Human words have a nasty habit of losing their meaning when we overuse them. Say your name 100 times, and it begins to sound weird. This happens to me with important Christian words.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ll say, “we are saved by grace through faith” and pause and think, “wait, what do those words mean again?” How do we remedy this? By seeing how every Christian word connects to who God is and what God does (This is done primarily through the disciplines of Corporate worship, Bible meditation, and study). Leaving these words aside for another time (I am working on something on grace at the moment), I want to turn to an essential word for Christians, the well-worn word “Gospel.”
By way of reminder, let’s just peruse a few places in Scripture where the word is used.
Mark 1:1: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark 1:14-15: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;[a]repent and believe in the gospel.”
Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
1 Corinthians 1:17: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Philippians 1:27: Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,
What is the Gospel? According to John Webster, it is the “good news of Salvation in Jesus Christ, especially as a matter of public proclamation” (263). It is the good news that salvation has been accomplished and is found in Jesus Christ. But when this good news about Jesus Christ is preached, the hearers are led to the Father by Jesus, and the Father and Son give the Holy Spirit to dwell in the one who hears and receives the good news. When the Gospel is preached its content becomes a reality in those who receive it. When the Scripture says the “Gospel of God” or the “Gospel of Jesus,” we must understand this to mean that the Triune God both the origin and the content of the Gospel (Webster, 263).
Meditating on Romans 1:16-17, Webster unfolds this in greater detail.
“Originating in God’s omnipotent rule over all things the gospel concerns salvation, the comprehensive reordering of God’s relation to humankind. In the gospel, God is reconciled to sinful creatures as fellowship is restored through the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. As such, the gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness: God’s character and work as the holy one, who in Christ effects the sinner’s acquittal, renewal, and restoration to life in fellowship with the Creator and Savior” (263).
Webster is a mouth full, but he really helps me order my thinking about the Gospel. The Gospel originates in God, who desire to reconcile sinful humanity to himself through the life death and resurrection of Jesus. This restoration of fellowship reveals that God is righteous, he makes what was wrong right through Jesus Christ’s work of salvation including our justification, sanctification, and glorification. While Webster does not note it here, Christians receive the content of the Gospel when we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel, then, is the content of the whole story of salvation; what God has done for sinful creatures in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is also the bringing about, or application of this great work fo salvation in individual believers lives.
So, when we say “preach the Gospel” we mean preach the content of the saving acts of the triune God for human salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification). And when we preach this Gospel this same God works it into peoples lives.
When we say, “believe the Gospel,” we mean believe in the reality that God the Father sent his Son to restore right relationship with sinful human creatures, and the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit to bring sinful creatures into that relationship, to make them holy and new. The Gospel is the triune God’s active work of saving and restoring humanity to communion with God the Father, in the Son through the Spirit. The Gospel is the content of salvation and the enactment of salvation in peoples lives to the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Gospel then is both the most simple reality – God saved Sinners – and the deepest of infinite mysteries because it is grounded in the eternal and infinite life of the Triune God of Grace.
By way of conclusion, I want to offer a quote from a book I just finished. It is about how the Gospel is grounded in the reality that God is Triune, The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders. I would highly recommend it. Sanders quoting a famous Puritan Theologian John Owen. Note how his telling of the gospel closely resembles Webster’s description of the content of the gospel.
“When God designed the great and glorious work of recovering fallen man, and the saving of sinners, to the praise of the glory of his grace, he appointed, in his infinite wisdom, two great means thereof: The one was the giving of his Son for them, and the other was the giving his Spirit to them. And hereby was way made for the manifestation of the glory of the whole blessed Trinity; which is the utmost end of all God’s works” 151).
The Quotes from John Webster are in his article “The Gospel,” In The Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible,” 263-264.
The quote from John Owen comes from his book The Holy Spirit, 23.