I was listening recently to a debate between Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. and Jim Wallis (available here), and I was struck by Mr. Wallis' use of the word gospel. Many times Mr. Wallis was using it in reference to ministering to the poor and seeking "social justice." Dr. Mohler, responded masterfully, but in light of this debate and many comments that I have seen recently, I feel it necessary to clearly define, first, what the gospel is not.
The word gospel, means the "good news," but what is this good news? Mr. Wallis stated, that it included a "personal relationship" with Jesus. Is that the good news? The answer is emphatically, no (though there is some truth in that statement). The gospel is not about a personal spiritual journey, or finding the means to be a better person within oneself. Neither is it about how to have a better marriage or how to have an abundant life. The gospel is not about how to find your purpose or how to find favor with God. Neither is is it about a personal experience, a clever witticism, good works, or cultural relevance. Furthermore, the gospel is not about social, economic, or racial justice.
If, then, the gospel is not all these things, then what is it? The word is pregnant with meaning and one which the Apostle proclaimed a curse on himself if he did not preach it (1 Corinthians 9:16). I am a Sunday School teacher, and the gospel is something I wanted to define for my students in such a way that they could recall it in a moments notice; that is, a definition that contained the bare essence of what this word gospel meant. Before I elaborate on that, I will let Scripture speak:
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, ..." (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, ESV).
That is the gospel. There is nothing to be added to it or taken from it. Paul in a few short sentences, after establishing that this is something of first importance, clearly and concisely states what the gospel is, and therefore what is to be the center of the Christian faith. There is nothing, more important than the gospel; for as the Apostle states, it is the essence of salvation. These few verses of Scripture are to be the center of Christian worship, preaching, and proclamation. Anyone who deviates from this is at best an unfaithful servant and at worst an instrument of the devil. Hard words, sure, but nonetheless truth. For,
" 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 8 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:6-8, emphasis added)
The aforementioned is why it is imperative and essential that all Christians know, taught from the pages of Scripture, what the gospel is in its essence; without flowery language, additions, or distortions. The gospel (in more specific terms) is that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man (Philippians 2:6-11). He came to earth to live the perfect life in accordance with the law (Romans 5:18ff), that He died on the cross for sin (Colossians 2:13-15), and on the third day he rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:4). The Creeds of the early church proclaim this truth in its fullness, and the Apostles of Christ have been proclaiming it since the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).