Pop Quiz: What is the Gospel? Part 1
By Dr. Steven L. Childers
“It is hard to believe that after two thousand years the Christian church is still discussing, even debating, “What is the gospel?” The gospel, the “good news,” is the fundamental truth of our faith, what we believe and proclaim to the world. If we don’t know what the gospel is, and if it doesn’t motivate everything we think and do and say, then what’s the point in claiming to be Christian at all?” – Dr. John Frame, Theology of the Gospel (Pathway Learning book and course coming soon)
See first how the Bible unfolds the good news in history.
In this first of two articles, you’ll learn how the Bible gives us a broad understanding of the gospel in several unfolding historical events that reveal the Triune God’s purpose for the whole universe and in particular the human race.
Learning Tip: Go deeper by reading the extensive footnotes.
What is the Gospel? Part 1
A Biblical Exposition of Mark 1:1-15
Dr. Steven L. Childers
For more than two decades I taught a required seminary course for first-year, first-semester students, and I always began that class with a surprise pop quiz. To calm the students down I told them this quiz would not be graded, but it’s one of the most important questions they will be asked in seminary and life.
Then came the question, “What is the gospel?” I did this for more than twenty years and read hundreds of their answers. I never got a wrong answer. But most of the answers were incomplete. So, without further ado, it’s time for a pop quiz! How would you answer the question, “What is the gospel?”
The essence of the gospel can be summarized by saying things like “Jesus loves you,” and “God will forgive you if you believe in Jesus.” But the Scriptures call us to go deeper in our understanding of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
The reason we all need to understand the gospel more deeply is not just so that we can be prepared to answer a quiz question, but so that we can know deeper levels of God’s love and forgiveness of us, experience greater levels of his power at work in and through us, and find unparalleled hope as we experience the inevitable pain and suffering in life.
So let’s look at how the Apostle Mark helps us understand the gospel in Mark 1:1-15 in which his first verse reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In these verses we learn that the gospel is primarily two things: 1) good news about God’s kingdom coming to earth, and 2) It’s good news about God’s king who is bringing it.
Good news about God’s kingdom coming to earth
In verses 1-3, Mark begins his explanation of the gospel by quoting God’s promise to Israel through Isaiah (Is. 40:1-5) to send them a messenger to prepare them for “the way of the Lord” – the coming of God’s king and his kingdom on earth forever. And in verses 4-8 Mark identifies John the Baptist as this promised messenger.
To understand the good news that Mark is explaining about John the Baptist, we first need to understand the gospel’s backstory in history. The Bible teaches that history is not a meaningless cycle of events. It is a grand narrative with a beginning and an end. Although the Bible contains a wide variety of literature, at its core it is one story that God means to so captivate us, that we are drawn into its plot to find our place.
But in order to find where John the Baptist fits in this story, and our place in this story, we must first know where the story began, where it is now, and where it’s ultimately going. It can be helpful to think of the Good News of God’s kingdom coming to earth as a five-act play:
In Act One we find the story of creation’s perfect harmony, the picture of ultimate happiness and wholeness in the world that God created by establishing his kingdom on the earth where his will was done perfectly. In the beginning heaven and earth were one. It was literally heaven on earth and human flourishing in a paradise where we had a perfect relationship with God, ourselves, others, and our work.
In Act Two evil enters the story through Satan, who overthrows God’s kingdom on earth by tempting Adam and Eve resulting in the fall of humanity. Things are no longer the way they’re supposed to be as humanity and creation are now under God’s just curse and Satan’s rule. Now we stand before God guilty and condemned, and our hearts are corrupt. As a result, our world is also corrupt and filled with injustice and pain.
But, soon after the fall, God proclaims the gospel for the first time to Satan when he curses him for what he did to overthrow his kingdom (Gen. 3:15). In that curse, God promises to send a deliverer, called the “Seed of the Woman”, who will defeat Satan and restore fallen humanity and the world to be God’s kingdom on the earth again.
