Did you know that GPS navigation systems are causing havoc in towns across the United States? That’s especially the case in small towns. For people who live in large cities, the little machines are lifesavers. Plug the GPS in, type in an address, and you’re off to the races. No more missed exits, no more wrong turns—just you, your car, your GPS, and ding! “Arriving at destination!”
I just recently got my first GPS device, which was primarily an act of defiance against whoever is responsible for the almost impossible road system in Washington DC. My first experience with it, though, wasn’t in Washington. It was in Linden, Texas, my very small, very rural, and very out-of-the-way hometown.
It turns out that my GPS has no problem whatsoever navigating the crisscrossing, back-and-forth streets of Washington. Oddly enough, though, it did have trouble in Linden. Roads that the GPS was quite certain existed, didn’t. Turns that it insisted were possible, weren’t. Addresses that it firmly believed would be in a certain place, turned out to be several hundred yards further down the street—or even nonexistent.
Apparently GPS systems’ ignorance of small towns is a growing problem. ABC News ran a story about neighborhood roads that have literally become commercial thoroughfares because GPS systems are routing traffic there, rather than along larger highways. There are other problems, too. One poor guy from California insisted he was only following his GPS’s instructions when he made a right turn onto a rural road and found himself stuck on a train track, staring into the headlight of an oncoming locomotive! He survived. His rental car, though, and presumably the offending GPS along with it, didn’t make out so well.
One representative from the American Automobile Association was sympathetic—kind of. “Clearly the GPS failed him in the sense it should not have been telling him to make a right turn on the railroad tracks,” he said. “But just because a machine tells you to do something that is potentially dangerous, doesn’t mean you should do it.” Indeed!
So what’s going on? GPS manufacturers say the problem isn’t with the devices themselves. They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Instead, the problem is in the maps the devices are downloading. It turns out that especially for small towns, the maps available to GPS systems are often several years, or even decades, out of date. Sometimes the maps are nothing better than planning maps—what city planners intended to do if their towns grew. The result? Sometimes addresses that show up in one place on the planning maps ended up being somewhere else when the town was actually built. Sometimes roads that city planners intended to build never actually got built—and sometimes they got built not as roads at all, but as railroads!
In the world of GPS, as in life, it’s important that you get your information from a reliable source!
The same thing is true when we approach the question, What is the gospel? Right at the beginning, we have to make some sort of decision about what source of information we’re going to use in order to answer the question. For evangelicals, the answer usually comes pretty easily: we find the answer in the Bible.
That’s true, but it’s useful to know up front that not everyone agrees entirely with that answer. Different “Christian” traditions have given a number of different answers to this question of authority. Some have argued, for instance, that we ought to base our understanding of the gospel not solely, or even primarily, on the words of the Bible, but on Christian tradition. If the church has believed something for long enough, they argue, we should understand it to be true. Others have said that we know truth through the use of reason. Building our knowledge from the ground up—A leads to B leads to C leads to D—will bring us to a true understanding of ourselves, the world, and God. Still others say we should look for the truth of the gospel in our own experience. Whatever resonates most with our own hearts is what we finally understand to be true about ourselves and God.
If you spend enough time thinking about it, though, you realize that each of those three potential sources of authority ultimately fails to deliver what it promises. Tradition leaves us relying on nothing more than the opinions of men. Reason, as any freshman philosopher will tell you, leaves us flailing about in skepticism. (Try to prove, for example, that you’re not just a figment of someone else’s imagination, or that your five senses really are reliable.) And experience leaves us relying on our own fickle hearts in order to decide what is true—a prospect most honest people find unsettling at best.
What do we do, then? Where do we go in order to know what is true, and therefore what the good news of Jesus Christ really is? As Christians, we believe that God has spoken to us in his Word, the Bible. Furthermore, we believe that what God has said in the Bible is infallibly and inerrantly true, and therefore it leads us not to skepticism or despair or uncertainty, but to confidence. “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” Paul said, “and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16). King David wrote,
This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true. (Ps. 18:30)
And so it is to God’s Word that we look in order to find what he has said to us about his Son Jesus and about the good news of the gospel.
But where do we go in the Bible to find that? I suppose there are several different approaches we could take. One would be to look at all the occurrences of the word gospel in the New Testament and try to come to some sort of conclusion about what the writers mean when they use the word. Surely there are a few instances where the writers are careful to define it.
There could be important things to learn from this approach, but there are drawbacks, too. One is that often in the New Testament a writer obviously intends to give a summary of the good news of Christianity, yet he doesn’t use the word gospel at all. Take Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, for example. If ever there was a proclamation of the good news of Christianity, surely this is it—yet Peter never mentions the word gospel. Another example is the apostle John, who uses the word only once in all his New Testament writings (Rev. 14:6)!
