What is the Gospel?
By Shawn Kennedy
When you think about words that are used, abused and highly misunderstood in our culture today, one word in particular rises to the top. It is the word love. I am not sure if you have noticed or not, but we use the word love in our culture to describe our thoughts and feelings for just about anything and everything.
A person wakes up in the morning and quickly jumps into the shower and as the warm water runs over their head, they say to themselves, “I love warm showers.” Then they make their way into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and as they sip the coffee, they say out loud with a smile, “I love coffee in the morning.” They leave their house saying to their spouse and children, “I love you, have a great day.” They pray on their way to work and end the prayer by saying, “I love you God.” When they get in the office, they scan their facebook account, because the night before they posted a new status update. They wonder how many people liked their post. Today, was a good day. Several people from all across the country not only liked their post, but made multiple comments. As they reclined in their chair they look over at a co-worker and say, “I love facebook.”
If you put all this together in less than 2 hours, a person has declared their love for warm showers, coffee in the morning, their spouse and children, God Himself and facebook. And so it is not wonder when it comes to the subject of love, we are often confused, using it carelessly with little thought.
I would submit to you that what has happened in our culture when it comes to the word love has also happened in our local churches and in the larger landscape of Christianity when it comes to the word gospel. Just like the word love, we use the word gospel at times freely and careless, rarely asking and answering the question, “what is the gospel?”
I can still remember, three years ago sitting at my desk, reflecting on my life and leadership, successes and failures and asking myself this question, “Shawn do you really understand the gospel?” It is a strange and vulnerable question for a person to ask who has a been a follower of Jesus for twenty years, has a graduate degree in theology, teaches at a Christian college and pastors a growing church. Yet, I am convinced it is easy as a followers of Jesus to let our hearts and minds drift on autopilot and think we understand the gospel, but do we really? Can we communicate the gospel to friends and family without confidence and clarity? Can those in our immediate family and church family communicate the gospel with confidence and clarity?
It was on that day that I started a journey to absorb everything I could on the subject of the gospel. I approached the question, “what is the gospel” with fresh eyes and an open heart. I wanted to be awakened again to the radical scandalous grace of God and refreshed by His ferocious love. All of this happened and more.
THE GOSPEL IN SCRIPTURE
In the New Testament, the word gospel first appears in Mark. It is here, inspired by the Holy Spirit that Mark shares his overall purpose and point of writing.
“The beginning of the good news (which in greek is the word gospel) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1 ESV
Then thirteen verses later, we find Jesus preaching and proclaiming to those in Galilee. What does He proclaim? He proclaims the gospel.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15 ESV
At the end of the Matthew, we find Jesus saying this gospel, will be proclaimed to the entire world.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14 ESV
When you exit out of the gospel writers and enter into the writings of Paul, we find that he is unashamed of the gospel and believes it has life changing power.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16 ESV
Not only does Paul believe this gospel has life changing power, but he also encourages those in the church of Corinth to stand in the truth of the gospel.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,” 1 Corinthians 15:1 ESV
Then Paul goes on to say that the gospel is active and growing, not something that is passive and stagnant.
Because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,” Colossians 1:5-6 ESV
THE GOSPEL IN HISTORY
As you can see the word gospel is mentioned throughout scripture in various ways and in various settings. Yet, the question still remains, “What is the gospel?”
The word gospel in english find it roots in the greek word, “euangélion.” The word euangélion literally mean “news that brings great joy.” When we hear the word gospel in today’s Christian culture our minds and hearts immediately run to the spiritual implications, but in the first century most minds and hearts would race to the political and historical implications. For those living in the time of Jesus, the word gospel was used to refer to life altering, history making, world shaping news.
BATTLE OF MARATHON
An example of this can be seen in the Battle of Marathon, which took place in 490BC. Greece was invaded by the Persians. The Persians thought this would be an easy and effortless victory, but Greece would prove them wrong. They would not only fight back, but successful defeated the Persians. After the battle was won, Greece sent heralds or evangelists out to proclaim the good news or gospel of their victory to the surrounding cities.
Gerhard Kittel, the German protestant professor who wrote a well known and widely used book titled, “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” writes the following description of the Battle of Marathon.
“The messenger appears, raises a big right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice… By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news. His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms and joy fills the city.” Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 2, p. 722)
Kittel describes a scene of someone bringing life altering, history making, world shaping news of great joy. It is not something that is happening, it is something that has happened.
If we continue this historical plight, we find that the very word of Mark would have connected in the minds of his readers in profound ways. For what Mark says about Jesus is the exact phrase attributed to Caesar Augustus. An inscription that was discovered from the first century reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus” (Priene 105.40).
When it was first inscribed it carried with it the message of life altering, history making, world changing news that Caesar Augustus was on the throne. The point that is being made and reinforced that this is good news, joyful news worth celebrating and rejoicing over. At least from the perspective of the Romans.
When the word gospel is being used in the New Testament it is clearly referring to the life altering, history making, world shaping news about Jesus and His Kingdom. It communicates something has happened in history and as a result the world will never be the same.
THE GOSPEL DEFINED BY RESPECTED PASTORS AND THEOLOGIANS
As I continued on my learning journey, I took the time to research how other pastors and theologians answered the question, “what is the gospel?” Here are some of the answers that stood out to me.
Tim Keller in his book, “The King and The Cross” writes…
“A gospel is an announcement of something that has happened in history, something that has been done for you, that changes your status forever. It is not good advice, it is good news.”
Martin Luther in his book, “Basic Theology” writes…
“The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s son, who died and was raised, and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.”
Alistair Begg in his book, “Keep Me Near the Cross” writes…
“Here’s the gospel in a phrase. Because Christ died for us, those who trust in him may know that their guilt has been pardoned once and for all. What will we have to say before the bar of God’s judgment? Only one thing. Christ died in my place. That’s the gospel.”
N.T. Wright in an article for Christianity Today writes…
“The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
Scot McKnight in his book, “Embracing Grace” writes…
“The gospel is the work of God to restore humans to union with God and communion with others, in the context of a community, for the good of others and the world.”
John Piper in an interview on the gospel states…
“The Gospel is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.”
THE GOSPEL IN MY OWN WORDS
After tracing the word gospel through scripture, looking at if from a historical perspective and then learning from pastors and theologians, I would like to share with you how I define the gospel.
THE GOSPEL IN ONE SENTENCE
In one sentence, I would define the gospel as the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom.
THE GOSPEL IN THREE SENTENCES
If you gave me three sentences, I would define the gospel in this way. The gospel is the good news that God who is holy and just, looked with grace and mercy on our sin, and in His great love sent His Son to proclaim and establish His Kingdom. Jesus came to sacrificially and selflessly die for us so that, by His death, resurrection and power, we could receive new and eternal life. It is through Jesus that sin is forgiven, people are reconciled to God, and the world will one day be made new.
As I reflect on my journey, I have learned that the gospel is never something you outgrow or grow beyond. Instead as a follower of Jesus you continue to grow each year into a richer, deeper, fuller understanding of the gospel. It fuels our faith, shapes our prayers, directs our ministry and reminds us of our worth and God’s spectacular glory!
Shawn Kennedy is a part of the Lead Pastoral Team at Existence Church and is the Director of Kingdom Come Discipleship. He is the co-author of Kingdom Come: A Gospel-Centered Guide to Discipleship. Shawn has a passion for helping others become gospel-centered, Kingdom-driven, disciple-making followers of Jesus.