What is the Gospel?

1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

1 Corinthians 15:1-8


When I was a young lad, I remember watching a TV game show with my grandmother called “To Tell the Truth.”

Here is how the game worked.

Three celebrities would sit across from three contestants. The celebrities would have an opportunity to ask each of the contestants questions in order to figure out which one was telling the truth about who they really were because they all claimed to be the same person with the same life story.

At the start of the show, each contestant would introduce himself using the same name. But that name really belonged to only one of contestants. Two of them were imposters.

The challenge for the celebrities was to pick the true Martin Smith, Jim White, or Julie Thompson.  The challenge for the contestants was to fool the celebrities into picking someone who wasn’t Martin Smith.

Once the celebrities made their decisions, the game show host would ask, “Will the real [Martin Smith] please stand up?”

If the contestants were able to fool the celebrities, they won the game and shared the prize money.

Just like there were imposters in To Tell the Truth, there are impostors when it comes to what the Bible calls the gospel, a word that means “good news” and comes from a compound Greek word, euangelion.

In the ancient world, when a King returned home in victory from battle, a herald would lead the procession crying out, “Euangelion!”

A gospel imposter is anything that gives us hope, peace and joy apart from the victory of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection. Imposter Gospels don’t need the cross or a resurrection. They don’t need grace.

For example,

  • The prosperity, or health and wealth gospel, doesn’t need the cross. For this imposter, salvation comes in the form of physical health, a promotion, or a new car.
  • The social gospel is a theologically liberal form of the prosperity gospel that finds salvation in meeting material needs, but to the neglect of the spiritual. There is no place for the cross in the social gospel.
  • The same is true for both the conservative and liberal forms of the political gospel, which finds salvation through winning elections and passing legislation.
  • And then there is the good ole’ gospel of religious behaviorism or moralism, which doesn’t need the cross either. For this imposter, salvation is found in “being good,” or at least looking like you are good and morally superior to others.

And then there are the multitude of gospels that we create ourselves, such as the gospel of popularity, the gospel of being right, and the gospel of ethnic superiority.

The danger of any gospel imposter is that they often take half-truths and make them the primary truth, or in Paul’s words, make them “of first importance.” In sounding and feeling like the real thing, like contestants on To Tell the Truth, imposter gospels can fool us.

So, will the true gospel please stand up?

Thankfully, the real gospel stands up for us in 1 Corinthians 15:1-12, where Paul shows us 3 essential aspects of the true gospel.

 

THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL IS HISTORICAL

Notice the verbs Paul uses to establish the historicity of the message of Jesus.

3b Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

The historicity of the gospel is of utmost importance because it places the gospel in the realm of fact.

When we talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the implications that flow from those events, we are talking about something that really happened.

It is actual, space-time history—as historical as the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Dunkirk rescue, and 9-11.

However, you may have noticed that culturally speaking, whether in the media or in the classroom, a large wedge has been placed between faith and fact.

Christian belief is often relegated to the realm of personal feelings. We are told that faith should be a private matter and should not enter the public sphere of discourse because faith is based on religious feelings, not facts.

But what if the Christian faith is based on facts? What if Christianity is not merely a philosophy of religion or a legend? What if the truth of my belief has nothing to do with my feelings, but rather, is based on historical facts?

This would change the conversation entirely.

Consider the ways Paul establishes the historicity of the gospel, such as stating how the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfilled very specific prophecies from the Old Testament. This is what he means when he says that these things took place, “according to the Scriptures.

Furthermore, the fact that 500 people saw the risen Jesus at the same time, with “most of them still living,” meant that a multitude of eyewitnesses could be interviewed concerning the historicity of the events.

Also, the evidence of changed lives lends weight to the historicity of the gospel. Not only Paul, who has previously been the chief persecutor of the church, but Peter was famous for his betrayal of Jesus on the night Christ was arrested before his crucifixion. Peter had been a coward.

But after the resurrection of Jesus, he becomes a lion of courage, gladly facing imprisonment for preaching about Jesus, eventually giving his life as a martyr.

What happened? The resurrection happened. It was true, and that led to a personal revolution in Peter’s life.

Did you know that the same revolution that took place within Peter can take place within you, too?

You no longer have to hide your faith or be ashamed of what you believe. You can lead with it, not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of fact. We don’t check out brains at the door of the church; we register them. We come to love God with all of our heart, soul… and mind. The things you believe (and we have been talking about this summer) are not to be relegated to unscientific religious feelings. Your faith is based on historical facts. Things that are true.

But the good news we believe is not only historical…

 

THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL IS PROPOSITIONAL

This means that the gospel is not primarily a system of morals, but rather is a declaration of grace. The gospel is not about what we do for God, but is about what God has already done for us. The gospel is not primarily instructional; it is propositional.

The gospel is not a set of instructions. The gospel is news.

Paul puts it like this in verse 3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins...”

There are no instructions here. Just a statement of fact.

Paul leaves no room for anything except grace as the essential substance and heart of the gospel. We don’t earn this grace. We don’t work for it. We can only receive it as a free gift.

