What is the Gospel?

Jesus confronting the Pharisees

We often talk about the gospel as if it is something self-evident. We immediately think, “salvation in Christ,” but what is that? Is it about me, and my soul, and getting to heaven? Or is there more to this “salvation” than we have been led to understand?

Back in 1901, the Dutch theologian P. J. Hoedemaker had this to say about the understanding of the gospel in the Dutch church: “Under the hegemony of the [French] Revolution… Scripture was denied its merited place as the standard for faith and practice, except for the sphere of the religious and moral life of the individual. Preaching ceased being a ministry of the Word, was robbed of its prophetic character, and was restricted to a proclaiming of the gospel aimed mainly at ‘edification.’ Science remained more or less independent of Holy Scripture.”

If we are honest, we recognize in this description a fairly universal state of affairs in the church. The gospel is about the individual, his or her spiritual life, his or her access to heavenly things.

So let us see if this is in fact what the gospel is all about.

“Gospel,” Wikipedia tells us, is “the Old English translation of Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning ‘good news.’” Mark tells us that “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15, NASB). The gospel, the good news, is about the kingdom of God. Matthew writes, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Matth. 4:23).

The gospel is actually about the kingdom of God. The coming of this kingdom is the good news. But then, what is the kingdom of God?

We get a hint of that from the verse quoted above, in which Jesus not only proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, but also healed diseases and sicknesses. Where the kingdom comes, there comes healing. There comes a release from the curse (Gen. 3:16ff.), from the bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:21).

But that is a consequence of the coming of the kingdom; it is not the essence of the kingdom. The essence is something else: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matth. 6:10). God’s kingdom is there where His will is done. And His will is to be done here on earth, just as it is already done in heaven.

It is thus a matter of will, of obedience, of submission. Where God is obeyed, there you have the kingdom; and where He is not obeyed, there you have something else. The good news, then, is that this kingdom is coming.

That means that obedience is spreading. By the same token, and to the same degree, disobedience to, and rebellion against, God’s rule is receding. That is good news. But it comes with a cost.

If we refer to Augustine’s framework as described in The City of God, we learn that we are dealing with two cities here, corresponding to this obedience or disobedience. “Though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind” (Dods translation, XIV.1). And further: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self” (XIV.28).

We are all of us born into one of these cities, the earthly; we need to be born again to pass from one to the other. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God…. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).

This means that these two cities are intertwined in this life. There is no clear dividing line. The parable of the wheat and the tares explains this clearly (cf. Matth. 13:24ff.). The two cities grow up together, and only at the end of history will they be definitively separated.

This also means that the coming of the kingdom is a sifting process whereby the wheat, the believers, the obedient, are separated from the tares, the unbelievers, the disobedient. So this coming of the kingdom is good news, but not for everyone; and this sifting involves strife, conflict, and persecution. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matth. 5:10–12).

“Your reward in heaven is great.” Does this mean that we are to abandon the earthly realm to the unbelievers and simply wait upon our translation into the heavenly kingdom as if that meant that only heaven is the place of that kingdom? By no means: for recall Jesus’ words, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The obedience in heaven is to be brought down to earth: that is the gospel! As the hymn proclaims, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; Let earth receive her king!”

Therefore we are not to abandon the earth and its works. Instead, in line with the dominion mandate as issued in Gen. 1:28, we to extend our dominion over the earth, subduing it and cultivating it, multiplying and filling it. The curse on Adam turned this into a difficult task and a burden. But it did not rescind it. And in Abraham the curse is reversed, with blessing instead of curse coming to the world. For the promise to Abraham is that he would be “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13).

Now then, this adds a further dimension to the coming of the kingdom. For the blessing of Abraham – the reversal of the curse – would come through a great nation, the nation of his offspring.

I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:2–3).

This great nation began in Israel, but in Christ became the church: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). In this manner, the blessing was extended to all nations, reversing the curse, re-establishing the kingdom of God. The hymn cited above continues in this vein: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

But until Christ returns, this extension of the kingdom is subject to the purpose for which it is initiated: the sifting of the wheat from the tares, the godly from the ungodly. “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This process of exposure is what the entire exercise is all about. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matth. 24:14). We pursue dominion, we pursue culture, but with an eye to God’s kingdom and not our own. We do so to bring about judgement, sifting, separation. This is the purpose of the “testimony to all the nations”: as Jesus said to his as-yet unbelieving brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7).

Ultimately this will lead to the restoration of the entire creation (Rom. 8:19–23). There will come a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. But the separation must first come. And then God will be all in all. Immanuel, God with us, will be realized.

In the meantime, “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:11–13).