Well, Todd Deaver suggested that I post something on the definition of “gospel.” It’s a good idea, because we so often misuse the term. For example, over at GraceConversation.com, Phil Sanders made the argument,
Galatians 1:6-9 and 5:4 are sufficient to show that doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation.
Well, Gal 1:6-9 condemns the teaching of a “different gospel.” Gal 5:4 condemns seeking to be “justified by law.” Phil’s argument equates “doctrinal error” with “different gospel.” And those are two very different things.
Several years ago, Bill Love published The Core Gospel: On Restoring the Crux of the Matter in which he showed that Church of Christ preaching had evolved over the years away from preaching the cross — the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus — toward other matters. Many preachers, such as Tom Roberts, responded by disputing that there is such a thing as a “core gospel,” treating all Biblical teaching as equally “gospel.”
When a preacher from out of town speaks two or more nights in a row, we call it a “gospel meeting,” even if he’s speaking on marriage and child rearing.
The Biblical use of the term is fairly narrow, and yet much richer and deeper than we sometimes think — and the term deals with many things that just never come up during a gospel meeting or get written about in the Gospel Advocate, Gospel Guardian, Gospel Anchor, Gospel Defender, Gospel Digest, Gospel Gleaner, Gospel Herald, Gospel Journal, Gospel Light, Gospel Minutes, or Gospel Tidings. (No doubt our editors know they are supposed to focus on the gospel!)
However, our gospel preachers sometimes like to include in “gospel” any spiritual truth. For example, in a 1995 editorial in the Spiritual Sword, Alan Highers writes,
(5) Pulpit. Pulpit preaching is still one of the most effective means of communicating the gospel. Lessons on special themes can be helpful in attracting both members and outsiders to attend: “Marriage and the Family,” “Bible Fathers,” “Bible Mothers,” “Moral Issues Facing America,” “Creation vs. Evolution.” (vol 27, no. 1 October 1995).
In fact, there seems to be a serious difficulties among our preachers in even talking about “gospel.” You see, as our more progressive writers seek to narrow the meaning of “gospel” so as to limit what are salvation issues, our more conservative preachers seek to expand the meaning of “gospel” to make certain that important Biblical teachings aren’t left out — as though a teaching won’t be taken seriously unless it’s a salvation issue.
(Can you imagine raising your children on this theory? I mean, what kind of kids would you rear if you ended every instruction with “or else I disown you and leave you on the street to fend for yourself!”? They’d be terrorized — and very messed up. Imagine a marriage where every instruction requires “or else I’ll divorce you!” It’s just not necessary that every command be a salvation issue to be taken seriously — if we would do a halfway decent job of teaching love for God by teaching a God who is lovable.)
Personally, I just think we can’t be serious students of the Bible unless we let the Bible tell us what the word means — and what significance that definition has for us. Obviously, it’s quite possible for something to be true, inspired, and even authoritative and not be gospel, right? And we can’t willy nilly add concepts to (or subtract concepts from) “gospel” just to win debating points.
We’ll start with the two most obvious texts defining “gospel.” In the next few posts, we’ll work through some Old Testament passages that are part of the gospel definition and then cover most of the other New Testament texts.
1 Cor 15
We start in 1 Cor 15 —
(1 Cor 15:1-8) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
To summarize —
- Christians are saved by the gospel if they hold firmly to the “word” preached by Paul
- The gospel is —
- Christ died according the Scriptures, that is, as anticipated by the Old Testament
- Christ was buried
- Christ was raised on the third day, as anticipated by the Old Testament
- The resurrected Christ appeared to many witnesses
There are any number of interpretive issues here. The “word” that Paul preached is the gospel, particularly the resurrection —
(1 Cor 15:11-12) Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. 12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
(Rom 1:1-4) Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
What does Paul say the gospel is?
- Promised beforehand through the prophets
- Regarding the Son of God
- Jesus is a descendant of David
- Declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead — with power, by the Spirit
- Jesus is Christ and Lord
Although this formulation differs from 1 Cor 15, the commonalities are obvious. Both emphasize the resurrection, both emphasize the anticipation of the Old Testament writers, both refer to Jesus as “Christ.”
Now, “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah,” meaning in both languages “anointed one.” In ancient days, kings were anointed. The word “Christ” thus emphasizes Jesus as King and Jesus as the promised Messiah, carrying with it all the Old Testament teachings on the Messiah.
“Lord” is also a word packed with meaning. Paul says that, to be saved, we are to confess “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9). “Lord” is the word used in the Old Testament for God himself. First Century Romans used the word of Caesar. To declare Jesus “Lord” is to announce that he is co-equal with God and to submit to him as king — rather than Caesar.
Now, today in the age of constitutional monarchy, we don’t fully appreciate the meaning of “king.” In the First Century, to make a man king was to give him the power of life and death, of judgment, and of law. He was all three branches of government rolled into one person.
These two passages also point us to the Old Testament, as Paul refers back to what God said through the prophets about the coming Messiah. That’ll be the subject of the next post.