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Yesterday, we looked at three ways that Christians define the gospel:

  1. Story for the Individual
  2. Story of Jesus
  3. Story of Creation to New Creation

My online collection of “gospel definitions” has led me back to the New Testament, where I’ve spent significant time studying the way the word “gospel” is used. I’ve also compared New Testament usage to the gospel definitions on my blog. In the end, I am convinced that the different approaches to “the gospel” are more complementary than contradictory, but that we could be helped by a conceptual framework for the gospel and its implications.

Putting it All Together

From an exegetical standpoint, the word “gospel” is used in the New Testament primarily when speaking of the announcement of Jesus Christ. So, at its core, the gospel is the specific announcement about what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to bring about our salvation. The announcement of Jesus is the gospel.

Yet this Jesus-centered message needs context. The “Story for the individual” group is right to insist that the back story (God’s character, our sin, etc.) is needed if the gospel announcement is to make sense. And the New Creation crowd is right to insist that we place our individual salvation within the bigger picture of God’s glory in the renewal of all things and the calling out of a people. This discussion brings us to the image that forms the heart of my book on the gospel.

The Three-Legged Stool

I propose that the gospel is like a three-legged stool. Each leg of the stool is important to understanding the message.

- The Gospel Story

First, there is the gospel story, the overarching grand narrative found in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us about God’s creation of a good world which was subjected to futility because of human sin. God gave the Law to reveal his holiness and our need for a perfect sacrifice, which is provided by the death of Jesus Christ. This same Jesus will one day return to this earth to judge the living and the dead and thus renew all things. The gospel story is the Scriptural narrative that takes us from creation to new creation, climaxing with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center.

- The Gospel Announcement

The second leg of the stool is the gospel announcement, namely that God – in the person of Jesus Christ – lived a perfect life in our place, bore the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross, was raised from the dead to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world. The announcement centers upon Jesus and what he has done to reconcile us to God. Our response to this announcement is to repent of our sins and put our complete trust in the work he has accomplished on our behalf.

- The Gospel Community

The third leg of the stool is the gospel community. Our response to the gospel announcement (repentance and faith) is not a one-time event, but a lifelong expression of gratitude that wells up from the bottom of our hearts and overflows into love for God and his beloved community. We are shaped by the gospel into the kind of people who herald the grace of God and spread the news of Jesus Christ. God has commissioned the church to be the community that embodies the message of the gospel. Through our corporate life together, we “obey the gospel” by living according to the truth of the message that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Lord of the world.

How They Relate

Here’s how the relationship between the gospel story, announcement, and community work:

STORY: Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. This is the grand narrative of Scripture that provides context for the announcement.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Jesus Christ. The announcement of his perfect life, substitutionary death, resurrection, and exaltation is made within the context of the Story.

COMMUNITY: The gospel announcement calls for the response (repentance and faith) that God uses to birth the church. The church is the embodiment of the gospel. Though the church is not the “good news,” it puts on display the good news. Thus, the church is a result of the gospel, but I want to reiterate that it is a necessary result.

Why It’s Helpful to Think of the Gospel This Way

Thinking within the framework of the three-legged stool has helped me rethink lots of areas, including missiology. When we witness to the gospel, we need all three legs of the stool. We need to begin with the big story of Scripture, make the announcement of Jesus within that context, and then invite people to witness the gospel community in action, as we provide an embodied apologetic of the truth of the announcement.

Thinking within this framework has also helped me spot potential pitfalls in taking one leg of the stool to the exclusion of the others. The “story for the individual” can give the impression that the church is an optional implication of the gospel, not the necessary result of the announcement. Likewise, some can emphasize the vastness of God’s redemptive work in a way that pushes out the cross and diminishes the practice of urging people to repent of sin and trust in Christ.

This framework has also made sense of my experience in times of suffering. When I’m facing a trial, the gospel story explains the fallenness of our world and reminds me of the future hope. The gospel announcement gives me the tools to deal with suffering, and also reminds me that my life has significance in relation to (not apart from) Christ as the focal point of human history. The gospel community has embodied the gospel to me during suffering by holding me up and reminding me of the promises I have in Christ.

In the next few weeks, I’ll give you a peek into my my book, where I analyze “counterfeit gospels” by showing the damage they do to the three-legged stool.

For now, I look forward to your feedback. Does the three-legged stool approach help you think about the gospel and its implications? If so, how?


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Comments:


19 thoughts on “The Gospel as a Three-Legged Stool”

  1. Antony Billington says:

    Thanks for these posts – they’re very helpful, and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming book. I’m currently working on a project for the place where I work – London Institute for Contemporary Christianity – which will try to explore how the gospel shapes our approach to *four* dimensions – the Word and the World (John Stott’s ‘double listening’), and the Church and the Christian (and the interrelationship between these four factors). There are a number of resonances with your own work – the importance of taking the big story of scripture into account in defining the gospel, the significance of the community formed by the gospel, for instance; but perhaps (so far as I can tell) with more on the implications of the gospel for shaping our individual discipleship as well as our engagement with the world. Thanks again – Antony

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Antony,

    Thanks for your email. I deal with the implications in the book in more detail. There may be more resonance than initially appears, although I want to keep “implications” as “implications” and not make them the substance of the announcement.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Jonathan says:

    Trevin,

    I really like your three-legs of a stool analogy and think that those three issues neatly sum up the substance of what the Bible teaches. However, since I myself see the NT using ‘gospel’ primarily as the announcement that God has effected salvation in Christ I would offer these thoughts for you to respond to:

    Why do we have to include the story of new creation and the story of the individual in the gospel? Why can’t we just say that the story of the new creation is the context for the gospel and the story of the individual (which is kind of wrapped up in the meta-narrative) has to do with what results from one’s belief in and obedience to the gospel?

