We all know what they are. We hear them, read them, and occasionally even use them. Bible terms. Theological jargon. Church words. Lurking in the under-layers of our biblical subconscious, we dig them up when coerced by a particularly “heavy” sermon or small group discussion. Because they are familiar, we tolerate them. They’re comfortable.
But comfort and understanding aren’t really the same thing, are they? Therein lies the danger of church words. We’ve heard them so often – and used them enough times ourselves – that we may not even realize that we don’t completely comprehend them.
Well, Church Words Defined, a new, regular feature here at Until the Day Dawns, is intended to help with that. Our goal isn’t to introduce a slew of new terms that Christians ought to know. Rather, we want to help Christians – and anyone else that’s interested – to really know the things they always thought they knew.
So, let’s give it a shot. This week’s church word is one that I use, for better or worse, constantly: gospel. What is the gospel? How should we define it? And why should we care in the first place?
One problem in defining the word is that, within Christian dialogue, it means (at least) three distinctly different things. First, gospel means a kind of literature – a theological biography describing the life and ministry of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are gospels in this sense.
Second, gospel means news…literally, good news. But this is where things get sticky. Because many Christians, if pressed, would struggle to articulate exactly what good news we are speaking of when we speak of the gospel. Is it the good news that we can have eternal life in Jesus? Is it the good news that God loves us? Is it the good news that God works all things together for good? You see, the Bible is full of these truths and many more that, like them, constitute good news. But what good news actually constitutes the gospel? It is probably impossible to answer that question exhaustively, but the good news of the gospel must include, at the very least, these things:
- the news that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, was born into creation to rule as king over all (new) creation (Mark 1:15)
- the news that Jesus lived a sinless life and yet died on the cross as a substitute for sinners (Rom 5:6-8)
- the news that Christ rose again victoriously three days later (1 Cor 15:4)
- the news that, after his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the throne of God in glory (Heb 1:3)
There is one thing worth noting here: all of this news has one thing in common…it is actually news! Meaning every bit of it is, at least according to the Bible, historical. It is story. This is important to consider as we approach the third meaning of the word gospel. It is distinct from the second, the story of Jesus, in that it refers to the benefits afforded to believers by the story of Jesus. The distinction is subtle but significant; the second focuses on Jesus and his life, while this third definition of gospel focuses on believers and the life they experience in Christ. What are the benefits of life in Christ? They, too, are innumerable, but they include:
- the fact that all believers are free from condemnation due to their sin (Rom 8:1)
- the fact that believers in Christ are adopted as sons and daughters in the family of God (Eph 1:5; Gal 4:4-7)
- the fact that believers, wearing the coat of Christ’s righteousness, become acceptable vessels for the Holy Spirit of God, who dwells in them guaranteeing their salvation (Eph 1:13)
- the fact that all believers, of every race and nation, are united together as the universal Church, the new temple of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:11-22)
- the fact that all believers, as new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), begin to obey more and more through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:18; Eph 4:20-24)
- the fact that all believers share in Christ’s glory at the right hand of the throne of God (Eph 2:6-7)
Each of these things constitute gospel. In short, the word can mean the way a story is told (#1), the events of the story itself (#2), and the meaning of the story for all people (#3). I will follow up tomorrow with one of several implications that comes by understanding these distinctions. Come back then!
Editor’s note: Here’s the followup.