Back in June I had the chance to sit in for a day of class with the third-year seminarians at Bethlehem College and Seminary. The class was on the gospel and evangelism, and I was tasked to give a short presentation that defines them both. I’ll start with the gospel, and then let the next post take evangelism.
Toward a Definition
Defining the gospel isn’t necessarily complicated, but it also isn’t as simple as we might think. There are at least two challenges.
One, the word “gospel” is so commonly used in Christian circles that it has come to mean several different things. We tend to use it, I think, as synonym of grace — to refer to any kind of undeserved favor from God.
Second, and partly why I think we use the word so broadly, is that the word is used to mean more than one specific thing in the Bible. “Gospel” is a biblical word — euangelion — and it’s used some 76 times in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke talk about the “gospel.” Paul talks about the “gospel.” So does Peter, and then John in Revelation. All of them use the same word: “gospel.” And therefore, we know, we must define the gospel in light of how they use it.
But the complication there is that the biblical authors don’t use the word to refer to one specific thing (there is not one biblical concept for it, as, for example, there is for the NT use of “propitiation”). For example, in Matthew 4:23 Jesus came preaching “the gospel of the kingdom.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, Paul explains the gospel as the news that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Matthew and Paul don’t seem to have the exact same definition in mind. The meanings aren’t totally different, and they are certainly related, but they’re not exactly the same.
In their book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung help explain the biblical use of “gospel” in terms of two vantages: the wide-angle lens and zoom lens. The word “gospel,” again, isn’t talking about different things, but it’s describing two different vantages on God’s gracious action in the world. There is the wide-angle lens that considers all of God’s promises to restore righteousness and remake the world, and then there is the zoom lens that focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus to save sinners.
The two vantages answer two questions:
First, “What is the whole good news of Christianity?” (this is where we cue the wide-angle lens — it’s the gospel of the kingdom; it’s cosmic).
Second question, “What is a message a person must believe in order to be saved?” (this is where we cue the zoom lens — it’s the gospel of the cross; it’s personal) (See What Is the Mission?, 93).
Both are important questions, and both are answered by the word “gospel” (euangelion).
Therefore, when we define the word, we are actually doing theology (not exegesis). We are assembling together the different uses of the word, in the light of the biblical storyline, to come up with an understanding that isn’t contradicted by Scripture itself. So the way we define it might say more than a single use of the word in Scripture implies, but no biblical use of the word will contradict our definition and mean something for which our definition doesn’t account. In other words, we are not saying by our definition that this is what the biblical author has in mind every time it is used. We are assembling all the uses and making a judgment on what it all means. (This is obviously what we do with issues like the Trinity, which isn’t a term mentioned in Scripture. But it is also what we do sometimes with issues that are referred to in Scripture but have a range of nuanced meanings, such as with “righteousness.” See David Yeago, “The NT and the Nicene Dogma,” for what it means to make a judgment, not define the specific conceptual terms behind a judgment.)
What Is the Storyline?
Now, if we are putting forth our definition in light of the whole of Scripture, it helps to step back and take a quick look at the biblical storyline.
There are typically three major ways that the storyline of Scripture has been explained over the last century of biblical theology. George Ladd/Goldsworthy major on the kingdom; Greg Beale on new creation (NTBT); and recently, Gentry and Wellum on kingdom through covenant
In Faith Speaking Understanding, Kevin J. Vanhoozer explains that each of these are getting at one important part of the whole, each accounting for the unity (kingdom), diversity (covenants), telos (new creation), and center (Jesus) of the biblical storyline. He suggests that we combine each of these parts, which looks something like . . .
The biblical storyline is focused with the kingdom of God as expressed through a succession of covenants all heading toward the final new creation, and centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel Is . . .
And in that light, and in terms of the wide-angle and zoom lens use of “gospel” in the New Testament, here’s my definition of the gospel . . .
The gospel is the announcement that Jesus Christ died for sinners, that he was raised from the dead, and that he is now enthroned as Lord of all, and that when we repent and believe in him we are, by his Spirit, united with him and brought into fellowship with God as new creatures fit for a new world.