest itself, perhaps as a prelude, with the highest moral system ever devised for men: sacrificial love for neighbors, and love for enemies also. And this higher, more enlightened way of living, as expounded upon by the apostles regarding individuals, families and other earthly authorities, brings humanity back toward God’s character and allows abundant life. I do think this articulation would resonate, if postmodern notions of truth could be pierced (by drawing of the Holy Spirit). Les

  15. Les, I think you summed it up very well and covered all the bases. Well said. In my attempt at a memorable phrase — “God keeps His promises” — I may have created an inadequate impression of the redemptive activity of God toward His people. I like what you’re saying — “God keeps His promise to redeem mankind.” I also like your expansion on what that means and encompasses. Good insightful comment and thanks.

  16. I hate to press on with this love fest of believers, but I believe we are missing out on this point – that it is Christ in us, that is our hope of glory.

    Note, Christ in us, not our interpretations of the scripture. They may be the foundations on which we have created our beliefs, but how does that resonate with our need to reach a tiring generation, tiring because they have read of – or realized, OUR sins and tend to walk away, searching for another Savior.

    It is time to get very honest with ourselves and the greater need, to get real with the people we meet every day, in so many ways.

  17. To add into this thought. First Chuck, I like where your thought is going! I think the idea of God keeps his promises truly offers hope to all. That really is good news, knowing that the creator of the world, who loves us dearly, keeps the promises He’s made to us. Great summary statement of the gospel as it embodies the promises of God, one of which includes the death and resurrection of Christ, the lamb slain for our sins.

    To add a side thought to this. I have reflected often on the idea of what was the gospel Jesus brought, how did it compare to what we perceive the gospel to be now. Jesus taught simply “The Kingdom of God is here.” This was his gospel, his message for all. Interesting, God’s kingdom embodies his promises. More so his kingdom here, God’s promises are here now, accessible to all. I think we are too willing to point to the gospel as the 4 spiritual laws (which I think are bunk because they are focused on individuality not community) and Christ’s death/ressurection. Yes good news/gospel however this is not what Jesus taught. His hope for all was God’s kingdom. Why else would he in teaching us to pray, start with a plea for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It was his central message. As Christ followers, we need to focus on Christ and what he brought, not on the 2nd hand message of others. After all it is through Jesus, his life and message we find our salvation, and subsequently our life.

    1. Gracejunkie, thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree. The Kingdom of God is the fulfillment of God’s promises, and Jesus inaugurated that Kingdom, and announced its presence. The Kingdom is also God with God’s people, embodied in Jesus first, then the presence of the Holy Spirit. But you also picked up on my point that the fact that “God keeps his promises” is a very appealing statement. This presents God not as the harsh judge, but as the seeking God I believe he is. Of course, there are consequences for ignoring God, or acting against God, but the winsomeness of God keeps his promises has the potential to draw people to the God who is seeking them. Thanks for your thoughts!

  18. Oh my my brother I love u, I thought u had it right until you actually explained what it is. In all fairness after more than fifteen years of being a Christian I just found out what the gospel is. I am gonna be posting what it is on our website. Currently I had what most Christians think it is but in a few hours I will have it up. Check us out: http://www.thegreatearthquake.com.

  19. The great earthquake? Excuse me, but what does that have to do with Christianity?

    In the meantime, such thoughts are merely speculation, whereas the next person who crosses our path is in need of salvation.

    I keep repeating, we are called to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8) and I do not believe that He spent much time, talking about earthquake.

    Let’s stay on message – or as a dear departed brother used to warn, beware of the rabbit trails that confuse our hunting dogs in search of their prey.

    Our “prey” is to help others to discover the good news that came with the advent of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

  20. Hey Sherwood, great to talk to you my brother; I guess with regards to the earthquake, i am just doing what men in the bible did for Peter mentioned that this earth will be destroyed and revelations talked about earthquakes that will destroy the earth on Judgement day, so in a lot of ways Christians need to know about this ( really need to know about this) and Christians are apart of Christianity so yeeaa, i guess you can say it has something to do with Christianity. In fact so many times in scriptures the apostles talked about this earth perishing so I guess just doing what they did in the bible. Love you bro.

  21. Its good to see us all asking about the gospel, and it was good to see the humble approach of minister Warnock. Just want to make sure we all keep it clean and discuss without sinning. For the bible says a strong disagreement among Christians can lead to sin Galations 5:19 in the King James labels it as Seditions, the NIV labels it as dissesension. Paul says its one of the acts of the sinful nature. So if this discussions becomes too ‘strong’ I have to step away for I fear my God. For knowledge sake I will say what the bible says is the gospel as was quoted on our website (thegreatearthquake.com) :

    “Believe it or not when God destroys this present earth he will give the faithful followers of
    Jesus a new one. What many of us don’t quite know is that this is the gospel. The meaning of the word gospel is good news or a good message.

    Yes we may know that Jesus came to earth, died for the sins of the world, was resurrected and gave us access to God; but that is not the gospel (for Christ said he came to preach the gospel and he preached the new earth-the kingdom of God.) The sacrifice of Christ and his death is the procedure that had to happen and our commitment of repenting and following Christ is the price we have to pay to enter the kingdom of God (the new earth) and to be stopped from eternal punishment. Most people think that punishment starts when we die and possible go to ‘hell’; however the bible Says the dead has no thoughts. So this good news (the gospel) is that this world is not all there is, in fact it will be utterly destroyed soon and a new paradisaical one is to come.

    Yes all the evil we know will not go on without an end. All the pains and suffering we face will vanish. Justice will not go unsung. Those who did wrong on the earth without taking a 180 degree turn will face the shorter end of the stick. Those who were faithful to Christ will indeed inherit a perfect new earth.

    That my friend is the gospel.

    In regards to the concept of a great earthquake which Christians should also know about lets start with Revelations ( a book written to Christians, who are a part of Christianity)

    “I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, As late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”
    Revelation 6:12-14 (NIV)

    Jesus quoted stars and the like also falling:

    “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn.They will see the son of Man Coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” – Jesus Christ. Matthew 24:27-31(NIV)

    Peter Said:

    “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
    2 Peter 3:10-13 (NIV)

    Isaiah said:

    “The Lord is going to completely destroy everything on earth. He will twist its surface.
    He’ll scatter those who live on it. Priests and people alike will suffer. So will masters and their servants. And so will women and their female servants. Sellers and buyers alike will suffer.
    So will those who borrow and those who lend. And so will those who owe money and those who lend it. The earth will be completely destroyed. Everything of value will be taken out of it.That’s what the Lord has said. The earth will dry up completely. The world will dry up and waste away. The most important people on earth will fade away… The foundations of the earth will shake.The earth will be broken up.It will split open. It will be shaken to pieces.The earth will be unsteady like someone who is drunk. It will sway like a tent in the wind. Its sin will weigh so heavily on it that it will fall. It will never get up again. Isaiah 24.

    so as far as the great earthquake is concerned to Christianity that sounds not like speculation it sounds like the word of God.

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