What is the Gospel?

In The Gospel (Part 1), we looked at why the gospel. We turn now to the question, what is the gospel? At the most basic level, the Scriptures indicate that "the gospel" was employed as a label to summarize the authoritative news of Jesus Christ, which Jesus himself also entrusted to his apostles.[1] Sometimes the gospel refers more narrowly to the announcement that God has procured the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ substitutionary death (Acts 10:36-43; Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:17-25; 15:1-5). At other times, the gospel refers more broadly to the grand sweep of God’s redemptive-historical purposes that find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Matt 4:23; Luke 4:18-19; Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:1-6; Gal 3:8; Eph 3:4-10).[2] Jesus and his apostles never intended one usage of “the gospel” to overshadow the other. However, what must be stressed with all clarity is that without the narrower focus on Christ crucified and risen, the broader redemptive-historical purposes collapse. With that in mind, we move to a few observations from the Scriptures of what the gospel essentially is.[3]

1. The Proclaimed Message about…

To begin with, the gospel is a proclaimed message. The gospel is not mere information the church possesses, but news, and urgently good news that demands a response from its hearers. The gospel is not merely an idea, but an announcement of who God is, what he has accomplished, what he is currently doing in the world, and what he will finish soon. Thus, intrinsic to the gospel is that it is a message to be heralded and heeded.

Jesus began his earthly ministry proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). Paul clarifies that no other option exists for people’s reconciliation with God outside of hearing and obeying the preached gospel (Rom 10:14-16). In Colossians 1:23, he also writes, “You he has now reconciled…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard—namely, the gospel which is proclaimed in all creation under heaven.”[4] Paul knows no other gospel than the “proclaimed-in-all-creation” gospel;[5] and thus he also exhorts the church to prepare her feet with it (Eph 6:15), an Old Testament image for messengers who run to announce the good news (Isa 52:7). But what exactly do the New Testament writers say this proclaimed message contains? To this we now turn.

2. God Acting…

The gospel is a message about God acting. All throughout the apostles’ proclamation of the gospel, God is at the center. He is the originator behind, the main actor throughout, and the final goal of everything announced in the gospel. God is the creator and originator of all things (Eph 3:8-12). God is the measure of the universe and the one justly offended by his rebellious creatures (Eph 2:1-3). God first loved his rebellious creatures and elected a people for himself in Christ (Eph 1:3-5). God promised his Son in Scripture (Rom 1:1-5; cf. 1 Cor 15:3-4). God sent his Son into the world (John 3:16). God gave him up as a sacrifice for our sins (1 Cor 15:3; cf. Isa 53:10). God raised him from the dead (1 Cor 15:4, 15). God will send him again to sum up all things in himself (1 Cor 15:25-28; Eph 1:9-10). And God will receive the praise and glory for all his purposes in Christ (Rom 11:36; Rev 7:12).

Thus, the gospel is not a message about what we can do for ourselves, nor even a testimony about how we have responded to the grace of God in Christ. Rather, the gospel is first a message about who God is over the cosmos, how God has been offended by our sin, what provision God has made for us despite that sin, and when God will ultimately make things as they should be under his rule. So the answer to all our sin and brokenness is not found in what we can do for ourselves, but in what God has done for us already and what he will do for us in the end.

3. In the Person and Work of Jesus Christ…

When God acts, however, he always acts in the person and work of Jesus Christ, his only Son. Herein lies the heartbeat of the gospel. If we take 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 as a starting point, the message Paul considered to be “of first importance,” then we readily see that the gospel is first and foremost a message about God acting in Jesus Christ. It reads,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that [Christ] was buried, that [Christ] was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that [Christ] appeared.

From these four statements, we see that the gospel is a message that is all about the person of Jesus Christ and what God has done to save us through Jesus Christ. Paul indicates the same in Romans 1:1-4. Paul was “set apart for the gospel of God…concerning his Son…Jesus Christ our Lord.” The same is true in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2. Paul “preached the gospel,” the equivalent of which is deciding “to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The gospel is about God acting in Christ.

Having dwelt with God from all eternity, the Son was part of God’s plan for the universe before its existence, and therefore, the grace of the gospel was about Christ “before the ages began” (Eph 1:4-5; 2 Tim 1:8-10). The gospel is also about Christ throughout his earthly ministry, beginning with his incarnation (Matt 1:18-25; 4:23; 9:25), stretching through his perfect obedience (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22), climaxing in his death by crucifixion (Rom 3:25-26; 1 Cor 15:3), and winding up with his victorious resurrection and ascension back to the Father (1 Cor 15:4-5). The gospel even includes how God acts now in Christ’s present heavenly reign (1 Cor 15:21-28; Eph 1:19-23) and will act in Christ at his final earthly return and consummation of the ages (Rom 2:16; Rev 19-22). We might illustrate these elements of God acting in the person and work of Jesus like so (note Figure 1 below).

