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Credo
21 August 2023

Sin. Grace. Justification. Redemption. Sanctification.

The terms listed above are probably quite familiar to you, the Christian reader. But imagine a person who has never been to a church worship service or Christian small group, who has never encountered any Christian literature. Would this non-Christian know what these terms mean? These terms, while biblically and theologically sound, would be mere jargon to him or her. Obviously, we would do well to instead unpack and explain these concepts, avoiding specialised terminology when sharing the gospel.

Oh, wait. What about the very term ‘gospel’? Could this also be a piece of jargon? Are we able to unpack and elaborate what ‘gospel’ means in a manner that is helpful for the non-Christian?

A Gospel text is a carrier, the gospel is the content

First, let’s differentiate between ‘gospel’ versus ‘Gospel’. The former is a generic word that denotes “good news” or “a good announcement”. The latter term ‘Gospel’, capitalised as a proper noun, refers to a particular piece of writing – a text. There are four texts that bear the label ‘Gospel’ in our Bibles, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Technically, these are properly termed as the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark, and so on. Not the Gospel of Luke, or Gospel of John, etc. The difference is subtle yet crucial. For what we have is not four separate pieces of good news, but one coherent yet non-homogenous message, carried in four texts. We have not four disparate Gospels, but a fourfold gospel.

A Gospel text is not the gospel message per se. Rather, each of the four canonical Gospels carries or (re)announces the gospel, the good news. The Gospel according to [Name] is the carrier; the gospel is the content.

The first step in explaining the ‘gospel’ is to be clear between the uses of Gospel and gospel.

The term ‘gospel’ is not uniquely Christian

The Greek word translated as ‘gospel’ was in fact a generic term in the ancient Mediterranean world. It functioned as both noun (euanggelion) and verb (euanggelizo), respectively denoting the content of the message, and the action of announcing that content. The apostle Paul could thus write of:

“the gospel (noun) that I gospelled (i.e. announced)(verb) to you” (1Cor 15.1; see also Gal 1.11, 2Cor 11.7)

Originally, both noun and verb described a piece of good news in general. This did not necessarily have anything to do with Jesus Christ, as the following examples illustrate:

“The birthday of the god [referring to Caesar Augustus] was the beginning of good news (noun) for the world”. (Priene inscription)

“the one gospelling (i.e. announcing)(verb) to my father, saying ‘a male has been born to you’”. (Jer 20.15 LXX)

“Timothy… gospelled (i.e. announced)(verb) to us of your faith and love”. (1Thess 3.6)

Christians, Jews, and Gentiles could all use ‘gospel’ to refer generically to good news and its announcement. For the Christians, however, ‘gospel’ came to denote a specific piece of good news.

What is special about the Christian gospel is its specific content

The New Testament speaks of the following items being gospelled or announced (verb):
● the kingdom of God (Lk 4.43, 8.1, 16.16, Acts 8.12, etc)
● Jesus (Acts 8.35, 11.20)
● Jesus and his resurrection (Acts 17.18)
● that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah (Acts 5.42)
● peace through Jesus (Acts 10.36)
● the untraceable riches of Christ (Eph 3.8)
● the promise made to the ancestors (Acts 13.32)
● the word (Acts 8.4, 15.35, 1Pet 1.25)

Scripture also mentions the good news (noun) about:
● the kingdom (Mt 4.23, Mk 1.14-15, etc)
● Jesus/Christ (Mk 1.1, Rom 1.9, 1Cor 9.12, Gal 1.16, 1Thess 3.2, etc)
● God (Mk 1.14, Rom 1.1, 1Thess 2.2, 1Pet 4.17, etc)
● God’s grace (Acts 20.24)
● God’s justice (Rom 1.17)
● salvation (Rom 1.16, Eph 1.13, 2Thess 2.14)
● peace (Eph 6.15)
● the promise through the prophets (Rom 1.2)

The Bible further speaks of the mystery of the gospel (Eph 6.19, cf. Rev 10.7), of the eternal gospel (Rev 14.6), and of a variant gospel (2Cor 11.4, Gal 1.6) in opposition to Paul’s gospel (Rom 2.16, 1Thess 1.5, 2Tim 2.8). The gospel can be shared in (Phil 1.5) and defended (Phil 1.7, 16). The gospel is to be obeyed (Rom 10.16, 2Thess 1.8), and is worth giving up one’s life for (Mk 8.35, 10.29).

So, what is the content of this specific good news? The Biblical data can be summarised in this way:

1. Jesus gospelled the good news concerning God’s kingdom (Mt 4.23, 9.35, Mk 1.14-15, Lk 4.43, 8.1).
2. The apostles gospelled the good news concerning Jesus of Nazareth, including his identity as resurrected Messiah (Acts 5.42, 17.18).
3. The gospel is not solely about who Jesus is, but is about also about the good news of God’s grace, salvation, justice, and peace through Jesus (Acts 20.24, Rom 1.16-17, 2Thess 2.14, Eph 6.15).
4. This good news culminates in Jesus of Nazareth but also predates him, for it was fore-promised to the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel (Acts 13.32, Rom 1.2), and is eternal (Rev 14.6).

It is these details, this substantive content, which makes the good news of Jesus Christ unique – not the term ‘gospel’ itself.

This implies we must be clear about, and must clearly communicate, the content of this good news. Could we avoid using ‘gospel’ as a standalone word? Could we instead describe its distinctive subject matter, e.g. ‘good news about Jesus the promised saviour and king’, or ‘good news about Jesus who revealed God’s grace in his death and resurrection’? Such intentional jargon-avoidance will help both non-Christians and the next generation of Christians come to terms with the fullness of this specific good news.

God’s gospel can be proclaimed without using the term ‘gospel’

A final point. Surprise: the Gospel according to John nowhere uses the noun or the verb ‘gospel’. Yet, this Fourth Gospel still announces the gospel of Jesus Christ with great clarity and conviction.

This reinforces the point that there is nothing sacred or special about the term ‘gospel’ per se. What matters is the specific content: the identity of the crucified and risen Jesus, the blessings and benefits this Jesus brings, the fulfilment of God’s past promises in Jesus.

Conclusion

The term ‘gospel’ is not uniquely Christian. What is special about the Christian gospel is its specific content. This specific good news about Jesus Messiah calls for a response by its hearers (Rom 10.16, 2Thess 1.8), for it is worth the giving one’s very life (Mark 8.35). So, dear Christian reader, don’t allow ‘gospel’ to become a piece of jargon, a term that only insiders understand. The gospel of Jesus Christ is far too important for that.


Gilbert Lok has undergraduate training in Economics (1st-class honours, NUS), and postgraduate degrees in Divinity (TTC) and New Testament (Oxford). Gilbert currently serves as Assistant Pastor at Barker Road Methodist Church.