What Does the Word “Gospel” Mean in the New Testament?
The gospel is the possession of Jesus, but, even more, Jesus is the heart of the content of the gospel.
We use it so glibly in the church today. Preachers say they preach the gospel, but if we listen to them preach Sunday after Sunday, we hear very little gospel in what they are preaching. The term gospel has become a nickname for preaching anything rather than something with definitive content. The word for “gospel” is the word euangelion. It has that prefix eu-, which comes into English in a variety of words. We talk about euphonics or euphonious music, which refers to something that sounds good. We talk about a eulogy, which is a good word pronounced about someone at his funeral service. The prefix eu- refers to something good or pleasant. The word angelos or angelion is the word for “message.” Angels are messengers, and an angelos is one who delivers a message.
This word euangelion, which means “good message” or “good news,” has a rich background in the Old Testament. There, the basic meaning of the term gospel was simply an announcement of a good message. If a doctor came to examine a sick person and afterward declared that the problem was nothing serious, that was gospel or good news. In ancient days when soldiers went out to battle, people waited breathlessly for a report from the battlefield about the outcome. Once the outcome was known, marathon runners dashed back to give the report. That is why Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isa. 52:7). The watchman in the watchtower would look as far as the eye could see into the distance. Finally, he would see the dust moving as the runner sped back to the city to give the report of the battle. The watchmen were trained to tell by the way the runner’s legs were churning whether the news was good or bad. If the runner was doing the survival shuffle, it indicated a grim report, but if his legs were flying and the dust was kicking up, that meant good news. That is the concept of gospel in its most rudimentary sense.
When we come to the New Testament, we find three distinct ways in which the term gospel is used. First, we have four books in the New Testament that we call Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books are biographical portraits of Jesus. Gospel in this sense describes a particular form of literature. During the earthly ministry of Jesus, the term gospel was linked not particularly with the person of Jesus but with the kingdom of God. John the Baptist is introduced as one who comes preaching the gospel, and his message is “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2).
Jesus did the same in his parables, proclaiming, “the kingdom of God is like . . .” On the lips of Jesus, the gospel was about the dramatic moment in history when, through the long-awaited Messiah, the kingdom of God had broken through in time and space. The good news was the good news of the kingdom. By the time the epistles were written, particularly the Pauline epistles, the term gospel had taken on a new shade of understanding. It had become the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel had a clear content to it. At the heart of this gospel was the announcement of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished in his lifetime.
If we give our testimony to our neighbors, saying, “I became a Christian last year. I gave my heart to Jesus,” we are bearing witness about Jesus, but we are not telling them the gospel, because the gospel is not about us. The gospel is about Jesus—what he did, his life of perfect obedience, his atoning death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. We call those crucial elements the objective aspects of the New Testament gospel of Christ.
In addition to the person and work of Jesus, there is also in the New Testament use of the term gospel the question of how the benefits accomplished by the objective work of Jesus are subjectively appropriated to the believer. First, there is the question of who Jesus was and what he did. Second is the question of how that benefits you and me. That is why Paul conjoins the objective account of the person and work of Jesus (particularly to the Galatians) with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is essential to the gospel. In preaching the gospel we preach about Jesus, and we preach about how we are brought into a saving relationship with him.
The gospel is under attack in the church today. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the gospel right and to understand both the objective aspect of the person and work of Jesus and the subjective dimension of how we benefit from that by faith alone.
Recently, a Protestant seminary professor, supposedly evangelical, was quoted to me as having said that the doctrine of imputation—by which our sins are transferred to Christ on the cross and his righteousness is transferred to us by faith—is of human invention and has nothing to do with the gospel. I wanted to weep when I heard that. It just underscored how delicate the preservation of the gospel is in our day and how careful the church has to be in every age to guard that precious good news that comes to us from God.
This excerpt is taken from R.C. Sproul’s commentary on Romans, published by Crossway.