The apostle John put the gift this way in 1 John 4:10,

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

“For our sins”—whether irreligious sins of moral and spiritual defiance or religious sins of moral and spiritual self-righteousness—our sins are acts for which God’s law demands justice.

Just like in our civil courts. The court of heaven is bound by the character of God to execute the sentence the law demands.

Therefore, when we read that Jesus “died for our sins,” as an “atoning sacrifice,” we are reading about Jesus serving a judicial sentence, being judged guilty in our place, enduring the penalty that our sins deserve–that MY sins deserve–which, for treason against the King, is the death penalty.

In theology, to atone is to cover. This is what Jesus has done with our sins. With his blood, he has covered our sins, paid our sin debt, made us clean, and reconciled us to the Father forever.

This substitutionary atonement of Jesus is the very epicenter of the gospel from which all other graces flow—from which…

  • we receive a new status before God in justification,
  • a new relationship with God in adoption,
  • a new spiritual family in the church,
  • a new indwelling power in the Holy Spirit,
  • a new purpose as missionary citizens of the Kingdom on earth, and
  • we receive a new hope… that eternal joy is on the horizon.

But these propositional realities are only effectual when the gospel becomes personal.

 

THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL IS PERSONAL

First, notice how many times Paul uses the personal pronoun “you.”

1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received [by faith] and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if  you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

By the way, when Paul says, “If you hold firmly… otherwise, you have believed in vain,” he is not saying we can lose our salvation if we don’t hold on tightly enough or if we begin to doubt?

No. There are plenty of passages that teach that those who are truly regenerate cannot and will not lose their salvation. In John 10, Jesus says that he will lose none of his sheep for whom he died and that no one can snatch any of us out of the Father’s hand.

It is not our hold on Jesus that saves us but his hold on us!

Yes, we strongly affirm the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.”

However, the key is that “once saved” means truly saved. Because the Bible also teaches that it is possible for people to make a spurious, “religious” profession based on emotion or fear, not from a truly regenerate heart.

In Matthew 13, Jesus taught in the parable of the sower that the gospel falls on different kinds of soil. Sometimes, the seed appears to grow, but withers and dies, indicating that it is possible for a momentary response to the gospel to end up being a counterfeit response.

Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul does not assume that everyone in the church in Corinth was truly regenerate.

He knows that, like some of us, we walked an isle and assumed we had fire insurance against hell. Yet, even if I said the right things back then, the question is, “Where am I ‘standing’ now? Have I moved? Walked away?”

Some of us are there. At least we feel that way.

Remember the story of the prodigal, wayward son in Luke 15 who took his inheritance and blew it on wine and women? The father didn’t go anywhere. It was the younger son who left and squandered his inheritance.

What did the wayward son eventually do? He came to his senses and went back home.

What did the father do? What might we have expected him to do? Did he turn his wayward son away? Did he shame him, rebuke and chasten him? No. The father clothed him. Gave him a family signet ring and new shoes. The father even threw a party for his return, so strong was his affection for his son, who had once been lost, but now was home.

By the way, the items the father gave the son were symbolic. Upon his arrival home, the son, with his tail between his legs, expected and deserved to be treated like a servant or hired hand. But in dramatic fashion, the Father made sure his son knew that he was his son. Not a servant or hired hand, but a beloved, treasured son.

This was a reality for the wayward son to make personal and to possess.

In fact, that is the meaning of the Greek word used by Paul in verse 2 of our passage which is translated in  as “hold fast” or “hold firmly.” The word means “to possess.” You see, it’s not our strength that saves us, but simply owning the gift God gives to those who will receive it.

Christ died for our sins collectively. But he also died for my sins personally. And yours.

_______________________________

In 2011, photographer Foster Huntington gathered the belongings he would want to save if his home were on fire.

He took a picture of his must-save belongings and posted them to his blog. Eventually, thousands of people began sending him their own must-save photos, which he eventually compiled into a photo book of items people would rescue from the fire.

Some of the items people said they’d grab include:

  • The ring I received from my dad when I was 12
  • The earrings I wore to my wedding
  • My Moleskin journal
  • My iPhone
  • My Blu-ray disk of The Princess Bride
  • My grandfather’s Bible
  • The teddy bear of my childhood

How would it make you feel if you knew that in the fires of judgment for your sin, that Jesus chose to save you? to rescue you from the fires of hell by enduring those fires in your place? To reconcile you to God as Abba Father, fully forgiven with nothing to fear and everything to gain?  How does it make you feel that you are one of Jesus’ must-save items?

This is the true gospel.

This is the good news, the gift we are to receive, possess, and prize—this is the gift that to possess changes everything.

Will you receive it… will you possess it… own it, today?

_______________________________

What is the Gospel – Review and Discussion Guide

  1. How do imposter gospels differ from the real thing? What are some examples of modern-day false gospels?

 

  1. Why is the historicity of the Christian gospel so important?

 

  1. Discuss this statement: “The gospel is not primarily instructional; it is propositional.”

 

  1. What are some of the key propositions in the gospel?

 

  1. How is substitutionary atonement “the very epicenter” of the gospel?

 

  1. Discuss this statement: “It is not our hold on Jesus that saves us but his hold on us!”

 

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