The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness. Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God… . (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke)
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. This is Biblically undeniable. But what is the gospel? There appears to be an underlying disagreement among Christians over this definition, fueling charges of both “Social Gospel” from one side and “Gospel-Only-ism” (or the like) from the other. The truth is, both of these systems obscure the true meaning of “gospel”; the former verging on Materialism and the eclipse of the individual, the latter verging on Gnosticism and the eclipse of community. I hope in this short series to offer some clarification, for I too believe that the gospel is the answer to all individual and social ills.
“Gospel”: Death and Resurrection?
What is the gospel? The most common answers justifiably point to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:
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.
This is most certainly of “first importance”; but is this really the sum of the gospel? Is it not more likely, given the overwhelming context, that Paul is simply saying that the resurrection is an integral, foundational, aspect of the gospel he preached, and therefore the Corinthians ought not question the reality of the resurrection of the dead? That certainly does not make it the whole of the gospel, but rather an important truth according to the gospel.
In the his Epistles, we see many other truths that are explicitly stated to be “according” to Paul’s gospel, even truths we might not normally associate with “gospel.” For example, when arguing that God will show no partiality in judgement, he writes of the Gentiles that,
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:15-16)
That God will judge all, both Jew and Gentile, impartially on the Last Day is also “according” to Paul’s gospel. Another example that is often not immediately conjured by the word “gospel” is 1 Timothy 1:8-11:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (vv. 8-11)
All such wickedness is contrary to sound doctrine, again, “in accordance with the gospel.” And when Paul rebukes Peter and his Jewish companions in Galatians 2 for their segregation, we read,
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (v. 14)
Apparently, this gospel includes not only the death and resurrection of our Lord, but also includes the certainty of impartial judgement on the Last Day, contradicts a host of both personal and social sins, and even dictates who we ought to eat with.
We might be even more surprised to find that the gospel is something that must be obeyed:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Rom. 10:14-16)
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Pet. 4:17-19)
God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thess. 1:6-8)
To be sure, whatever the gospel is, it must be obeyed. Does the Scripture itself therefore violate our beloved “Law/Gospel Distinction,” blending indicatives and imperatives?
And one last point—and we will return to this again—if the death and resurrection of Christ (as per 1 Cor. 15:1-8) is the sum of the gospel, then what did Jesus, the Christ Himself, mean when he likewise preached, “Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mk. 1:15)? There was at that time no death and resurrection for His hearers to believe on.
“Gospel” Preached to Adam and Eve, Abraham and Israel
As per usual, it is best to begin at the beginning. Theologians generally consider Genesis 3:15 the first recorded gospel preaching, the protoevangelium—the first “gospel glimmer,” spoken by God Himself to the Serpent in the presence of Adam and Eve:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
Here we see the beginning of the “war between the seeds,” the ordained enmity between the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31), his children (Jn. 8:44-45), and the “children of the Kingdom” (Matt. 8:3) that has characterized fallen creation ever since. But the war’s end is declared to be decisive; The Seed (singular) is promised to crush the Serpent. Man was made in the image and likeness of God and was therefore an embodied soul (Gen. 2:7), endowed with righteousness and true holiness (Gen. 1:31; Col. 3:9-10; Eph. 4:23-24), placed in a blessed habitation (Gen. 2:8-15), enjoying society with both God and neighbor (Gen. 2:18-25; 3:8). This is man’s created nature. But through the instigation of this Serpent, mankind’s divine image was marred, its attributes defiled, due to man’s own sin. Thereby man died spiritually (Gen. 2:17; Jn. 5:24; Eph. 2:1-3), would die physically (Gen. 3:19; 5:5), lost his original righteousness (Gen. 6:5), suffered the curse of, and removal, from his blessed habitation (Gen. 3:19, 24-25), and found his sweet society with God and man broken.
The good news, i.e., the “gospel,” announced in Genesis 3:15 was that the image of God in man—with all that it includes—would be fully restored by the Seed’s crushing of the Serpent. That is, through the coming Seed, man would be resurrected in body and soul, restored in righteousness and true holiness, enjoy a renewed habitation, and regain society with both God and man. In the context of Genesis 1-3, we are forced to recognize that the scope of the gospel is nothing short of cosmic. (Please see, “Anthony Bradley & “Cosmic Redemption” : Herman Bavinck & Imago Dei.”)
Further, we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that his “gospel” was also preached to Abraham, again by God Himself:
…the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Gal. 3:8)
That is, the fact that the promised blessing of the Seed (singular; Gal. 3:16) is for all nations, including Gentiles, is itself called “the gospel.” As Paul explains elsewhere,
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations….” (Rom. 4:16-17)
We read also in the Letter to the Hebrews that “the gospel” was likewise preached to the Israelites in the Wilderness:
For good news (gospel) came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Heb. 4:2)
In context, the gospel “message” that did not benefit “them” was the promise of entering God’s rest (3:11; 4:5), typified by entrance into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Importantly, this gospel promise of “rest” was a promise of entrance into God’s own rest, viz., that rest God Himself entered on the seventh day following creation (3:4; cf. Gen. 2:2). In essence, this gospel rest was (and is) the promise of permanent enjoyment of Garden life in fellowship with God and His people—that which was lost by Adam’s revolt.
“Gospel”: the “Good News” of the Prophets
But not only do New Testament authors allude to the protoevangelium and speak of ancient gospel preachings, it is also evident that this “good news” theme itself is derived from the prophets of old. Two Old Testament passages in particular take prominence in the New Testament. The first clearly connects the gospel (“good news”) with the “reign” or Kingdom of God:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isa. 52:7)
The second speaks to what makes the gospel “good news,” and to whom this “good news” would come:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:1-3)
We will take up each in turn in the next post as we start to put the above puzzle pieces together.