Figure 1 How God Acts in Christ

4. To Reconcile Sinners to Himself…

The gospel also tells us that these acts by God in the person and work of Jesus Christ have the purpose of reconciling sinners to God. Our desperate plight before God was that we needed his forgiveness but justly deserved his wrath. Our sin was a theological problem before it was ever a sociological one. Our rebellion put us in a “vertical” dilemma before it ever thrust us into “horizontal” chaos with the world. By nature, we were separated from fellowship with God, deserving of his eternal condemnation, and we could do nothing in our own power to rescue ourselves.

Yet the good news contained in the gospel is that God, in his mercy, chose to act favorably toward sinners in Christ. When Christ died, he died not for his own sins—since he was sinless—but for our sins (1 Cor 15:3). Thus, Christ’s death was no mere event in history—though it certainly is that (see below)—and no mere moral example—though it includes that, too (1 Pet 2:20-22). Rather, the crucifixion of Jesus has theological significance and weight. In his death, and his death alone, God was at work reconciling the world to himself, saving sinners by providing propitiation for his wrath against them and forgiveness of all that would keep them separated from him. Therefore, bound up with the news of God’s in-breaking kingdom through Jesus Christ is the announcement that an entryway into that kingdom has been opened to the ungodly through repentance and faith in what God accomplished in Christ. The gospel is the announcement that all peoples without distinction are now welcome in Christ, since he reconciled us to God through his death.

At this point, we might say we’ve covered the narrower announcement bound up with “the gospel” we mentioned earlier, that God has procured the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ substitutionary death. But what is more and what is part and parcel to the apostolic gospel is that God did this just as he planned, promised, achieved, and will consummate. To these equally crucial parts of the message we now turn.

5. Just as He Planned from Eternity…

As mentioned before, “the gospel” can also refer to the grand sweep of God’s saving purposes in Christ. That sweep reaches back to God’s actions in eternity past. Consider it with me for a moment.

Scripture views the church as a community God ordained from eternity past. Right at the start of Ephesians, we see that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). And not too many verses later, we see that God had a purpose, which he “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” (Eph 1:9). Ephesians 3:10 then refers to that plan as God’s eternal purpose that was to be realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It was a plan that included looking with mercy upon a fallen and cursed world, providing redemption for guilty sinners through the death of God’s Son (Eph 1:7). This Son would come as a husband full of love for his adulterous bride, and he would win her for himself by washing her and forgiving all her trespasses by the blood he would spill in her place (Eph 5:25-27). It was also a cosmic plan that would include God’s power “uniting all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Everything undone by the Fall would be made right through the work of one man, Jesus Christ, to whom God would give all authority and power and dominion (Eph 1:20-22). All this was established even before the ages began according to the command of the eternal God, and is included in what we now know as “the gospel” (Rom 16:26; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2).

6. Promised throughout Holy Scripture…

Moreover, we are told in the gospel that God acted in Christ in ways he promised throughout Holy Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Christ died and was raised “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The gospel is not some new-fangled idea that began with Paul and the other apostles, nor a message that stems from their own wisdom and intellectual skill and competency in figuring out God and his purposes for the world. Rather, the gospel is a message that ultimately comes from God in accordance with his self-revelation in Scripture. Paul even says in Romans 1:2 that God promised his gospel beforehand in the Holy Scriptures (cf. Rom 16:25-26). Such a statement was reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching in Luke 24:44-47: “He opened the disciples’ minds to understand the Scriptures,” that “everything written about him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

In this sense, we can say that the gospel is thoroughly a biblical one. The Old Testament informs what we should think about Christ and how we should understand his unique work. The Scriptures provide the theological framework for comprehending Christ’s pre-existence, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, reign, and return.

The Scriptures keep us from creating categories of our own in which to think about Jesus and lead us to think about Jesus in the categories God has already revealed. These categories, for example, include God’s broader redemptive-historical purposes in Christ such as defeating the Serpent through the woman’s seed, dealing with the fall of humanity as the greater Adam, fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham to bless all nations, delivering us from bondage to sin in ways akin to God freeing Israel from Egypt in the exodus, meeting the Law’s demands as Israel’s faithful representative, bringing all the sacrifices and priestly duties to their appointed end, ascending to David’s throne as supreme messianic King, and so forth. These themes only find their fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ, and they make further sense of his overall redeeming actions, but they are first promised in the Scriptures.

7. Achieves in History…

Further, the gospel is grounded in historical events. The eternal Son of God actually humbled himself, descended from heaven, entered human history as a Jewish man, died a real death on a Roman cross, and rose again with a physical body.

Returning for the moment to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, notice that it is not enough for Paul to say “Christ died;” he also adds, “that he was buried.” His death was a historical fact. Moreover, it’s not enough for Paul to say that Christ “was raised on the third day,” but he also includes, “that he appeared” four times over (verse 5, 6, 7, 8). And the sense of verse 6 amounts to something like this: “Lest you think we’re making up Jesus’ bodily resurrection, just ask some of the five hundred other brothers who’re still around.” Jesus’ post-resurrection bodily appearances bore witness to many that he was—and is still—really alive.

