Light on the Gospel | Long Read
At a time of ongoing discussions on the nature of the gospel, Antony Billington, LICC’s Head of Theology, seeks to shed some light on what Scripture says, seeing it flow from the character of God himself as one who ‘so loved the world’ – a love demonstrated supremely in the cross of Christ – resulting in transformed lives and church communities, and impact in the world.
“How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!”
Many religions begin by telling men and women what they should do; Christianity begins with what God has done. The shorthand word for this is ‘gospel’, referring not to a set of good instructions or a piece of good advice, but to the good news of what God himself has achieved – for me, for us, for the world – in Christ.
Good News from God
In the Roman Empire of the first century, the word ‘gospel’ was associated with announcements of imperial decrees. Heralds would visit towns and cities spreading the ‘good news’ of military victories or an emperor’s accession to the throne. In such a context, the announcement of the good news of God’s reign, and the call to confess Christ (not Caesar) as Lord might well have sounded politically subversive.
For the early Christians, however, the use of the term was not just culturally convenient, but arrived theologically soaked in Old Testament promises of salvation. Isaiah, in particular, declares the ‘good tidings’ of God coming in power, exercising his reign, saving his people, and bringing peace (e.g. 40:9-10; 41:27; 52:7; 60:1). The promises here are bound up with the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the renewal of the formerly devastated city, which finds itself at the centre of a new heavens and a new earth. It becomes apparent in these closing chapters of Isaiah that God’s kingly reign is universal in its scope, embracing the nations, bringing about a new order of peace and righteousness for all peoples. No wonder it’s described as ‘good news’!
And no wonder, then, that Paul writes of the ‘gospel of God’ (e.g. Romans 1:1; 15:16; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 8-9), reminding his readers that this good news originates in him, and is about his kingly action in saving the world.
Good News about Jesus
How does God bring about this promised salvation? Through the death and resurrection of his Son. If the gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ at one end of Romans (1:1), it is also the ‘gospel of Christ’ at the other end (15:19; cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Galatians 1:7; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 3:2).
Occasionally, Paul outlines the essence of the gospel more fully. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, for example, provides an early statement. Here Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel he had ‘preached’ (literally, ‘gospeled’) to them as something he had himself ‘received’ and ‘passed on’. Describing it as ‘of first importance’, he sums it up in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, ‘according to the Scriptures’. In particular, Paul writes, ‘Christ died for our sins’, emphasising the significance of his sin-bearing death. And he ties Jesus’ death to his resurrection, as the rest of the chapter makes clear. It is as ‘Christ’ – God’s appointed king – that Jesus dies for our sins, is buried and raised to life. Jesus Christ crucified and risen again is the ‘good news’ that Paul preached, on which the Corinthians have taken their stand, and by which they are saved (15:1-2).
In Romans 1:1-6, likewise, Paul makes it clear that the gospel is focused on Christ and rooted in Scripture. It’s about what God has achieved through his Son – Jesus Christ our Lord – the fruition of promises made long ago through the prophets. Small wonder, then, that the gospel defines Paul and his ministry, that he is set aside for it, that he is so eager to preach it. Note what he says of the gospel in Romans 1:16-17: that it is the declaration of God’s saving power through the work of his Son, bringing men and women into a right relationship with himself, which comes about as it always has done – through faith, from first to last – and which is available equally to all who believe, breaking down barriers between ethnic groups in the process. How could he be ashamed of that?
In addition, Paul’s reference to Jesus being born as a royal descendant of David and raised from the dead in the power of God’s Spirit (1:3-4) perhaps draws attention to the significance of the entire story of Jesus, from birth to exaltation (see also 2 Timothy 2:8) – reminding us (by the way) that the gospel can’t float free as a ‘nice idea’ without being rooted in these unique events.
It’s no surprise, then, that the designation ‘gospel’ is used to describe the narratives about Jesus in the New Testament, nor that they share a common focus on what Jesus said and did – and especially on the significance of his final week – not to mention the conviction that what they record is the fulfilment of God’s promises of blessing which reach back to Abraham, that salvation history is brought to its climax in Jesus.
