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The Gospel

What is the gospel message we must believe, by which we are saved?

According to Acts 2, the first new covenant church was formed when people believed the gospel, as evidenced by their and repentance of sin, and confessed Christ in baptism. Members were added to the church, in other words, on the basis of their understanding of the gospel and their identification with Christ in baptism.

It is, therefore, of fundamental importance for a Christian to know the gospel—the message by which sinners are saved and churches are formed. Only as sinners hear and believe the gospel will they be saved, and only then can churches be formed. And only as churches understand the gospel will they properly fulfil the mission given to them by their Lord.

But what is the gospel message by which we are saved and added to the church? The gospel message underlies the entire scriptural record. It is found in seed form in Genesis 3:15, where the first promise of a deliverer was made. This promise is then expanded upon through the remainder of the Bible, until its fullness is realised in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul summarised the gospel message this way in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:1–5

Of all that he had received from God, Paul considered the gospel message to be the thing of “first importance.” It was the most significant message that he could pass on to others. In his inspired summary of the gospel, we find at least five important elements.

First, the gospel is about submission. This may not be immediately evident to 21st-century Christian readers familiar with 21st-century Christianese, but it’s there in the wording in the text.

The Greek word translated “gospel” (literally, “good news”) was not invented by Christians. The term was widely used in the ancient Roman world to describe the birth or installation of a new Caesar, or even a military victory achieved by a Caesar. It had unmistakeable royal overtones.

Similarly, the title “Christ” (yes, it’s a title, not a surname!) means “anointed one” and is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word translated “Messiah.” This “anointed one” would be a prince (Daniel 9:25) and a king (Isaiah 32:1).

Since both terms (“gospel” and “Christ”) carry unmistakeable overtones of royalty, it is evident that the gospel is a message about submission to a sovereign. The gospel is the good news that Jesus, the Christ, has been enthroned as king of the universe and we are called to submit to him. While the gospel is deeply theological and relational, it is also a message that calls us to shift our allegiance from self and sin to King Jesus.

Second, the gospel is a message about sin. The gospel tells us that we need to be “saved”—specifically, because of “our sins.” The very fact that we need to be “saved” implies that we are in danger. While Paul does not here specify the danger we face, it is made plain as you continue reading the chapter.

He uses words like “perished” (v. 18) and “death” (v. 26) to describe the danger in which sinners find themselves. Far from being a natural part of the human existence, death is an enemy—the last enemy—that has yet to be defeated (v. 26). Death is the result of sin. Indeed, it is the “wages” that we earn because of our sin (Romans 6:23).

The Bible’s teaching on sin only makes sense as we consider it in the light of who God is. Scripture affirms that there is one God, who created everything we see and know—including human beings. When he created the first humans—Adam and Eve—he placed them in a beautiful garden with abundant provision and a single restriction: They were not permitted to eat from the tree that was in the middle of the garden. This tree, known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was out of bounds, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The sentence for disobedience was death, and no appeal would be accepted. They would “surely” come under a divine death sentence “in the day” they ate from that tree.

Sadly, Adam and Eve did not obey God. Though he had been so kind to them, and had provided for their every need, they rebelled against his command and ate the forbidden fruit. They thereby brought, not only themselves, but also their descendants, under the sentence of death. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Adam’s sin was imputed to us, and the proof is that we commit sin in our own bodies of our own volition. Sin is anything—word, thought, or deed—that is contrary to God’s commands, either by commission or omission. The penalty for sin is death—not merely temporal death, which comes upon all, but eternal death, from which we need to be saved.

Third, the gospel is a message about a Saviour. God did not leave humanity without hope. Almost as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, he offered the promise of a deliverer: A particular descendant of the woman would one day come to deal the decisive death blow to the work of sin and Satan. This particular “offspring” of the woman would “bruise” the serpent’s head, even as the serpent would “bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Adam and Eve did not know who the deliverer would be, but the New Testament makes it clear that God’s deliverer was Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to a virgin in Bethlehem of Judea. As God in the flesh, Jesus lived a sinless life. He died a sacrificial death, not for his own sins (for he had none), but for the sins of those he came to save. Three days later, he rose from the grave, proving that his sacrifice had been accepted by his Father, and securing eternal salvation for those he had come to save. Forty days after his resurrection, he ascended bodily into heaven, where he reigns from the right hand of his Father. At that time, he gave the promise that, one day, he would return in the same way that he ascended—visibly and bodily—to receive his own and exact vengeance upon those who remain in their sin.

Fourth, the gospel is a message about faith. This was the message that the Corinthians had “received” and “believed,” and in which they had taken their “stand.” The gospel is not a message about what we must do to please God, but about what Jesus Christ did (on our behalf) to please God. The promise of the gospel is that, as Adam’s sin was imputed to us, so Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to us. This imputation takes place by faith alone. Christ gives his righteousness, and the promise of eternal life, to those who receive the gospel message and believe on him.

The gospel demands repentance and faith. It demands that we agree with God about our sin—that our sin warrants eternal death. It demands that we agree with God about the person and work of Christ—that he did everything that needed to be done to secure God’s favour on our behalf. It demands that we believe the historical facts of the death and resurrection of Christ. It demands that we repent of our sins and call, in faith, upon the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive us. If we believe and respond in faith, we can be saved and take our stand in the gospel.

The word translated “faith” carries both the idea of faith and faithfulness. In other words, faith is both an assent to the theological and historical facts of the gospel and a commitment to walking in faithfulness to Christ. Once again, the gospel is a message about submission to a king.

Fifth, the gospel is a message about life. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Christ was raised from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The Bible teaches that a day of resurrection is coming “when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement” (John 5:28–29). The general resurrection of all humanity will result in one of two eternal destinies: eternal life, or eternal condemnation. In his death and resurrection, “our Saviour Jesus Christ” has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Those who embrace the gospel embrace the promise of “life and immortality,” while those who do not receive Christ inherit “death.”

These are the options before us: life and death. What makes the difference is how we respond to the gospel. If you hear the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but reject his offer of life, you will inherit the eternal death that your sins deserve. If you will renounce any merit of your own and instead call, in faith, upon the resurrected Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation, you will inherit eternal life. Through the gospel, God says to us what he said to the Israelites of old: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life” (Deuteronomy 30:19–20). “Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).