Like most teachers of the Bible, I notice the word “gospel” comes out of my mouth with great frequency. Most of the time people seem to understand what I’m talking about but, in private moments I wonder if I’ve sufficiently defined this remarkable word. There is no doubt ― its precise meaning can be elusive.
Sometimes it seems people mean it to be a very narrow and concrete set of ideas. Other times, it is as if the word is used to refer to “everything truly Christian.” Is the entire Bible “the gospel?” Is each discrete section of the Bible “the gospel?” What exactly is “the gospel?”
My suspicion is that many an eye has glazed over while listening to the preacher proclaim an ill-defined gospel.
Working through the myriad appearances of the term in the New Testament, some interesting things become apparent. In the majority of the cases, the term is not defined at all.
On one level, this makes me feel relieved when I think of my own definitional failures. And yet, I doubt the New Testament writers chose not to define the term with every use so they could keep it a mystery (Eph. 3:6 notwithstanding).
That the gospel is so commonly spoken of and not usually defined indicates that it was a fabulously common term and that the New Testament church would have been expected to have known what it meant. The early church leaders must have explained it well to them.
And, given the New Testament data, it appears they did so in three principle ways. Briefly, they are as follows:.
• In the Synoptics, the gospel is characterized as the “coming of the kingdom.”
• In Paul’s writings, the gospel is defined in two ways. Either it is the life and message of Jesus Christ with particular emphasis on the death and resurrection (i.e. 1 Cor. 15:1-8) or simply, “the grace” of Christ or of God (Gal. 1:6, Col. 1:6).
• There is a possible fourth definition in Acts 10:36 where Luke speaks of the preaching of the “gospel of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all).”
The three primary uses of the term overlap, interrelate and mutually reinforce one another. In fact, I’m struck not by the diversity, number and breadth of definitions but by their clarity and limitedness. In other words, the gospel is not “everything” (although its implications may affect “everything”).
In our use of the term in the church, we would do well to reflect the biblical usage. As such, we ought to be careful not overly to broaden the definition of the gospel and make it to mean “everything Christian,” as we might be tempted to do. The impulse behind such usage is good: the intention is outwardly to acknowledge the centrality of the gospel in all things Christian. The end result, however, can be a diminishing of the most important aspects of the gospel (kingdom, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and grace).
If everything is the gospel, I may be satisfied that I have proclaimed it when in fact I may merely have told a nice Bible story or talked about an aspect of the Christian faith.
Perhaps a good way forward would be to say that the gospel is (somewhat) narrow in its meaning (stick to the three definitions) while at the same time boldly insist that the implications of the gospel reach to transform all things.