What is the Gospel?
Some questions appear almost rude. To ask, "What is the gospel?" is like asking, "Who is Jesus Christ?" or, "What is the Bible really about?" Just about everyone in the church takes it for granted that he knows what the gospel is, and therefore to raise such a fundamental question may be as irritating as asking people if they can still repeat the alphabet. Yet if we are unclear on the meaning of the gospel, we have to call into question all that we are doing.
There is a great risk involved in posing this question afresh. We may discover we have been wrong! That is a great risk. The human heart has never found it easy to admit error, and today is no exception. To raise our question and to seek to answer it is to expose ourselves to the possibility that we have been mistaken on the most fundamental point of Christianity.
Let us humble ourselves before God and take the risk.
The Essential Elements of the Gospel
There are characteristics which belong to one thing, but which also belong to other things. For example, a horse has four legs, but so does a cow. Such characteristics will not help us to discover the essential nature of a thing. To discover the essential nature of a thing is to define that thing; and to define that thing, we must discover the characteristics which belong to that thing and not to any other thing.
It is the same with defining the gospel. We have to arrive at those characteristics which are peculiar to it and to nothing else. To give characteristics which belong to the gospel and to other things will be to describe the gospel but not to define it. For this reason we have used the term "essential elements" in the preceding heading. Let us now see what these essential elements of the gospel are.
1. The Gospel Concerns Jesus Christ
The sum and substance of the gospel is Jesus Christ. Not only is Jesus Christ involved in the gospel. He is the gospel. This is important, for it distinguishes Jesus Christ from the other Members of the Trinity and from the believer.
We say that we distinguish Jesus Christ from other Members of the Trinity. There is a very real sense in which we may say, "The gospel is Jesus Christ," but in which we cannot say, "The gospel is the Father," or, "The gospel is the Spirit." While the Father and the Spirit are obviously involved in the gospel, the Father is not the gospel and the Holy Spirit is not the gospel. The gospel is about the doing (life) and dying (death) of Jesus Christ. It is not about the life and death of the Father or the Spirit. While the Father is glorified in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel itself is not Father-centered. Nor is it Spirit-centered.
Hence, to expound the gospel, we may proclaim who Jesus Christ is and what He has done, what the Father has done in and through Jesus Christ, or what Jesus Christ has done in and by the power of the Spirit. Always, Jesus Christ is central when we are preaching the gospel. What is said of the Father and the Spirit in the gospel is said from the disclosure of such in Jesus Christ.
We say that we distinguish Jesus Christ from the believer. Just as the gospel is not about the Father or the Spirit (in the way we have explained), so the gospel is not about the believer. The gospel is about Jesus Christ.
Though some do not wish to speak of the believer as being involved in the gospel, it may be possible to speak of the believer as being involved in that he is represented in the gospel. He is represented in the gospel by his Substitute, Jesus Christ. The believer lives and dies in Jesus Christ.
Thus, to expound the gospel, we may proclaim who Jesus Christ is and what He has done. We may even proclaim who the believer is (son of God) and what he has done (rendered perfect obedience to God) so long as we proclaim that this was done in and through Jesus Christ. Just as what is said about the Father and the Spirit in the gospel is said from the central standpoint of Jesus Christ, so what is said about the believer in the gospel must always be spoken of from the central standpoint of Jesus Christ. The believer must be spoken of in the gospel in terms of what Jesus Christ has done.
Heresy (at this point) is to make the Father central, the Spirit central, or the believer central. Let us put this another way. Heresy is to attribute to the Father what was done by the Son (crucified and risen again), to attribute to the Spirit what was done by the Son, or to attribute to the believer what was done by the Son.
We may become heretical and preach a false gospel in another way. Though we speak of the believer's living and dying in Jesus, we must always be careful to note that he in no way helps the Son do His saving work. How could he? The believer was not present except by representation. What was done in the gospel was done for him by his Substitute. He was present only in his Substitute.
Let us look at this in another way. The Father was present in the Son, and all believers were present in the Son. But the Father was actually present. Jesus Christ was not a Substitute for the Father (i.e., on earth instead of the Father), but He was the Substitute for believers (living and dying in the stead of believers). Though the gospel is what Jesus Christ has done (lived and died), the Father aided the Son by His Spirit, whereas no believer aided the Son in the work of the gospel.
The gospel is about Jesus Christ — not about the Father as such, or the Spirit as such, or the believer.
