I grew up in a religious culture. I knew a lot about Jesus. I was a fairly decent Bible teacher. I knew the basic facts of the gospel message: Jesus died for my sin and had been raised from the dead, and if I believed in Him I could avoid hell and live forever with God in perfect glory.
But like many religious and church-going people, those facts were the extent of the gospel message I’d heard. If I may intentionally over-generalize this in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the gospel message I heard was that a past event had occurred that greatly benefited my future. Jesus died for my sins and rose again, and if I believe this I get to go to heaven, hard stop.
A LIMITED TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY GOSPEL
Does this sound familiar to a gospel presentation you’ve heard? Perhaps it is a gospel message you’ve shared with others.
Praise God, these facts are true! But there is more to the story: we must define the gospel the way God defines the gospel. It is common in today’s Christian circles to guard against a “works-based gospel” and a “prosperity gospel.” These are not biblical definitions of the gospel. But a “past-and-future-only” gospel is also not the whole gospel! The gospel is not less than Jesus’ past work for our future benefit—but it is more than that.
The Bible leads us to an understanding of the gospel that is more than Jesus’ followers (including you and me!) simply declaring belief in, or confessing faith in, or saying a prayer about, Jesus’ finished work one time in our own past. It leads us to a view of the best “good news” that surpasses our mere hope for a mansion in heaven one day in the future.
When we understand this, our eyes are opened, our appreciation and need for Jesus deepens, and we discover how Jesus matters to all of life. His life, death, resurrection, and reign speak to a present reality, not just past and future realities. The gospel has current implications for every moment between when we’re saved by grace through faith and when Jesus returns or calls us home. For our past, future, and present, the gospel changes everything.
AN EXPANSIVE FIRST-CENTURY GOSPEL
“The gospel changes everything” is the primary message of the New Testament. Interestingly, the afterlife and eternity—the most consistent theme in gospel presentations today—was not the focus of the early Christian gospel. N. T. Wright explains, “If that question [of what happens after they died] came up, their answer might be that they would be ‘with the Messiah’ . . . but they seldom spoke about it at all. They were much more connected with the ‘kingdom of God,’ which was happening and would ultimately happen completely, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’”
Looking at Jesus’ own life, it would be impossible to say that His “good news” was only focused on a future, afterlife reality. Many theologians see Luke 4 as defining Jesus’ life mission: teaching in a Judean synagogue,
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
. . . “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17–19, 21)
There is certainly a spiritual sense to what Jesus is saying: in His life, death, and resurrection, He did free spiritual captives, open spiritually blind eyes, and so forth. He ushered in great future hope. But He also opened literal eyes, freed literal oppressed people, and healed so many people He ushered in a present hope!
This “good news” propelled Jesus’ followers to live out their new identity in Christ in the midst of suffering, hatred, persecution, division, danger, and hardship. They saw themselves as citizens of a better kingdom, loyal to a better King than Caesar. Their faith in Jesus wasn’t merely a mental assent to some theology, or an occasional private moment that could be tucked away on some proverbial shelf while Jesus’ first-century followers engaged in an otherwise normal life. “In the modern Western world, ‘religion’ tends to mean God-related individual beliefs and practices that are supposedly separable from culture, politics, and community life. For Paul [and first-century Christians], ‘religion’ was woven in with all of life.”
The “gospel” to Jesus’ early followers was one that Jesus saved (past tense), reigns (present tense), and will return (future tense) to restore everything to something better than even the garden of Eden was supposed to be. His followers saw His reign as not just a future reality, but one that began with His ascension—after all, Jesus is seated on His throne now. And they saw their role during their present lives on earth as living in light of that future hope, by the power of Jesus’ past resurrection and promised Spirit.
GOOD NEWS FOR ALL OF LIFE
Christians throw out the phrase “good news” a lot: “The gospel is good news; Jesus is good news.” But to keep this phrase from being empty, I like to ask people, “What was it about Jesus that made the gospel sound like good news to you?”
The reality is that there are a thousand subjective ways that God’s one objective gospel can sound like good news. Jesus alone is—among a hundred thousand other things—satisfaction to the dissatisfied, joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless, forgiveness to the indebted, freedom to the enslaved, salvation to those facing judgment, and the answer to every problem.
Similarly, there’s a reason that every time we see a commercial for diamond jewelry, the stone is set against a black background and slowly rotates as bright lights shine on it. Every slight turn picks up the light differently, reflecting it beautifully. It’s one diamond, but each angle shows off its sparkle differently. In this way, the gospel of Jesus Christ is like a diamond. There is one gospel, but there are many angles from which people through history have found that gospel to be truly good news.
A “gospel-centered gospel” must be the way that Jesus defined the gospel. And Jesus defined the gospel as truly good news. That good news is for all of life; it shapes our past, our future, and our present. Because Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and reign truly changes everything.