And by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Cor. 15:2)
Christians throw the word gospel around a lot. Based on my experiences, however, as a high school teacher, campus minister, parish pastor, and college professor, and in my work with people of different ages, languages, and backgrounds, it seems that for many their understanding of the gospel is neither clear nor precise.
In particular, through my research with the Hmong people of Korea—many of whom are leaving Christianity to return to their traditional religion because their churches fail to clearly explain the core teaching of the Christian message—the gospel assumed is the gospel lost. In this article, therefore, I will focus on the basics of the gospel as represented in the Scriptures. Christians can be strengthened through knowing what the gospel is and its saving purpose, especially as they approach evangelism in a culture that no longer shares a basic Christian vocabulary. The gospel needs to be presented intentionally and liberally, just as the sower in Jesus’ parable (Mark 4:1–10). When we sow these seeds, however, it is vital that we know we are sowing the true seed and not some other harmful species by mistake.
What Is the Gospel?
“Gospel” in a broad sense refers to the four biblical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). In those books, we witness Christ and encounter the gospel in the proper or narrow sense as the “good news” proclaimed by God to the world. In 1 Corinthians 15:2–3, the apostle Paul indicates that he delivered or passed on the gospel as “of first importance.” What is so special about this gospel Paul labored to share, risking his own life to proclaim this message to both friendly and hostile audiences?
“Gospel” derives from the Greek word euangelion. It is the combination of two words eu, which means “good,” and angelion, which means “message” or “news” (which is also where we get the word angel). In his letter to the Corinthian church and throughout his ministry, Paul shared that Christ lived, died, and was resurrected from the dead. He demonstrated that only through Christ do people truly attain salvation and unity to serve the Lord. The Savior is the cause of justification and sanctification, because his righteousness alone makes us holy in the eyes of God.
But before then, in his unconverted state, Paul had despised Christ, the gospel, and those who loved Christ; and through the authority the Jewish high priest gave to him, he possessed the power to prevent believers from proclaiming the good news.
After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, however, Paul became a follower of Jesus and a messenger of the gospel. It now pained him to see the Corinthian church drifting away from Christ to form Christless communities, destroying one another and creating cliques centered on the personalities of different church leaders. Although Paul knew very well that trusting in sinful human beings did not grant anyone peace or salvation, some members of the Corinthian church had been attracted to oratory skills and charisma rather than looking to Christ to be their shepherd and Savior. In order to proclaim the gospel, Paul sacrificed everything: his reputation, power, prestige, and comfort. He risked even his own physical life for the sake of Christ and his message. Therefore, Paul’s writings are devoid of anything unnecessary; because he wanted people to clearly know how they could be saved, he identified who Christ really was and is: the only way to salvation.
Lutheran theologian Steve Mueller writes, “The gospel refers to the doctrine that humanity has been saved from sin and death by the work of Christ alone and that this benefit is given solely by his grace, apart from human works.”1 Throughout the Scriptures, even in the Old Testament, one can see the gospel at work. The believers in the Lord in the Old Testament did not have the benefit of witnessing and interacting with Jesus as his contemporaries did; instead, they saw him through the eyes of faith. In John 8:56, Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” One of my students poignantly asked, “So how are the Old Testament people saved, since Jesus was born a long time after they lived?” The connecting point here is the promise of God.
Interestingly, the Lutheran confessions use “promise” and “gospel” interchangeably. The Old Testament believers trusted and believed that God would provide the promised Messiah, the anointed one, to bring the kingdom of God and vindicate the righteous by punishing the wicked. The law and the prophets reminded them of God’s promise to Abraham that he would make his descendants to be “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17) and of the oath he made to David that “the scepter will never depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10). If we look at the Scriptures without contextual background, it may seem that God did not keep his promises. Abraham had only one “legitimate” son, Isaac, and David’s kingdom was separated and is now no longer in existence; David and his royal descendants died and failed to preserve the kingdom of Judah.
When the Lord made his promise, however, he looked beyond what is visible. When we read the genealogy of Jesus, we see that seemingly random individuals and events in the Old Testament actually connect, clearly pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and David (Matt. 1:1–17). God did not forget his promises, and his love was in action—dynamic at its core. When Jesus died on the cross, he offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for both Jews and Gentiles. Essentially, the entire world is the recipient of God’s good news. Having faith in Christ connects us to Abraham and David and to all the Old Testament believers who eagerly awaited the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise.
