The word "gospel" means different things to different people.
Not in the same way that, when you say "rock", one person thinks granite and another thinks marble. I mean more in the way that one person thinks granite, and another thinks music.
Google has sites that give the word gospel several definitions, with one site giving 8 of them at Dictionary.com:
1. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles; the Christian revelation.
2. The story of Christ's life and teachings, especially as contained in the first four books of the New Testament, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
3. (Usually initial capital letter) Any of these four books.
4. Something regarded as true and implicitly believed:
to take his report for gospel.
5. A doctrine regarded as of prime importance:
6. Glad tidings, especially concerning salvation and the kingdom of God as announced to the world by Christ.
7. (Often initial capital letter) Ecclesiastical. an extract from one of the four Gospels, forming part of the Eucharistic service in certain churches.
8. Gospel music.
If you get a little deeper to find where the word came from, you find something like "The word gospel derives from the Old English god-spell (rarely godspel), meaning "good news" or "glad tidings". The word comes from the Greek euangelion, or "good news". (From Wikipedia)
Narrowing it down
For the purposes of this article, let's stay with the definitions that include the biblical context and forget the political and secular (4 and 5 above). However, there is one point that I would like to make that is implied but not stated in any of the above definitions. All these definitions depend on the foundation that the information contained in the gospel be the truth. The whole thing about the "good news" is also missing from this set of definitions:
We are sinners and headed for eternal punishment in Hell. Jesus Christ died for our sins and forgives us if we just believe in Him and follow the path He gave us. In that way, and that way only, we can be saved from eternal punishment.
This is an obvious point, but many times when we speak to people about the gospel, as you can see in the list above, only part of the definition is used, and the rest of it is ignored. Oh, the idea is there, behind the scenes, but that is the main point that must be shared up front to generate an interest to find out more. As a result of glossing this over, the meaning of the word is watered down so people feel better about themselves, but do not have the whole story. Following the definitions above, someone must go to the Book to find out for themselves what "salvation" even means. Saved from what? Unless they are convinced of being a sinner, they will have no reason to seek that salvation or even open the Book.
"OK, if I'm saved, why bother with the whole religious thing?"
For those of you who think that giving just the positive stuff of the gospel is enough, what happens if that is all they learn? The world is full of Christians that feel that, now that Jesus is in charge, no one will be going to Hell. That is contrary to what the whole Bible tells us. Take Isaiah 61:1-3 for example:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion -
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Take special note of verse 2 where Isaiah describes the mission he was given. He is to proclaim both "the year of the Lord's favor" and "the day of vengeance of our God". Now, don't take this wrong. People are not going around deliberately perverting the gospel or anything sinister like that. But people are often only too willing to simplify things to the point where much of the message is lost - like anything that sounds harsh or "mean". People, even pastors, speak sound bites that feel good because it is easier to spout quickly, and some hope the receiver will look into it deeper to understand the full meaning. Others just spout the sound bite and think that they have given the person all they need to be saved. Now that the water is stirred and muddied, let's try to clear up what we are talking about.
What do people think?
When you ask someone "What is the gospel?", you will get different answers, some so shallow that you wonder if the person really understands the message themselves. An article by R. C. Sproul at What is the Gospel? gives an example of this. His opening sentences say:
"There is no greater message to be heard than that which we call the Gospel. But as important as that is, it is often given to massive distortions or over simplifications [sic]."
How close is the "Gospel" we hear in the sermons to that of the Bible?
