The Marks of the Gospel (II)

[This essay is a continuation of the preceding.]

We are searching for the gospel. In order to do so, we need some criteria by which to determine what is gospel and what is not. I’m suggesting ten principles for finding gospel gold. In my prior essay, I suggested the following five ideas to help us identify and discern elements that belong to the core gospel:

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

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

3.      Does it qualify as “good news”?

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

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

Here, for your consideration, are the final five criteria I believe are useful in distinguishing the essential gospel.

6.      Is it centered on Christ?

[He] is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ … (Rom 16:25)

It is clear that, whatever else the gospel may be, it is a story centered on Jesus Christ: who he is, how he lived, what he taught, why he died, that God raised him to life again. The gospel is, first and foremost, about Jesus.

When the Apostles went everywhere “preaching the gospel” in the book of Acts, it was Jesus they talked about. Gospel preaching was Jesus preaching. It involved telling the story of Jesus,[i] being a “witness” and “testifying” about Jesus,[ii] announcing that Jesus was the “Son of God” and “Messiah,”[iii] proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection,[iv] and speaking “in the name of Jesus.”[v]

When we turn to Paul’s letters, the point is made (repeatedly and emphatically) that the gospel is centered on Jesus. Paul equates the gospel to “the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ” (Rom 16:25), “the Cross of Christ” (1Co 1:17), “the glory of Christ” (2Co 4:4), “the Jesus we preached” (2Co 11:4), “the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:6), and simply “preaching Christ” (Php 1:15, 18). His customary way of referring to the gospel is with the phrase “the gospel of Christ.”[vi] When Paul identified the matters of “first importance” in the gospel (1Co 15:1-4), he pointed to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

There are those—taking their cue from this passage—who would limit the gospel message to Cross and Tomb; as if all of the gospel is encompassed within the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But that makes more of Paul’s words than he himself did. Certainly, Paul had a clear sense that the gospel was about Jesus and the events of Easter. But, for Paul, the gospel was larger than Easter because Jesus was more than his death and resurrection. So Paul dwells—long and lovingly—on Christ’s role in creation (for instance); his founding of a holy community (the church); his gift of new life and transformed living; and his return to judge the world. These also were important parts of the gospel Paul preached. They qualified as gospel because Jesus played a leading role in each.

7.      Is it simple and transportable?

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words … (1Co 2:1-4)

The gospel Jesus and his first followers preached did not require three months to unpack. Apparently, it could be announced in a synagogue service, or on temple steps, or during an agora debate. There was a simplicity, a spareness, about the gospel that meant it could be conveyed quickly, understood easily, and carried to people of different cultures, languages, and lifestyles.

In the above passage, Paul claims that “the testimony about God” was proclaimed without big words and difficult concepts. No syllogisms. No convoluted logic. No long lists to memorize and check off. A basic story centering on “Christ and him crucified.”

One of the symptoms of our present struggles with the gospel is an inability to tell it succinctly, in a manner that doesn’t require a Bible dictionary, and in words a child can grasp. The gospel most of us carry around is an unwieldy thing. It is big and bulky and difficult to convey wherever there are distractions or limited time. The very idea that there could be a “five minute” gospel—a story that, if not covering everything in depth, outlines the major points and basic tenets of the gospel—is almost inconceivable to us. Could you tell the gospel story in five minutes, over a cup of coffee, with confidence that you have just conveyed the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel?

The brevity and simplicity of the gospel story carried by the Apostles goes a long way towards explaining their evangelistic success. It didn’t matter where they were, how long or short they had, how different their audience was from themselves, or that they were speaking in a second (or third!) language. They had a story they could tell quickly and simply, a story that Greeks in Corinth could grasp as easily as Hebrews in Jerusalem. And they had a story so powerful (as we are about to see), that all manner of people in all kinds of places were “cut to the heart” on hearing it.

8.      Does it have power?

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes … (Rom 1:16)

In the New Testament, the gospel is described as a powerful story[vii] about God’s power at work in the world;[viii] a story preached with power,[ix] accompanied by powerful signs,[x] unleashing God’s grace and hope powerfully in the lives of believers,[xi] overcoming the power of sin and the Evil One,[xii] and growing in power the more it was preached and accepted.[xiii]

The connection between “gospel” and “power” is frequent and profound. The gospel isn’t just a story, lifeless and inert. It isn’t merely interesting or informative. This is a story that changes lives and turns worlds upside down. This is a story that holds within itself the seeds of new life.

