The Gospel Front and Center

Everyone has a story to tell … a story about where they come from and what they do and who they love and why they are the way they are … a story about places and people, experiences and events, the stuff that has shaped us, the ideas that define and explain us.

These stories are the context of our lives, the essential background that determines our identity. You don’t really know me unless you know my story. You can’t understand what makes me tick, what I value, how I’m motivated, who I am unless you have learned my story.

Everyone’s story is different, unique. But everyone has a story.

There are other stories, however, that do not belong to us individually. They belong to the groups with which we associate and identify. There is (for instance) the story of America (the national story), the story of our ancestors (the clan story), the stories related to where we work and the schools we attended and the sports teams we follow. These larger stories aren’t unique to us. They tell of people we’ve not met and places we’ve not been and accomplishments we did not achieve. They are stories embraced and shared by others. Yet these stories also impact us personally, shape and (sometimes) scar us, and are woven into the narrative of our individual lives.

The Christian Story

As Christians, we have lots of stories to tell. Some are very unique and very personal. (“These were my mentors in faith.” “This is how I became a disciple of Jesus.” “There was one particular time when I felt the hand of God.”) Such stories are precious to us, prized by us, and form an important part of the wider story we tell about ourselves.

Some Christian stories, however, are shared stories … stories that are common to and celebrated by all members of the family of faith. They aren’t about us, per se. They tell of things we did not do and of truths we did not invent. Some are stories drawn from Scripture (the birth of Jesus, for instance), some from history (the Protestant Reformation, for example), some from newspaper headlines (the life and ministry of Mother Teresa). These stories belong to all believers, encourage all believers.

And yet they also impact us personally, shaping and (sometimes) scarring us, and are woven into the narrative of our individual Christian walks.

But there is one particular Christian story that cuts both ways … it is both highly personal and widely shared. It is a story about God and you, about the human condition and the value of a single soul, the shape of history and our individual place in it. It is a story about sin and sacrifice, hope and healing, purpose and power, death and new life—a story pertaining to humanity in general and to our personal lives. It is a story that starts “In the beginning …” and ends with “the last day.” It is a story that all Christians embrace and that radically shapes every Christian. It is a story that defines what it means to be a Christian and, in the end, determines who we are as individual disciples.

The Greek of the New Testament calls that story “evangelion” … the “good news.” We English speakers call that story “the gospel,” a word derived from the Old English god spel (“good news”).

From the start, we should recognize that the gospel is a story. It is not a list of propositional truths to which we pledge allegiance. It is not a cluster of commands to which we give our obedience. It is not an inventory of facts about God or a collection of the “top ten sins” to avoid.

The gospel is the story of why God created the world, what he intends to do with the world, how he is working to accomplish his purposes in the world, and who he appointed to become Savior of the world. It is a story populated with great characters (Adam and Abraham, Eve and Mary, and—above all others—Jesus of Nazareth). It is a story about great events (creation and fall, the end of the world, the to-the-death-battle between good and evil). It is a story about great promises (“I will be your God and you will be my people” … “Whoever believes in me shall never die”). It is the story of the universe. It is the story of your life (and mine). It is a story large enough to embrace all humanity. And it is a story intimate enough to change your life.

This gospel story is the dominant theme of the Bible. It starts with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). It tells about the human race, the crowning achievement of God’s creative work. It laments the tragic realities of human stubbornness and pride, the ambition to “be like God,” and the slithering lies of the Serpent. It speaks of a God who, though heart-broken by sin’s presence, perseveres in his plans and purposes for his creation. It points—prophetically and symbolically—to the birth of God’s Son, and a life lived with such shining perfection that it proved the equal of all the broken lives that came before and after. It shows how God’s reign over the earth—his “kingdom”—was established through Jesus Christ; how Satan was defeated by Jesus Christ; and how our sins were forgiven in Jesus Christ. It announces that resurrection life, the Holy Spirit of God, and transformation into God’s likeness is possible for all who believe—not just privileges reserved for Jesus, the Apostles, and a select group of “super saints.” And it announces that there will come a day when history will end and all God’s purposes will be fulfilled and, once again, God and his children will be able to walk and talk in the Garden.

