Have you ever wondered why the Bible seems to present the gospel through a blender?
Within Scripture, Jesus’ singular gospel is presented from several different angles.
At times, the gospel is addressed by considering the eternal plan and will of God that was determined from before the world began. This speaks of the original source and purpose that initiated and sustains the gospel. These passages do not put the focus on individuals, as many mistakenly think, but firmly upon God’s plan through Christ.
“And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:8-12)
At other times, the text is emphasizing who Jesus is. In these passages, the subject is about the nature of Christ and that he is the fullness of God to mankind. Here is where the gospel speaks of the deity and humanity of Christ, born of a virgin as a physical human and proven to be the Son of God by being raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit.
“the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:2-4)
Again, there are many passages of Scripture that speak of the gospel in terms of what Jesus accomplished, particularly centered upon the work completed on the Cross. This is about what Jesus has done. This is the core of what is referenced under the term justification. These are the words that define the New Covenant in the blood of Christ and celebrated through Communion.
“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…Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)
A significant portion of the Bible teaches the gospel in terms that focus on how this good news applies to people. In these sections, the topic emphasizes how this gospel connects to believers. Most of these passages can be compiled under the subject heading of sanctification, where believers mature into the likeness of Christ, and where they do the works God has prepared for them to do, and where they endure in faith.
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven”. (Col 1:21-23)
A lot of the New Testament teaches on the shift of the standard by which believers are expected to live. The focus is away from the definitions and practices commanded through the Mosaic Law and upon the life and words of Jesus as guided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This gospel, though spoken about through the prophets of old, was first announced and initiated by Jesus, and as such cannot be an extension of previous covenants; rather, it is the reality and everything else just a former shadow of this new standard.
“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6)
Scripture also teaches details about this gospel in terms of its culmination, rather than just its initiation, or ongoing development. These are the verses that celebrate the glorious return of Christ and the hope held out in resurrection to a new life, body, and purpose in the Kingdom of God. This is the glorification part of the promised salvation.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:23-25)
Some of the Bible addresses the hard-to-receive truth that this gospel is not automatic, that it can be rejected, that it can be distorted and a believers faith shipwrecked. This is about those who begin well, but end poorly.
“Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” (Lu 8:13)
Numerous statements in Scripture also speak of the gospel in ways that focus on the boundaries in defining what exactly is this gospel, and what is not acceptable as Jesus’ gospel. The foundation for defining this gospel is something that was established at the very beginning of the early church, and the Bible says that no one in future generations is allowed to alter that original teaching with their ideas of updated doctrines that shift what was first taught and once-for-all given to the church.
“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…All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” (Gal 1:6-7; 3:10; 5:4-5)
The gospel is more than a message that can be packaged in a paragraph, it is a calling that must be lived. It is considered good news in what it promises to accomplish, but it can only be received as good for an individual when they respond to the call of God and demonstrate their own willingness to live according to the gospel.
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…who had believed in him, Jesus said, ‘if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will now the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” (Jn 1:12; 8:31-32)
It should be noted, that the gospel is principally about the good news of salvation that God designed for those Christians who accept Jesus through faith in this life, but the overall plan of God referenced in Scripture, actually extends beyond the boundaries defined in this gospel. Significant as the gospel is, it still is just a subset of the redemptive plan of God. This mystery applies to those passages that speak of Christ as savior of all men, not just believers. This is not part of the gospel, but it is a truth that extends the plan of God further than can be grasped through the gospel. This does not mean that everyone will be saved, or that none will be destroyed forever in Hell, but rather that what God is currently focused on in the Church is only part of a greater plan of mercy that will extend beyond the confines of just those who are confirmed in Christ today. Nevertheless, it is the gospel that Christians are expected to accept and promote, while understanding that there is even more planned by God that will somehow impact humanity.
“As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:28-29)
To rightly understand this amazing gospel, and carefully divide the word of truth as one approved by God, a believer must approach Scripture with a recognition of these different angles by which the gospel has been revealed. Each passage must agree with the others in how we understand the meaning of the gospel, but they do not all speak of the entire package. In this way the truth of the gospel, even though recorded in plain sight, remains veiled and hidden from the educated and unfaithful. As a result, a discerning student of the Bible will put the puzzle pieces of the gospel together in a way that upholds the overall revelation, and not fall into the trap of thinking that one passage can be taken out of the overall context and used as a basis for defining a new understanding of the gospel. The gospel has many facets, but only one underlying foundation and meaning. There is only one gospel, spoken about from several different angles, which reveals the whole.
This is how to begin the approach to defining the gospel rightly. There are many, many distorted ideas roaming about in the Church that do not submit to the above distinctions in how God has packaged and recorded the evidence about what he means by the gospel of Jesus. Different people and denominations will tend to highlight passages that stand out to them, and form beliefs around those key passages, but which do not equally submit to the other revelations within Scripture. A believer of noble character will look to Scripture, not for justification for what they want to believe or were initially taught, but to see if such views are consistently in agreement with the entire revelation about the gospel.
Bible verses tend to reveal specific details that fit in a context and that address a part of the whole. It would be a mistake to use one verse, or a few similarly worded passages, to form a foundation through which all other passages must fit or be discarded. All of God’s words are equally holy, and we have not been given the right to cut-and-paste.
For example, when the Spirit declares that if a person confesses Jesus as Lord, then they will be saved, many incorrectly assume that this is a magical prescription by which a simply announcing “I believe in Jesus” will guarantee them salvation. This true declaration identifies the core and beginning of faith—openly confessing faith in Jesus—but it does not provide any guarantee of culmination if such a professing person continues to live in disobedience. To such distorted beliefs within the church, the Bible repeats several times, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom”.
Another common mistake is to assume that the gospel is primarily about us. Passages can certainly be found that concentrate on applying the gospel to individuals and the benefits that can be expected, but that is just one part of the overall message. Such beliefs shift the focus away from where the gospel points believers to the supremacy of Christ, to the plan and will of the Father, and to upholding the holy name of God.
The sad prophecy is that in the end times in which we live, many professing Christians will abandon the faith and refuse to acknowledge the truth and so be saved. We are told that they will surround themselves with teachers, friends, fellow church members, and denominations that will agree with what they want to believe, but will not be careful to uphold the original gospel as once for all given to the saints. All will claim to be right, often engaging in powerful missions and ministries with their version of the gospel, and suggesting that the deceivers are somewhere else in other churches.
“I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (Ju 1:3-4)
Hunger and thirst for what the Bible declares about the righteousness of Christ offered in the gospel. Fix your focus and beliefs on him and not on popular human definitions. Strive to rightly divide the word of truth by submitting to what it says, by looking for what the Spirit confirms, and by ensuring your views sustain complete agreement with every text that addresses some aspect about the gospel. Ask for the wisdom of discernment and then show your humility before God by repenting when he opens your eyes to his truth and your previous mis-representations of his gospel. Don’t be deceived: not one of us will be immune from this need, so prepare yourself for Godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
When the mote is out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly—for that moment, and until the next layer of maturing, which will likely require yet another humbling surgery of your mind’s eye—so that you can help others to recognize the glorious gospel of Jesus. Transformation begins in the mind and in part is submitted to by refusing to conform to the ways and patterns common to humans, even within the Church. Come out and be separate.
There is no reason to be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for all those who believe.