The word “gospel” is used in so many different ways in our conversation today. As well, within Christianity it is used rather loosely and the result is a general confusion as to what it really means. So, what is the meaning of the Gospel? Let us begin with the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. “Now, brothers and sisters, 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.”
The Gospel can be found in an event that occurred at a point in time in history. It’s all about what happened one day a few thousand years ago immediately outside the city walls of Jerusalem on a hill called Calvary in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the Good News of God sending His son to be crucified on the cross, die for the sins of the world, be in a tomb for three days, and rise from the dead. The Gospel is Christ’s work specifically in His overcoming the sin, death, the devil, and ultimately the Law. Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”John 1:29. Let us be clear, the Gospel is the work of God alone through His son Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, the Gospel is the sole work of God in death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ to save sinners.
The Gospel is not an effect that happens in the believer. That is: sinning less, demonstrating Christ-like behavior, resisting the world, or being obedient to God’s Word and keeping His Law. All these may occur as a result of becoming a Christian, but they in themselves are not the Gospel.
The Gospel is not an invitation to a new kind of lifestyle, a call to living better, being more moral, or kinder to one’s neighbor. Teaching the Gospel this way can lead the hearer to believe that the Gospel is something that is to be performed or a new desire or fortitude that can be found within. Yes, of coarse the Gospel will transform us, but the Gospel is never subjective. That is, it can never be found internally within us, rather it is completely objective always found outside of us. It’s what Christ did in His life-giving death, burial, and resurrection. The Gospel comes to us alone through special revelation found only in Scripture. It is the living Word of God.
The Gospel is not good advice. It’s notthe Ten Commandments. Nor, is it God telling us how we should behave. Neither, is the Gospel to be equated with the Bible. It is found within Scripture, yet much of Scripture is not the Gospel. As well, the Gospel is nota call to repentance/contrition. This is a work of the Law, and is not to be confused with the work of the Gospel.
After St. Paul’s successful preaching campaign in Galatia, the Judaizer’s (Jewish Christians) were trying to bring new Gentile converts to Christianity back under the works of the Law. That is additional requirements for justification were being imposed upon them. Paul's warning comes in Galatians 1:6-7 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”It’s always a danger when we add to the Gospel, works and obligations. The Gospel ceases being the Good News and turns into a new kind of Law.
Before we get into what the Gospel does, we need to address the nature and work of Law. First of all, the Law is the perfect will and righteousness of God. It shows us what holiness and righteousness look like. Secondly, the Law describes to man what his behavior is to look like and prescribes to him how he ought to conduct himself in this life. The primary function of the Law is to accuse the sinner of his sin before God. It acts like a mirror and reflects back to him his rebellious and sinful condition. The Law demands perfect obedience to everything it asks for. It shows the sinner God’s holy and righteous requirement for salvation and reveals to him his inability to perform it no matter how hard he tries, or what spiritual disciplines he puts into practice.
The proper use of the Law will drive one to the point of despair in trying to save himself by his own good deeds. It works repentance/contrition in the sinner. That is to terrify the sinner and change his mind in regard to himself and his sin. Repentance drives one to realization that he is in deep trouble and can do nothing to solve his sin problem. He must turn away from his own self efforts and turn elsewhere for the cure to his deadly sinful condition.
The Law must first convict or convince the sinner of his sin, before the Gospel can do its life-giving work. The Gospel, on the other hand, simply offers free gifts and never asks for or demands anything. It freely offers the gifts found in the promises of God: freedom from death, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation. The Gospel heard and received, credits these promised gifts to the believers account. The Gospel takes what Christ earned on the cross and now applies it to the believer. The perfect righteousness earned by Christ’s sinless life and sin bearing death on the cross now belongs to the Christian. As well, the Gospel creates the faith that now takes the sinner while in his rebellious state and moves him to believe in Christ and trust what Christ did is true for him personally. This is the work of God alone and zero credit is attributed to one who believes. St Paul tells us in Romans 3:23-25 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”
This gifting is something that is done to us apart from any merit or worthiness on our part. It’s not something we earn, nor is there anything found within us that is deserving of it. Rather, it is done to us solely based upon God’s gracious favor toward us. It is what God did in the death of His son on the cross for us to save us from our sin. Again, the Gospel is totally foreign to us and it freely gives us eternal life. The Gospel never requires or asks anything of the unbeliever or the Christian as well. It only offers gifts that are connected to God’s promises found within scripture. In Romans 5:4-5 St. Paul states, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness”.
A Gospel that is portrayed as a work or something that we are to do “is really no gospel at all”. I once heard someone say, “This is the Gospel. That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and the rest, love your neighbor as yourself.” Once again, we are reminded of Paul’s words in his scorching letter he sent to the churches in Galatia addressing the Judaizers who sought to pervert the Gospel with the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”Galatians 1:6-8
The theme of the Bible is the revelation of Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind and the Gospel is central. We must first find Christ in all His saving work in every passage of Scripture. When we read the Bible and seek moral messages and tips for better living we miss the whole point. Of course, the Bible speaks of these, but we must first find Christ and what He has done for us and everything else will flow out of that. When the Bible is seen primarily as a book of rules and regulations, or used to modify our behavior, we have a religion that is no longer unique. It differs not from all other religions found in the world throughout history, religions of Law.
Let us reiterate, the Gospel is nota work or an action on our part, nor something happening inside of us. Rather, it is God acting on our behalf through the death, burial, and resurrection of His son. Any deeds or works we do are all outcomes produced as a result of Christ’s work on the cross. They are products of the Gospel, but they are not the Gospel in themselves. They are powerless to save a person, nor strengthen and preserve the Christian believer in his faith. Let us share the Gospel with unbelievers that God may act upon them. Let us hear the Gospel ourselves daily that God may act upon us. St. Paul states in Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes”This is for the Christian as well. As Martin Luther said, “Let God be God”. In light of this, let the Gospel do its powerful work.