What is the Gospel? Part 1

[Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash]

This transcript was originally preached in two parts at the Central Baptist Church in Rustenburg on May 11th, 2019. You can listen to part 1 here and part 2 here.

Scope, News & Kingdom

Defining the Scope of the Gospel

What is the Gospel? It’s an all-important question, one that is heavily debated. We all have some idea as to what the Gospel is. Think for a moment now, what comes to mind when you think about the Gospel?

Maybe you fixate on the word itself: gospel means ‘good news.’ What’s is this good news, though? Maybe the word Gospel reminds of you the popular genre of music, especially in South Africa. Maybe some nice grooves and heart-touching lyrics come to mind? Society also uses Gospel as an idiom, as an expression when we say ‘that’s gospel’, meaning that’s something that is absolutely true. Ideas of the Gospel can also seem to be confused by sayings such as ‘preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words’, as if the good news can be communicated without the words.

So, what is the Gospel?  

In these two sessions I want to answer this question by walking along the narrative of Scripture. Too often our ideas about the Gospel are divorced from the text of the Bible as a whole. Christians can certainly get into the terrible habit of wanting to always simplify things, even the Gospel.

But, if we keep doing this, we will start to water down the Gospel and separate it from the many layers of soil that the Gospel is rooted in.

Consider with me briefly that in Galatians 3:8 the apostle Paul referred to the Gospel being preached to Abraham. What a fascinating statement. So, if our understanding of the Gospel is to be correct, if our proclamation of it is to be sound and convincing, we need to follow Scripture’s pattern, Scripture’s design. And, this, for the Apostle, was a message that was according to the Scriptures: ‘Christ died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). We can be so quick to explain what ‘died for sins’ means without explaining at all what “in accordance with the Scriptures” means. I do not think this is good—in the long run, it can only be disastrous. ‘Died for our sins’ must be defined on the Bible’s terms.

So, from the start, the battle for the Gospel is fought on two sides. First, we have to defend the true Gospel from false and wrong Gospels, as Paul said, there is only one Gospel (Gal. 1:8). But second, we must also be careful to ensure that our understanding of the Gospel is in line with the story of the Bible, as Paul says, ‘according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3).

For Starters: Good News

So, where do we start? First and foremost, it is, as the word suggests, good news. As D. A. Carson tells us, “The gospel is the announcement of what God has done.”[1] Literally, it is good news. If we look in the OT, we see the word ‘gospel’ being used to refer to ‘good news’. Typically its in connection to the news of the death of enemies, usually occurring in the context of political or military situations. We see this word being used in the OT Psalms, and in connection to God’s saving action:

I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.

Psalm 40:9,

And we get even closer to the NT usage of the word ‘Gospel’ in the Prophets. The prophets again and again bring good news to both Judah and Jerusalem in the midst of their exile. Isaiah 61:1 speaks of a day when a certain figure will appear, Isaiah describes him like this,

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon [him],
    because the Lord has anointed [him]
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

No doubt, the good news comes to a fresh perspective in an earlier chapter of Isaiah, in the famous passage in Isaiah 52:7,

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.”

And so the good news according to the prophets is the news that Israel’s exile is over, her punishment for her sins is complete. In many ways, the prophets announce and call the nation of Israel to expectation. What is it they’re expecting?

God is coming to reign, and the result will be salvation:

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

(Joel 2:32)

It will be a time of peace:

Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him
    who brings good news,
    who publishes peace!

Nah. 1:15

And God himself will appear before them:

Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!”

(Isa. 40:9)

This fits with the NT, doesn’t it? The apostles and disciples of Jesus confirm these very expectations—the publishing of good news, the salvation, of God again dwelling with man.  Matthew sums up Jesus’ ministry in this very way,

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

(4:23)

We need only think of Paul who said that this good news is the very power of God for salvation:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

(Rom. 1:16)

So the Gospel is fundamentally good news. It is information to be proclaimed. It’s a story to be told.

Which Means…

What does this mean, friends? At least a three things come to mind:

Firstly, if the Gospel is the good news of what God has done, then we must not confuse the Gospel “with our responses.”[2] We’ll look a little later as to how the human response relates to the Gospel. But the Gospel is not our responses.