2. The Gospel Concerns a Past, Historical Event
Each of the three words past, historical and event are of vital significance for understanding what the gospel is. The gospel of the apostles was something that had happened. They all looked back upon it. They did not point to anything in the present as gospel, and they did not point to anything in the future as gospel. Notice, we are not saying that they did not point to anything in either present or future. We are simply saying that they did not point to anything in present or future as gospel. Unless we are looking back and pointing to something that happened in the past, we are not preaching the gospel. The "past-ness" of the gospel is one of its essential aspects.
The gospel was not a vision. It was not a dream. The gospel was a historical happening. It happened in history. Within a certain degree of accuracy, it may be dated.
The historical nature of the gospel — its past, historical nature — has certain important consequences:
First, you cannot exhort the gospel. You cannot exhort a past, historical work. You can only declare it, proclaim it, and publish it abroad. Exhortation is good (because it is biblical) and needed, but it is not the gospel and is not included in the gospel. Notice, we are not saying that it is not included in a sermon wherein the gospel is preached. We are simply saying that if it is included in a "gospel sermon," it must not be a part of the gospel.
Second, not only can you not exhort the gospel, but also the gospel cannot be experienced. Yes, you have read correctly! The gospel cannot be experienced. We have several reasons for saying this:
a. The gospel is about a unique experience. A unique experience is that which cannot (by virtue of definition) be repeated. If the believer could experience the gospel, then he would repeat the experience; and if he could repeat the experience, then the gospel would not be about a unique experience.
b. The gospel is perfect. Since the Fall, there is no perfection on earth either before or after the gospel. If the believer could experience the gospel, he would experience the perfect; and if he could experience the perfect, he would not need the gospel.
c. All historians know that you cannot experience a past, historical event. You may identify with it as much as you are able, but you cannot experience it.
d. The gospel concerns the substitutionary work of Christ. If the believer could experience the gospel, it would cease to be substitutionary. The gospel is what God has done in Christ in my stead. If I could experience this, it would not be in my stead.
Third, we believe the gospel. Believing the gospel is hoping in something that is not seen. Faith is the substance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1); but who hopes for that which he already has (Rom. 8:24)?
We repeat, The gospel cannot be experienced. We certainly do experience its benefits, or the Holy Spirit. But as we have seen, the Holy Spirit is not the gospel. The Holy Spirit given to the believer is the fruit of the gospel. So also are faith, hope, joy, peace as a subjective state, and holiness as a state of the believer. They are all fruits of the gospel. We must not confuse the root (the gospel) and the fruit (see Col. 1:5, 6).
The gospel is a past, historical event. This has stupendous consequences for the church and the world. The gospel is the past, historical Christ event.
3. The Gospel Concerns the Perfect Work of God in Jesus Christ for Us
As we have stated, there is no imperfection in the gospel. It is the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ for us. There are two important aspects of this:
First, the gospel concerns the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ. Unless we are preaching a work of perfection in Jesus Christ, we are not preaching the gospel. The gospel admits of no development. Anything that does admit of development (the Christian life of sanctification, etc.) cannot, by virtue of definition, be the gospel. For instance, faith is good, but it is not perfect. Repentance is good and necessary, but none of us repents as he ought to. Holy living is good, and no man will see the Lord without it; but our holy living is far from perfect. None of these things can qualify, therefore, as the gospel.
The second important aspect to notice is that the gospel is the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ. Even if the believer were perfect, the gospel would not be about him. It concerns Jesus Christ as the place of God's perfect work. Nothing that is happening in the believer can be called the gospel. It may be called the fruit of the gospel, but not the gospel itself. If this is so (and it is so), then the medium and the message (of the gospel) are quite distinct. Only concerning Jesus Christ can it be said that the Medium is the message.
4. The Gospel Is the Power of God for Salvation (Rom. 1:16)
We must be clear about what is being said here. We are not saying that the gospel leads to power. Paul tells us that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. The power of God is the gospel. The gospel and the power of God are identical. This is why we include this point under "essential elements" — i.e., elements essential to the nature of the gospel.
There are many aspects of this point that we could develop, but we shall focus on an area which needs clarification, judging by much literature in the Christian world. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. Usually we take such a statement to mean only that if the gospel is believed initially, then salvation will follow. In other words, we think that such a statement (i.e., that the gospel is the power of God) refers almost exclusively, if not exclusively, to the salvation of the unbeliever.
