If you go panning for gold, you need to know what to look for. Not everything you scoop up in your pan is the “good stuff.” Not even all that glitters is actually gold. You must do some careful sifting, some close examining, to find the treasure.

Knowing how to tell the difference between what is valuable and what is dross, is critical. Every prospector needs some “criteria” to help them make good gold decisions. Does the material in your pan have the right color? Is it dense enough? Is there any evidence of oxidization? Is the material malleable?

What is good for gold is good for gospel as well. You have to know what you’re looking for. Not everything contained in Scripture is gospel. (The genealogies? Instructions for building the Ark or the Tabernacle?) Not everything scooped up in your reading and study is the “good stuff.” Finding gospel-gold requires some careful sifting, some close examining.

We need some “criteria” to help us make good gospel decisions. But what principles should we use? Is the gospel to be found only in the New Testament? Is it something limited to the “words in red”? Or are there certain themes, certain ideas, that show up so repeatedly and are given such emphasis in Scripture, that they serve as the “heavy metals” that contain the gospel treasure?

In what follows, I propose ten principles to be used in discerning the gospel. You might question the characteristics I propose and offer others of your own for consideration—that’s fine. But when the debate is finished and the dust has settled, we need some basis for deciding what is gospel and what is not. In my mind, the following ten criteria are at least a good beginning.

1.      Is it foundational in Scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12)

The elements of the core gospel should appear frequently and emphatically in Scripture. They should show up in both the Old and New Testaments, and play an important role in the life of Israel and the church. You should expect to see these themes in the teachings of a variety of biblical preachers and writers, and in the life and ministry of Jesus. In particular, these elements must be rooted in revelation—clearly attested to and affirmed by God’s word.

By this criterion, ideas such as “the kingdom of God” and the work of the Holy Spirit would qualify as elements of the essential gospel. Details about how the Jerusalem church worshiped or was organized in the first century (for instance) may provide important information for believers today but cannot qualify as part of the gospel message.

Good places to begin in this search for core elements of the gospel would include Peter’s sermon on the gospel in Acts 2:14-39 … Paul’s gospel sermons (Ac 17:22-31; 26:2-23) … and Paul’s magisterial surveys of the gospel in Romans 1-8; Galatians 3:1-29; and Ephesians 1-3.

2.      Is it an aspect of faith shared by most other believers through history?

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. (Jude 3)

Denominations, sects, and factions distinguish themselves from each other by making mountains out of gospel molehills. One group emphasizes particular views of the end times … another practices worship in certain ways … yet another has unique interpretations of specific Scriptures. What all have in common is the insistence that the molehill they have rallied around is an essential element of the gospel; unless you believe as they do (they will tell you in no uncertain terms), you cannot be saved.

These “distinctives” have obscured the core gospel rather than revealed it. They have taken focus off of the “big picture” and concentrated attention on minor matters.

In searching for the essential gospel, it will be more productive to look for commonalities between various groups rather than for the disparities in faith that divide them. Most believers through history (of whatever brand or stripe) have affirmed such great gospel truths as God’s creation of the world, the reality and awful power of sin, the gracious covenants of God, the life/death/resurrection of Jesus, and the coming Day of Judgment (for example). However we may quibble over the details, there is a broad common ground among believers on matters that matter.

A good place to look for what constitutes the “historic faith,” the central gospel ideas that stretch across the centuries and are shared by all manner of Christians, would be the ancient creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, for instance (http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed.html); or the Nicene Creed (http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm); or Ireneaus’ Rule of Faith (http://www.christian-history.org/irenaeus-rule-of-faith.html).

3.      Does it qualify as “good news”?

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. (Lk 2:10)

“Good news” is, of course, the basic meaning of the word “gospel” (which derives from the Old English god spel and translates the Greek word “evangelion”—a good proclamation or announcement). Whatever shape the gospel takes, it must be something that (in part and in whole) makes up “good news.”

The primary argument against imposing Moses on Gentile Christians (for example) was not that obedience to the law didn’t matter to God (it did!) or that it wasn’t commanded in Scripture (it was!) but that it did not constitute good news!

Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? (Ac 15:10)

No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Rom 3:20)

It is this criterion of “good news” that disqualifies every expression of the gospel that smacks of legalism and unduly emphasizes the role of human “work” in salvation. Whatever can (and should) be said about the role of holiness, obedience, and transformed living in Christians, any understanding of the gospel that takes the form “Christ’s work + your work = salvation” fails the good news test.

