This is a short paper I wrote for my Pauline Literature class. Hope it helps clarify some things about the gospel. This is not meant to be an intensive paper on all the times Paul uses the word gospel, but rather a broad summary of its usage in the Pauline corpus:
“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). The gospel was the reason behind everything Paul did. He writes in Romans 1:1 that he was “set apart for the gospel of God.” Paul knew that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Why? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). The gospel reveals the righteousness of God.
In the current state of Evangelicalism and in broader academic circles the term “gospel” has come to mean several things. Some take it to mean justification (or mostly justification), that is, the legal status of “not guilty” declared over a Christian who believes in Christ and is consequently given the imputed righteousness of Christ. Others, especially those who sympathize with the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) tend to mean the lordship of Christ when they speak of the gospel. Others say that the gospel encapsulates all the benefits which we receive through union with Christ. In light of possible confusions of the term, then, it is necessary to go back to the biblical text and examine what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the gospel.
The gospel promise existed in the Old Testament. As Paul says in Galatians 3:8, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So the gospel has to do with God justifying Gentiles by faith, and also with blessing that would come from Abraham. How this would all come about had been a secret hidden in the ages in God, but now revealed plainly in the present time to Paul and the Apostles. As Ephesians 3:6 says, “This [secret] is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul goes on to say in the same chapter that he has been given the task to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” to the Gentiles and to bring to light “for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (Ephesians 3:8-9). Simplifying what is being said, the gospel is what God has done (accomplished) in Christ for all who believe. The gospel is what Christ has accomplished and obtained for his elect!
The unsearchable riches of Christ are just that, unsearchable. But it is Paul’s firm desire that the Ephesian Christians would “know what is the hope to which he [had] called [them], what [were] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). Paul wants Christians to know what God has done for them! Therefore Paul goes on in the same passage to mention the power that God worked in Christ in raising him from the dead, and in seating him at his own right hand (Ephesians 1:19-20). So the gospel has to do with Christ’s earthly mission, to fulfill all righteousness and set captives free, to rise from the dead and conquer death, and to be seated at God’s right hand. Already the narrow definition of the NPP is too simplistic. For further proof, one could read 1 Cor. 15, where Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. He says “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Cor. 15:3-6). The lordship of Christ does not even come up in this passage. This is not to say that Christ’s lordship is not an important piece of the gospel, or that the gospel is only Christ’s death and resurrection, but certainly Paul would have been more explicit to point out the lordship of Christ if Paul had a NPP perspective. The gospel is extensively more than Christ’s lordship. It is the whole story of redemption and all the unsearchable riches of Christ won for the elect!
This story of redemption includes predestination, adoption, and the forgiveness of sins. Paul says in Ephesians 1:5, “[God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…” Paul uses the language of adoption in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:5. Romans 8:29-30 spells out the golden chain of salvation, the things gained for Christians by Christ when it says, “ For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” One can see then, that the narrow definition of the gospel as justification by faith alone does not do justice to the term gospel, though justification is a hugely important aspect of all that Christians receive through faith in Christ. A legal status change is another aspect of the believer’s union with Christ.
The gospel also contains the promise of a future inheritance. Paul speaks of the “the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel…” (Colossians 1:5). This eschatological hope is already here (as Christians are said to be in the heavenlies in Ephesians 2:6) and still to come in complete fulfillment.
The gospel is an announcement. An announcement of something that has been accomplished by God through Christ, and applied to Christian hearts by the Holy Spirit. At times, it seems the gospel is used narrowly by Paul to highlight certain aspects of the entire message of the gospel, and at other times to encapsulate everything in the arena of salvation. What does Paul mean by the gospel? He means the whole life, death, resurrection, ascension and kingly reign of Christ. He means all things accomplished for those who believe which includes justification, adoption, glorification, and all the unsearchable riches of Christ for those who trust in him, which includes the sealing power of the Holy Spirit that guarantees our inheritance now. This was the secret formed from before time began: that the Gentiles would be fellow heirs with Christ, and gain all things needed for salvation through Christ’s accomplished work.