Christians talk about the “gospel” as a summary term for the message of the good news about Jesus (gospel means “good news” in the original Greek language) that was proclaimed in the early church. This past school year as part of a panel I was asked to define the gospel in one sentence.
This is more than just an academic exercise. Grasping the gospel shapes our sense of who we are in Christ and brings clarity to our ministry to others. The gospel gives meaning to this world and shows how the unfolding plan of God comes to fruition.
There are several tensions to address when defining the gospel:
1) The tension between faithfulness (to Scripture) and effectiveness (to the audience one has in mind). A good gospel definition needs to be strong in faithfulness for sure, but some fresh wording doesn’t hurt, either. Also, since the gospel is expressed with considerable variety in Scripture (and not just as a repeated formula), there can be some creativity about how we articulate the gospel, as long as fidelity to the Scriptures is not neglected.
2) The tension between breadth and focus. The good news proclaimed in the Bible is often expansive in scope (especially with references to the “kingdom,” or God’s comprehensive and life-giving reign over the earth – see “gospel of the kingdom” in Matt 4:23; Matt 9:35; Luke 16:16). There are hints that all of creation will be transformed by God’s power (Rom 8:18-23; Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:20). But there is also a repeated focus on Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1), his sacrificial death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-5; Rom 1:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8), and the salvation, blessing, and resurrected life that arises from that work (Rom 1:16; Gal 3:8; Eph 3:6; 2 Tim 1:10). The work of Christ impacts individual lives as part of a creation-wide plan.
3) The tension between God’s work and our response. The gospel is assuredly first and foremost about the good news of what God has done for this world in Christ. The accent is on his work, not ours (see Rom 8:28-39 for a beautiful overview of God’s work). But the proclaimed gospel of God’s gracious work is often linked to an expected human response, whether it is “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), “believe” (Eph 1:13), or even “obey the gospel” (1 Pet 4:17).
4) The tension between the good news of the gospel and the bad news that necessitates God’s good intervention in the first place. My inclination is that the gospel ought to sound like good news – as something to be joyfully announced to the world (see Isa 40:9-11; 52:7). But since the gospel arrives as part of a story – a story of a broken world filled with helpless and ungodly people (Rom 5:6) who are under God’s judgment (Gen 2:16-17, Gen 3, for starters), it does make sense to give some background to the story before explaining the climactic good news intervention.
Without further ado, here’s my definition: “The gospel is the good news that Jesus is bringing God’s abundant and restorative kingdom to this world, and that through his sacrificial death for our sins and his resurrection, all who trust in him can participate in his kingdom forever.”
Final unanswered questions about my definition:
1) Should “kingdom” be defined (since many people have different ideas about what “kingdom” means)?
2) Should God’s motivation for action – his love, mercy, and grace – be emphasized somewhere?
3) Should God’s holiness, our sin, and judgment be more explicit in the definition, and not just part of the back story?
4) Is the wording “Jesus is bringing the kingdom” too vague? Should we specify instead the “already” and “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom work?
5) Is the wording “participate in the kingdom” too vague? Should we highlight both enjoying kingdom blessings and serving the King here?
6) Should the Holy Spirit be mentioned somewhere?
7) Should the particular blessing of entering into relationship with God (Eph 2:17-18) be stressed?
So much to say, so little space. What needs to be placed front and center?