The Greek word for gospel is euangelion. Eu is the prefix for good, and angelion is the word for message (think angel—a messenger). When we engage in ev-angel-ism, we are therefore telling people the good news about Christ. Now this might be a simple idea, but it’s also frightfully easy to either forget the news part, or the good part.
The Gospel is News
By far the most common mistake is to forget that the gospel is actually news. And by news I don’t mean any special or secret spiritual word, I mean plain ordinary news like what you’d hear from your neighbor or see on the television. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was a real event, which happened in a real place, witnessed by real people, at a real time, just like a flood or avalanche could be recorded, seen, and attested. It didn’t happen mystically in the head of a few hermits, it happened in the middle of Jerusalem after the whole world had come to it. That’s why it’s fair to say the gospel in five words as “Jesus died and rose again.” It’s also why in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Paul says:
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
The first and foremost duty of the evangelist then is to give the news of Jesus. Where He lived, who He was born to, who He was tried under, who killed Him, and what happened next. This is why the first four books of the New Testament are called gospel accounts, even though they really only record what happened and not why. (That’s what the epistles are for). But too often we want to skip over the objective details of Christ’s work and get straight to the subjective part. We don’t want to start with what the news is, we want to share what the news means, and worse, it’s often done through an appeal to people’s vanity, or their greed. “Do you want a better marriage?” the skinny jeans wearing mega-church pastor asks from behind his thin glass pulpit. “Jesus is the answer. Do you want your sick child to get better? Your bank account balance to grow? Do you want to be happy in a world where nobody is happy? This is how you can live above the line: lean in. Jesus followers receive blessings the world knows nothing about.”
Rather than presenting the news about who Jesus is and what He’s done, the evangelist jumps straight to discussing what Jesus can do to meet your needs right now. Personal testimonies about the saving power of Christ are done in this way too, “I was suffering from condition X, but once I heard Jesus product could fix what ails me, I tried it. And it works!”
In the most extreme conditions this commercialism is the health and wealth gospel. Taken to its logical conclusions and stripped of historical facts it makes God into a cosmic vending machine, a benevolent cosmic genie who exists only to grant wishes of those who come to Him. And from there it’s perilously easy to become so concerned with getting people to accept the good that we neglect to tell them material riches isn’t actually a solution to their problems. The gospel devoid of news sets up a worldview that ignores Jesus’ words to take up your cross and follow Me, to count the cost before putting your hand to the plow.
But whether the evangelist takes his sales pitch to the extreme or not, whether or not he grounds his message in postmodernism or the prosperity gospel, in either case he’s making the same mistake in not giving news. The gospel is the announcement that God has broken into our world. In other words, the message isn’t a vague goodness, it’s news.
The Gospel is Good
In an effort to avoid turning the gospel into a soft, post-modernist bowl of monkey food, many Reformed and Baptist preachers overly stress the bad news that the person hearing the message is a sinner. A guilty, worthless, hell bent sinner, who needs to repent.
Now this is true, people do by nature hate Christ and their neighbor, but in seeking to avoid falling into the ditch on the left side of the road they’ve reduced the gospel to repentance and fallen into the ditch on the right.
Perhaps an example might help. On my way home from work last week I heard a local Baptist preacher on the radio give the gospel in terms of repentance only. “Repent!” he pleaded, “for if you will repent then God will turn away His wrath from you. God is very angry with you, but if you will repent of your sins and put them away, He will not punish you. This may sound foolish and outdated to you because the very idea of repentance has fallen on hard times, but repent or perish!” I nodded in agreement until I realized he was done and that that was his gospel.
The command to repent is not the gospel. It paradoxically suffers from the same problem as promising sweets and goodies to people if they trust Christ–it looks inward and is a man-centric construction. It begins and ends with what I must do, and does not speak to what has already been done for me. Repent gives no motivation to turn and be saved, because it doesn’t look to Christ. And worse, it gives the impression that the only benefit of trusting Christ is that it helps you to avoid God’s wrath. There’s no appeal to come to Him as He is, no desire to spend eternity in heaven with Him, there is only the benefit of being saved from wrath. It unintentionally gives the impression that there’s no more to salvation than this.
“God is angry at you sinner, so turn away from your sin and escape His wrath.”
“What else will happen?”
“So God won’t love me, He’ll just stop being mad at me huh? Eh. No thanks.”
Framing the gospel in such a way doesn’t draw people to Christ, because that bit of news really isn’t good at all. Thus, it’s crucial to remember that in all things the gospel is also good. We serve a God who wants to spend eternity with men who have spent their lifetime sinning against Him because He’s good. He is a God who loves to save, who delights to proclaim His goodness in redemption. He sent His only Son not so that creation would hear a message of repentance, but so that it could hear about Him.
We are to remember that after a person understands what Christ has done, they are invited to share in His joy. This is why Jesus says, “Come you who are thirsty and freely take of the water of life.”
The gospel is not just news, it’s good news.