What is the Gospel?

Michael Bremmer

by Michael Bremmer

"I said before, I so say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9).

The apostle Paul reserved his most piercing words of criticism for the Christians at Galatia. After his unusually brief greeting, (Galatians 1:1-5), Paul then writes: "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As I said before, I so say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-9).

In view of Paul's chilling condemnation of those who would preach a different gospel, we need to ask, "What is the gospel Paul preached?" This is the question this brief article will seek to answer.

We need not search long to find an answer. Paul explains what gospel he preached. In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul tells us what he considered to be of "first importance" in his preaching of the gospel: "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel Paul preached was Jesus Christ: That (1) Christ died for our sins (2) He was buried (3) He was raised from the dead on the third day. This was the gospel Paul preached, the gospel that the Corinthians heard and received, and the gospel by which they were saved.

Essential to the gospel is "Christ died for our sins." On the cross, Christ bears the penalty for the sins of His people. In other words, his death was a substitution , or vicarious death for us. Christ took our place, "the just for the unjust", bearing all the punishment we deserved.

Jesus clearly saw His coming death as the substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. In Matthew's gospel, for example, Jesus says, "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many." The word "for" in the Greek is anti and most often means "in place of," or "instead of." According to Jesus, He came to give his life a "ransom" in place of the many.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah we read: "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Isaiah 53:5-6), and, "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper His hand. As the result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself in death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:10-12).

Most understand that Isaiah 53 pertains to Christ, and what He accomplished on the cross. We need not have any doubt that this passage refers to Him because Jesus, speaking of Himself, quotes from it. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus says: "For I tell you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH THE TRANSGRESSORS; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment" (Luke 22:37). Jesus quoted from Isaiah 53:12.

Christ understood his death to be a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. Christ death on the cross was no accident. His death was the fulfillment of God's eternal plan to redeem lost sinners (Acts 2:23) by taking our place, and suffering the punishment we owed.

The apostle Peter likewise says, "And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds we are healed" (1 Peter 2:24). And, again, "For Christ also died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" (1 Peter 3:18). And the apostle Paul, in another place, writes: "He made Him who new no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21), and, "But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Gentiles foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Therefore, when Paul tells the Corinthians that "of first importance" Christ died for our sins, he simply means that Christ took our place, and paid in our place the penalty for our sin. That, says Paul, is the gospel he preached.

Upon the cross of Jesus, mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of the one who suffered there for me.
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess,--
The Wonders of redeeming love, and my own worthlessness.
Elizabeth C. Clephane

In reminding the Corinthian Christians of the gospel he preached, Paul next mentions that Christ was buried. Christ, in other words, died a real physical death; and His death and burial are the prelude to Paul's final element of the gospel he preached--Christ' resurrection.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential part of the gospel that Paul preached. Paul explains the importance of the resurrection to the gospel and our salvation: "and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith is also vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14) and, "And if Christ has not been raised, you faith is worthless, you are still in you sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). The resurrection is the proof that Christ did pay the price for our sin, and that His substitutionary death on the cross for us satisfied all of God's demands against us. Christ, having paid the price, God raised Him from the dead. By Christ's resurrection, we know that His work in redeeming His people is complete. When we, therefore, admonish sinners to trust in Christ, we mean nothing less then Christ died for our sins, was buried, and on the third day God raised Him from the dead. This does not mean we trust merely in certain facts. We trust in Christ alone, as He is revealed to us in the gospels. Nevertheless, how he is revealed is the gospel, and of first importance is His death for sin, burial, and resurrection. Those who claim to be Christian, yet deny His substitutionary death for sin, deny his real physical death, or deny his physical bodily resurrection--their faith is in vain.

Yet, far more exist who claim to affirm the gospel, but add to it. From the earliest part of church history there have been those who distort the simple gospel message, saying faith in Christ alone is not enough. In the book of Acts chapter 15 some of these preachers of a false gospel came to Paul telling him that the Gospel he was preaching was not enough. "Unless you are circumcised," they claimed, "you cannot be saved." Because of these false teachers, the first council was held. There the apostle Peter proclaimed: "But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same was as they also are" (Acts 15:11).

As in the days of the early church, there are many today distorting the simplicity of the gospel message. No longer is "of first importance" the death of Christ for sin, His burial, and resurrection, but His death for sin, His burial, resurrection, and baptism; Or, His death for sin, His burial, resurrection and good works. But all that is required is faith in Christ. All who add something else we must do to be saved are preaching a different gospel, and anyone preaching a different gospel is accursed. Those of you who may be troubled by these false teachers of a different gospel, I admonish you to read carefully the words of Scripture. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that the gospel he received and preached, the gospel that they received, and the gospel by which they are saved, is "that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." This, according to Paul, is the gospel.

Baptism is important, but is not vital for salvation. That is why Paul does not mention it in 1 Corinthians when he reminds the Corinthians of those things that are "of first importance." Likewise, good works are important, but they are not the cause of salvation. We do good works not as a requirement for salvation, but as a necessary result of salvation.

While the gospel message is simple --simply enough for a child to understand-- and adequate for salvation for all those who trust in Christ alone, we must grow in the knowledge and faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. We should try to understand as much as Scripture reveals concerning the doctrines of salvation, particular justification and the atonement.

Scriptures for Meditation:

Romans 3:-20-26

Romans 4:1-16

Romans 11:-2-6

Ephesians 2:8-10

Philippians 3:3-9

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