Let me suggest that, for now, we approach the task of defining the main contours of the Christian gospel not by doing a word study, but by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. If we look at the apostles’ writings and sermons in the Bible, we’ll find them explaining, sometimes very briefly and sometimes at greater length, what they learned from Jesus himself about the good news. Perhaps we’ll also be able to discern some common set of questions, some shared framework of truths around which the apostles and early Christians structured their presentation of the good news of Jesus.
One of the best places to start looking for a basic explanation of the gospel is Paul’s letter to the Romans. Perhaps more clearly than any other book of the Bible, Romans contains a deliberate, step-by-step expression of what Paul understood to be the good news.
Actually, the book of Romans is not so much a book at all, at least as we usually think of books. It’s a letter, a way for Paul to introduce himself and his message to a group of Christians he had never met. That’s why it has such a systematic, step-by-step feel. Paul wanted these Christians to know about him, his ministry, and especially his message. He wanted them to know that the good news he preached was the same good news they believed.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he begins, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). From there, especially through the first four chapters, Paul explains the good news about Jesus in wonderful detail. As we look at these chapters, we’ll see that Paul structures his presentation of the gospel around a few critical truths, truths that show up again and again in the apostles’ preaching of the gospel. Let’s look at the progression of Paul’s thought in Romans 1-4.
First, Paul tells his readers that it is God to whom they are accountable. After his introductory remarks in Romans 1:1-7, Paul begins his presentation of the gospel by declaring that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (v. 18). With his very first words, Paul insists that humanity is not autonomous. We did not create ourselves, and we are neither self-reliant nor self-accountable. No, it is God who created the world and everything in it, including us. Because he created us, God has the right to demand that we worship him. Look what Paul says in verse 21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Thus Paul indicts humanity: they have sinned by not honoring and thanking God. It is our obligation, as people created and owned by God, to give him the honor and glory that is due to him, to live and speak and act and think in a way that recognizes and acknowledges his authority over us. We are made by him, owned by him, dependent on him, and therefore accountable to him. That’s the first point Paul labors to make as he explains the good news of Christianity.
Second, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God. They—along with everyone else—did not honor God and give thanks to him as they should have. Their foolish hearts were darkened and they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23). That’s a truly revolting image, isn’t it? For human beings to consider their Creator and then decide that a wooden or metal image of a frog or a bird or even themselves is more glorious, more satisfying, and more valuable is the height of insult and rebellion against God. It is the root and essence of sin, and its results are nothing short of horrific.
For most of the next three chapters Paul presses this point, indicting all humanity as sinners against God. In chapter 1 his focus is on the Gentiles, and then in chapter 2 he turns just as strongly toward the Jews. It’s as if Paul knows that the most self-righteous of the Jews would have been applauding his lashing of the Gentiles, so he pivots on a dime in 2:1 and points his accusing finger at the applauders: “Therefore you have no excuse”! Just like Gentiles, he says, Jews have broken God’s law and are under his judgment.
By the middle of chapter 3, Paul has indicted every single person in the world with rebellion against God. “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (v. 9). And his sobering conclusion is that when we stand before God the Judge, every mouth will be silenced. No one will mount a defense. Not one excuse will be offered. The whole world—Jew, Gentile, every last one of us—will be held fully accountable to God (v. 19).
Now, strictly speaking, these first two points are not really good news at all. In fact, they’re pretty bad news. That I have rebelled against the holy and judging God who made me is not a happy thought. But it is an important one, because it paves the way for the good news. That makes sense if you think about it. To have someone say to you, “I’m coming to save you!” is really not good news at all unless you believe you actually need to be saved.
Third, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Having laid out the bad news of the predicament we face as sinners before our righteous God, Paul turns now to the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“But now,” Paul says, in spite of our sin, “now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (v. 21). In other words, there is a way for human beings to be counted righteous before God instead of unrighteous, to be declared innocent instead of guilty, to be justified instead of condemned. And it has nothing to do with acting better or living a more righteous life. It comes “apart from the law.”
So how does it happen? Paul puts it plainly in Romans 3:24. Despite our rebellion against God, and in the face of a hopeless situation, we can be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection—because of his blood and his life—sinners may be saved from the condemnation our sins deserve.
But there’s one more question Paul answers. Exactly how is that good news for me? How do I become included in this promised salvation?
Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation. That’s what he writes about through the end of chapter 3 and on into chapter 4. The salvation God has provided comes “through faith in Jesus Christ,” and it is “for all who believe” (3:22). So how does this salvation become good news for me and not just for someone else? How do I come to be included in it? By believing in Jesus Christ. By trusting him and no other to save me. “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly,” Paul explains, “his faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5).
Now, having looked at Paul’s argument in Romans 1-4, we can see that at the heart of his proclamation of the gospel are the answers to four crucial questions:
We might summarize these four major points like this: God, man, Christ, and response.