Mark, for instance, begins by saying that his account of the ‘gospel’ is about ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (1:1), and describes Jesus preaching the ‘good news’ of the arrival of God’s reign (1:14-15) – all as the culmination of a story which reaches back into God’s dealings with his people. Jesus himself understands his ministry as fulfilling the herald of Isaiah, as he reads Isaiah 61:1-2 in the Nazareth synagogue and announces the arrival of the era of salvation and peace promised long ago (Luke 4:18-21). But as the gospel stories move on, it becomes clear that the liberation will come about through Jesus taking on the role of the servant who would suffer and die on behalf of others, as Jesus walks the inexorable path to death and resurrection.
Nor should it come as any surprise that these same emphases form the basis of the proclamation of the early church in Acts (2:22-39; 3:12-26; 10:34-43; 13:23-41), with the gospel as the announcement of God’s victory over sin and death in Jesus Christ.
Good News of Salvation
And it’s a big salvation! We have been reminded by a number of writers in recent years that the gospel must not be reduced to individual justification without also understanding the purpose of God to redeem a people and ultimately remake the world. Of course, the gospel is certainly not less than personal forgiveness, but it is much more, involving not only the rescue of men and women from judgment, but the renewal of God’s relationship with his people, and the restoration of creation itself.
Romans 16:25-27 provides a doxological summary of the gospel at the end of the letter, coming full circle back to where Paul started – with the gospel as God’s plan for the salvation of humankind in Christ. In between, it’s seen as embracing individuals, Jews and Gentiles together, and the whole cosmos, undoing the consequences of sin – guilt, bondage, and death – all of which reaches back to Old Testament promises to Abraham and David, not to mention God’s own blessing of creation.
Indeed, the comprehensive nature of the salvation God brings is evident when we look at the larger tapestry of the biblical story as a whole – moving from creation to new creation — the overarching plan of redemption of a fallen people and the recreation of a damaged world.
Good News for Life
Since belief in the gospel comes bound up with a particular view of reality – of God, Christ, creation, humanity, sin, redemption – we discover that it provides the perspective from which to view the whole of life. It is the gospel that funds the entirety of our existence as disciples of Christ. There is no place that the gospel does not touch with its implications because of the comprehensive nature of God’s saving work in Christ, his rule over every aspect of life.
There is an appropriate priority here, however. Those who might fall into the trap of thinking the gospel is about what we do, whether in social action or discipleship, need to be reminded that it is foremost the proclamation of what God has done in Christ – which then, however, carries certain entailments, as God works through those of us who believe. Church life, mission, ministries of mercy, as well as our discipleship all flow out of, and take their bearings from, what God has first accomplished – and will accomplish – in Christ for the sake of the world.
Although the notion of an ‘integral gospel’ or ‘holistic gospel’ has gratifyingly become increasingly common parlance, something more than that is at stake here – the working out of the implications of the gospel in all aspects of life – in the home and at work, in the hospital and at school, in the art gallery and the sports arena, in business and in politics, our lives reflecting the scope of his reign, our relationships displaying the arrival of the kingdom and anticipating its future consummation, living to the glory of the God of the gospel.
The Good News of God, James V. Brownson et al., Stormfront (Eerdmans, 2003).
A critique of how individualism and privatisation of religion have led to truncated versions of the gospel.
The Gospel in Christian Traditions, Ted A. Campbell (OUP, 2009).
An academic work showing that the same ‘basic’ gospel laid out in 1 Corinthians 15 is found in different traditions throughout the history of Christian thought.
What is the Gospel? Greg Gilbert (Crossway, 2010).
A concise treatment of the gospel in terms of the God to whom we are accountable, humanity as sinful, Christ as God’s solution, and humanity’s response in repentance and faith.
God’s Power to Save: One Gospel for a Complex World? Chris Green (ed.) (Apollos, 2006).
A helpful collection of essays addressing, among other matters, the vexed issue of whether Paul and Jesus preached different gospels.
The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World, Michael Horton (Baker, 2009).
A bracing call for our lives and churches to be shaped by the gospel.
Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, Timothy Keller (Zondervan, 2010).
An excellent eight-session course for groups, supported by a DVD and Study Guide, showing how the gospel is lived out in the whole of life – in our heart, in our communities, and in the world.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin (SPCK, 1989).
A classic discussion of how the gospel relates to secular, humanist, pluralist culture.