What is “Gospel”? Part 1

emptytomb2Well, 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

(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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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30 Responses to What is “Gospel”? Part 1

  1. Todd Deaver says:

    This will be a valuable series, Jay. Thanks for undertaking it.

  2. K. Rex Butts says:

    This series also needs to deal with the gospel Jesus preached and lived…the Kingdom of God.

    Grace and peace,


  3. Anonymous says:

    I think it's cool that Jesus not only used the words "Son of God" when He spoke to people but He also used even more the words "Son of Man" when He spoke to people.

  4. Todd Collier says:

    I used that Son of God/Son of Man dichotomy(?) in my sermon yesterday. In Mark 1 the work is off to a bang up start in Capernaum and flesh would have Him stay put and build a mega-church by healing this entire town – a town full of His relatives and friends – and then waiting for the world to come to Him. The Spirit remembers the mission and moves on.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Son of Man is Jesus having the personal relationship God wants to have with man, Jesus is not only our Lord but He is also our Savior.

  6. Todd Collier says:

    And also – tempted in all ways as we are yet without sin. Fully God, Fully Man.

  7. Anonymous says:

    And why did Jesus go through that, to have that personal realtionship with man as not only our Lord but also our Savior.

  8. Tim Archer says:

    I've never really understood the attempt to make 1 Corinthians 15 the end-all definition of what the gospel is, ignoring the passages that refer to gospel in other ways.

    I'll be interested in seeing what else you have to say in this series.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  9. Gary Cummings says:

    The nail has been hit on the head. The Gospel-good news- is the atoning death, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and salvation through His finished work. If Jesus perfected and finished salvation on the Cross, why do we have to add to it with arbitrary Patterns and CENI exegesis (actually esigesis)?

    Head coverings, foot washing, acapella music, and the whole nine yards of varying practices are NOT salvation issues. They are secondary doctrines at best. The Primary doctrines one must believe or be damned are: The Deity of Jesus, His atoning death on the Cross, His bodily resurrection, and the Parousia of Jesus. That is it. That is why the "Apostle's Creed" is so important: it is a basic Credo or statement of belief broad enough to emcompass believers in Jesus all churches, and narrow enough to be Biblical.
    "Obeying the Gospel" in Sommerite COC sect teaching is just being baptized by immersion per Acts 2:38. That is not the Gospel, and I will flatly say that the way the COC teaches it is heresy.
    Gary Cummings

  10. nick gill says:


    I don't believe I would call it the "end-all" definition. I think I'd call it the 'orienting definition'.

    I think Paul's purpose in these two passages is to define the gospel. Yes, the word is used in a variety of ways, like much Jesus and Pauline vocabulary.

    But those two passages specifically and directly set out to define the term, and while our understanding of these passages shouldn't nullify other ways of using the phrase, it should orient our understanding.

    In HIS love,

  11. nick gill says:

    I'm looking at my bible software, because Tim's comment made me curious. Did you realize that the term gospel:

    1) only appears 14 times in all the gospels?
    2) never appears in John?
    3) only appears twice in Luke?

    I expected a much greater presence in the Gospels — but only Mark uses it with frequency. It looks like kingdom language morphed into gospel language after Pentecost. They were always deeply related, as Mark especially points out in his introductory passages. But kingdom language is much more specifically Jewish, while 'gospel' had a more universal ancient appear.

  12. nick gill says:

    umm… that should read appeaL. I is gud ainglish writer.

  13. Jay Guin says:


    Look under "good news" — you'll find lots of verses.

    I'm working on some posts out of Luke and Acts and the amount of material is overwhelming

    Sent from my iPhone

  14. Jay Guin says:


    I like the "orienting" idea very much. Yes, I started there because these passages are so direct. But … they are not the end all definition. There's much, much more. You see, I also started there to avoid ending there, because "gospel" is a much richer concept than we often realize.

  15. nick gill says:

    Still nothing in John, but it does get Luke up to 10, which moves him ahead of Mark, who uses gospel/good news 8 times. And two of Luke's are angelic proclamations.

    In Acts, the ESV translates good news 5 times and gospel 7 times.

    Compare that to kingdom, which appears 116 times in the gospels (43 in Luke alone) and only 8 in Acts.

    For further contrast, Paul uses gospel/good news 69 times in his Epistles, to 14 for kingdom.

    So: final breakdown —

    John: kingdom 3 (2 w/Nicodemus, 1 w/Pilate) — gospel/good news 0
    Matthew: kingdom 52 — gospel/good news 5
    Mark: kingdom 18 — gospel/good news 8
    Luke: kingdom 43 — gospel/good news 10
    Acts: kingdom 8 — gospel/good news 12
    Paul: kingdom 14 — gospel/good news 69

    I'm not sure just how much any of this matters, but it is fun! It also seems to strike a blow for the veracity of the gospels, against the Jesus Seminar school of thought that suggests that they are reverse projections of early church thought.

