What is the Gospel?

There are a lot of different definitions out there for the gospel… I am in search for a good, biblically informed, comprehensive, working defintion of the Gospel.  Any suggestions?  Freestyle with me.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

16 thoughts on “What is the Gospel?

  1. Hey there,

    Maybe to get the conversation started, Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

    In Christ,

    Mark

  2. Etymology is not always the most reliable indicator of word use, but in this case, “good news” or “good message” is not a bad start to the meaning of the word “gospel” or “evangel” in Greek. But it is only a start, for the kind of news is specific.

    Mark uses the word of the book, or Gospel, he wrote–the story of Jesus culminating in His death and resurrection (Mark 1:1). Paul tells the church in Rome that he has been “set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son … ” (1:1-3). And so Jesus is particularly the subject of the gospel as prophesied.

    Paul seems to unfold the gospel for the church in Rome from 1:16 onward. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed.

    I will not take time at present to develop a definition further, though I think the above gives a direction many have used. Rather I would pause to observe that the way Jesus approached Nicodemus at night was different from the way He approached the woman at the well, which in turn was different from the way He approached the rich young ruler, which was different from the way He approached the crowds (when He used parables). Yet He Himself was the subject of each approach.

    One popular gospel tract of the late 20th century in the USA was known as the “Four Spiritual Laws.” It was modified to be more contextually appropriate for Britain, and when a gospel tract was developed, I think by the same group (Campus Crusade) for Hong Kong, the good message was filled with metaphors and imagery more readily understood by traditional Chinese culture (family, new birth, and so on).

    In other words, the gospel message is rooted in Jesus and in what He accomplished on the cross, yet the gospel is also seminal, touching on a wide variety of concepts (liberation, family, justice, forgiveness, sacrifice, redemption, growth, life, light, death, adoption, cleansing, and so on).

  3. Hi Peter,

    I think I’m tracking you in part.

    And I was going to say God, Man, Sin, Jesus (a modification to the four spiritual laws as I never felt comfortable with the “wonderful plan for life” stuff) as a de facto answer but I prefer Paul’s start to the debate. What’s most important to Paul was that, “Christ died for our sins”. That’s the beginning, the kernel. As you said, “He Himself was the subject of each approach” and that should be ours.

    Sidebar: Was Nicodemus been given a Gospel presentation in John 3? Was that John’s objective as a writer, to give his readers an insight into lifestyle evangelism?

    In Christ,

    Mark

  4. Hi Mark!

    When I wrote “the gospel message is rooted in Jesus and in what He accomplished on the cross,” I was assuming a full-fledged Trinitarianism and the Resurrection (and Ascension). I think we agree on the “core.”

    Scholars disagree how far the Jesus-Nicodemus conversation goes in John 3 and at what point John picks up with his own commentary, but I think it safe to say at least that Jesus was holding Nicodemus responsible for understanding what the Old Testament (as we would call it) had to say about regeneration (to use the theologian’s term) or “spiritual enlivening,” arguably clearest in Ezekiel 36.

    Not only is it unclear that Jesus went farther at this point with Nicodemus, but Jesus’ approaches generally seem to frustrate our desires (for those of use who have them) to see a full-fledged seven-point doctrinal recitation of the gospel (or the like) every time it is presented.

    Of course, we don’t have everything Jesus said to the people of Sychar (John 4), and Jesus may have said more to Nicodemus than John recorded, but Jesus is known for giving pieces of gospel truth, like teasers or movie trailers, so that those with ears to hear might hear … and contrariwise for the spiritually deaf (e.g., parables).

    And for those with the ears, conversion, faith, and discipleship was more likely to have been a process more than a point, despite the fact that regeneration itself is at a single point.

    Also true is that John and God intended us to receive John’s whole Gospel (the book). Arguably central to John’s purpose overall was “so that you [dear reader] might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in His name” (20:31). This seems to fit well with the whole of John 3.

    I am not sure I understand what you mean by “lifestyle evangelism,” but perhaps I have addressed your question at least indirectly.

  5. You all are tracking with me some… I really was thinking about Jesus and his use of the word gospel. As mentioned by Jazz Theologian, it was highly associated with the Kingdom of God. But then, we also see a multiplicity of images and metaphors for the gospel as well. Can it be wrapped up succinctly, or is that what got the western christian community in trouble in the first part… reducing the gospel down to its simplest form, so we could “master” it.

