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Put simply, the gospel is the “good news” of what God has done in/through Jesus Christ. When Jesus gives his first sermon in Luke 4, the words that he proclaims about himself and his mission (the two cannot be separated), give us a good idea of the breadth of the gospel. Jesus says;
This is a quote from Isaiah 61:1-2, but to understand the “good news”, it is not only important to read what Jesus says, but to take note of what he does not say. In this sermon, Jesus gives notice that he has been set apart by God (anointed) and filled with His Spirit (empowered) to accomplish something specific. He tells us that the specific task he has been given is to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus’ mission is to set free people who are enslaved and open the eyes of the blind – in short, he has come to do something for us. As we let other passages of the Bible inform us, we see that humanity is enslaved, that we have gone wrong, we have set out in rebellion against God. This slavery has manifold consequences for our physical and existential lives. In running from God, we have become enslaved to other gods who are not gods at all, and we stand accused by God and deserve his right judgment. These other “gods”, such as selfishness, materialism, sensuality, pride, etc., are not kind masters. For instance, materialism tells us that what we are lacking is more “stuff”, so we set about satisfying this craving by consuming, by storing up cars, collectibles or cash. But, as nearly every human can attest, enough is never enough. The master of materialism will only demand more and more until you are left broken and weary and saying something like Clive Owen’s character says to Matt Damon as he lay dying in a field in the Bourne Supremacy, “Look at what they make you give?”
The gospel, to be good news, must free us from that which enslaves us, that which keeps us from freedom. Here is where it is important to notice what Jesus does not quote from Isaiah 61. If you go to that passage in the Old Testament you will see that 61:2 says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God”. Why has he only told them the positive things and left out the fact that God will come in vengeance to judge the world? It is because Jesus knew that he had come to take God’s vengeance on to himself so that we only get the “good news”. While this certainly means that those who are not Christians are stuck and need to accept what Jesus has done for them in order to be saved from God’s wrath, we cannot leave it there. I have heard it said that if we are to proclaim the gospel it means we must use a formula that tells people they are lost in their transgressions and if they do not repent and believe they will be cast into Hell, but if they turn from their sins in repentance, then they will have eternal life. This is a fair approach to the gospel, but it stops short of explaining how the gospel continues to bring freedom to Christians. You see, if we think narrowly about the gospel, we will be in danger of thinking that the gospel saves us, but then it ceases to be of benefit to us and becomes a message rather than the ongoing tool by which God refines and shapes us into creatures that resemble his Son. The gospel is not just for unbelievers, but for everyone: Christians need the gospel.
Let’s look at just one place in Scripture where this is made clear, Galatians 3:2-3. Here Paul is chastising the Galatian Christians for their seeming willingness to accept “another gospel”. Paul knows that these are Christians, people who are already saved. They heard the gospel (the pronouncement that they were sinners in need of a Saviour) and accepted it (the premise) and Jesus (the only Saviour given to them). But now they were in danger of surrendering the freedom that they had in Christ. Paul’s remedy is to remind them of their salvation to ask if they are so foolish as to think that they could now earn something that they had been given freely before. Do you see what Paul is doing? The remedy for their bondage is the gospel, but this is not the bondage of sin (per se) but the bondage of their will and conscience. They were not in danger of losing their salvation, but they were enslaving themselves to legalism and moralism. They were in danger of becoming the sort of Christians who believe that that the gospel saves them but they then need to keep themselves saved by their good works. If we were to take the narrow view that the gospel is only of one-time benefit to the believer, then we would need to ask ourselves, "what is Paul doing here?" It is clear in Galatians (see also chapter 5) that the gospel is the truth of what God has done in Jesus and that we need to apply this truth to our hearts over and over again through the Spirit’s witness as we read Scripture, hear the Word proclaimed (i.e. sermons), and through our prayer and community life. The fact is that the gospel has a far wider reach than we may think. In fact, even here I have not given a good enough summary because I have not touched on how the gospel announces the healing of the entire cosmos! It is not just the human soul but all creation that is in the redeeming path of the gospel.
Preachers witness to the gospel by pointing to how all Scripture points to this work of redemption that Jesus brings. Because preachers should be following their text as they preach, it means that some weeks the sermon will point to one aspect of the freedom that the gospel brings and at other times there will be another emphasis. Preaching the gospel is not just tacking on some rote sentence on to the end of the sermon every week. While it is true that the gospel means that sinners, dead in their transgressions are given a way out of their predicament (wrath) by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, it is also true that the gospel is the balm we apply to our daily struggles as Christians. To preach the gospel, whether as a preacher or a faithful Christian witnessing in one's community or workplace, means to understand that Jesus frees us from our bondage to sin at salvation, but that life is a daily “putting to death” of our old selves and the idols and sins that lure us from the truth that we are free from them. We do this by the power of the Spirit and the only reason we can put the "old man" of sin to death is because (to paraphrase Luther), he has already been killed by Jesus. Let’s widen our perspective of the gospel, let’s see the grand intent of God in his Son.
For some interesting takes on how to summarize the message of the entire Bible, check out this article where some key Christian scholars and pastors offer their “one sentence” summaries (warning, some are more than one sentence!)