The gospel is a powerful story about God moving powerfully to give new life to people who were powerless. It is a story with the power to accomplish the purposes of God. It is a story that heals a broken world, makes peace out of enmity, reconciles the estranged, turns death to life, breaks the bonds of slavery, and transforms saints into sinners. It is a story that—when heard and believed—unleashes God’s power in human beings in unexpected and Spirit-prompted ways. Each component of the gospel story contributes its own dynamic to the story as a whole, moving the story forward in ways that inspire and transform.

Elements that lack this kind of transformative power do not belong in the core gospel. Elements that depend on us—powerless and broken and dead and enslaved and wretched as we are—do not belong in the core gospel. The gospel is “the power of God” and must be kept free of anything that would dilute or drain that power.

9.      Does it save and sanctify?

God chose you … to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel … (2Ti 1:9)

Above all, the gospel is “good news” because it tells what God has done to rescue us from the ravages of sin, break sin’s yoke from our necks, and transform us into holy people. The good news of the gospel is not that we can be healthy and wealthy, or pray the prayer of Jabez, or understand the mysteries of the Rapture, or raise respectful children, or have a larger mansion in the heavenly realms. It is, rather, that God—in his mercy and grace and according to his good purposes—has redeemed us from Satan, adopted us as his true children, and empowered us to live the life he intended when he placed his image within us.

There is an intimate link made in Scripture between the gospel and the ideas of salvation and sanctification. Certainly, the gospel tells us how God has saved and sanctified us. But it is more than that … the link is closer and causal … the gospel itself unleashes God’s saving and sanctifying work within us. The gospel is, in some sense, the means by which God saves and sanctifies us. “By this gospel you are saved,” Paul reminds the Corinthians.[xiv] “Through our gospel,” he instructs Timothy, “the sanctifying work of the Spirit” is experienced.[xv]

Each element of the gospel contributes something to saving and transforming us. Anything that doesn’t bear directly and powerfully on these central ideas probably has no place in the core gospel.

10.  Is it something worth dying for?

Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. (2Ti 1:8)

The gospel is threatening to a dark world and its Dark Lord. Whenever the gospel is preached, it is also persecuted. Paul wasn’t thrown into prison because he was irritating; he suffered because of his commitment to the gospel. Christians in Rome weren’t thrown to the lions because they went to church; they were persecuted because they kept talking about the gospel. Those who take gospel seriously should expect to face serious opposition.[xvi]

For that reason, it is important that the ideas we place into the core gospel be something we are willing to suffer and die for. No mere preferences and opinions, please. No finely nuanced positions on matters that don’t matter. What we proclaim as gospel must consist of truths so deeply believed and cherished that they cannot be beaten out of us.

Anything else is a recipe for compromise and capitulation.

[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] Acts 8:35; 11:20; 17:18; 28:23

[ii] Acts 1:8; Acts 8:25, 35; 10:36, 42

[iii] Acts 5:42; 9:20, 22; 18:5

[iv] Acts 17:18

[v] Acts 4:18-20; 8:12; 9:27

[vi] Rom 15:19; 1Co 9:12; 2Co 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal 1:7; Php 1:27; 1Th 3:2; 2Ti 2:8 [See also Rom 1:9; 15:20; 16:25.]

[vii] 1Co 1:17-18

[viii] 1Co 1:24; 6:14; Ro 1:16

[ix] Acts 1:8; 4:33; 9:22; 1Co 2:4-5; 2Co 4:4-7; Eph 3:7; Col 1:28-29; 1Th 1:4-5

[x] Ro 15:18-19; 1Co 2:4-5; 1Th 1:4-5

[xi] Acts 4:33; Rom 15:13; Eph 1:18-23; 3:16-21

[xii] Acts 26;15-18; 2Co 10:2-5; Eph 1:20-21; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14

[xiii] Acts 19:20; Col 1:6

[xiv] 1Co 15:2 [See also Rom 1:16; Eph 1:13.]

[xv] 2Ti 1:9 [See also Rom 1:172Th 2:13-14; Gal 1:6ff; 2:20-21; 3:1-6, 14.]

[xvi] See 1Th 2:2; 2Tim 1:8; Gal 6:12; Php 1:7; Phm 1:13; 2Cor 4:4.

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