What is the Gospel?
Gospel is a term used over 75 times in the New Testament. While it has various nuances of meaning, it's most fundamental meaning from the Greek is "good news." But good news of what? According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology edited by Walter Elwell, "the gospel is the joyous proclamation of God's redemptive activity in Christ Jesus on behalf of man enslaved by sin."
Another usage of the term is to refer to specific books in the Bible that set forth the life and teaching of Jesus, for example the Gospel of Matthew, etc.
The importance of the gospel cannot be overstated. Indeed, it is the culminating concept of the entire Bible. So as the biblical writers proclaimed this good news to all, so we in turn proclaim it to our readers. As it says in the most famous of all Bible passages:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
John 3:16 is what most Christians would give as an answer to "what is the gospel?" But note that the word gospel is not actually used in this passage. So we look further for a more precise biblical definition. Should you like, you may view a word search for gospel at BibleGateway.
In many places, the Bible uses the term "gospel of God" or "gospel of Christ." In Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 9:35 Jesus used the phrase "the gospel of the kingdom," indicating the good news that He as the Messiah was now among them to usher in the new covenant. In Matthew 26:12-13, Jesus used the term "this gospel" alluding to his coming death. In Mark 8:35, Jesus explains that the gospel is of such tremendous importance that for its sake a man must be willing to enter upon a life of complete self-denial.
For the apostle Paul, the gospel was the reason for his existence. That there would be no doubt about exactly what the gospel means, Paul specifically defines it 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. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
This passage offers the clearest definition of the gospel. It is indeed, perhaps the most important passage of the entire Bible. In subsequent verses (1 Corinthians 15:9-58), Paul goes on to explain the significance of the resurrection event. Because of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection, we all have hope of eternal life. He stakes everything on the resurrection being an actual historical event. He insists that unless Christ's resurrection really and truly happened, our faith is in vain.
Note that in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, the first four verses define the gospel. The second four verses give an apologetic for the gospel. In other words, Paul tells us why it is true! This is significant. Those who preach the gospel without an accompanying apologetic are not preaching the gospel biblically!
Evidence for the historicity of the resurrection is part of the gospel message. He insists that the resurrection was not a figment of someone's imagination. There were over 500 witnesses, including Paul himself! By the way, this passage was not written hundreds of years after the events. Paul penned these words within 20-25 years or so after Christ's resurrection. He proclaims that if his readers do not believe it, they can go check out these things with the actual living witnesses. Scholars, incidentally, believe that the statement Paul makes in the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 15 is a formal creed used by the earliest Christians that dates back to within 5 years of Christ's death.
So the gospel is not only about an actual historical event, it is about the consequences to mankind forever.
Let's look at three other passages, this time from Paul's letter to the Romans, his letter to the Ephesians, and his letter to the Colossians:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).
But he has now reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you have heard....(Colossians 1:22-23).
Together with the 1 Corinthians passage above, Paul makes it clear in these passages that the gospel is not something that man does. Rather, it is something that God has done for us. It is God's power through Christ and the Holy Spirit that is the gospel. This is our salvation via the medium of faith. Thus, a clear distinction should be made between gospel (that which we believe for our salvation) and law (that which explains what we are to do in response to our saving faith, as well as that which shows us the need for the gospel ala Romans 3:20).
So putting these passages together we see that an accurate definition of the gospel is this:
The gospel is the perfect life, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus—which is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.
But in slightly different contexts, the writers of the New Testament use the term "obey the gospel" on three separate occasions—Romans 10:16, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:17. These passages confuse some people as they think these mean that the gospel itself is something that man has to do. Make no mistake, man must respond to God's offer of salvation. He must receive Christ (John 1:12); he must repent while believing in the gospel (Mark 1:15); he must trust in Christ (Romans 4:5). But obedience is a result of the gospel, rather than the gospel itself.