Of course Paul goes on to unfold a universe of other promises God has made to those who are saved in Christ, and many of those promises may very appropriately be identified as part of the good news of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it’s crucial that we understand, right from the outset, that all those grand promises depend on and flow from this, the heart and fountainhead of the Christian good news. Those promises come only to those who are forgiven of sin through faith in the crucified and risen Christ. That is why Paul, when he presents the heart of the gospel, starts here—with these four critical truths.
It’s not just Paul who does this. As I read the apostles’ writings throughout the New Testament, these are the four questions I see them answering over and over again. Whatever else they might say, these are the issues that seem to lie at the heart of their presentation of the gospel. Contexts change, angles change, words change, and approaches change, but somehow and in some way the earliest Christians always seem to get at these four issues: We are accountable to the God who created us. We have sinned against that God and will be judged. But God has acted in Jesus Christ to save us, and we take hold of that salvation by repentance from sin and faith in Jesus.
God. Man. Christ. Response.
Let’s take a look at some other passages in the New Testament where the gospel of Jesus is summarized. Take Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians 15, for example:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (vv. 1-5)
Do you see the central structure there? Paul is not as expansive as he is in Romans 1-4, but the main contours are still clear. Human beings are in trouble, sunk in “our sins” and in need of “being saved” (obviously, though implicitly, from God’s judgment). But salvation comes in this: “Christ died for our sins ... was buried ... was raised.” And all this is taken hold of by “hold[ing] fast to the word I preached to you,” by believing truly and not in vain. So there it is: God, man, Christ, response.
Even in the sermons recorded in the book of Acts, this central framework of the gospel is clear. When Peter tells the people at Pentecost what they should do in response to his proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Again, Peter’s appeal is not expansive, and God’s judgment is again implicit, but it’s all there nonetheless. The problem: you need God to forgive your sins, not judge you for them. The solution: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Peter has already talked about at length in the sermon. The necessary response: repentance and faith, evidenced by the act of baptism.
In another sermon of Peter’s, in Acts 3:18-19, these four crucial truths are obvious again:
But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (NIV)
Problem: you need your sins wiped out, not judged by God. Solution: Christ suffers. Response: repent and turn to God in faith.
Or consider Peter preaching the gospel to Cornelius and his family:
We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day .... To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:39-43)
Forgiveness of sins. Through the name of the crucified and risen One. For everyone who believes.
Paul, too, preaches the same gospel in Acts 13:
Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. (vv. 38-39 NIV)
Once again, the clearly recognizable framework is God, man, Christ, and response. You need God to grant you “forgiveness of sins.” That happens “through Jesus,” and it happens for “everyone who believes.”
Obviously this God-man-Christ-response structure is not a slavish formula. The apostles don’t necessarily tick the points off like a checklist when they proclaim the gospel. Depending on the context, how long they have to preach, and who is included in their audience, they explain those four points at various lengths. Sometimes one or more of them are even left implicit rather than explicit—especially the fact that it is God to whom we are accountable and from whom we need the gift of forgiveness. But then again, that’s a fact that would already have been deep in the minds of the Jews to whom the apostles most often preached.
On the other hand, when Paul speaks to a group of pagan philosophers at the Areopagus, he starts right at the beginning, with God himself. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 is often cited as a model for preaching the good news to a pagan culture. But there’s something very interesting and unusual about that sermon. Look at it carefully and you start to realize that Paul doesn’t really proclaim the good news of Christ at all, just the bad news!
“Let me tell you about this unknown God to whom you have an altar,” he begins, in effect. Then he explains to them in verses 24-28 that there is a God, that this God made the world, and that he calls us to worship him. That established, he turns in verse 29 to explain the concept of sin and its root in worship of created things rather than of God, and he declares that God will judge his hearers by the “man whom he has appointed,” a man whom God has raised from the dead (v. 31).
And then he stops! Look at it closely. There’s no mention of forgiveness, no mention of the cross, and no promise of salvation—just a declaration of God’s demands and a proclamation of the resurrection as proof of his coming judgment! Paul doesn’t even mention Jesus’ name!
So what’s going on here? Does Paul not preach the gospel here? Well, no, not right then. There’s no gospel, no good news, in his public sermon. The news Paul proclaims is all bad. But look at verses 32-34, where the Bible says that the men wanted to hear Paul again, and that some of them eventually believed. Apparently, Paul preached the good news—that sinners could be saved from this coming judgment—at some later time, perhaps publicly, perhaps privately.
Like the other apostles, Paul was perfectly able to present the core truths of the gospel in a variety of ways. But the important thing to understand is that there were in fact some core truths of the gospel, and from the sermons and letters preserved to us we have a very good idea of what those core truths were—and are. In Romans, in 1 Corinthians, in the sermons of Acts, and throughout the New Testament, the earliest Christians structured their declaration of the good news around a few critical truths.
First the bad news: God is your Judge, and you have sinned against him. And then the gospel: but Jesus has died so that sinners may be forgiven of their sins if they will repent and believe in him.