The Gospel is what we are to spread to those not familiar with it. It is supposed to tell the story of salvation, including the reason why it is necessary, as designed by God and executed by Jesus. However, the "me-ism" of today gets it mostly backward. In a 2008 book by Michael Horton called Christless Christianity, on page 196 he offers a chart that compares the typical Sunday preaching to the gospel of the Word of God:
Law-Lite (What we are taught by pastors) Gospel (What the Bible teaches)
God as Life Coach God as Judge and Justifier
Good Advice (Doing) Good News (Done)
Christ as Example Christ as Savior
The Bible as Instruction Manual Bible as Unfolding Mystery of Christ
Sacraments as Means of Commitment Sacraments as Means of Grace
The Church as Self-Help Resource The Church as Embassy of Grace
(focus on our service/ministry) (focus on God's service/ministry)
We Ascend to God God Descends to Us
We Send Ourselves God Sends Us
What we see is the self-centered approach to the Gospel rather than recognition of what God has already done for us. We are supposed to accept the gift as a gift, and stay in the will of God to show we got the real message of the Gospel. The doing comes because of our recognition and acceptance of the gift, not in order to get it.
No one wants to have to "work" at it
Now, if you have been in conversations with Christians about being "saved", you know that trying to say anything beyond "Just believe in Jesus and you are saved" will cause a riot. You will be accused of being a legalist or that you believe that people can only get to Heaven by works. And Heaven forbid that you should say anything about some people not making it because they don't obey God's will. There are a lot of people who feel that once you "accept Jesus as your savior", you have passed the test and no longer need to study the word of God, you don't really need to go to church, and you really no longer have to follow any of God's rules. No, I don't mean that people go out and start stealing and killing, but you will hear "we are no longer under the law" so we can depend on our conscience to be good...
That little phrase in the last paragraph, "Just believe in Jesus...", means so much more than most people seem to think. 2 Thes 1:6-10 (especially verse 8) speaks of the Gospel in a way that you rarely hear in the sermons in church:
6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you
7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Are we spreading the real Gospel?
And what does the part of verse 8 that says "and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" mean? How do you do that, and why do we have to "obey" the gospel if there is nothing we can do in order to be saved? Note that this is in the New Testament, not just the Old. Also note that because the text says "This includes you", everyone who reads this feels that they are in the saved group and not in the "punished" group. Verses 6, 7, 9 and 10 were included to keep the verse in context. This speaks directly to the 'just' side of Jesus' personality, not "blaming" all the "hard" stuff on God the Father and leaving Jesus as the 'nice guy' who 'wouldn't think of holding us to God's word'. Many people think that if you have never heard of Jesus, you will not be held responsible. Verse 8
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
here "implies" something else much more dangerous.
How do we tell them the truth about God?
Honestly, we know that the final decision rests with Jesus, but we do not know what He will do in the final analysis. However, what do we tell those who ignore, resist, change, or soften the Gospel? Not the people who have never heard the gospel, but those who try to pass a gospel different from that of Jesus and Paul. Do we tell them that, in the end, it doesn't matter as long as they didn't really know God well enough to be judged? Do we tell them that they don't have to obey the Gospel as long as they are good people even if they never read the Bible and just go with their pastor's word? Do we even know what "and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" actually means? Doesn't this verse say that accepting Jesus requires some kind of obedience to something?
Who is Jesus, really?
Let me ask you - who is Jesus and what does He represent? What do you mean when you say you accept Jesus? When you accept Him as Lord, doesn't that mean that you give your life to Him, or do you just accept the gift He offers and make no changes in your life? When you then speak of Him to others, do you include everything He represents, or just the feel good parts?
Jesus is the name of our Savior and that Name represents all that He stands for. Now, define and list what you know that he stands for. Truth, honesty, kindness, generosity, righteousness, and faithfulness, of course, and much more. But what else? What is many, many times left out of this list in conversations and sermons and articles written about Jesus? Justice (John 5:30
30By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.
), vengenance (Romans 12:19
19Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.
), wrathfulness (Rom. 2:5-8
5But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
), punishment (Luke 21:22
22For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.
), hating evil and sin (Hebrews 1:8-9
8But about the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. 9You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy."
), and much more here as well. Where are these attributes of our Lord when people speak of faith in the name of Jesus? The Gospel is the whole story of Jesus, what He did for us, and what it takes to find the narrow path - not just the warm, fuzzy stuff. We must recognize the hard decisions that judgment of the world requires.
Calm down, but be aware...
