What Is the Gospel?
What is the gospel? It seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? But if you ask ten Christians, you’ll get ten different do responses. Some people will respond with one-word answers, others with a long, rambling speech, and still others with a silent, awkward stare. Why? If Christians should be crystal clear about one thing, it should be the gospel, right?
The gospel is supposed to be “of first importance” isn’t it (1 Cor. 15:3, ESV)? As Christians, we’re meant to be “unashamed of the gospel,” aren’t we (Rom. 1:16, ESV)? But how can it be “of first importance,” and how can you be “unashamed” of it when you’re not crystal clear on what it is?
Unfortunately, it’s all too common for Christians to erupt and argue at the simple question, “What is the gospel?” A lack of clarity about the gospel has led to a lot of disunity in the church. This lack of clarity rears its ugly head in various forms in local churches and Christian settings. For example, a young, seminary-trained man who used to be on our (Ben’s) church staff team was going through the church’s ordination process to become a pastor. As part of this process, our elders asked him to preach a sermon and succinctly articulate the gospel. The pre-selected Bible passage was primed for a gospel message, but he didn’t do it; in fact, he couldn’t do it in that moment. Afterward, when we asked him to summarize the gospel in writing, he turned in a ten-page paper! If you don’t know what the gospel is, you won’t be able to articulate it clearly and succinctly—no matter how smart you think you are.
This is an excerpt from The Discipleship Gospel (available in eBook and paperback). Get a discount by using code ‘TBP’ at checkout when you order here.
The problem isn’t that Christians aren’t talking about the gospel. We are. In fact, it seems like everything in the Christian subculture of America is tagged with gospel-driven this and gospel-centered that. We talk a lot about the gospel, but if you really listen, that’s exactly what it is—it’s just talk about the gospel.
There’s lots of talk about the gospel, in general terms, but precious little about what the gospel actually is! In churches all across America, this gospel talk has left many people thinking, we know the gospel, when, in fact, they don’t. Something is really wrong when Christians are confused about the true nature of the gospel, or worse still, when they have become numb to it.
The bottom line is this: we can no longer assume people know what the gospel is, even if they say they are Christians or attend church regularly. If you start asking people the simple question “What is the gospel?” unfortunately, you’ll quickly find what we’ve seen.
The first-century church wasn’t confused about the gospel. They were crystal clear about it. As New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd writes: “No Christian of the first century had any doubt what [the gospel] was.” Jesus himself taught the gospel to his apostles, who passed it on to the early church. Even Paul—who wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve, but became an apostle later—received the gospel from Jesus himself. Then, Paul took his gospel to the other “pillar” apostles in order to confirm that his gospel was authentic (Gal. 1:11-2:2).
All of Jesus’ apostles passed on the gospel to faithful men and women who, in turn, passed it on to others (2 Tim. 2:2). Clearly, the first-century church knew the gospel with precision. They had a clear understanding of it and could communicate it succinctly. They even defined it to the point that they could effectively share it, and they knew when they had passed it on to others (1 Cor. 15:1-2). When the first-century church leaders preached the gospel with this level of clarity, we saw the gospel’s power unleashed. Their preaching began to change the world.
Something has changed in the church since then. The gospel that was crystal clear to the first-century church and began a world revolution isn’t as clear to the twenty-first century church. Not only is there confusion, but also the church’s lack of clarity has led to an escalation of churches that preach a false gospel. This reality should cause us all to sit up, pay attention, and take a good, hard look at the gospel we’re preaching. Hebrews 2:1 warns: “We must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.” We need a gospel renaissance.
By Bill Hull and Ben Sobels
C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching & Its Developments (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) 76.