When, as a 22-year-old undergraduate, I first became a Christian, I pretty quickly became aware that ‘the gospel’ was very important to Christians. But I was a little bit confused that, by this, they didn’t exactly seem to mean the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They seemed to mean something like Two Ways to Live. What, I wondered, was the connection?
I am far from being the only person to have gotten mixed up on this point. Here are a couple of personal anecdotes:
- While still a very young Christian I remember having bible studies on Revelation with a church worker who is now a close friend. At some point or other I said something to the effect that Revelation was written by John the Apostle and Gospel writer. My friend corrected me: the book was written by someone known as ‘John the Evangelist’. Not until years later did I realise that a Gospel writer is (by definition) an evangelist.
- A young man from my church who went off to university remarked later that he had initially had some difficulties in relating to fellow members of his Christian Union. He had been trained to talk about evangelism in terms of ‘telling people about Jesus’, while they would talk about ‘telling people the gospel’, and he didn’t really understand what they were on about. I explained that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and that this is good news about Jesus Christ.
This kind of confusion can go to some quite extreme lengths. N.T. Wright has had reason to lament having heard
the suggestion that since Paul's epistles give us 'the gospel' while 'the Gospels' simply give us stories about Jesus, we shouldn't make the reading of the latter into the key moment in the first half of the Communion Service. (In case anyone should rub their eyes in disbelief, I have actually heard this seriously argued more than once in the last year or two.)
I had been pondering these matters recently when, providentially, a friend of mine (the same church worker mentioned above) returned to me a book that he had borrowed, and which I thoroughly recommend, called Promoting the Gospel. The book has an appendix called ‘What is the gospel?’, containing the following very helpful passage:
The gospel (message) and the Gospel (books) are one. The gospel message is not a set of theological ideas that can be detached from the events that gave these ideas definitive expression. Nor is the gospel a simple narrative devoid of theological content. One without the other is not the gospel. To recount Jesus’ words and deeds without explaining their significance for our salvation is not what the Bible means by ‘telling the gospel’. Then again, to explain the doctrines of salvation without recounting the broad events of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels is not telling the gospel either. The gospel message is the grand news about how God’s kingdom has been opened up to sinners through the birth, life, death and resurrection of God’s son, the Messiah. This is the content of the Gospel books; this is the content of the gospel message. This is the news the first Christians took to an empire of false (imperial) gospels. It is also the news we are to promote to our friends and neighbours.