No, I am not trying to make Jesus some kind of dominant, overbearring controller who hangs over your shoulder ready to smash you when you make a mistake or think a bad thought. However, Paul spends a lot of time telling people that when we give our lives to Christ, we put away the sinful nature and live in the Spirit. If you still feel that once you are saved, you can continue to be gay, or steal, or run away with the neighbor's wife because you believe in Jesus and He will forgive you, then you have missed a major concept of who He really is. He is trying to prepare us for the new existence to come after this world has gone through the filter of God's will and the faithful have emerged victorious through the grace of the Father and the Son.
Brace yourself, here it comes: Jesus is still the judge of the world (Acts 10:42
42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
, 2 Cor 5:10
10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
, John 5:22
22Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son,
). All judgment was given to Him by the Father, and there is still a set of criteria by which He will judge. For those who think that John 12:47-48
47 "If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day."
means you will not be judged:
47If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day."
Remember that it is not the purpose of the sun to create shadows, but they are the result of the shining of the sun. Jesus did not come to judge, but if we decide not to follow His words, our decision will seal our fate for us. If you think that this means that Jesus will not judge you if you claim to believe in Him, here is a commentary clarification of John 12:47-48 (KJV)
47 "If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day."
The Adam Clarke Commentary refers to the KJV version of John 12:47-48:
47And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.(KJV)
Note that Jesus said "I did not come to judge the world.", not that He would not eventually judge the world. That judging was just not His initial purpose in coming - judgment will wait until He comes again. He is the very power behind the statement "the very words I have spoke will condemn them at the last day." In other words, if you decide to not follow the words of Jesus, you place yourself in the hands of the law, and the law identifies and condemns willful sinners. If you think that those criteria have been diluted because of His death, you may want to make sure you are right before you continue. Remember, five of the ten virgins felt they were ready, but when it came down to the judgment, they were not ready by His standards. We cause our judgment by our own actions.
There are still expectations
This whole article is about the gospel - the Good News:
The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia summarizes the gospel message this way:
The central truth of the gospel is that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of His son to the world. He suffered as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death, and now offers a share in His triumph to all who will accept it. The gospel is good news because it is a gift of God, not something that must be earned by penance or by self-improvement (Jn 3:16; Rom 5:8-11; II Cor 5:14-19; Tit 2:11-14).
While I do not agree with all of the page where I found this Wycliffe statement, this part of it is good news, no question about it. It means we have a chance that we would not have if we depend on ourselves. But does this gospel mean we are home free? Are we not still expected to do some things to express our gratitude for His Gift, and pass the message on to others? This is where I get into trouble with other Christians. Yes, I believe that we can do nothing to help with our salvation. However, I believe that we can do something to lose it. John and Paul warn us to be careful so as not to lose what we have gained (2 John 1:7-9):
7I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. 9Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
and Paul (2 Cor 5:10):
10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Matthew 6:1 uses Jesus' own words to warn that there are things we can do to lose our reward.
1"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."
But, the most basic warning is for those who think Jesus is the softer, gentler version of God:
21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21)
That means passing on the whole Gospel, not just the warm fuzzies. Yes, it is an awesome gift from God. Yes, it is free. No, it does not mean you can ignore the rules but still claim the prize. Rules? Man was given only one rule in the beginning, and he broke it. That's why we have the next set of rules - to show that there are some things we still must obey. Not for earning the reward, but to show we got the message that we are still bad. Acting like you "deserve" the gift by ignoring the will of God means you didn't get the message.
This is not just a "free ride"
What kind of interpretation here would make it OK to pretend that you are saved if you ignore the statutes of God? The Gospel, the "good news" includes the salvation of the obedient, the recognition of the fact that we don't deserve it, and the condemnation of the disobedient. To ignore the "bad" part of the Gospel means that we feel that no one has to be obedient in order to make it. The warnings above lose their impact if we think that loss of salvation is not possible. These passages mean that, even though we think we are home free, there is still something that can take that away! Why would He make "silly" statements like the ones above if there was nothing to worry about?
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