The context of these passages is important. If you read the verses surrounding Romans 10:16, you will see that the context is belief. The context of 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17 is the imminent return of Christ in judgment against the Jews in AD 70. The warning of "obeying the gospel" is clearly, in these two instances, a warning specifically to the first-century Jews who have rejected Jesus and were persecuting the Christians.
There is good evidence that the English term "obey" in these passages is a mistranslation that is apparently a holdover from the King James Version of the Bible. The Greek word for obey in the first two passages is hupakouo. This word is defined in Strong's Concordance as "to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by implication to heed or conform to a command or authority—hearken, be obedient, to obey" (emphasis added). So this instruction is somewhat like what a parent might say to a recalcitrant child: "Listen up, Buster! I'm telling you the truth!" Obedience is the implied result, but it is not the focus of the message.
Similarly, the Greek word in the third passage is apeitheo, which means "not to allow one's self to be persuaded" or "to refuse belief and obedience."
As the notes in the Reformation Study Bible (page 1902) say, "The gospel must be accepted, believed, and obeyed (1 Peter 4:17). Its divine command is for absolute surrender to God through the peace made by Jesus Christ." But man's requirement is to respond in faith. Obedience comes after the proclamation of the gospel, and after God's work of redemption. So the gospel is one thing; obedience is another thing which follows as an expression of a living faith.
These three "obey the gospel" passages need some further explanation. It makes no sense for us to obey something that someone else has already accomplished for us. No single English word really gets at the meaning of what is most often translated as "obey." But perhaps these passages are best understood as respect the gospel, welcome the gospel, accept the gospel, heed the gospel, believe the gospel, or hearken to the gospel. Indeed, these terms are sometimes used in English translations rather than the term obey.
As stated by the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (page 474), the gospel "proclaims the redemptive activity of God. This activity is bound up with the person and work of God's Son, Christ Jesus." Also, as an instrument of the Holy Spirit the gospel convicts (1 Thess. 1:5) and converts (Col. 1:6). Still further, "To those who refuse the gospel it is both foolishness and a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:18ff.), but to those who respond in faith, it proves itself to be the ‘power of God unto salvation' (Rom. 1:16)."
The gospel is something to be preached and to be believed (1 Corinthians 15:11). The gospel is the proclamation of the glory of Christ rather than something we proclaim about ourselves (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Yet the gospel has implications for our obedience.
Since the gospel is delivered by belief, more light on this can be shed by what is meant by “believe in” in such passages as John 3:16: “Whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The word in (Greek eis) really means “into” or “unto.” Since we do not have an idiom in English “to believe into” or “to believe unto” it is translated “believe in.” But the meaning is deeper than mere intellectual assent (James 2:14-19). It implies that we believe so deeply in Jesus that we will commit our whole being and obedience to him.
As explained in James 2, we are saved by a particular type of faith. We are saved by a living faith, as opposed to a dead faith. In other words, we are saved by a faith that is obedient. But it is not the obedience that saves, but rather the faith itself. See the discussion on this in our Christian Cram Course.
The gospel, by the way, is the same in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. See Romans 1:1-3, Romans 4, Galatians 3:8, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
Let's take a further moment and comment on what the gospel is not.
- It is not, "Have your best life now"—as a popular TV preacher proclaims.
- It is not, "Jesus came to be your best friend."
- It is not sacramental. Paul specifically states in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 that the gospel does not include baptism.
- It is not placing one's trust in the church, but rather in Christ's finished work on the cross.
- It is not something that we must do.
- Further, it is not the so-called social gospel. (The social gospel is a response by certain liberal Christians who began to doubt the Bible and its miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Christ. Left with no gospel at all, these professing Christians turned to social action in society as their focus and redemption.)
- Nor is the gospel the whole of the New Testament, which some Christians who tend toward legalism think.
While being baptized, responding in obedience, being faithful to the church, or caring for the downtrodden, etc. are important—these are not the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Christ lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead to satisfy God's wrathful judgment on the world. Because of Jesus' payment in full for OUR debt, it is now possible for anyone to receive salvation through a living faith in Christ.