One of the areas of disagreement in the in-person and online wider Christian world (often a very scary and even unChristian place), is what is actually “gospel work.” Are effects of the gospel part of the gospel? Are things Christians work towards and cultivate in their church, community, and family connected to the gospel, or is “the gospel” only the message of how sinners become right with God? It’s a good question, when really asked rather than thrown out as a smoke-screen to avoid allowing the gospel to do its deep work in our lives.
It leads to other questions, like, is racial reconciliation part of the gospel, is caring for the poor, fighting for the dignity of life inside and outside the womb, loving the stranger, seeking justice, or (fill in the blank) part of the gospel or separate from the gospel?
There is the danger of losing the gospel when we neglect the message of salvation and are only concerned with the “good works” Christians are called to live out as we follow Jesus. This has happened many times historically as more liberal churches neglected the essential truths of the Bible and focused on a “social gospel” focused on doing good. This happens still.
But on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s just as big a problem among churches that only talk about the gospel in its most narrow sense, meaning how a sinner can be forgiven and reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But they stay there, and never move to how the gospel changes us and the kind of “gospel effects” that take place in healthy churches.
The New Testament letters never fall into either ditch. Most epistles begin with a clear focus on the gospel of who Jesus is and what he’s accomplished in saving us, but this naturally transitions (as one coherent message) into how God sanctifies, or changes, the ones he saves, both individually and in true churches. See Ephesians or Colossians for two layup examples.
Churches or self-proclaiming Christians who forsake Ephesians 1-3 (the gospel indicatives) and only focus on effects of the gospel are just as dangerous as those who forsake Ephesians 4-6 (the gospel imperatives) and limit the gospel to only a message of conversion. What I want to show below is that part of the confusion is we miss how the New Testament uses “gospel” in both a narrow and broad sense. Understanding this helps us understand that the gospel includes the change the gospel should produce in us and through us. It’s not the works God does in us through the gospel (wider usage of “gospel”) save or justify us (narrow use of “gospel), but they are part of the good news of what God does in, for, and through the sinners he redeems and transforms.
My argument is the NT can use “gospel” narrowly to refer to message of how sinners are reconciled to God through Jesus, but that the NT can also has a wider usage of “gospel” that includes both what Christ accomplished for us and how he works it out in us. It can be used broadly to refer to the wider salvation benefits that all are accomplished and applied to us through our union with Christ (justification, sanctification, adoption, glorification), even the very obedience we perform that has now been enabled by the Holy Spirit we receive because of Jesus’ new covenant sacrifice. This is why we can then talk about implications of the gospel in our life and churches as part of the gospel without losing “the gospel.”
Here are a few examples and supporting reasons for this line of thinking. Like any “argument,” you might some of these more compelling or clear than others, but I think the weight is in the number of instances together and what they suggest.
Jesus often calls the gospel “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Mk 1:15;).One implication here is that “the gospel” is bigger than justification, though it surely includes justification. Whatever kingdom means (God’s redemptive reign over his people through rescuing rebels back to Himself), the “good news” message seems to deal with “salvation” in broader terms than solely forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness.
Mark opens: “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). The complete story of Jesus (act and accomplishment; person and work) can be called the “gospel” because it is the story of the Redeemer and our Redemption in him. It’s what life now looks like under the True King. This includes both how rebel subjects can graciously be restored to this kingdom as well as what life for them now looks like in this new kingdom.
In Ephesians 3:6, the mystery of the gospel is that both Jews and Gentiles are a part of the people of God in Jesus. Gospel includes justification and forgiveness but seems to be a broader term referring to salvation in a bigger sense (including reconciliation to God, inclusion in the people of God, and receiving all of the promises of God in the OT and NT). Salvation in Jesus is the focus, but it’s a salvation that includes the life-changing aftershocks such as unity, humility, and oneness among former enemies. The gospel is not only how God makes individuals right with him (Eph. 2:1-10) but how he makes them right with one another (Eph. 2:11-22).
Ephesians 6:15, 19 offers another interesting cases. In 6:15, it is a gospel of peace and in 6:19 we see the mystery is the gospel. Both include our justification but also include the results of justification in Christ (Jews and Gentiles now one people of God, at peace with God and each other). In Ephesians, the gospel seems to include all the realities of salvation through Christ (justification, victory over evil powers, adoption into God’s people, reconciliation vertically and horizontally).
Philippians 1:5 speaks of their “partnership in the gospel.” Clearly the church at Philippi didn’t participating in Paul’s justification but in the work of seeing sinful people united to and redeemed by Jesus Christ. Their partnership in the gospel isn’t a partnership in the accomplishment of sinners being saved (narrow usage) but it’s a gospel-created partnership that, in love, seeks to see others become part of God’s people through Paul’s ministry (wider usage). Gospel seems to carry its broad usage here, as “gospel” is the ministry of teaching the gospel and all of what Christ has commanded (see also 2:2; 4:3, 15; Matt. 28:18-20).