This means that even the greatest two commandments—to love God and neighbour (Matt. 12:28–34)—are not themselves the Gospel. Remember, the Gospel is the news of what God has done; it is not the stipulation that God requires.[3]

This means that even the very necessary call for Christians to pursue justice is not itself the Gospel. Don’t hear me incorrectly. The Bible most certainly calls us to pursue justice, but the Bible never says that our pursuit of justice is the gospel. We must carefully distinguish the two.[4] As D. A. Carson writes,

The fact is that neither Paul nor anyone else in the New Testament says, “This is my gospel: that human beings are racially reconciled.”[5]

Secondly, since the Gospel is rooted in what God has done, it must be an historical message. The Gospel is not just a movement, a feeling, or a socio-political agenda. It is a message, a story rooted in real, historical events that, if they didn’t happen, would cease to have any authority. Our Gospel must be historical. Ours is a faith rooted in history.

We can have confidence in the gospel, we can stand on the Gospel, seek shelter in the Gospel, because it is good news resting in historical events.

Many will seek to undermine the claims of Christianity but we cannot change actual events that took place in history. Ours is not a faith that is merely in the mind, but a story of God’s saving grace poured out on human flesh. God cares about this physical world. The Gospel speaks to us as those who live in time and space because the Gospel itself took place in time and space.

Third, if the Gospel is the good news of God’s action in history—and not our responses—then we must be sure that we know just what that story is. And this is where I hope to spend the rest of our time today. Looking at this story, this glorious story of good news.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

So, we’ve briefly looked at the scope of the Gospel, the boundary lines that keep us on course. It concerns good news in the context of a story. It is not our response. It is not the result—though there are to be severe and necessary results of the Gospel.

The next question we need to ask, as I just suggested, how do we understand the story of the Bible? The Gospel needs to be understood as something that took place, as Paul says, ‘according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). This doesn’t mean that the Gospel just fulfills various predictions. It doesn’t mean less than that—but it must mean more because the OT is essentially a story, it’s not a list of predictions that are waiting to be ticked off. It’s a story much like our own lives, filled with love, beauty, hurt, betrayal, death, redemption, joy, peace, pain.

But what is this story? How can we best make sense of the Bible story? Friends, I think an appropriate way to walk through the bible is by looking through the lens of the kingdom of God. Jesus began his ministry with these words,

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;[e]repent and believe in the gospel.

(Mark 1:15)

The gospel writer Matthew—in a similar introduction, uses an interesting phrase,

Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

(4:23)

‘The gospel of the kingdom,’ whatever we understand by the term ‘Gospel’, I think it should include this idea of the kingdom. The good news is the news of a kingdom, of the reign of God.

If the Bible is a tapestry, a collection of beautiful materials all tied together telling one story, it’s the story of the Kingdom of God. This is our framework for the story of the Bible.[6] To tie this together with the Gospel, we are then to see that the Gospel is the story of Jesus restoring God’s reign on earth in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]

But what we find is that this reign of God in the person of Jesus is not necessarily a new idea. It’s a restoration plan. It’s an activity of redemption—buying back something already lost.

The Bible refers to the work of Jesus as starting a new creation, which tells us that there was a first creation, an older one that needs some work done to it.

The Bible sees Jesus as bringing a new exodus, a time in which he will lead those in captivity to freedom.

The Bible sees the work of Jesus as bringing a new covenant: a new era in which the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed.

All these ideas—as the names suggest—speak of a new work, which merely assumes that there was a previous, first work. And it is to there that we must go. For our understanding of the Gospel to be biblical—‘according to the Scriptures’, we must start where the Bible starts: at the very beginning, and from there we will then trace the rest of the story which climaxes in Jesus and his work on the cross as the all-important act in which God’s promises, God’s good news, is finally revealed and proclaimed, and what that means for us.

In the next post I want us to look at the Gospel of the kingdom in four movements, four acts, for stages. Stay tuned till then.


[1] D. A. Carson, “What is the Gospel?—Revisited”, For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper (Crossway, 2010), 147.

[2] Carson, “What is the Gospel?—Revisited”, 147.

[3] Ibid., 159

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Ibid., 161.

[6] Patrick Schreiner, The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Crossway, 2018), 13–14.

[7] Jonathan Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2012), 143–144.

4 Comments

  1. I appreciate your time for sharing gospel through this wonderful message and understand what is the gospel,
    Thank you very much for sharing this amazing message brother Shane 🙏🙏🙏❤️.

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