But it must be highlighted that Paul's statement is also greatly applicable to the believer. The gospel saves the unbeliever when he believes, but it also saves the believer as he believes. It is the power of God for the salvation of the believer. Let us isolate certain consequences of this truth.
First, the gospel is that by which the believer is saved by God at the beginning, middle and end of the Christian walk. There is never a point in the Christian's life when the gospel is not saving him. He must therefore look to the gospel at every point in his walk with God.
Second, we trust that we have made it clear that the gospel and sanctification are quite distinct realities. The gospel does not equal, nor does it include, sanctification. If it did, we could not assert our previous three points. Sanctification is the chief work of the Spirit which takes place in the experience of the believer. This work is not yet perfect. Since the gospel and sanctification are not identical, we cannot say that sanctification is that by which God saves us. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation.
Now let us make ourselves quite clear. We are not suggesting for one moment that sanctification is unimportant. We are ever prepared to say that no man will be found pleasing in God's sight without it. But what we are saying is that true sanctification will always be the product of the gospel (Col. 1:5, 6). Only what is produced in our lives as a direct result of the gospel is true sanctification. Sanctification needs the gospel for its source and power. The satanic error is to turn sanctification into the gospel. When this happens, the power of Christian witness is seen to reside in a holy life. But we must realize that sanctification is itself the result and effect of the power of God in the gospel.
Not only does sanctification need the gospel as its powerful source, but sanctification needs the gospel as its constant protection. A sanctification which is cut loose from the gospel is as dangerous as a gospel that does not produce any sanctification. Perhaps it is more dangerous. We say "more dangerous" because a gospel without any sanctification is easy enough to spot. However, a gospel-less sanctification may be more difficult to detect, especially in an age which thinks that the gospel and sanctification are identical.
If sanctification is allowed, in whole or in part, to become the gospel, then we have a sanctification apart from the gospel. To make sanctification to equal the gospel, or to make the gospel to include sanctification, is to posit a sanctification without the gospel.
Third, sanctification needs the gospel as its final protection. All who are saved at the end will be saved by the same means as at the beginning. Our sanctification will be no more capable of saving us at the end than it was at the beginning. As far as saving us is concerned, the only thing our sanctification adds to the gospel is our imperfection! So much for those who see final salvation to be based on our sanctification.
"What the church needs today is more sanctification!" This is a common cry heard today. It is unfortunate, however, that the cry so often signifies an elevating of sanctification to the status and role of the gospel.
If the gospel is that which produces real sanctification (and who wants any other sort?) and the church needs more real sanctification, then the church needs more gospel. The gospel is the power of God for (the producing of) sanctification.
Let us summarize what we have said thus far. We have attempted to state what the gospel essentially is. That is to say, we have attempted to state what makes it the gospel and nothing else.
1. The gospel is about Jesus Christ and no other Person. In a real sense it is not even about any other Person in the Godhead, and certainly not about any other human person such as the believer.
2. The gospel is a past, historical event. It is past and not present or future. It is a historical event and not existential experience. Unless we are preaching a past, historical event, we are not preaching the gospel.
3.The gospel is the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ. All that is perfect is not the gospel, and all that is imperfect is not the gospel. The gospel is the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ.
4. The gospel is the power of God for salvation — for the salvation even of the believer. Our sanctification is dependent upon the gospel as its source, protection, and final covering before the great judgment throne of God. We must always resist the isolation of sanctification from the gospel at any point in the Christian walk. Also, those who identify the gospel and sanctification and those who wish to include sanctification as a part of the gospel end up divorcing sanctification from the gospel. It is indeed tragic that so often the cry, "Sanctification! More sanctification!" means, "Away with the gospel! Away with the gospel!"
This Gospel and Other Gospels
We now want to simply make explicit what is implicit in our previous section. We have positively stated four essential, definite features of the gospel. In the light of what we have already laid down, we must now say what cannot be the gospel.
1. Election, Divorced From Jesus Christ, Cannot Be the Gospel
Not long ago, following an address on the four preceding points of this article, a woman confessed to me that she had been talking to her aged aunt about her need of salvation and that she was speaking to her aunt about whether or not she believed in election. The substance of the woman's evangelistic message was a philosophical concept of the predestinating activity of God. But election which is not grounded in the Christ event cannot qualify as gospel! A doctrine of election which takes as its starting point a philosophical concept instead of the gospel makes the Father the center and not Christ. A doctrine of election apart from Christ is inimical to sanctification and not its powerful source.
