If you Google the phrase “What is the gospel?” you will find a spate of links with precisely that title ready to unpack the contents of…of…the gospel? Well, maybe. But I’m not so sure.For the rest, click HERE.
Most of these sites are sponsored by high profile Evangelical organizations particularly of the Neo-Reformed camp and offer as their account of the gospel what is, properly speaking, the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith, i.e., justification sola fide (by faith alone). So, for instance, on the Resurgence’s “What is the Gospel?” page, between the headings Jesus Died and Jesus Rose is the heading Jesus Exchanged, invoking the Reformation idea of dual forensic imputation: Our sin imputed to Jesus and Jesus’s righteousness imputed to us. They write:
Jesus not only took the punishment for your sin, but he also lived a perfectly righteous life. When you trust in Christ, your sins are forgiven and you are declared righteous by God, the ultimate judge. The righteousness of Christ is attributed to you as if you lived a perfect life.Similarly, on the Ligonier ministries “What is the Gospel?” page R.C. Sproul tells us:
The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.And I know of at least one local pastor whose slogan-like summary of the gospel is “Christ in my place.” Throughout this post I have embedded videos of prominent evangelical leaders more or less equating the gospel itself with the doctrine of justification sola fide and they are worth watching if you aren’t sure you know what I am talking about.
To be sure, the identification of Luther’s doctrine of justification with the gospel itself has been a mainstay of conservative Protestantism from the Reformation onward, and so none of this is all that surprising. But, surprising or not, is it right? Is this idea of “Christ in my place,” this idea that we are justified by faith alone really what the apostles and the early Church had in mind when they talked about the euangelion, the “good news,” the gospel?
It would be hard to overplay the importance of this question. If one identifies the gospel with the doctrine of justification sola fide, then, by implication, one has to say that only (some) Protestants believe in the gospel. Not only does this equation require one to automatically put contemporary Catholics, Orthodox, and many other Christians in the “unbeliever” box, it also means putting everyone from the 1st century to the 16th–Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Thomas a Kempis, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, etc.–in that box as well. Most of the spiritual greats of Christian history–the Church Fathers and Mothers, the Medieval doctors, the great mystics–are all cast outside. To my mind, this implication alone is sufficient to warrant a reconsideration of the evangelical equation of the gospel with Luther’s doctrine of justification.
Let me be clear, my purpose here is not to dispute the truth of the doctrine of justification sola fide (detailed exegetical questions aside, I think Luther was more right than wrong on this issue) but only the strict equation of that doctrine with the gospel itself. Over the last seven years I have become increasingly convinced that the message which the apostles proclaimed as “the gospel” was not sola fide but Kyrios Christos, “Christ is Lord.” That is to say, the gospel is, properly speaking, the royal announcement that Jesus of Nazareth is the God of Israel’s promised Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Over the next few posts I’d like to offer some of the reasons for just why I think that is:
1. The New Testament writers were not writing in a cultural or linguistic vacuum and their language of euangelion and euangelizomai would have been understood by their audience in fairly specific ways. Namely, in the Greco-Roman world for which the New Testament authors wrote euangelion/euangelizomai language typically had to do with either A) the announcement of the accession of a ruler, or B) the announcement of a victory in battle, and would probably have been understood along one or the other of those lines. Let’s take the announcements of a new ruler first.