So the gospel is not built on falsehoods, but upon truth; not fictional events, but historical ones; not fairy tales, but eyewitness testimony (Matt 28:1-15; Luke 1:2; 24:48; Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 3:15). While the majority of other religions in the world couldn’t care less about the historicity of their religious beliefs—that is, all that matters to them is whether the experience holds true regardless of historical verification—Christianity is dependent on its historical claims. As Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Jesus Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins.” When God acted, he did so within history; and to this day, he continues to work out his plans in history not apart from it. What he inaugurated and secured in the first historical coming of Jesus he will consummate in the second historical coming of Jesus.

8. And Will Consummate in the Age to Come.

That brings us to our final observation about the gospel message: it is a message that teaches us about God consummating his plans in the age to come. The final Day when God judges the secrets of men, Paul says, is in accordance with the gospel (Rom 2:16). The gospel announces that God plans to complete his redeeming work in the future and how that comes to bear on our choices now. It also explains how that future completion magnifies the significance of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. For in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we see God inaugurating his end-time salvation.

For example, God promised that the Christ was coming to establish God’s kingdom. But in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the apostles saw God’s kingdom already irrupting, that is, breaking in from without. The end-time condemnation that awaited all sinners had been thrust forward in the event of the cross. For God showed mercy to a countless multitude of sinners by pouring out the end-time wrath they deserved on Christ instead. When these sinners for whom Christ died meet God at the end of history, no eternal condemnation will remain for them since Christ absorbed it all within history (Rom 3:21-26; 1 Cor 1:18-25; 1 Thess 1:10).

Or, consider that in light of his resurrection and ascension, Christ was seated as heaven’s triumphant king, but the kingdom had yet to arrive in its fullness (1 Cor 15:24-28). Thus, the reality of the kingdom had arrived in part and belonged to all who would enter through repentance and faith in Christ, the risen King, but the promise of final judgment and salvation has yet to be consummated. Thus, God freely offers the end-time salvation from his judgment now to all who would repent and embrace the cross as their only hope. In this sense, the message of the gospel is an eschatological one; it is about the end of time when God’s finishes his grand purpose.


So, then, what is “the gospel”? In sum, we can say the gospel is the proclaimed message about God acting in the person and work of Christ to reconcile sinners to himself, just as he graciously planned from eternity, promised throughout Scripture, achieves within history, and will consummate in the age to come.

In The Gospel (Part 3) we will look at how the apostles preached this gospel, exposited its meaning, and applied its results.


[1]The noun εὐαγγέλιον (“gospel”) appears 76 times in the NT (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; 26:13; Mark 1:1, 14f; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15; Acts 15:7; 20:24; Rom 1:1, 9, 16; 2:16; 10:16; 11:28; 15:16, 19; 16:25; 1 Cor 4:15; 9:12, 14, 18, 23; 15:1; 2 Cor 2:12; 4:3f; 8:18; 9:13; 10:14; 11:4, 7; Gal 1:6f, 11; 2:2, 5, 7, 14; Eph 1:13; 3:6; 6:15, 19; Phil 1:5, 7, 12, 16, 27; 2:22; 4:3, 15; Col 1:5, 23; 1 Thess 1:5; 2:2, 4, 8f; 3:2; 2 Thess 1:8; 2:14; 1 Tim 1:11; 2 Tim 1:8, 10; 2:8; Phlm 1:13; 1 Pet 4:17; Rev 14:6). The verb εὐαγγελίζω (“to preach the gospel/good news”) appears 56 times in the NT and possesses a meaning that is linked to the prophet’s usage in Isa 40:9; 52:7; 61:1. For the verb, see Matt 11:5; Luke 1:19; 2:10; 3:18; 4:18, 43; 7:22; 8:1; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1; Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18; Rom 1:15; 10:15; 15:20; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:16, 18; 15:1f; 2 Cor 10:16; 11:7; Gal 1:8f, 11, 16, 23; 4:13; Eph 2:17; 3:8; 1 Thess 3:6; Heb 4:2, 6; 1 Pet 1:12, 25; 4:6; Rev 10:7; 14:6). The noun εὐαγγελιστής (“evangelist”) appears only three times in Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5. Lastly, the verb προευαγγελίζομαι (“to preach the gospel beforehand”) appears only once in Gal 3:8. Cf. Peter O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 77-82; D. A. Carson, “What is the Gospel?—Revisited,” in For the Fame of His Name, eds. Justin Taylor and Sam Storms (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 147-70.

[2]Others making the same observations are D. A. Carson, “The Biblical Gospel,” in For Such a Time as This, eds. Steve Brady and Harold Rowden (London: Evangelical Alliance, 1996), 75-85; Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 91-114; Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 39-43.

[3]John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Intregrity, and Faithfulness (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 28-29, first helped me begin thinking in these categories. D. A. Carson, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-19),” Spurgeon Fellowship Journal (Spring 2008), 1-11, a reprint of a lecture given at the inaugural Gospel Coalition meeting, helped further refine my thoughts.

[4]The ESV reads, “You he has now reconciled…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” However, the aorist tense of the substantival participle (literally: “the proclaimed one”) need not reflect a past-time activity. A better translation option seems to view the participle functioning in apposition to the gospel. That is, “the gospel…the proclaimed one,” the only kind of gospel there is.

[5]N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 84-85.