2. "TULIP" Cannot Qualify as the Gospel
"TULIP" stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Leaving aside the correctness or otherwise of "TULIP," what we are concerned about is the way in which many Reformed folk use "TULIP." Some give the impression that "TULIP" equals the gospel. Some speak of "TULIP" as though it were the thing that we have to offer to the world. But "TULIP" contains things which cannot qualify as gospel. As an example, the letter "P" at the end of "TULIP" stands for the perseverance of the saints. The perseverance of the saints cannot qualify as gospel. The four elements that we have stated make it impossible for perseverance to qualify as the gospel. We need to beware lest we offer a system of doctrine — as good as it might be — as the gospel. We need to be careful that we do not derive our security from an intellectually watertight system rather than from the great work of God in Jesus Christ on our behalf.
3. "New Birth-ism" Cannot Qualify as the Gospel
Those who preach "Ye must be born again" as the gospel are preaching a false gospel. To begin with, the new birth (which is biblical) is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a reality which takes place now and, by the grace of God, will take place in the future. The new birth is not the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ and is not said to be the power of God unto salvation. Yet much preaching puts the new birth in the place of Jesus Christ. It is a great fallacy to present the new birth as the gospel.
It was the error of Rome to treat regeneration as the gospel. All too many evangelicals have fallen into the same trap. How many times do we hear the gospel presented as, "Jesus will come into your heart," or a sermon climaxing with, "Ask Jesus into your heart"? It is not the coming of Jesus into the heart that is the gospel, but the coming of Jesus into the world on behalf of sinful men.
Focusing on the human heart is not focusing on Jesus Christ. It is not preaching a past, historical event. It is not preaching the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ. And it is not preaching the power of God for salvation. Those who focus on the heart are not preaching that which is the powerful source of sanctification, but that which is inimical to true salvation.
4. The Second Coming Cannot Qualify as the Gospel
Just as the new birth is biblical, so the second coming of Jesus Christ is biblical. However, just as the new birth is not the gospel, so the second coming of the Master is not the gospel. The gospel is a past, historical event, whereas the second coming is the future event of the Son. Just as there are many who are heart-centered, here-and-now-centered, so there are those whose gospel is the message of the eschaton (last things).
There are many who believe that what the church needs is a new heart experience if revival is to come. There are also those who believe that the secret of revival is to preach eschatology. Hence, the heart and the future become centers of preaching. What God has done in Christ is subordinated to what God will do in the believer's heart, and what God has done in the past is subordinated to what God will do in the future. When this is done, a false gospel is preached, and sanctification and eschatology are robbed of their biblical nature.
5. The Baptism of the Spirit Cannot Qualify as the Gospel
The preoccupation of neo-Pentecostalism cannot qualify as the gospel, let alone as the "full gospel." The preoccupation of neo-Pentecostalism is with the Spirit and not with Jesus Christ, with a present experience or a possible future experience and not with a past, historical event. The preoccupation of neo-Pentecostalism is not with the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ, but with the exciting work of God in the heart of the believer. Further, what Pentecostals regard as the demonstration of the power of God is a poor substitute for what Paul calls the power of God — namely, the gospel. For all who wish to see, it is clear that neo-Pentecostals are excited about that which is far inferior to that which excited Paul and the other New Testament writers.
6. Anything Which We Exhort or Experience Cannot Qualify as the Gospel
We have seen in the first section of this article that the gospel is a past, historical event. As such, it cannot be exhorted or experienced. Anything which we exhort or experience cannot qualify as the gospel. Now, we are not saying that we should not exhort or that we should not experience. All we are saying is that when we do exhort and when we do experience, it is not the gospel.
There are many, as we have seen, who believe that the revival of the church is to be found in more sanctification, a deeper experience of God. Such people forget that the greatest motivating power of God is the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The way to get the people of God sanctified is to motivate them to good works; and the way to motivate them to good works is to preach the gospel as the alpha and the omega of right conduct. When we do exhort (and so we should), we must keep our sanctification from ever becoming our justification. Justification must always stand guard over sanctification. The perfect work of God must always stand guard over the good works of His children. The past, historical event of God must always stand guard over the present and future activity of men. The doorposts of human works must always be touched with the blood of Christ for the angels to pass over us — yea, even on the last day.
Geoffrey J. Paxton is an Anglican clergyman and president of the Queensland Bible Institute, Brisbane, Australia.