There is no gospel but the one that reconciles a man with his creator. Everything else must be built upon this or it is built on nothing. Salvation is an individual experience. The community needs to flow out of this revelation.
This is the standard evangelical understanding of the process, only stated in more gender-exclusive terms than is customary these days. We begin with a gospel of personal salvation, from which community follows: people are converted, then they become church. There is no “public” dimension to this model, so it has been criticised by many in the emerging church and the incarnational-missional movement, among others, for failing to carry and live out a distinctive social-political message. Community never gets beyond being the terminus of the personal conversion-sanctification process.
My argument has been that the New Testament “process” runs in the opposite direction, from the social-political sphere towards the private sphere. We begin with a “gospel” about the impending action of Israel’s God, which will transform the community of God’s people and its place among the nations, and then individuals who believe this are “saved” in order to engage with the process. Any “good news” that we proclaim in our own context should be constructed as an extension to this narrative.
To illustrate and support this thesis I have assembled here a condensed commentary on most of the New Testament passages where the meaning of the noun euangelion (“gospel”) and the verb euangelizō (“to proclaim as good news”) is sufficiently determined by the context. I may have overlooked one or two relevant texts, and there is obviously a lot more material, beyond the scope of a simple word study, that should be taken into account. But it seems pretty clear to me that the New Testament gospel was not about salvation as an individual experience but about kingdom as a public and political experience. I don’t think Scot McKnight takes the argument far enough, but I agree with his statement of the problem:
I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles.1
Jesus proclaims a “gospel of the kingdom of God” (e.g., Lk. 4:43). The good news for Israel is not that individual Jews can be reconciled to God but that God is about to act as king. Individual Jews find forgiveness of sins by believing that this announcement is true and acting accordingly—Zacchaeus is a good example.
Jesus applies to himself the verses in Isaiah which speak of the proclamation of good news (euangelisasthai) to the poor and captive of Israel that God is about to act to liberate them from oppression (Lk. 4:17-19; cf. 7:22).
Jesus sends his disciples, first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, then throughout the empire (Matt. 24:13), to make the same announcement—that YHWH is about to intervene decisively as “king”, within a generation, to transform the condition and status of his people amongst the nations. That is the gospel.
In the early part of Acts there has been added to this public announcement to Israel the fact that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him Christ and Lord (2:32-36). The apostles “did not cease teaching and proclaiming-the-gospel (euangelizomenoi) that the Christ is Jesus” (5:42). In this context at least, what they are announcing to the Jews is not that Jesus is their personal saviour but that he has been given the authority to judge and rule.
Philip proclaims-the-gospel concerning the kingdom of God, not of personal salvation, in Samaria (8:11; cf. 8:25, 40); people believe this public announcement about the future reign of God and are baptized into the new movement of kingdom-believers. Luke also says that Philip “proclaimed (ekērussen) to them the Christ”, and the people are baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:5, 16). They are baptized into a politically determined community.
Philip also proclaims-the-gospel about Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:35). There is reference here to the unjust execution of Jesus, but nothing is said about the saving effect of his death. We should assume, given the narrative so far, that the “good news” about Jesus is that God raised him from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, the one who would save the nation from its sins (cf. 5:31).
Peter says to Cornelius that the word was sent to Israel proclaiming-the-gospel of peace through Jesus (10:36). So it is part of the announcement about God acting as king that peace is offered to the nation.
Some of the disciples who had been scattered because of persecution following the killing of Stephen spoke to the Hellenists, “proclaiming-the-gospel of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20).
Paul’s gospel to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia is that YHWH has raised Jesus from the dead and given him the nations as his inheritance as Israel’s king (Acts 13:32-33). Because of this, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel (13:39). First Jesus as king with immediate implications for the nation, then forgiveness of sins for those who believe.
