Over the last few years, I’ve participated in and/or witnessed a few conversations over church renewal or preaching or the future of the church where, inevitably, the conversants get down to the question, “What is the Gospel?” In many of these conversations, the 4 Gospels are set over and against the epistles, particularly those of Paul.
That’s why in 2013 The Gospel Coalition hosted a panel asking, “Did Jesus preach the Gospel?,” with the conclusion that the apostle Paul had the basic understanding of what the Gospel means with the benefit of being able to look back on it from the other side of the Cross, and that it is not inappropriate to read the Gospels through the lens of Galatians and Romans. It’s also why NT Wright, by contrast, insists that we have to return to the 4 Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life in order to properly understand what the Gospel–and Paul’s exposition of it–means. As I have a lot of love for both sets of Scripture-loving Christians, I am often frustrated with the feeling that we are all talking past each other.
Over time, this conversation leads to division between Christians trying to be faithful, as they try to discern, is the Gospel entry into the Kingdom of God, or is the Gospel salvation from sin by the Cross? Is it justification by faith, or is it the Sermon on the Mount? Is it penal substitution, or Christus victor? Where do the Holy Spirit and the dark principalities and powers fit into all this?
I have made my own argument for a more textured, multi-dimensional presentation of the Gospel, one which cannot be reduced to simple formulas or phrases, and which holds together things that should never be separated. But I have received good push-back: Surely, we should be able to describe the Gospel simply and clearly, right?
I have been thinking about this criticism over the last few weeks, and then came across a short essay written by Martin Luther on reading the Gospels. In it, he comments on how Paul and the Gospel accounts are in harmony, and his “Gospel in a nutshell” relies on 5 points, each of which can and should be expanded through good teaching and preaching.
To Luther, the Gospel is:
- A story about Jesus Christ.
- Who is God’s son and David’s son.
- How He suffered and died.
- How God raised Him from the dead.
- How He was established Lord of all.
I enthusiastically agree with each point. If I were to put it together in a sentence, I would say, “The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God and Messiah, died for our sake, rose from the dead, and now rules as Lord of Creation.” This is the Gospel we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, every apostolic epistle, and Revelation. Read the excerpt below:
One should thus realize that there is only one Gospel, but that it is described by many apostles. Every single epistle of Paul and of Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, is a Gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ, but one is shorter and includes less than another. There is not one of the four major Gospels anyway that includes all the words and works of Christ; nor is this necessary. Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the Gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered-a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way.
For at its briefest, the Gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things. This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents [in Christ’s ministry] which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole Gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans [1:1-4], where he says what the Gospel is, and declares, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.
There you have it. The Gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. Just as there is no more than one Christ, so there is and may be no more than one Gospel….
– Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels, emphasis added.
I love how he sums up the impact of understanding the Gospel in this holistic way:
This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself.
See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that
is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at.
This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.
This is why such preaching is called Gospel, which in German means
a joyful, good, and comforting “message”; and this is why the apostles are called the “twelve messengers.”
Amen and Amen, repent and believe the Gospel.