First things first. We need to talk about the term gospel, define what we mean by its usage, and then measure our definition with gospel’s biblical denotation. In a time where everyone has his own relative definition and belief of any and all, it is indeed important to have an absolute, biblical definition of gospel. Along the way we will also be clarifying what the gospel is not. Rather than delve into an onerous essay on the detailed intricacies of the gospel, I would like to give a succinct, yet sufficient for the task at hand, synopsis of the gospel. This first part of the series will not be a biblical defense of the definition of gospel. Rather, it will be a proclamation of it. The defense will come in later articles.
The Interpreter answered, This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, Rom. 7:9, put strength into, 1 Cor. 15:56, and increase it in the soul, Rom. 5:20, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue. Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit. John 15:3; Eph. 5:26; Acts 15:9; Rom. 16:25, 26.
Taken from John Bunyan’s (not to be confused with the mythical larger-than-life Paul Bunyan) The Pilgrim’s Progress, the preceding quote illustrates the roles of both law and grace in the execution of the Gospel. Though it’s much more complex than we’re going to approach, simply put the law exposes our absolute need of grace and grace alone, apart from our own works, to be right with God. More on this later…
What Does it Mean?
In trying to give a simple, yet biblical, definition of gospel we will take a look at a few people’s usage of the term, and the context in which they use it. As many of you may already know, gospel literally means good news. What glorious news it is indeed! A few questions may be forming inside your mind. When was the gospel first preached? Is the gospel unique to and found only in the New Testament? On the other hand, such questions may not be arising at all in your mind. You may have, and some think they have, a firm grasp on what the gospel is. If so, excellent! But you may find that your definition of gospel is found wanting…that is, if you’ve grown up hearing some of the same things I heard growing up.
In the soon-following section, What the Gospel is Not, we will go into a bit further detail, but for now I want to provide the basics of the gospel. The gospel is nothing new. It began before the day of Pentecost. It began before John the Baptist was on the scene. In fact, the first time it was preached is in the very first book of our Bibles, Genesis. Most of this will probably sound all too familiar to you if you’ve grown up in church. However, in the aforementioned future section, I think, some great distinctions will be drawn out from your familiarity with the words and what the Bible actually says concerning these same words.
The Gospel (Forgive the temporary oversimplification): Man (Adam & Eve) was created perfect. Man was given a “test”, if you will, to either pass or fail. Man failed by disobeying God’s clear command, and Adam, being the representative for all mankind, plunged all mankind into sin. In doing so, all persons born of man are born dead in their sins, unable to please God and unwilling to do so as well. Therefore, all men (and women and children, etc.) are born naturally and radically separated from God, in darkness. Man can only be right with God by fulfilling/obeying every aspect of God’s holy law. God will accept only perfection. Thus, we have the problem. Since man is born dead in his sin, only gratifying the desires of flesh, and under its dominion, he can never do that which is pleasing to God (i.e. obey all of God’s law and never disobey it). All of this is very bad news, yet a part of the gospel.
In His great mercy, God gives salvation to men by providing One Who would, as did Adam, work on behalf of all His people. But this couldn’t be a mere man. Rather, it was God’s Son Who became a man, in order to purchase men. God is righteous and just, so He requires holiness. So Christ, the 2nd Adam, comes to earth and is born of the virgin Mary. He did not live as merely a good example or a great teacher. He lives with one aim in mind: the will of His Father. In being representative of all God’s people, He lived, actively fulfilling and obeying all aspects of the law both ceremonial and moral), thus being perfect and holy in every way, as a man (versus Adam, the man who failed). For God’s justice to be satisfied a man would have to obey the law in its fullness, then die as a sacrifice on behalf of the people who were in rebellion to His law. Man failed legally, and man was redeemed legally. Before the time of this sacrifice, the gospel was veiled, not being thoroughly clear. Nonetheless, it was a gospel of faith and belief, as shown by many Old Testament examples (Adam, Abraham, Joseph, David, etc.). Those men looked forward to Christ by believing God’s promise. Those born after Christ’s sacrifice looked backward, still by faith receiving the promise of redemption.
In a gross oversimplification, that is the gospel in a nutshell.
What the Gospel is Not
We have had some previous articles dealing more in depth with certain foundational truths of the gospel. For example, we have discussed the depravity of man, etc. Forthcoming will be a brief synopsis of T.U.L.I.P. (even though it has been touched lightly upon throughout the Christian Theology Blog.) Right now, though, I would like to conclude this short piece with a few thoughts on what the gospel is not. Growing up as I did, I was taught many things about the “gospel”. Off the top of my head, I remember the phrase like The Romans Road. Some of you might remember The Four Spiritual Laws. We’re all familiar with the well-used passage John 3:16. “God loves you and has a plan for your life.” Sound familiar? All of these things, in and of themselves, are not harmful or anti-Christian, but they’re lacking. They do not declare “the whole counsel of God” insofar as the gospel relates. As we explore the gospel in more depth and detail, we will touch on many things that the gospel is not. For now, I leave you with a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and some brief commentary.
Self-righteousness arises partly from pride, but mainly from ignorance of God’s law. It is because men know little or nothing concerning the terrible character of the divine law, that they foolishly imagine themselves to be righteous. They are not aware of the deep spirituality, and the stern severity of the law, or they would have other and wiser notions. Once let them know how strictly the law deals with the thoughts, how it brings itself to bear upon every emotion of the inner man, and there is not one creature beneath God’s heaven who would are to think himself righteous in God’s sight in virtue of his own deeds and thoughts. Only let the law be revealed to a man; let him know how strict the law is, and how infinitely just, and his self-righteousness will shrivel into nothing-it will become a filthy rag in his sight, whereas before he thought it to be a goodly garment.
The Church in our day would do well to digest the preceding words by Mr. Spurgeon. Our self-saturated culture has made inroads into the Church by her passivity in knowing, teaching, and proclaiming the unadulterated, true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is truly “good news” because of the severity of the bad news; yet many Christians (and non-Christians who think they’re Christians) think it wise to sugarcoat, or altogether cut out the harshness of the gospel. NOTHING could be worse for the lost masses. To diminish or downplay the gospel in ANY way is to disguise the gospel. To disguise the gospel is to dissolve it from the truth; thus, making it no gospel at all!
It is imperative that we preach the good news, I believe, beginning with the sobering realities of the bad news. Man is depraved. Man is sinful. How do we know? He has rebelled against the law of God. What is the law of God? The commandments found in the Scriptures. Paul never advocated an abrogation of God’s law. Rather, he said he wouldn’t have known what sin was EXCEPT for the law (Romans 7)! This is what, I presume, Mr. Spurgeon was thinking about when he preached the above. He speaks to self-righteousness as being primarily borne from man’s ignorance. It takes the light of the gospel exposing man to his own sinfulness to bring him to the truth that he is inept. Unable to please God in anyway. Hopeless…except through faith and repentance unto the Lord Jesus Christ. THAT’s good news.
This being said, I pray that we would ask God to expose “secret sins” to our hearts and minds, that we would be ever mindful of them…casting them aside and returning to them no more. I pray that the fire of holy pursuit and sanctification would be stoked underneath us, that the gospel would burn like a fire within us, and we would be quick on our feet to spread the truth of God’s love, mercy, grace, wrath, justice and glory.
May we cast aside the spurious gospels that have taken root in our culture preaching to men the absolute despair of their souls, depravity of their natures, and the necessity of their repentance unto the Lord. God be praised!