Where would you be without the gospel? I shudder to think of where my life would have headed without it, and it horrifies me to hypothesise about a future without it.
Wonderfully, I am not weighed down by such thoughts. For I love to remember when I came under the sound of the gospel, and I am enthusiastic and excited (sometimes nervously!) at the prospect of ministering the gospel wheresoever the Lord takes me, and howsoever long the Lord grants me. The gospel matters to me. And I strongly suspect the gospel matters to you, in much the same way.
We use the word “gospel” a lot. That makes sense, because we are evangelicals. We have a pedigree which stretches back through the Great Awakening of Whitefield and Wesley, and through to the great Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer. In fact, the English Reformers of the early sixteenth century did not so much call themselves “Protestants” (that was a Lutheran phrase then), but rather “Gospellers” or “Evangelicals.” We’re like them. Gospellers.
We treasure the word “gospel” so deeply that we use the word in various ways too: gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-shaped, gospel-based, gospel-centric – the list could go on (and it does, especially in the popular Christian book industry). We use the category “gospel” in our theology and ministry: “start with the gospel” or “preach the gospel.” The great Genevan John Calvin once said that “the sceptre of Christ’s kingdom is the gospel.” No argument there!
But what exactly is the gospel? Here are some great definitions from some great men of the past:
“The gospel is the most evident sentence of the eternal God, brought down from heaven, absolving all believers from all their sins, and that too freely, for Christ his sake, with a promise of eternal life.” HEINRICH BULLINGER
“The gospel, that is to say, the happy and blessed message of salvation freely in Jesus Christ.” THEODORE BEZA
“The gospel is a sermon of God’s mercy, that he has blotted out our sins by faith only in Christ’s blood.” ROGER HUTCHINSON
Each of these three quotes draw out three important elements of the gospel, according to the Scriptures.
Firstly, it is a message. It is not some sublime and gnostic truth to be mystically absorbed. Rather, it is a message with content that can be put into words. But it is not just any old message, like a bumper-sticker or mere meme. It is an absolutely urgent communication that is announced or heralded, indeed trumpeted, to the people of the world. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” said Jesus, and so “repent and believe the gospel!” (Mk. 1:15). This message was expressed in words – propositional content – by our Lord as he preached the gospel (e.g., Matt. 24:14), and by ‘the apostles’ use of their logic, rhetoric, and grammar, so too did they preach the gospel to their hearers (e.g., Acts 8:25, 40; 14:7, 21). As William Tyndale once said,
“… the euangelion of God (which we call gospel and the new testament) is joyful tiding … which tidings as many as believe laud, praise, and thank God, are glad, sing, dance for joy.”
Now, what is it about this news that got Tyndale (and gets us) so excited? The next two aspects of the gospel give us the answer.
Secondly, this message is about the salvation found in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Could there be any news more thrilling, more earth-shattering, and more magnificent news throughout the whole course of human history? μὴ γένοιτο (cf., Rom. 6:2)! While we might be animated by fleeting and flashy circumstances and controversies, this news about the Son of God dominants the front page, every time. We are talking about the “God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, and by whom all things were made.” We are talking about the same Son who “for us and for our salvation was made man.” We are talking about the one who was “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” and who “rose again according to the Scriptures.” How do we give adequate praise and honour and worship in a few mere words … it is hard to be brief (but isn’t the Nicene Creed an impressive work of theology!).
So, when the apostle Paul says he was “set apart for the gospel of God”, this consecrated communication was concerned with “the Son of God” (Rom. 1:1-4). And this news about the Son of God is most especially about the salvation found in Him. Paul elsewhere calls this the “gospel of salvation” (Eph. 1:13), which implies that it is bad news to be outside of this salvation. In fact, it is more than merely bad – it is terrible to be stuck in sin and wasting away under, and in anticipation of, God’s dreadful wrath (Eph. 2:1-3). No wonder Paul thanks God constantly for those believers in Thessalonica whose ears heard the gospel and whose hearts were powerfully changed by the Holy Spirit – the glad tidings of the gospel caused them to “turn to God from idols.” (1 Thess. 1:2-10). What a salvation! The esteemed English Reformation preacher Thomas Becon put it this way:
“If a rich man would promise to a beggar a thousand nobles, that would be a gospel to the beggar, and joyful tidings, and pleasant to the ear. But what are all the riches in comparison of this gospel and good tidings: that Christ has respect unto the poor, and is such a king that he makes the dead, sinners, and captives of the law, partakers of everlasting life and righteousness?”
Thirdly, the application of this salvation is through faith alone. Sola fide! Faith alone! This was the catch-cry of the whole Reformation that flowed from the courageous work of those early reformers Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. The point was, that Christ’s salvation was a gift, not a work; it was to be received, not achieved. To many within Roman Catholic Europe in those days, personal devotional and parochial practices of worship were thought to secure a path through purgatory and into paradise. But the reformers rightly perceived that this was not the teaching of Scripture. Salvation is “the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). “To the one who does not work but [who] believes in him who justifies the ungodly,” the apostle Paul writes, “his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5). This is why we preach and teach, echoing the words of our Lord: repent and believe! Faith is a beautiful gift of God, and is an instrument, a channel, or a vehicle, if you will, of Christ’s salvation. As Philip Melanchthon wrote,
“As for the gospel, is does remove and put away the condition of our worthiness and merits, bearing witness that God is reconciled to us freely for the merits of Christ, and not for our meriting, considering that this faith, that is to say the sure confidence of the mercy of God, leans and depends only on Christ and his merits.”
So, that’s the gospel. Simple and beautiful. For children and for adults. For builders and for scientists. For Australians and Africans. For clergy and for laypersons. For all people.
The final thing to say about the gospel (at least here!) is that there are implications which naturally arise from the gospel of salvation through faith alone. This is incredibly important. Although the gospel is good news about what Christ has saved us from, it is also good news about what Christ has saved us for (Eph. 2:10). Speaking about the saviour, the apostle Paul wrote that “he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor. 5:15). It is costly grace which teaches us costly discipleship (Tit. 2:12).
One who knew this lesson well, was Bishop Hugh Latimer during the English Reformation. He once preached that “we must not only talk of the gospel, but also we must follow it in our conversations and livings.” Not many years later, in 1555, he was tied up to the stake next to Bishop Nicholas Ridley and both were burned for teaching about this very gospel of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. Latimer famously remarked to his brother bishop, moments before their going to glory, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” He was one who not only talked the gospel, but followed it into both his living and his dying. He knew the glorious gospel of grace, and he met the glorious Giver of grace. We may too, hold fast and hold out to others, this glorious gospel, as we too prepare to meet the glorious Giver of the same.