  6. I for one have resisted “reducing the gospel down to its simplest form” save as I have already done, similar to the way Mark has. To do so further seems to me to risk oversimplification. For illustration, read the doctrine of salvation portion of a good systematic theology text like Wayne Grudem’s.

    Nonetheless, I believe that one relevant touchstone issue, one I regard as central to the gospel, has in times past been a common doctrine within many branches of the Reformation, namely justification by faith alone. This was Martin Luther’s great rediscovery and the cognitive basis for his famous conversion experience.

    Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Galatians particularly stress that doctrine, and justification by faith alone is a doctrine the church has much distorted or neglected or fought against.

    Closely tied to the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the concept of the propitiation of God’s wrath for our sins. God remains just and the One who justifies the one who believes in Jesus precisely because on the cross Jesus propitiated the wrath of God for sins. Propitiation causes justification.

    Despite detractors, John Morris’s The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross is still a classic and reasonable defense of this key Protestant view.

    By this, I do not intend to argue that the other concepts concerned with the gospel are all illegitimate (reconciliation, redemption, etc.), but only that justification by faith alone is central to the gospel, a key pillar of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct practice). Nor do I intend to downplay the role of works in the Christian life, although I would argue that crucial to the gospel is a correct understanding of the role of works with respect to justification by faith alone.

  7. Hi Drew.

    Thanks for this question I saw you on twitter and will connect to you thee. here is something that changed my ministry ten years ago.

    Most (not all) preachers teach Romans 10:9 as a salvation message I was in Waco Tx preaching revivals and I knew something was not right about this. So I began to search the bible. I discoverted that Romans ten nine was written in AD 54 19 years after pentecost. My question was then ‘what then did the apostles preach for these 24 years? The answer salvation as in Acts.

    Then I looked at how the Jews were saved Acts 2:38 then I looked at how the Gentiles were saved Acts 10 and I saw the revelation. The gospel was first to go to Jerusalem (Acts 2) then to the uttermost parts of the world (Gentiles in Acts 10). What’s more amazing is that in both counts souls were saved not by the Romans 10:9 formula but by 1. Repentace. 2. baptism in Jesus name for the remission of sins and reception of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in other tongues.

    Exactly as Jesus said it would be in John 3:5.. Born of water (water baptism and born of spirit Holy (Holy Ghost baptism) This is what I now preach and its powerful… and the true original and my I add only true gospel.

    Now i’m seeing Acts days all over again and its awesome.

    God bless you

    Paul.

  8. Hi Paul Thomas,

    If I may offer some commentary to your comments …

    A single preposition (“of”) in Greek governs both nouns “spirit” and “water” in John 3:5, suggesting they are conceived as somehow unified. In context, Jesus uses the phrases “born again [or from above],” “born of water and the Spirit,” and “born of the Spirit” interchangeably, implying the phrases each refer to the same “birth” event.

    Further, Jesus says he has reason to expect Nicodemus, as teacher of Israel, to know what this birth means, necessarily implying that the Old Testament teaches it. See especially Ezekiel 36, where water, which evidently is figurative, cleans from sin and a new heart is given to God’s people. One also wonders at the connection with the vision of the resurrection of dry bones in the next chapter.

    In other words, water in John 3:5 need not be baptism, and is probably figurative (non-wet). In fact, to make water in John 3:5 equal to baptism, it must be an obscure reference.

    Peter spoke Acts 2:38 according to Luke, and both Peter and Paul state that they and the Jerusalem apostles generally were all in agreement regarding the nature of salvation (Acts 15, 21; Galatians 2, and so on). Nor does Paul argue against Luke on this doctrine or conversely in the book of Acts or elsewhere.

    Granting, Mr. Thomas, that various preachers you have heard may have misused Romans 10:9 (for all I know), yet to make Paul’s book of Romans so strongly deviate from Peter and the early apostolic preaching of the gospel and salvation would seem to conflict with the representations of unity on this vital doctrine as presented in the New Testament. Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles,” also wrote Galatians some years earlier than Romans (possibly A.D. 44-45, as I recall), and Galatians is very like Romans on the doctrines of justification and salvation. More importantly, no conflict on salvation or baptism is apparent between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles where the subject is germane, when Paul visits Jerusalem in Acts 21. The Acts 21 meeting occurred after Romans was penned (or very near the time).