The animal sacrifices the Jewish people offered in the Old Testament foreshadowed “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Those ceremonial laws are now null and void because Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of those regulations and ordinances. Jesus’ passive obedience (through pain and suffering) and active obedience (his perfect observances of the divine and human laws) bestowed his righteousness on sinners. Simultaneously, the Savior took our sins on himself (2 Cor. 5:21). This is called God’s “great exchange.”
Lutherans (much like their Reformed cousins) are adamantly Christocentric and focus on justification as the material principle. Although sovereignty is a critical divine attribute, how sinners are saved always has been God’s focus. When we look at the incarnation of Jesus, we see God’s everlasting love toward his creation, especially those who were made in his image.
Christ is the quintessential thread that binds the Old and New Testaments. Jesus himself testifies, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). When Jesus was talking about “the Scriptures,” he was referring to the Old Testament. What is the function of the Old Testament? It bears witness about Christ.
The disciple whom Jesus loved says of the New Testament Scriptures: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Old Testament believers were saved because of their trust in God that he would provide the Messiah. The New Testament believers recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise; through faith in Christ we receive forgiveness, salvation, and new life.
Along with the Old Testament believers, we believe that “the great and awesome day of the Lord” will come (Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20–21). Christ will come again to judge the living and dead, and the Lord will vindicate the righteous. One of the reasons why many people misunderstand the gospel is because they link things to this category that do not belong to it. Because we like to organize our thoughts into different categories, we place ideas and ideologies into properly labelled boxes in our minds. If certain items do not fit our perceptions, we put them in a place called “Miscellaneous.” Likewise, we put items that do not belong into the “gospel category” and then become upset when things do not work out as we envisioned. This is the symptom of a deep-rooted problem: We do not want to hear what God says; we trust in ourselves instead, seeing ourselves as gods.
Defining Law and Gospel
Scripture is divided into two main teachings: the law and the gospel. While to the casual onlooker, these may seem easy to distinguish, it is sometimes difficult to understand how they are applied in particular contexts. This real-life application is not a science, but more of an art. According to Martin Luther, if any person can distinguish the law and gospel perfectly, then the church should give that person a doctor of theology degree!
When can we apply the law and gospel in our day-to-day lives? A seasoned pastor who had served in the “trenches” of the ministry shared his encounter with a young boy. There was a preschool connected to his congregation, and one of the preschool teachers wanted the pastor to talk to an unruly child. When the pastor started to talk to the preschooler, the boy spat in the pastor’s face. According to the minister, his first reaction would have been to be angry with the boy; instead, he asked him whether he needed a hug and told him that Jesus loves him. The child nodded his head. When the pastor embraced this little boy, the preschooler started to cry and apologized to the minister for spitting in his face and about his bad behavior against his teachers. The pastor wanted to share this experience to point out that it is so easy to act without looking at the whole situation, and most often the real problem is not visible. This experienced pastor was thankful that God used him to comfort the boy. Later, the minister discovered that the little boy’s parents were going through divorce and that he had become the center of their custody battle.
With this story, we can clearly see that there are challenges for us in correctly applying law and gospel. We human beings are not omniscient. We can mistakenly preach the law of God to someone who needs the gospel or proclaim the gospel to someone who needs the law. This leads us back to the question of what elements we need to include in the gospel and when we need to proclaim it.
The Content of the Gospel
What makes the gospel the gospel? In order to answer this question, we need to define what the gospel is not. Although this may seem too simplistic, if something is not gospel, then it belongs in the “law” category. What is the difference between God’s law and his gospel? The law’s function is to show people that they are sinful, that they have not lived up to God’s standard of perfection (Matt. 5:48). The law always accuses us of having gone against God’s will. The Ten Commandments, also known as the “Moral Law,” tell all humans that they have failed. The Lord, however, does not stop there.
Through the gospel, he shows us our Savior. The good news is that Christ kept both God’s laws and human laws as the perfect substitute for us. Although we deserve God’s punishment now and forever, for the sake of Jesus we are deemed righteous and forgiven. God is merciful to us, and we do not receive what we truly deserve—the punishment for our sins. The Lord grants us gifts we do not deserve (which is called “grace”), providing us with forgiveness, faith, and new life. The gospel always includes these two words: “for you.” Rejoice that God’s grace and love are for you. This good news targets people so they may have eternal life.
