The Gospel: what it is and what it isn’t

The Gospel. The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion, means “good news” or “a good message,” and occurs 77 times in the New Testament. Yet, what is “the news” or “message” that Christians are exhorted to herald? (Mark 16:15; Acts 16:10; Romans 1:15; 10:15; 15:20).

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The Gospel: it is one of the most misunderstood words today. People are constantly saying things like, “That’s the gospel truth” for all sorts of things, and yet there is only one gospel truth. First, the gospel is not the teachings of the Lord Jesus, though He does teach the gospel. To clarify, the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is not the Gospel (Matthew 5-7). As wonderful lessons to live by as they are, the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and the Golden Rule – whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12b) – are not the Gospel. It is here in which the Swiss theologian Karl Barth was egregiously wrong when he theorized, “Gospel is Law,” stating “The Gospel itself has the form and fashion of the Law. … It is the Gospel which contains and encloses the Law as the ark of the covenant the tables of Sinai.”¹ In the reality, nothing could be further from the truth because the Gospel is for lost sinners while the Lord’s teachings are for baptized believers (Matthew 28:19-20).

The key statement is the Lord’s summation of the Golden Rule – “this is the law and the prophets.” The Gospel is the good news “wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1b-2a), the apostle declaring the good news to be “how that Christ died for our sins… And that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day…” (Vv. 3-4). How did He die? Crucifixion; His blood shed as a sacrifice in contrast to the official capital punishment of Israel which was stoning (Hebrews 9:22). Why did He die? For “our sins,” the substitute in our place just as Adam was in our place at the fall of humanity in Eden. When did He rise from the dead? The third day as the FirstFruits of the harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20; Leviticus 23:9-14), as the Father’s seal that the sacrifice was acceptable and His guarantee of the rest of the harvest, that since “we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5). He died in my place, shedding His blood as the perfect sacrifice, and rose again as the Father’s guarantee; that is the Gospel; that is good news.

It is not good news to tell someone a law, especially if they are on their deathbed, that they must live according to certain rules of life – even the rules that our Lord preached – in order to make it to heaven. Preaching such a message to lost sinners only creates a pharisaic culture of people who “make clean the outside of the cup… but within they are full of extortion and excess” (Matthew 23:25).

Societies throughout the world are becoming increasingly pharisaic and this is part of the reason why it is becoming so much more difficult to witness to people. If you read the four gospel records, our Lord clashed the most with the Pharisees because of their self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the greatest barrier to the good news of the Gospel because people do not consider themselves to be sinners. This pharisaic ideology permeates modern society because of psychology’s supplanting of theology, B.F. Skinner listed as the number one most influential psychologist of the 20th century by the American Psychological Association.² To give you an idea of how influential he was, his theory of “behavior modification” has been integrated into nearly all institutions in modern society, from the schoolhouse to most church-houses. Skinner’s “behavior modification” theory seeks to extinguish undesirable behavior by removing the reinforcer and replacing it with a desirable behavior through a system of rewards and punishments. The theory is based on the premise that people are neither good nor bad, but start out as blank slates, so from the outset it is at odds with Scripture which says “in Adam, all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

While psychology is satisfied with outer behavioral change, Christians are concerned first and foremost with inner change. The Devil would love nothing more than for people to stop drinking, stop smoking, stop doing drugs, to remain faithful in their marriages, et. cetera, as long as they never place their trust in Jesus Christ alone. While Christians do discipline their children for doing wrong, desiring them to be obedient, Christian parents are not satisfied with simple obedience. Christian parents desire above all else that their children come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, continually telling them not merely how to live, but the good news of the Gospel.

The Lord’s teachings and ordinances are important, but are for believers only. No one can live the Golden Rule perfectly so as to be saved, but the Christian life is one of being trained – teaching them to observe all things whatsoever [Jesus] has commanded (Matthew 28:20) – as a regenerated, born again child of God. The purpose of the minister is to preach the law to saved believers (2 Timothy 4:1-8) who have gathered together to worship the Lord with each other, striving to obey Him in all things in their new life. The mission of the church, however, is to go out into the world and preach the gospel – the good news – to those perishing in sin. If you do a study of the phrases “preach the gospel” and “preach the word” you will discover that the preaching of the gospel is always in connection with evangelism while preaching the word is always in connection with training believers in the living out of the Christian life.

Oftentimes ministers try to preach “gospel-only” sermons, the people never growing beyond the milk of the word, or when churchgoers are out in the world witnessing, they try to teach lost people an entire systematic theology. Both are not only wrong, but are a reversal of missions. While every church service should have an invitation to give lost people who may be present an opportunity to respond to the Lord, the service should primarily be for the training up of believers. When witnessing, believers must simply tell lost people what they know – the good news of what Christ did. That’s the issue in evangelism; what He did, not how it may have affected us. Christians need to do more telling of the Gospel of Christ than merely relating their personal testimonies. A testimony can be beneficial, but we must remember that our experiences are subjective. Without the objective Gospel, it is no more powerful a story to a lost person than that which a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon may tell.

  1. Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol 2.2: The Doctrine of God. Trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Vol. 12. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 7. Print. Study Edition. p. 511.
  2. American Psychological Association. Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. July/August 2002. Vol. 33. No. 7. p. 29.

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