    Moreover Peter and the Jerusalem apostles are, according to Luke in Acts, not careful to maintain a pattern of baptism that is in all respects identical to the picture in Acts 2:38. In Acts 2:38, Peter could have viewed baptism in that Pentecost/Holy Spirit context as part and parcel with repentance, and repentance evidently implied turning to Jesus as Lord. Baptism could have been taken as a sign of such repentance.

    And Luke in his gospel is careful to record Jesus’ words to one thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). No baptism is in evidence here. Nor is the Acts 2:38 pattern repeated in Peter’s two epistles where remission of sins is discussed or otherwise.

    Of course, baptism does play a significant role in Acts and the New Testament, but regrettably your remarks do not give me confidence that you understand either baptism’s role or what the gospel is as presented in the Bible or in Acts and John in particular.

    I hope you find the above helpful.

    Peter

    P.S. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:30 asks rhetorically if all members of the body of Christ speak in tongues (or perform miracles, and so on). The implied answer is “no.” To argue that all must speak in tongues is to deny the diversity of gifts and functions (like human organs) within the body.

  9. Joel Martin makes an excellent suggestion. The claim, “Jesus is Lord” is certainly a core belief and dividing point in the New Testament with anti-idolatry antecedents and messianic foreshadowing in the Old Testament, but, for example, among World Council of Churches clergy, I would want to clarify the meaning of “Jesus,” “Lord,” and possibly even “is.”

    In connection with the copula’s use on divided interpretations of the Eucharist’s phrase “this is my body,” G.B. Caird points out four major New Testament uses, among which are resemblance (illustrated by “the tongue is a fire” James 3:6) and attribute “illustrated by “no one is good except God alone” Mark 10:18). Only the first on Caird’s list is identity (G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, p. 101).

  10. Is the gospel purely about what is to come… or does it have implications for the here and now? What is the relationship between the kingdom of God here on earth and the gospel? Jesus most often made that connection and therefore it seems as though we cannot have a fair conversation about the gospel without discussing the implications of the Kingdom of God.

  11. I like the kingdom/gospel connection. It is most defensible I think to claim that the gospel and the kingdom of God have both present and future implications.

    As to the kingdom of God, I cannot offer the definitive explanation, but only a few sketches. In the days when there was no temple sacrifice and the city of God, Jerusalem, lay in ruins, Daniel and the earthly king God placed over him envision a day when a rock cut without hands would crush the preceding earthly kingdoms and then, as happens in dreams, grow throughout the whole earth as yeast grows throughout the batch of dough.

    Daniel’s prophetic vision of the kingdom of God may be the most ready and developed Scriptural antecedent to the New Testament’s own use, where the phrase is used more heavily in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) than elsewhere.

    In this connection note that Matthew probably uses the circumlocution “heaven” for “God” on account of Jewish reticence to name the Almighty. But the kingdom in question amounts to the same thing. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven.

    On the face of it, the kingdom of God is either the place where God is treated as king or where He reigns. Use makes the former meaning predominant. In some sense God reigns where He is not treated as king. Hence the moral obligation to enter the kingdom of God or to behave in a way consistent with the kingdom.

    In Gospels terminology, the gospel of the kingdom may be proclaimed and the kingdom may be proclaimed, as if the gospel and the kingdom may refer to the same thing despite semantic differences. This conclusion may not be necessary, but a close relationship seems implied.

    As is true of the gospel, the kingdom of God is not measured by tangible real estate, but rather by the work of the Spirit of God in human hearts. Only where the gospel of Jesus is believed do people worship and obey the King of all creation. Only then do people inherit the kingdom of God in its final form.

  12. Hi Drew,

    In a simplistic way, I look at the Gospel through the purpose for which Jesus came to earth. Luke 4:18 – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (the New International Version)

    By extension, I believe the good news is that through Jesus we are able to be the recipients of all of the above (both in this world and in the world to come) – and that to me is a wonderful thing.
    Santhosh

  13. Hey Santhosh,
    Luke 4:18 is a crucial starting point for me as well… it’s his inauguration of the kingdom, the pronouncement of the gospel and how it has various implications depending on one’s situation and context. Sight for the blind and liberation for the oppressed. And I think it is important to highlight the implications of the gospel both now and for eternity. Thanks for your thoughts.

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