    Does that make sense? I’m just not sure why we have to include them in ‘gospel’ when that really isn’t how the NT uses it.

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    Jonathan,

    Great question, and as a NT guy myself, I resonate with your concern.

    Long answer short… I think we get hints that the gospel is used in a broader setting than just the announcement in the NT. Take for instance Romans 2, where Paul speaks of Christ’s return to judge the hearts of men as “my gospel declares.” At some level, Paul believed that future restoration and judgment was close enough to the “announcement” to call it “gospel.”

    Taking a cue from Paul, I think we need to be careful not to divorce the announcement from the story. Gospel can be used of both. Though exegetically the announcement is the primary way “gospel” is defined in the NT, the story is never far from the NT authors’ minds, and the call to repentance and faith accompanies the announcement so closely that we can’t miss the “community” part either.

    So yes, the Christ-announcement is central, and that’s the way the NT generally defines “gospel,” and yet there are hints that even the NT authors are able to think expansively and systematically as they unpack all the implications of that announcement. That’s what ultimately leads me to the 3-legged stool approach as a helpful way of framing things.

  5. Leslie Jebaraj says:

    Trevin:

    IMO, another book the church needs to study is Dr. Darrell Bock’s new book, Rediscovering the Real Lost Gospel. Personally, I found the book very, very helpful.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Trevin,

    I see what you’re saying and I too use Romans 2 as an example of Paul’s wide gospel lens (actually I believe I mentioned it in my comment on your previous post). But I might consider what Paul says in Romans 2 as what you call an “implication of that announcement” which is not the same thing as the announcement itself. Paul says “according to my gospel” (kata to euangelion mou) God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. The gospel which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15 does not include Jesus as judge of all the earth, though I would say it is implied given Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and exaltation. In accordance with the reality that Jesus is Israel’s promised Messiah, the Lord of creation, he now has authority to judge the living and the dead.

    I suppose my contention is simply that an implication of the announcement is not really apart of the announcement itself. A minor categorical distinction, I suppose. We are in agreement otherwise.

    By the way, I’ve never expressed my appreciation for your blog. I really enjoy your balanced approach and gracious interaction towards those you dialog with.

  7. karen hess says:

    The three legged stool concept is a business concept and our Lord is not a business model. What is next? The pillars…a muslim concept?

  8. Matt says:

    Trevin,

    Have you read Greg Gilbert’s 10-page addendum in the T4G ’08 volume, “Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology” (pp. 121-30)? It’s the best discussion I’ve read on the personal and cosmic dimensions of the gospel, and how the two relate. Though Gilbert’s book obviously focuses more on the personal, the addendum deals carefully with both and is remarkably balanced and clarifying (in my opinion). Incidentally, Carson cites and employs Gilbert’s basic categories in his recent essay, “What is the Gospel?–Revisited.”

    Thanks for compiling all these definitions and for your helpful 3-legged stool analogy!

  9. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Matt,

    I have read Gilbert’s addendum and found it to be a helpful guide in thinking through these matters. Carson’s recent essay is superb. I love how he surveys the usage of “gospel” in the New Testament and then points out what it does refer to, what it does not refer to, and how we can hold good concepts related to the gospel in a way that puts them in their proper place.

    The three-legged stool analogy gives me hooks on which to hang three “must-not-lose” truths that are tied to the gospel announcement.

  10. This is great analogy about the gospel. Hopefully, I can remember it the next time I have a deep conversation about it. I have noticed that people have described the meaning of the gospel in different ways and many of them believe that their way is the only way to understand the gospel context.

    But I think you’re right in that there are several real contexts we can understand it. Is this the only way to understand it? No, but it is a very good visualization for people like me to see the bigger picture.

  11. Tim says:

    Trevin, I’m curious to know where you see Jesus’ own preaching of the good news of the kingdom fitting in with the preaching of the good news ABOUT Jesus by the church. I looked through your post and didn’t see any mention of the NT understanding of Jesus own message that he identified as good news “to the poor” (Luke 4:14-21.

  12. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Tim,

    Great question! In the book, I go into more detail. Within the gospel announcement about Jesus is a fourfold message: Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. In explaining the meaning of Christ’s life, I speak of the inauguration of the kingdom as Jesus reverses the effects of the fall. The kingdom message also runs through the Gospel Community, since churches are to be the outposts of the kingdom (“kingdom colonizers” is the language I use).

    Hope that helps!

  13. Phil says:

    Trevin –

    Wonderful posting – I too look forward to reading more, especially your new book. Your three-legged stool has an analogue in rabbinic Judaism – the tripod of God, Torah, and Israel. The subject of tomes and sermons that fill libraries, the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel is perhaps an excellent introduction. This by no means takes away from your formulation, only that Older and Younger Siblings need to acknowledge moe.

  14. Phil says:

    Make that, “the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel are perhaps an excellent introduction

  15. Ben says:

    I’ve shared this post with several friends, as well as the core team for the ministry we are starting here in the Fargo area, and it has been greatly helpful for giving people a framework to think of evangelism in. Much thanks!

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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