In the distance, the townsfolk could see a runner tracing a hilltop ridge and then dipping into the valley on the near side. His silhouette grew larger and more defined as he made his way up a winding path towards them in the village.
Those who had gathered to wait for his message could feel their hearts race. The word he carried about the battle raging down on the plains was one of life or death. It would leave them with a heartbreaking decision: stay and defend, or flee with their families?
“Victory, victory!” the runner cried as he scrambled up the dusty hillside. “We won. It’s over! the invaders have fled.”
The crowd cheered, exchanging joyful embraces.
For the Bible’s authors, this is the picture that would have come to mind when they used the word ‘gospel’. In the Greek, that word is euangelion — literally ‘good message’ or ‘good news’. It was used throughout the pagan world for any kind of promising announcement. But the writers of the New Testament decided this was the perfect word to capture the greatest news of all time: Christ’s death which reconciled sinners back to God.
Those last eight words are a tidy summary of the gospel. Even still, they don’t quite capture everything. At the centre of the good news is indeed Jesus’ death, salvation for sinners, and our reconciliation to God. But the gospel’s richness, reach, and ramifications go far beyond what any short collection of phrases can provide.
In Christian lingo, our other use of the word ‘gospel’ is in reference to the four books at the start of our New Testament, otherwise known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. What’s interesting is that we tend to think of these gospels as somehow different from the gospel. But the early church didn’t see it that way. Christian historian John Dickson sets the record straight:
Bishop Irenaeus (circa AD 130-200) was perhaps the chief theologian of the second century. He insisted that the “gospel” to be preached to the world is nothing other than the content of the four gospels. This was a basic insight of the early church…
Of course, this does not mean that until someone has digested all 65,000 or so words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they have not heard the gospel. Obviously, the account of Jesus’ incarnation, birth, life, teachings, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension can and must be abbreviated. The apostle Paul himself does just this in many places — most famously in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.
The Bible contains other gospel summaries that are beautiful, brief and brilliant, like 2 Corinthians 5:21, which simply states that “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Then there are these powerful words from 1 John 4:9-10:
This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And we must not forget the most famous and beloved gospel passage of all, John 3:16-17:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
In reflecting on these rich gospel summaries, let us make four brief observations.
1. The gospel is about eternal life with God
In an age of ‘easy believism’, it has become common to reduce the gospel to the pale platitude that Jesus came simply to give us a better life. Following Jesus will certainly make our time on earth more fulfilling, purposeful and exhilarating. But the life God saves us into is eternal.
In His prayer to the Father, Jesus declared that to have eternal life is “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.” (John 17:3) Here we see that eternal life is about more than duration — it’s about being in fellowship with the One who made us. We are saved into relationship and union with God himself.
The Greek word for ‘save’ is sozo. Interestingly, sozo is also used by the gospel writers when Jesus heals people from sickness and delivers them from demonic oppression. In other words, though we know this will see its ultimate fulfilment in glory, the salvation-life that God is ushering us into is one of total healing, restoration and deliverance.
Eternal life with God has another implication we may not have considered: you and I are not the main beneficiaries of it. Yes, God saved us for our sake. But more than this, he did it for his own name and glory. The first chapter of Ephesians is an incredible declaration of the gospel. Verse six is where Paul tells us God’s purpose in sending his Son to save sinners: it was “to the praise of his glorious grace”.
History tells of two young Moravian missionaries who truly understood this. Selling themselves into slavery to take the gospel to plantations in the West Indies, they famously cried out to loved ones who farewelled them at the docks, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering!”
2. The gospel is about salvation from sin
For those embarrassed by the gospel and eager to soften its blow, redefining sin or ignoring it altogether is always the first step. But without an understanding of sin, there is no good news. Indeed, the ‘prince of preachers’ C.H. Spurgeon himself wrote, “If the Lord’s bearing our sin for us is not the gospel, I have no gospel to preach.”
Whether we like it or not, all of us are under under God’s judgment for our hostility against him and our disobedience to his perfect law. “For everyone has sinned,” writes Paul in Romans 8:23. “We all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” In the words of the late theologian R.C. Sproul, “The revelation of the gospel is to a world that is already under indictment for its universal rejection of God the Father.”
The gospel is profound precisely because of how undeserving — and ill-deserving — we are of God’s grace. In a thousand different ways, you and I have rejected God and rebelled against him. In doing so, we have earned his wrath and eternal judgment. But in his goodness, God gave us mercy instead. “For the wages of sin is death,” we read in Romans 6:23, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the modern world especially, our human nature tends towards two extremes: self-love and self-loathing. We may be drawn to one of these more than the other, or even both on the very same day. But the gospel’s salvation-from-sin message corrects both errors. In the words of New York pastor and author Timothy Keller,
The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
3. The gospel is not the results of the gospel
Pope John Paul II warned about this error when he said, “Let us not be under the illusion that we are serving the gospel through an exaggerated interest in the wide field of temporal problems.” Of course, John Paul II was not saying that such concerns are irrelevant. We know very well that, building on Old Testament commands, Jesus demonstrated and taught us to love our neighbours, feed the poor, clothe the naked, and strive for justice. This is part of every Christian’s calling. But these are an outcome of the gospel and not the gospel itself. Timothy Keller provides clarity on this, too:
I have often heard people preach this way: “The good news is that God is healing and will heal the world of all its hurts; therefore, the work of the gospel is work for justice and peace in the world.” The danger in this line of thought is not that the particulars are untrue (they are not) but that it mistakes effects for causes. It confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does.
In a time when ‘social justice’ has become very fashionable, there is a risk that Christians will collapse the gospel into broader social agendas and thereby lose the only message we have that can save souls for eternity. We must continue to live and love as Jesus did — all the while knowing that this is the fruit of the good news, and not a substitute for it.
4. The gospel is all God’s doing
Ephesians 2:8-9 couldn’t be any clearer on this point: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We desperately need this reminder in humanistic times like ours. “Salvation is an act of God,” wrote Billy Graham. “It is initiated by God, wrought by God, and sustained by God.”
Once God weans us from our own self-reliance, we enter the incredible freedom of knowing that our salvation is all of him, and none of us. All we contribute to it is our sin. God does the rest. Consider the well-loved hymn Rock of Ages by Augustus M. Toplady:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands
Could my zeal no respite know
Could my tears forever flow
All for sin could not atone
Thou must save, and Thou alone
The great reformer Martin Luther had the same revelation. In words often attributed to Luther, “When I look at myself I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Jesus I don’t see how I can be lost.” The gospel is all God’s doing. What a relief.
Let us conclude with one last quote from theologian Michael Horton which summarises all that we have considered:
The heart of most religions is good advice, good techniques, good programs, good ideas, and good support systems. These drive us deeper into ourselves, to find our inner light, inner goodness, inner voice, or inner resources. Nothing new can be found inside of us. There is no inner rescuer deep down in my soul: I just hear echoes of my own voice telling me all sorts of crazy things to numb my sense of fear, anxiety, and boredom, the origins of which I cannot truly identify.
But the heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfil, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. Good advice may help us in daily direction: the Good News concerning Jesus Christ saves us from sin’s guilt and tyranny over our lives and the fear of death. It’s Good News because it does not depend on us. It is about God and his faithfulness to His own purposes and promises.
Happy Easter! He is risen!