Colossians 1:5, “of this you have heard before in the word of truth, the gospel.” What they heard about it in the gospel was that a sure hope was laid for them in heaven through Christ (1:5). This would seem to imply that the whole message of salvation, including their justification and their future glorification based on that right standing, are part of Paul’s teaching on the gospel. Gospel includes not just the message of what Jesus did and how we receive it, but what it does for us and in us now and later.
In 1 Cor. 1:18, Paul parallels his statement in Rom. 1:16. In Romans 1, he says the gospel is the power of God for salvation, but in I Cor. 1 he says the word of the cross is the power of God for those being saved. So we know both chapters have the gospel in mind even though the word “gospel” isn’t used. What is Paul’s summary of the gospel then in 1 Corinthians? That in Jesus, by grace (so there’s no boasting), and through the foolishness of the cross, we’re made righteous, we’re cleansed and set apart, and we’re freed from sin’s penalty and power (1 Cor. 1:30). The gospel is here both a broad message of an all-encompassing salvation as well as the motivation for Paul’s exhortation to growth and holiness in the rest of the letter.
2 Timothy 1:8-10 provides a summary of the gospel of grace that includes the abolishment of death, salvation, the call to holiness, newness of life. The results of the gospel (a holy calling) seem to be lumped into the gospel itself, not in a narrow sense of what saves us but in a broad sense of what salvation encompasses.
NT ethics (imperatives) are rooted in our new realm of living because we’re in Christ (indicative). NT encouragements for obedience to Jesus and working out the gospel in our life go back to our standing in Christ, our new identity, living under the New Covenant, participating in Christ’s kingdom, being adopted into God’s family, or life in the Spirit. These are not explicit mentions of “gospel” but are part of the good news of salvation in the NT (the gospel). There’s a seamless connection between our standing in Jesus by grace and through faith (narrow use of “gospel”) and our walk with Christ in faith that includes him working in us (broad use of “gospel”).
By way of summary, here’s a “line of logic” to the argument that “gospel work” or what the gospel is about can at times include not just the message how sinners are saved but the effects of Jesus in our life.
- The gospel can be used narrowly to refer simply to Jesus’ death and resurrection for our forgiveness, but it can also carry additional meanings related to the full scope of salvation through our union with Christ (justification, sanctification, adoption, glorification).
- Because the results and effects of the Gospel are purchased by Jesus and a promised gift from God (though we might exercise some of them) we can rightly call them the gospel (broadly speaking). The good news of the New Covenant gospel includes both our ongoing acceptance as believers based on Christ’s righteousness and the fact that we experience a new relationship to the law because the Spirit enables us to obey. Both salvation and sanctification are essential to the good news of what we receive in Christ by grace through faith. Both are Christ’s work for us and in us.
- There are many motivations to obedience for a Christian (gratitude, new ownership, promise of blessings and greater joy, hope of reward, assurance, Jesus’ glory, fear of God, love to God and neighbor, what Jesus has done for us, etc.) and none of them are exclusive. As we preach the gospel to ourselves as believers, the gospel motivates change and obedience. The gospel isn’t left on the shelf after conversion but it’s powerfully at work now, still changing us as people and as Christ’s Church.
We do need to move on to (while not leaving behind the “foundation”) the exhortations of growing in Christ (imperatives) but we must continually do so with reminders of why we can do those things (indicatives). In other words, rightly understanding that union with Christ creates freedom, changes our hearts, and guarantees us of the Spirit’s indwelling is the wind in our sails (motivation) for how we can grow according to God’s working and power (gospel-centered) rather than our own (moralism). In other words, the NT repeatedly tells us what we should do (imperative/ought) but always roots it in why we can do it (indicative/can). We must continually preach the gospel to ourselves so we do strive to grow but do so because of God’s gracious working and power enabling us. There is no separation between God’s gospel that saves us and sanctifies us.
Preaching the gospel to ourselves comes up short if it only reminds us of our justification in Christ without also nudging us towards the grace of progressive sanctification by the Spirit. We must preach the gospel to ourselves, including the realities of who we are and what we’ve received in Jesus Christ as well as the life of following Jesus we’re called to walk and his provisions for us walking it. While the heart of the gospel is the message that sinners can be made right with God because of the redemption freely available in Jesus, that same gospel works in us and through us to create change. All who get Jesus also get his Spirit, so that all who are justified are also being sanctified and will be glorified. This is good news indeed. May the gospel not only spread widely to new people but deepen its roots in us as individuals, families, and churches. May the gospel not only restore us to God (Eph. 2:1-10) but also reconcile us to one another (Eph. 2:11-22).