Finally, the content of the gospel must include Jesus’ life, work, death, and resurrection. This goes beyond simply knowing and assenting to the facts; rather, we must embrace and trust the work of Christ to be life-giving. It is critical that we have faith in Christ, that we know he is the promised Savior. Although we are tempted to pick and choose what we consider to be the gospel, the word of God defines the gospel for us. Frankly, it is “all or nothing.”
If one aspect of Christ is diluted or compromised, then other facets of Christ will be affected and distorted. Therefore, the totality of Christ needs to be addressed at church, home, and in society. The pulpit without the gospel is merely a platform for motivational speakers. Home without the gospel might falter, because of a lack of God’s divine forgiveness and foundation. A community without the gospel will be either legalistic or hedonistic. The gospel is part and parcel of Christian belief, which is what distinguishes this faith from all other epistemologies and religions.
The gospel without Christ is no gospel at all; rather, it is the law of death. Christ is the sole element that makes plain words to be the extraordinary “power of God” and the true love letter from the Lord to his creation. The gospel did not suddenly appear in the New Testament; it was present from the dawn of time. Some Lutheran scholars even indicate that the gospel is the proper work of God and the law is his alien work to show that God’s desire is to love, forgive, and save. Looking at the Old Testament carefully will dispel the common misconception that the God of the Old Testament is always angry and hateful but the God of the New Testament is perpetually happy and loving. These naive caricatures of God make him out to be suffering from an identity crisis and not stable. Some even believe those seemingly contradictory images of God to be the evidence of the evolution of Yahwistic religion.
God, however, is constant. David picked up on this aspect of God, and in Psalm 18:2 he records his trust in the unchanging and reliable God:
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
The Gospel in the Old Testament
Is the gospel evident in the Old Testament? Did the Old Testament believers know what the gospel was? How Adam and Eve named their first son and Eve’s reaction to Cain’s birth tell us implicitly that they knew what God was saying to them, which is recorded in Genesis 3:15 and also known as the Proto-Evangelium (proto-euangeliom or “The First Gospel”):
“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.”
This is the first time in Scripture that we see God lay out his plan to save his fallen creation through a man. Eve rejoiced after giving birth to Cain and said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man” (Gen. 4:1). Some Hebrew scholars indicate that the name “Cain” comes from the Hebrew root word Qana, which means “acquire” or “redeem.” Perhaps Eve and Adam looked at Cain as the immediate fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. Brown-Driver-Briggs defines it as “God . . . victoriously redeeming his people.”2 Unfortunately, Cain did not walk in the way of the Lord, and his faithlessness and fratricide serve as a warning not to neglect God’s word and promise. The gospel is not an abstraction and it is not static. It is active, and it achieves the intended purpose of God.
The Function of the Gospel
What does the gospel do? According to Paul, it is the power of God, and it can save people from sin, hell, and Satan. The word of God is efficacious, which means that it accomplishes what it promises. The word of God saves, because God means what he says. The grammar of the biblical Hebrew tells us that this important aspect of God’s word, this literary device, is called “the Prophetic Perfect.”3
Whenever the Old Testament prophets talked about the upcoming Messiah and his accomplishments, this Hebrew tense was often used in the Scriptures. If a person is going to write about future events, which tense will he use? It would be the future tense or imperfect tense in Hebrew; but the prophets often used the past tense, which is also known as the perfect tense. Some Hebrew grammarians say that whatever God promises he fulfills; therefore, it is as good as accomplished. The Formula of Concord, one of the Lutheran confessional writings, captures God keeping his promises: “For this Lord, who is the incomprehensible wisdom and truth himself, has spoken these words, and he certainly can effect and accomplish everything that he promises” (FC SD VII:47).
The other matter to consider is that God is omnipresent: he is not bound in time or space. C. S. Lewis once said that God is like an author who knows the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the book, so to him everything is happening at the same time. An example of this “Prophetic Perfect” is found in Daniel 7:13–14 when the “Son of man” is introduced and his kingdom is claimed to be everlasting.
One issue here is that prophecies have multiple layers. It is like looking at a mountain from afar: when we get closer, we soon notice that it is not just one mountain, but that there are other mountains in this range that make it look as if it were one mountain. Likewise, when we look at the Old Testament prophecies, we see that some were fulfilled immediately, some were fulfilled in Christ, and some will be fulfilled on the Judgment Day or the Second Coming of Christ. The problem is that no one knows when Christ will come back again with angels and with the trumpet blast. In his state of humiliation, Jesus himself did not know when this would happen. We only know that the Scripture says this day will come unexpectedly, like “sudden death” at the end of a sporting event. This aspect of eschatology brings extreme urgency to share the message of Christ to the world.