    Even though the gospels were almost certainly written after every one of Paul's epistles, they faithfully capture the prevalence of kingdom language, even though that language was rapidly fading from prominence by the time the gospels themselves were written.

  16. nick gill says:

    Final boring "number of times a word appears" comment:

    Pre-resurrection: kingdom 5x more prevalent than gospel (116/23)
    Post-resurrection: gospel 2.8x more prevalent than kingdom (88/32 — includes general epistles and Revelation)

  17. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. That's significant — not a change in theology but a change in emphasis. I'll have to ponder this one a bit.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Jay, I think it is significant that Jesus not only used the words “Son of God” when He spoke to people but He also used even more the words “Son of Man” when He spoke to people.

    Is what I have to say not as significant as Nick, since I attend a church denomination other than the coc denomination.

    I know I give my life to Jesus. I know how much I love Jesus not only as my Lord but also my Savior. Jesus changed my life forever, praise God!

  19. Todd says:

    anonymous, I do not believe anyone has expressed views or opinions that would suggest what you have to say is not significant. I even commented on the point.

    The reason Nick's numbers excite comment is that although we are aware that these different figures of speech are used only when the numbers are laid out do we see the interesting patterns.

    For your point I would wonder whether Jesus uses SoM or SoG more or if they balance out. Research it out and let us know.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I had done the numbers before, I will try to get them again. I'm not as nifty with computers as others are and anyone else is welcome to give it a go.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Nick you seem pretty good at getting numbers, perhaps you will help me out with this.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I counted the words Son of God in the four gospels 29 times.

    I counted the words Son of Man in the four gospels 80 times.

  23. Jay Guin says:


    That is interesting. What do you think the significance is? I've not studied the question closely but it seems a great place to get into a study of Christology.

    I'll not be looking at it myself right away because I have to get busy working on my GraceConversation posts. But I hope to study the question down the road.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Jay.

    I believe Son of Man is Jesus having a personal relationship God wants to have with man.

  25. Nick Gill says:

    I believe Son of Man brings together two key ways of thinking in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    In Ezekiel, Son of Man is God's way of referring to his beloved prophet.

    In Daniel, Son of Man is incredibly exciting — Son of Man is one who sits and rules and works alongside the Ancient of Days.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Son of God shows Jesus' relationship with God, Son of Man shows Jesus' relationship with man.

  27. Nick Gill says:

    That's certainly one way to look at it, but our responsibility is to try and discover how those words were being used in the ancient context.

    Son of God can show Jesus' relationship with God, but there is absolutely NO way that that is what it means in Matthew 26:63.

    Son of Man can show Jesus' relationship with man, but one thing weigh heavily against that understanding. No one walking around with Jesus, all those times he called himself Son of Man, had any doubts as to his humanity. Also, Jesus' usage in Matt 26:64 points directly to Daniel's usage.

    One must be able to answer the question, "Why would Jesus keep telling his friends he was human when they all knew it already?"

  28. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t say Son of Man takes away Son of God. Son of Man was Jesus building a bridge to having a personal relationship with people.

    And I have no doubt that people who Jesus gave mercy to knew who He is.

    Matthew 9:6 “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins"–then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house."

    Matthew 18:11 “Jesus said For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”

    Matthew 20:28 “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

    Luke 19:10 "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."

  29. Jim says:

    It is important to note that Paul claims that the Gospel was "Preached" by the apostles. It seems to me that an examination of the sermons of the Apostles would be in order when defining the Gospel they preached. In the Book of Acts, we have nine summaries of this preaching. Taken together, we find seven key points common to their preaching:
    1. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises of God
    2. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, our Creator, Judge, and Savior.
    3. Jesus lived the one sinless, righteous, holy life.
    4. Jesus died for our sins
    5. Jesus arose from death
    6. Jesus ascended to the right hand of God.
    7. Jesus shall return.

    In response to this seven-fold message, we become the people of God.

    For what it's worth, the sum total of all Christian truth is derived from these seven points.

    Blessings in Him in whom we are complete.

  30. Jim says:

    Regarding the term "Son of Man" — in Daniel 7 we see Him revealed, and defined. In Daniel's vision, we see Him coming to the Ancient of Days and receiving an eternal dominion and kingdom. However, in the interpretation of the passage given by the accompanying angel, it is the "people of the saints of the Most High" who receive this kingdom. It is clear to me that the Son of Man title refers to Christ as our Advocate and Representative, acting in our behalf.

    This is supported by Ezekiel use of the term. In every case where he is called "Son of Man", he is acting as a representative of the people, acting out in his own person the prophetic message given to him for the people.

    Daniel, also, when called Son of Man, had been acting in behalf of the captive people as intercessor.

    From this I conclude that "Son of Man" refers to Jesus as our Substitute and Surety, our Advocate and Defender. He presents Himself as US before His Father, and receives in our behalf that which the Father wishes us to receive.

    In other words, Christ is our Representative (High Priest).

    Blessings in Him in whom we are complete.

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