By Dr. Gentry Sutton
In Luke 24:45–47, we read about the risen Jesus succinctly communicating to the disciples the message of the gospel before his ascension to be with the Father: “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations’” (emphases added). Jesus also references this message to be preached to all the world at the end of the Gospel of Mark, and there he calls it the “good news” (Mark 16:15).
In 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, we read about the Apostle Paul communicating this same gospel in his own words:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (emphases added)
We see three overlapping elements in both Jesus’s and Paul’s iterations of the “good news”: (1) The Christ died, (2) The Christ rose from the grave, and (3) The Christ’s death and resurrection were for the forgiveness of our sins. While the concept of repentance that appears explicitly in the Luke passage is absent from the 1 Corinthians passage, we know that repentance was indeed a part of Paul’s theology of salvation (see Acts 17:30–31, Acts 20:21, and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, for example).
Bible scholars generally agree that Paul was restating an early creed that had been recited within the Christian community when he defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. This fact is important because of the early date of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, believed to have been written just over 20 years after Jesus’s death. In other words, as the passage indicates, Paul had preached this gospel to the Corinthians some years earlier, and the fact that Christ dying and rising again for the forgiveness of sins had been “creed-alized” so soon after Jesus’s death contrasts with the popular worldly notion that the words of Jesus were “distorted” by the early disciples. Quite to the contrary, it seems that the early believers were, in fact, so committed to preserving the true definition of the gospel that they put it in creedal form precisely so that later disciples would not manipulate its meaning. Professor and scholar Justin Bass establishes this argument well in his 2020 book titled The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.
Unfortunately, just as was true in Paul’s time, today a number of other issues are being conflated with the gospel. I hear frequently that [fill in the blank] is a “gospel issue.” Usually, the blank is filled in with “social justice” or one of its aspects. However, in no biblical iteration of the gospel is social justice or any aspect of social justice a part of it. As evidenced by the passages above, the gospel is about Jesus dying and rising again for the forgiveness of people’s sins. Period, full stop.
Given that Jesus does not separate repentance from forgiveness of sins when he talks about the good news (Luke 24:47), I will acknowledge that social justice issues are “gospel issues” in the sense that any heart or behavioral evil related to them should be repented of. In this same sense, though, every sin would be a “gospel issue,” and it is curious that we do not hear about marital unfaithfulness, gambling, drunkenness, cheating, lying, or stealing being referred to as “gospel issues.” Moreover, repentance is a condition of the gospel, not the gospel itself. Perhaps the fact that we hear of only certain things being “gospel issues” and not others should be a greater topic of conversation within the Christian community. But addressing that concern is beyond the scope of this essay, and I digress.
An accurate definition of the gospel is important for at least five reasons:
- The “good news” is not about what we do. Rather, it is about what Jesus has done. We immediately take the focus off Jesus when we attach anything to the gospel, for whatever we attach is inevitably going to be about ourselves. And when the focus is on ourselves, we miss the whole point.
- When we associate something we must do (other than repent) with the gospel, we run the risk of communicating a works-based understanding of salvation. As Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8). We in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, as Warner University and the Church of God—Anderson are, should be especially cautious about saying that anything is a “gospel” issue, for our tradition has at times in its past tended toward legalism. Our tradition has a rich history and ethic of social action, but that ethic must always be tempered with recognition that such action is a response to the gospel, not salvific work. Even John Wesley himself struggled with this issue: he was well along in years of ministry when he realized he had never truly understood the gospel as a gracious gift from God received by faith. I acknowledge that many people who make statements about such and such being a “gospel issue” intellectually understand that the gospel has nothing to do with social action or anything else we must do (besides repent). The problem is that generations of people do not understand that fact, so we must be more careful with language.
- Depending on what is being conflated with the gospel, we can minimize the significance of personal sin and the fact that personal sin is what we need to repent of in order to be right with God and be beneficiaries of the “good news.” For example, when someone says social justice is a gospel issue, and when the culture simultaneously says that social injustice is a product of corrupt systems and processes, then the “the gospel” can come to mean liberation from systems. Thus, the tendency can be to see imperfect systems, instead of personal sin, as the great plague of humanity. Social sin is certainly real, and Scripture calls nations to repent of collective sin. However, personal sin is always the target of the gospel of salvation.
- The fourth reason an accurate definition of the gospel is so important flows from the second and third: Anyone who puts his or trust of salvation in any type of work is not truly saved; therefore, he or she is not regenerated and indwelled by the Holy Spirit. This reality is significant especially in discussions about social justice, for it is precisely because social justice issues are so important that we want people filled with the Holy Spirit making decisions about them.
- Scripture’s warnings about teaching anything other than the true gospel are serious. Paul wrote to the Galatians,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
The gospel means “good news,” and the fact that our Christian identity calls us to seek justice is definitely good news, for it means that a holy and perfect lawgiver requires just behavior of us. But this reality is not the good news. The good news is that Jesus has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. It is the best news of all—ever.
It is important that both our understanding and communication of the gospel come from the biblical text itself, and it is important that we continue to communicate and advocate for the one true gospel. Jesus died and rose again so that our sins would be forgiven. Our commitment to live a holy life and do the things that Jesus wants us to do is a love response to the Savior who first loved us and the gospel he has offered in his grace as a gift.