At some point during my tenure as a pastor at Grace Baptist, I decided I needed a succinct, memorable expression of the gospel—a phrase I could repeat frequently in a variety of contexts until members of the flock would recall it reflexively.
What I came up with is pretty much straight from 1 Corinthians 15:1-4: The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose again.
Though I didn’t end up teaching it as well I’d intended, the statement did become an important tool in my own thinking. It eventually became reflexive for me, and that was instrumental in a sanctification project God was advancing in my own life.
It was instrumental in two ways: First, it increased my gospel awareness in general sermon preparation, personal Bible study, and random reflections on life and being human. Second, it revealed its own inadequacy. As my understanding of the gospel deepened and expanded, I came to see that my “gospel in a nutshell” statement was too small.
I’m keeping it, though—all the nutshell statements are too small!
Someone I respect said the gospel is simply, “Jesus saves.” I’ve also heard, “The gospel is the cross,” and, “It’s Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). In a way, the gospel can be boiled down to one word: “Christ”!
Why compact, handy expressions of the gospel are important
A friend of mine recently said that, to him, the gospel is “the kingdom of God.” That seemed inadequate to me, until he unpacked it. The decompressed version was excellent. The truth is that any short expression we come up with requires unpacking—and how much unpacking is required depends on what the hearers already know or what particular aspect of the gospel we’re trying to focus on and develop.
I’m persuaded that every Christian needs a favorite nutshell expression of the gospel that works for them in several ways:
- It comes readily to mind.
- It revives the spirit, sometimes literally quickens the pulse.
- It powerfully suggests the larger reality implied by the short expression.
- It heightens awarness of how all the varieties of biblical events and biblical teaching are connected into a single, grand whole.
- It increases awareness of how the gospel and all of Scripture connect to the experience of living in this world in these times.
A compact, memorable expression of the gospel is a vital tool for becoming deeply gospel-minded.
Why our gospel-in-a-nutshell expressions really aren’t “the gospel”
The usefulness of a hammer, or battery tester, or scalpel depends a lot on understanding each tool’s limitations. The tools work best when we understand that the hammer isn’t for surgery, and that the tester will break if you pound a nail with it.
Our pithy gospel expressions are like that—because the gospel is much larger than a sentence or two can convey. It’s even larger than 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
The truth of this becomes clear if we note the questions these short definitions raise. For example, my own gospel-in-a-sentence raises at least five questions.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose again.
- Who is Jesus Christ?
- What is a sinner?
- Why did sinners need dying for?
- Why did Jesus rise again?
- Why is this good news?
These questions are all invited by looking at the key words in the sentence itself, and they reveal that there is much more to the gospel than the short sentence can convey.
But there’s still more. The answers to these questions raise a few more questions, and those might raise a few more before the picture is fully sketched.
What short, popular expressions of the gospel message usually leave out
I learned early in life that we’re all sinners, that we’re justly condemned as a result, that Jesus Christ paid the penalty of sin on the cross and that all who trust in His sacrifice are delivered from sin’s penalty, and eventually its power—your basic “Romans Road” (Rom. 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10).
But the “Romans Road” and its cousins only consider the individual perspective on the gospel—and only part of that: the escaping from judgment part.
Seeing the whole gospel requires looking at it from multiple levels—something like an intergalactic view, and a satellite view, as well as a more complete “my life, right here, right now” view.
The intergalactic perspective
The intergalactic perspective on the gospel tells us that the only reason there is a universe at all (the reason there is something rather than nothing) is because God has chosen to reveal His glory in this way. Specifically, He has chosen to create a world occupied by human beings who would fail and fall and bring destruction on themselves and the creation (Rom. 8:20, 9:22). He chose to do that in order to also reveal the “glory of His grace” by saving some (Eph. 1:5-6, Rom. 9:23-24), eventually also saving the planet and the entire created order (Rom. 8:21). “Saving” here means graciously, by His own means, transforming the broken, alienated, and self-destructive into the healed, harmonious, and thriving.
Viewed from such a distance, we can see that the gospel is big enough to make sense of the world for the deepest and most brilliant thinkers the human race has yet produced, or ever will produce—big enough also to provide a framework for us ordinary Christians to relate everything we do in the world to God’s purposes.
The satellite perspective
The satellite view of the gospel connects the intergalactic picture to human history and biblical history. He has revealed much of who He is in creation (Psalm 19:1-6, Rom. 1:18-20) but has laid out the story of God and man in Scripture. That story teaches us the truth of our fallenness, our inability to save ourselves, and His great mercy in providing a Savior. It plays out in God’s raising up people for His name and forming gracious covenants with them (Gen. 12:1-2, Deut. 7:6-9). It unfolds in His extending mercy to them again and again, as they and their kings embraced idols and rejected Him (Matt. 23:34-39).
Viewed from the satellite perspective, the gospel enables us to see that the historical events of the Old Testament and New demonstrate some vital gospel truths: that mankind needs fixing, that it can’t fix itself, and that a version of it will be eventually be fully repaired (recreated!) only by God’s own power and righteousness, humbly received by those who trust in Him. Human history outside of the Bible abundantly demonstrates two out of those three realities: that the race is broken and can’t heal itself. The cross is the only solution (Rom. 8:23-25).
The “me, here, now” perspective
The “me, here, now” view of the gospel relates all of the above to individual human beings, starting with ourselves. The gospel tells me that I was born in the guilt of humanity’s (Adam’s) sin, and that I also pushed God away by my own nature and choices (Rom. 5:12, 19; Eph 2:3). It also tells me that personal transformation is God’s purpose in calling me to faith in Christ. Those who believe are “in Christ” as a means to an end: not only to glorify God’s grace in forgiving sinners, but to glorify His grace in transforming them into truly holy, moral, good people (Col. 1:22, Jude 24, Eph. 5:27).
So, the gospel declares that I must personally face the truths of the Romans Road: that I am myself in need of saving, that I can’t save myself, that God provided salvation for me through Jesus’ death on the cross, that my only hope is to throw myself on God’s mercy and trust in what Christ has done on my behalf. But it also declares that I’m supposed to become a better person. God has not merely pulled me up from the tar pit (Psalm 40:2-3). He has placed me on solid rock to walk a better path (Eph. 4:4, Col. 1:10).
The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose again! It’s “Jesus Saves!” It’s “Christ and Him crucified!” It’s all that. It’s even “the kingdom of God”—because the cross isn’t just the basis for individuals escaping wrath and being changed. The cross is the basis for the fellowship of believers, the church, and the basis for an eventual transformation of the whole creation. The euangelion (“evangel”) is the good news of the whole story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.