What is the Gospel?

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witgthumbOne of the more sobering realities of which I have become increasingly cognisant over the years is the danger of assuming the gospel. Like Joseph and Mary, who left Jesus behind at the temple (Luke 2:41–45), there are many in churches who erroneously assume that Jesus is with them; when in fact, He is far from them.

We must all be careful to avoid such dangerous false assumptions. And elders have a particular shepherding responsibility in this area. What horror for a church member to stand before the Lord only to hear, “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21–23).

We must be careful to make the gospel central, to make it clear, and to keep it uncluttered from extrabiblical and/or unbiblical add-ons. We must strive to teach and preach the gospel in all of its compelling beauty. Further, as Luther counselled, it is our duty to take the gospel and to “beat it into the heads” of every church member. Both elders and congregation must be catechised in the gospel.

This is an old word that we must recover. It arises from the Greek word that is translated “instructed” (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25) or “taught” (Galatians 6:6). The word literally means, “to sound down into the ears.” The purpose is to relay truth that will be believed. Ultimately, the goal of such instruction is transformation of life.

We must be “catechised” in, by and for the gospel. We must know what the gospel is. This is why in membership interviews I ask the all-important question, “What is the gospel?”

My goal is not to hear definitional perfection; rather, I am deeply concerned that those who profess to be saved by the gospel are able to articulate what it is that they claim has saved them. I don’t want to assume the gospel, lest the individual has not been saved by the gospel.

Now I understand, and it has been my frequent experience, that many who have been genuinely converted by Christ’s gospel struggle to articulate the gospel. But this is another reason that I ask the question. I want to help Christians to have a clear understanding of the gospel. This will not only help them as they witness of Christ to others but, equally important, it will help them when they find themselves tempted to despair when Satan condemns them for their sins. Having a clear enough understanding of the gospel—in a definable phrase—can be of tremendous benefit.

The apostle Paul defined the gospel simply in 1 Corinthians 15: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (vv. 3–4). That is the content of the gospel. But of course we need to know why Christ died for ours sins (because we were hopeless and helpless to do anything about facing holy God in our sins); we need to know that Jesus really had to die (and hence why His burial proves this); and we need to grasp that His resurrection was the proof that He really did purchase our redemption when He died for our sins. We must continue to be grounded in the inexhaustible depth of all that this gospel message contains and means for us—both in time and for eternity.

Looking back at that paragraph, I think you will agree that it is quite a mouthful. So, can we define the gospel in a more succinct way? J. I. Packer wrote somewhere, “The gospel is the good news of what God has done for believing sinners in His Son.” That is a wonderfully full and yet succinct way to describe the gospel of God. As you reflect upon this definition you can then fill in what it means. For example, this is “good news” because the bad news is that our sin has separated us from God; and such alienation means we are under condemnation from holy and wrathful God. The good news is that “God has done” something—by His own sovereign and gracious initiative—to take away the bad news. And what has He done? Well, “in His Son,” the Lord Jesus Christ, alienation and just wrath has been removed. Jesus lived the life that we could not live to die the death that we deserved. God then raised His Son from death thus forever delivering “believing sinners” from the otherwise deserved wrath of God’s just condemnation of sin and sinners. That indeed is “the good news”!

I hope that you can see that such a definition of the gospel is helpful, for it give us some hooks on which to hang our theology. And this serves us well as we share this good news with others. It is a helpful template from which we can expand our explanations.

But let me suggest an even shorter synopsis of the gospel: “Delivered from God, by God.

The gospel is the good news that God, by the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, has delivered us from His wrath. We needed to be saved from God’s wrath. Who alone could do this? God. So God, through His Son, did what was needed to graciously, mercifully, faithfully, eternally and gloriously save us from Himself. There is no better good news than that!

So let me ask you a vital question? Do you know this gospel? Can you truly testify that you have been saved from God, by God? If not, then ask Him to save you—now.

I recently read Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. It tells the story of a famous company of soldiers who accomplished amazing feats during World War II—but at a price. The blood that they shed haunted many of them; for some it led to self-destruction. One such was Sergeant “Skinny” Sisk. He was plagued by flashbacks to the many he had killed in the course of battle, including some that he had killed without military justification. But because someone had been catechised in the gospel, his life was transformed. Several years after the War, he wrote to his former Captain: “My career after the war was trying to drink away the truckload of [Germans I had killed].” He became a drunk. He then recounts that, one day, “my sister’s little daughter [about four years old] came into my bedroom (I was too unbearable to the rest of the family, either hungover or drunk) and she told me that Jesus loved me and she loved me and if I would repent God would forgive me for all the men I kept trying to kill all over again.

Sisk continued: “That little girl got to me. I put her out of my room, told her to go to her Mommy. There and then I bowed my head on my Mother’s old feather bed and repented and God forgave me for the war and all the other bad things I had done through the years.” He then humorously added, I was ordained in the latter part of 1949 into the ministry and believe me, I haven’t whipped but one man since, and he needed it.” Apparently he was in need of some more gospel sanctification!

Christian, just as God’s powerful gospel (Romans 1:16) is your experience, so others need this power as well. So continue to be equipped both by and in the good news. Be ready for a biblical response when asked the all-important question, “What is the gospel?

Some recommended reading to further catechise you in the gospel: What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert; God is the Gospel by John Piper; and Gospel Formed by J. A. Medders.

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