The focus now shifts to the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for the Gentiles. The gospel for the people of Lystra is that they should turn from the worship of idols to “a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (14:15). The reason is that Israel’s God, who is the God of the whole earth, is about to judge the pagan empire “by a man whom he has appointed”, having given assurance of this by raising him from the dead (17:31).
Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is that God raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as “Son of God”—that is, as Israel’s king (Rom. 1:1-6). It is the “preaching of Jesus Christ” to all the nations (Rom. 16:25-26). It includes the prospect of judgment—“according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (2:16), which, I suggest, is the judgment of the oikoumenē that Paul proclaims in Athens. But notice this: the public announcement about Israel’s king, who will be judge and ruler of the nations, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”, whether Jew or Greek (1:16). The gospel is the public statement about kingdom, judgment and rule, a political statement. But it leads to the salvation of Jews and Greeks. No doubt there is a personal aspect to this, but “salvation” means primarily that both Jews and Greeks are becoming part of YHWH’s restored people.
In 1 Corinthians Paul states: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). The relation between “gospel” and “cross” here needs to be understood carefully. Paul is not saying that the gospel is the message of the cross. The gospel is still that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations—that he will be revealed to the world “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7-8). But just as Jesus achieved that exalted status by way of the cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-11), so Paul proclaims the gospel about Jesus’ lordship not in a display of wisdom and power but in cruciform fashion.
Paul’s recapitulation in 1 Corinthians of the gospel that had been delivered to him takes the form of a narrative: Jesus died for the sins of God’s people, he was buried, he was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3-4). But the thrust of his argument here is not that people have been reconciled to God; it is that those who believe will inherit the kingdom that is guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus.
In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”, and says that the apostles proclaim “Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:4–5).
In Galatians the controversy about faith and works is not a dispute about the gospel; it is a dispute about the response to the gospel. The content of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles was the revelation of the risen Jesus as God’s Son—that is, as the one to whom authority had been given (Gal. 1:11-12, 16), and through whom all the nations would be blessed (3:8). For Gentiles the only valid response to this public announcement about kingdom is faith—belief and trust—not works of the Jewish Law.
Paul’s gospel in Ephesians is likewise a statement about “the unsearchable riches of Christ” and about the “eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:7-12), who has been exalted “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (1:21). That is the public announcement. But Paul then lays especial emphasis on the implication of this for the Gentiles—that they are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6).
We may suppose that the gospel in Philippians, the proclamation of Christ (Phil. 1:15-18), is encapsulated in the “hymn” of 2:6-11: Jesus made himself of no account, was obedient to the point of death, but was exalted by God and given the status and authority of “Lord”. There is no reference to atonement here, no reconciliation of individuals to the Father through Jesus, no personal salvation: it is entirely a public political proclamation to the Greek-Roman world—indeed, the whole imperial guard has heard about it (1:13).
The gospel that reached the Colossians was also a proclamation about Jesus captured in a hymn-like passage about the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:15-20, 28). Those who believe this message and understood its implications for the ancient world were transferred to “the kingdom of his beloved Son”, and in the process found redemption (1:13-14). First the public proclamation about kingdom, then the “salvation” of those who believe it.
The gospel that came to the Thessalonians, consistent with Luke’s account of Paul’s preaching, must have been the announcement that YHWH would soon judge the idolatrous pagan world through Jesus. The Thessalonians are commended for having turned “from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:5, 9-10; 2:2). Those who do not obey this gospel about Jesus as king will be cut off from the presence of the Lord when he comes to judge the nations (2 Thess. 1:5-10; cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). The political force of the message is apparent.
Finally, the gospel in the Pastorals is that Jesus is the descendant of David, risen from the dead (2 Tim. 2:8). “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). It is a gospel about the Son who was raised from the dead and given authority to rule.
The “gospel of the age” proclaimed by the three angels which John sees is the announcement of impending judgment on “Babylon the great” and those who worship the demonic power of Rome (Rev. 14:6-11). No message of personal salvation here, I’m afraid.
- 1. S. McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (2011), 26.