In February 2008, I began a blog series called “Gospel Definitions”, in which I posted (without comment) any and every definition of “the gospel” that I came across in books or online. Eventually, that series became the largest group of gospel definitions on the web. (See a full list or pdf here.)
As I have posted various definitions of “the gospel” on my blog, I have noticed that people hear the question “what is the gospel?” in different ways.
Telling the Story for an Individual
Some hear this question and immediately think about how to present the gospel to an unbeliever. Their presentation systematizes the biblical teaching of our sin and Christ’s provision. They usually begin with God as a holy and righteous judge. Then we hear about man’s desperate plight apart from God and how our sinfulness deserves his wrath. But the good news is that Christ has come to live an obedient life and die in our place. We are then called to repent of our sins and trust in Christ. (Greg Gilbert takes this approach in his helpful book, What Is the Gospel?.)
Telling the Story of Jesus
Others hear “What is the gospel?” and think of how the New Testament authors would define the word, which leads to definitions that zero in on the announcement of Jesus. They focus on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The gospel, according to this second group, is telling people who Jesus is and what he has done. (Martin Luther, Graeme Goldsworthy, and John Piper take this approach.)
Telling the Story of New Creation
Still others hear the word “gospel” and think of the whole good news of Christianity, how God has acted in Christ to bring redemption to a fallen world. They focus on the grand sweep of the Bible’s storyline and how Jesus comes to reverse the curse and make all things new. (Tullian Tchividjian, Tim Keller, and Jim Belcher take this approach.)
Robust Gospel Discussion
Though there is significant overlap among these groups, advocates of each position sometimes discuss and debate the others.
The Individual-Story crowd says, If you only focus on the announcement of Jesus, you leave out the reason we need good news. In other words, zeroing in on the “Christ” part of God-Man-Christ-Response doesn’t tell you enough.
The Jesus-Story crowd says, You’re adding too much to the gospel, confusing the truth about our sin or our necessary response of repentance with the good news itself, which is only about Jesus. In other words, don’t add doctrines to “the gospel” that the New Testament doesn’t describe as “gospel.”
The New Creation crowd says, If you only focus on individual salvation, you leave out the cosmic sweep of what God is doing. You also leave out the necessity of the church. In other words, the picture of God’s redemptive activity is bigger than just God-Man-Christ-Response or even the Jesus-announcement. You need the bird’s eye view of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.
For the most part, I am encouraged by these discussions. How marvelous to see Christians – young and old – seeking clarity on the message that is at the heart of our faith! It is important to think clearly about the gospel, and the motivation behind these debates is to get the message right and – hopefully – to then take that message everywhere from our neighborhoods to the nations.
What’s Your Take?
I believe there is a helpful and biblical way to synthesize this robust discussion on the gospel. Everything mentioned by these three groups is good and is in some way connected to the good news. But we need hooks to hang all these good things on. We need to see how they fit together, and we need to make sure that the heart of the gospel stays where it is supposed to be. Providing a framework for thinking through this issue is the purpose of my book on the gospel. But before I give you a sneak peek at that framework, I want to hear from you.
- How do you define the gospel?
- When someone asks you “what is the gospel?” do you tend to think about how the Bible uses defines the word or how best to share the gospel with an unbeliever?
- Though the New Testament generally defines “gospel” in terms of the Jesus-Announcement, are there hints in the Bible that the word “gospel” can be used more expansively?
- What role does theological reflection play in how we define the gospel?
- How can we make sure that the cross and resurrection stay at the center of our gospel definition and are not pushed to the periphery by important implications of the gospel?
- What might be the dangers of pushing any of these three ways of defining the gospel to an extreme?
- When you hear the buzzword “gospel-centered,” which of these three ways of defining the gospel do you think of?