The Gospel at the Center New Testament

You can’t turn around in the New Testament without bumping into “gospel.”

There are over 125 occurrences of the word “evangelion.” (It pops up far more often than the words for “worship” or “church” or “obey.”) You find the word in twenty of the twenty seven canonical New Testament books.[1]

But it’s not just the frequency with which the notion of “gospel” shows up that is impressive. It is also that gospel shows up in pivotal places, in settings that tend to display the gospel as central and significant.

For example, nothing is more important in the ministry of Jesus than his teaching. Those who wrote accounts of his life devoted more space to reporting his words (sermons, parables, and epigrams) than to his miracles or his confrontations with the authorities. And, at the center of his teaching, was always the gospel.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom … (Mt 4:23)

“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Lk 4:18)

A dozen times Matthew, Mark, and Luke summarize the essential message of Jesus’ preaching and teaching as “proclaiming the good news.” This gospel proclamation was, in Jesus’ own words, the heart of his ministry and the purpose for which he was sent.[2] It was what the Spirit “anointed” him to preach.[3]

Small wonder then that, when Jesus sent his disciples out on a “practice mission”,[4] he instructed them to “proclaim the kingdom of God … So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news …” Just before he ascended back to his Father, he commissioned the Apostles to “go into all the world and preach” and specified that it was “the gospel” they were to proclaim.[5] He promised them that, before the “end” could come, “this gospel must first be preached to all nations.” [6]

And they were faithful to their commission. When the Spirit fell and their witness began, it was the gospel they spoke about. Peter’s first sermon[7] was about gospel—the Spirit pouring forth on all people; wonders and the glorious day of the Lord; salvation for all who ask; Jesus and his ministry; Jesus and his death; Jesus and his resurrection. He and the other Apostles continued to emphasize the gospel in their preaching.

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (Ac 5:42)

When Philip went preaching in Samaria, it was the gospel he talked about (“They believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ…” [8]). When he taught the Ethiopian Eunuch, it was the gospel he shared (“Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” [9]). When he toured through Galilee, the gospel was on his mind and lips (“Philip … traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea” [10]).

When Peter and John ventured into Samaritan territory, they took the gospel with them (“Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages” [11]). When Peter entered Cornelius’ home and welcomed the first Gentile into the church, he spoke of the gospel (“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” [12]).

When persecution of Christians broke out in Jerusalem, the disciples went everywhere preaching the gospel (“Some of them … began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” [13]). Paul and Barnabas began what would become the “Missionary Journeys” by making sure to pack the gospel for the trip (“They continued to preach the gospel …” [14]). They “preached the gospel” in Syrian Antioch,[15] in Pisidian Antioch,[16] in Lystra and Derbe,[17] and in Galatia.[18] Later, Paul would take the gospel to Troas (“I went to Troas to preach the gospel” [19]), to Macedonia (“God had called us to preach the gospel to them”[20]), to Thessalonike (“we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition” [21]), to Athens (“Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” [22]), to Corinth (“I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you” [23]), to Ephesus (“My only aim is to … complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” [24]), and to the entire Gentile world (“He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God” [25]).

Nor did the gospel take center stage only in the Apostles’ preaching. It was right there, front and center, in their writings as well.