[There are a couple of notable exceptions to the “good news” rule which must be noted. The story of the Cross, for instance, does not appear very “good” on the surface: pain, shame, blood, and death. But the “bad news” of the Cross is an essential feature of the gospel because of the way God used that awful event to do something wonderful for those who love him. In similar fashion, the Fall (with its sad story of deception and disobedience and desecration) does not appear to be good news at all. But none of the rest of the gospel story makes sense (none of the rest is truly “good news”) unless set against the stark background of sin’s sway on the world.]

4.      Does it tell of matters of “first importance”?

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved…. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures … (1Co 15:1-4)

In this passage, Paul insisted that he spoke a gospel to the Corinthians made up of matters of “first importance”—specifically relating to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I do not believe Paul was suggesting that only the story of the Cross and Empty Tomb should be included in the gospel. (We know, from Paul’s own writings, that ideas such as transformation and covenant were frequent themes in his discussion of the gospel.) What he did intend to communicate was that the gospel that “saves” and on which believers take their “stand” is comprised of essential matters. It must not be diluted with a host of issues that, while interesting and even important, do not contribute to the power of the gospel to save and sanctify.

A good example of this distinction is found at the beginning of this same letter. Paul writes:

Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1Cor 1:17)

Paul (of all people!) is not disparaging baptism or implying that believers shouldn’t bother with such matters. But he is making a distinction between the gospel of first importance and matters that are consequential to it. Baptism doesn’t belong in the gospel, not because it isn’t important but because it isn’t of first importance. Paul understood that, unless such distinctions were made, the gospel would end up bloated and burdened.

Elements included in the core gospel should be central rather than peripheral, essential and not merely important, critical to our salvation rather than consequent to it. This “weightiness” of gospel matters is a crucial characteristic to keep in mind—gospel matters have mass. (See “First Things First” essay.)

5.      Does it focus on what God has done rather than what we must do?

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time … (2Ti 1:9)

The gospel is about God … God’s purposes and plans … what God has done to rescue us from Satan and ourselves.

Listen how Jesus, the Apostles, and the first disciples defined the gospel: it was the good news of God,[i] of God’s kingdom,[ii] of God’s Son,[iii] of God’s peace,[iv] of God’s promises,[v] of God’s grace,[vi] of God’s righteousness,[vii] of God’s image and glory,[viii] of God’s truth,[ix] of God’s offer of hope.[x] Not once do Scriptures speak of “the gospel of our obedience” or “the good news of what we must do to be saved.”

There are those who try to expand the gospel out of a sincere desire to help individuals respond effectively to it. “What good is the gospel,” they say, “if someone doesn’t know what to do when they hear it?” And so they pack into the gospel detailed instructions (sometimes very detailed instructions) about responding to the gospel story in effective ways. Believe. Confess. Repent. Be Baptized. Denounce sin and embrace holiness. Join the right church. Don’t drink, dance, or smoke. Learn to tithe … (shall I continue?)

But there are major difficulties encountered here. The size of the gospel more than doubles. It expands to include not only what God has done for us, but what we must do for God. And the gospel emphasis gets badly skewed. As soon as we allow our response to slip through the gospel-door, the emphasis on God shifts and shifts radically. God created us—wonderful! God sent his Son—great! Now, let’s focus on what is really important: what we must do, our decisions and actions, how we do our part to complete the gospel-work. The focus swings from God’s grace to our behaviors, from his gift to our acceptance of it, from his purposes to our practices. Rather than celebrating how God has been at work through history to save and sanctify us, the gospel is reduced to learning and living out the work we must do to be acceptable to him … discipleship as a laborious game of “catch up.”

When well-intentioned people attempt to shoe-horn our obedience into the gospel story, the result is gospel-inflation and a misplaced focus on ourselves. (See “Discerning the Gospel” essay.)

The next essay continues to explore the ten characteristics of the core gospel.

[This series of posts on “the Gospel” is rooted in a prolonged dialogue about faith I’ve been having with myself and others and is based on a series of sermons I’ve preached. If the series captures your imagination and you would like to know more about sermons, small group studies, adult education curriculum, etc., please contact me directly.]

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[i] Mk 1:14; Rom 1:1; 2Co 11:7

[ii] Mt 4:23; Lk 4:43; Ac 8:12

[iii] Mk 1:1; Ac 5:42; 8:35; Rom 1:9; 16:25; 2Co 9:13; 2Ti2:8

[iv] Ac 10:36; Eph 6:15

[v] Ac 13:32

[vi] Ac 15:7-11; 20:24; Col 1:6

[vii] Rom 1:17

[viii] 2Co 4:4; 1Tim 1:11

[ix] Eph 1:13

[x] Col 1:5, 23