What Is the Gospel?

In a brief but hilarious reformation21 blog post, "Can You Speak Gospelese?", Paul Levy noted that the word “gospel,” had become “an adjective which if you want people to think you’re kosher in conservative evangelicalism you add it, seemingly, to everything.” Thus, there are churches, and there are gospel-centered churches. There is preaching and there is gospel-centered preaching. There is “gospel this” and “gospel that.”

Well, who doesn’t want to be kosher? So, let me say upfront that this website is a gospel-centered website, and this post is a gospel post.

In all seriousness, turning the gospel into a buzzword has its drawbacks, not the least of which is that it can obscure the meaning of the word. So, what is the gospel? Levy wrote: “the gospel is an announcement of news regarding the incarnate Son of God.” That is a fine definition. It becomes problematic, however, when we restrict it to that narrow definition, or set it in opposition to what we are called to do.

For example, Michael Horton has argued that the term “gospel” is a very precise term, a particular kind of word, or speech in the Bible. It is a victory announcement, and it refers to God’s promise of salvation in Christ. The gospel is not good advice, in that it never tells us something to do. The law tells us what we are to do, whereas the gospel tells us what has been done. Similarly, Tim Keller recently tweeted, “The Gospel is good news not good advice. Advice = what we should do. News = report of what was done for us.”

Many puritans, however, believed that the gospel could in fact be defined more broadly, so as to include what Horton and Keller refer to as “good advice.” Anthony Burgess argued that the gospel may defined “strictly” and “largely.” In the strict or narrow sense, the gospel is...

...a meere gracious promise of Christ to the broken heart for sin; and doth comprehend no more then the glad tidings of a Saviour…in a strict sense, it’s onely a promise of Christ, and his benefits [Luke 2:10].

But in a large or broad sense, the gospel...

...signifieth the whole doctrine, that the Apostles were to preach [Mark 1:1; 16:15].

This includes the commands to repent, believe and pursue holiness, as well as threatenings to those who do not obey the commands of the gospel. Samuel Rutherford wrote that the gospel as it contains the whole doctrine of grace and as it is taught by the prophets and apostles “is a promise of life eternall, made to Evangelike and unperfect doing through the strength of grace.” Although not a puritan, Herman Witsius noted in his book for puritans that,

...it is known to all who are acquainted with theology…that the gospel sometimes signifies all that doctrine which Christ and the Apostles delivered, in which are comprehended both commandments, and prohibitions, and upbraidings, and threatenings, Mark xvi. 15. compared with Matth. xxviii. 20. Rom. ii.16.

The puritans, I believe, are right to consider the gospel in this broad sense. Verses like  2 Thessalonians 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17 speak of obeying the gospel. How do you obey a report that only tells what has been done for us, and not also what we should do? We obey the gospel because the gospel commands. As the Reformation Study Bible says, “The gospel must be accepted, believed, and obeyed (1 Pet. 4:17). Its divine command is for absolute surrender to God through the peace made by Jesus Christ.”

Since the Bible doesn’t restrict the word “gospel” to a very precise meaning, we shouldn’t either. This is not to say that we can’t use the gospel in its narrow sense and distinguish between the gospel (what Jesus has done) and our response to the gospel (what we need to do). To do so is to distinguish between redemption accomplished and redemption applied, and that is a very helpful and necessary distinction. The point is that we shouldn’t oppose or separate them. The Bible binds them together and includes both under the term “gospel.”

Paul summarized the gospel he preached in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). But that is not all there is to the gospel, or even to the work of Christ. A summary of the gospel is just that—a summary—and it shouldn’t be set in direct opposition to its broader definition or fuller explanation.

There are some rather large problems that may arise when people limit the meaning of the gospel to its narrow sense. One potential problem is the unjust accusation of legalism or of mixing law and gospel. It is not necessarily legalistic to use phrases such as “living the gospel,” “obeying the gospel,” or “the conditions of the gospel.” But if you see what we do as only “law” and what Christ has done as only “gospel” then you will likely interpret the broad but biblical use of the term “gospel” as legalistic. Another potential problem is the minimization or outright denial of the conditions of the gospel, which is what the puritans called antinomianism.

What is the gospel? You can give a short or long answer to that question. You can answer it in terms of what Christ has done, or you can add what Christ requires of us in order to partake of what he has done. Here’s a brief example of the latter: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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