When Mark decided to pen a book on the life of Jesus, he titled it “the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”[26] The opening scene of Luke’s story has the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Christ to Zechariah: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” Though John does not use the specific word “gospel” in his writings, he makes it clear that the good news of Jesus and the good news of trusting in him are the reasons why he writes:

These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:30)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a prolonged and passionate essay on the gospel. The gospel and its hold on Paul show up in the very first verse:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God … (Ro 1:1)

He is “eager” to preach the gospel to the Romans.[27] Its basic themes and challenging ideas do not embarrass him.[28] Far from it:

[The gospel] is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last … (Ro 1:16-17)

The rest of the letter walks his readers through the fundamentals of the gospel story: the creating and revealing God; a creation gone wrong; all humanity under the wrath of God; the surprising, astounding news of justification through faith; peace with God through Christ; new life—resurrection life—for those who believe; the realm of the Spirit and the promise of transformation. The Letter to the Romans is nothing less or more than an extended celebration of God’s good news story and its impact on the world and on our lives.

The Corinthians loved parts of the gospel (e.g., the promises of power, the ability to be “spiritual”). But they cared less for other parts of the gospel (e.g., the Cross and the lifestyle of humble service). So Paul writes 1 Corinthians to tell the Corinthians that they must embrace the whole gospel—or leave it entirely alone:

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, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (1Co 15:1-2)

He writes to the Christians of Galatia because the gospel is under serious attack there.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! (Gal 1:6-8)

Like Romans, the Galatian letter rehearses the fundamental themes of the gospel story: salvation as a gift of God’s grace, through faith, and not as a result of “works of the law”; clothed with Christ, alive with Christ, Christ alive in us; the transforming work of the Spirit; freedom and righteousness and the fruit of the Spirit. The letter entire is an eloquent, enthusiastic defense of the core gospel that saves and sanctifies.

I could go on to survey the role of the gospel in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians (“You also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation” [29]), Philippians (“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” [30]), Colossians (“The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” [31]), and Thessalonians (“We were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” [32]).

But perhaps this abridged survey will be sufficient to persuade you that, in the Bible as a whole and in the New Testament particularly, the gospel has pride of place. We still have a great deal of work to identify the specific parts of God’s story that make up the essential gospel. But, whatever the “parts” may be, this survey demonstrates that the “whole” is a coherent, consistent, and interconnected story that forms the very core of God’s Scriptures and the beating heart of the Christian message.

God’s Story/Our Story

And it is our story. It is the story that defines and shapes us. It is a story more powerful than any of the other narratives of our lives. It washes away great swaths of former stories we told about ourselves (stories of failure and flaws and foolishness). It heals the scarring impact of old stories that once ruled us (slavery to sin, the bad decisions of our past). It teaches us about our true parentage (we are children of God) and our true purpose (to become God’s image). It substitutes good news for bad news. It reorders our lives so that our priorities and principles and pursuits fall in line with the gospel story we have embraced as our own.

Knowing and trusting that gospel story, living out of it, celebrating it, and bearing witness to it—that’s what makes us “Christians.” Not where we spend our Sunday mornings … or which vices we avoid … or what virtues we adopt. God can work with our inadequacies (he’s had lots of practice by now!) so long as we have an adequate gospel to work with.

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[1] (The word “Gospel” does not occur in several of the shortest books of the New Testament—e.g., Jude and 2nd Peter. Nor, strangely, does it occur in any of John’s writings.)

[2] Lk 4:43

[3] Lk 4:18

[4] Lk 9:1-6

[5] Mk 16:15

[6] Mk 13:10; Mt 24:14

[7] Ac 2:14-36

[8] Ac 8:12

[9] Ac 8:35

[10] Ac 8:40

[11] Ac 8:25

[12] Ac 15:7. See also Ac 10:36.

[13] Ac 11:20

[14] Ac 14:7

[15] Gal 2:2; see also Ac 11:25-26

[16] Ac 13:32

[17] Ac 14:7, 15, 21

[18] Gal 1:8

[19] 2Co 2:12

[20] Ac 16:10

[21] 1Th 2:2

[22] Ac 17:18

[23] 1Co 15:1

[24] Ac 20:24

[25] Ro 15:16. See also Ro 15:19.

[26] Mk 1:1

[27] Ro 1:15

[28] Ro 1:16

[29] Eph 1:13

[30] Php 1:27

[31] Col 1:6

[32] 1Th 2:8

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.