The Urgency of the Gospel
When Jesus sent out his disciples, he commanded them not to take extra provisions. One of the reasons why Jesus told them this is because excessive items would hinder people from being mobile and prevent them from reaching the greater number with God’s word. This shows Christ’s attitude toward people: “He wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The disciples were instructed to share the message of the kingdom of God with whomever they encountered. Jesus and his messengers proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15); the message itself bore the sense of urgency. The servants of God were commanded to proclaim God’s law and gospel faithfully.
This also can be seen in how Jesus conducted his ministry. He spent most of his waking moments proclaiming the word of God to everyone. His miracles and “signs” were God’s word in action, drawing the people to the Word of God who created the heavens and the earth. Christ is the embodiment of God’s good news where people can truly find eternal life. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he charged his followers to make disciples by sharing God’s word and baptism. Baptism is the promise of God; it is the gospel in a concrete form. Faithful servants of the Lord courageously ventured into remote corners of the earth to proclaim the life-giving word of God to those who had not heard it.
Luther once compared the movement of the gospel to a rain cloud: it moves from place to place without a fixed position. In Acts 1:8, Jesus prophesied the movement of the word: “You are my witnesses from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Christ’s message spread rapidly once his frightened disciples were transformed into bold and courageous witnesses. The gospel—especially the resurrection of Jesus—changed them to be fearless evangelists, even before the threat of painful torture and gruesome death. Many apologists, such as Peter Kreeft, point to the change of attitude of Jesus’ disciples as one of the reasons that Christ’s resurrection was real and not fabricated. When they witnessed the resurrected Jesus, this changed them from frightened individuals behind locked doors to brave evangelists out in the open.
Without Christ’s life-giving gospel, people perish like sailors stranded on the ocean, complaining of “water, water everywhere” but not a drop to drink!4 As believers in Christ, we possess this water that can quench the thirst of every living soul. With great clarity, the word of God spells out to sinners that their sins are forgiven because of the life, work, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. In the same way that Christ satisfied the parched soul of the Samaritan woman, so he saturates us now with his grace and love. The gospel proclaims to our thirsty souls that Christ is for all of us, giving us everlasting life. Human words cannot give new life to listeners. While they may be motivational, they are not the promise of God. Only the word of God can transform hardened hearts into living ones.
Through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul realized the urgency of proclaiming the gospel as he embraced Christ as the Lord and the promised Messiah. As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the function of the law of God: although it is holy and perfect, he knew full well that it could not save sinners. He knew that the law accuses and reveals to people that they are sinful and unclean. The gospel, however, knocked Paul’s world upside down and changed his worldview completely.
Jesus, the embodiment of God’s gospel, appeared to the once spiritually blind Saul, and so Paul (as he was now called) was transformed from the hater and persecutor of Christ to the lover and proclaimer of the Messiah. He saw the power of God in the gospel: It is the message of the life, work, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the reason why he delivered it as of first importance to both Jews and Gentiles; he knew that the spiritual life is time sensitive. Paul knew that without Christ, people would not only die physically but also spiritually and eternally. The apostle wanted everyone to have the same confidence that he had in his Savior: that the Messiah totally annihilated death forever. It is uplifting to see Paul record an ancient hymn in his letter to his fellow believers,
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
(1 Cor. 15:55)
The good news is that Christ conquered death, which is the last enemy. The gospel is the clearest transcription of God’s desire for his crown of creation: That he will be with his dear children and that “nothing can separate” us “from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” May God loosen our tongues to boldly proclaim the life-giving gospel to everyone, as he creates faith in the hearts of sinners.5
Thomas Park (MDiv, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary; PhD candidate, Concordia Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of theology at Concordia University in Irvine, California.
- Steven P. Mueller, Korey Maas, Timothy Maschke, Brian M. Mosemann, and Gregory Seltz, Called to Believe, Teach, and Confess: An Introduction to Doctrinal Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 519.
- Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).
- Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), §30.5.1e, 489–90.
- From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- For further reading, see Mueller et al., Called to Believe, Teach, and Confess.