In Act Three God begins to bring his kingdom back to earth, first through individuals like Adam and Noah, then through Abraham and the nation of Israel under the leadership of people like Moses and David.
God did this by making a series of covenants with his people, promising to send them a deliverer who would bless them and make them a blessing to all the nations of the world. But the bad news is that Israel, like Adam, failed to obey God’s covenant obligations and turned away from God. As a result, Israel came under God’s curse and were brought into captivity by foreign enemies.
But God did not break his covenant promises to redeem and restore his fallen humanity and creation and establish his kingdom on the earth. Instead, while Israel was still in captivity, God declared through his prophets the amazing good news of a New Covenant. In this New Covenant God promised to fulfill all his own covenant obligations through a Son of David, a Messiah King, who would redeem and restore his fallen people and creation to be his kingdom on earth again.
Four hundred years passed after the completion of the Old Testament until the time that John the Baptist and Jesus show up in Act Four. John’s ministry and message recorded in Mark 1 is at the beginning of this act. The time had finally arrived for God’s promised king to come and make all things new by establishing God’s kingdom on earth. So Israel needed to be prepared by repenting and being baptized by John.
In the next scenes in Act 4, recorded later by Mark, we see Jesus’ ministry of preaching and miracles proving he was the promised King who had the power to make everything right again. But he chose a very surprising way to do it – by dying in weakness on a cross. It was only by taking God’s just curse that Adam, Israel, and we deserve on himself that he could satisfy God’s holy justice and deal a fatal blow to Satan so that our relationship with his Father and our rule with him on earth could be restored.
Then in his resurrection he proves the success of his rescue mission by conquering death and inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth revealing himself as the first born from the dead of many on the resurrection day. Forty days after his resurrection, he ascends back to the Father and pours out his Spirit on his church for the advancement of God’s kingdom and will on earth until he returns to finish what he began.
In Act Five we find the return of Christ and the consummation of his Kingdom on earth where all things that were lost because of sin will be restored in the new heavens and the new earth for eternity. When Jesus returns, there will be a great division. As Judge, he will separate all who are not his followers from his presence in hell. But his people will be ushered into a perfect, new creation. Revelation describes it as a fully restored kingdom on earth where God’s people from all nations will experience heaven on earth again as it was at the beginning under God’s perfect will – but it will be even better than Eden because sin will no longer be possible.
So, what is the gospel? It’s the good news about God’s kingdom coming to earth in all these acts in human history. It’s the good news that God’s creation, ruined by sin, has been redeemed by Jesus Christ and is being restored by his Holy Spirit into God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus called it the good news of the Kingdom.
This means that we are living in a unique period of history – between the resurrection of Jesus in his first coming and his restoration of all things in his second coming. We’re between his inauguration of the kingdom on earth in the first century and his consummation of the kingdom on earth when he returns to make all things new.
God’s story is still being written. And the only way for us to make sense of our story is to understand how it fits into God’s story. With so many acts in the divine drama of history having already unfolded, and with the final act already firmly in place, God’s call on your life is to continue this story by aligning your purposes with his.
This means that you are not an accident. You were born at this time in history for a reason. Even all your struggling and suffering is a vital part of God’s unique purpose for your life. You are designed to make a difference in the world. God has ordained your life to be a part of something much bigger than you ever dreamed or imagined.
God is calling you to make your own contribution to this supreme restoration project—which is God’s restoration of all things that have been lost in the fall and corrupted by evil–and that includes the restoration of people’s broken relationships with God, themselves, others, and creation–starting with your own.
Editor’s note: Next week, in “What is the Gospel Part 2” we’ll study the heart of this good news about God’s kingdom – the good news about God’s King, Jesus Christ the Son of God.
 One of my greatest joys as a seminary professor was spending an entire semester examining with these first-year students what the Scriptures teach about the gospel, and then, at the end of the term, passing back their written answers to them and telling them their final exam question is to compare and contrast their earlier answer with their answer now.
 In the Bible God has made the meaning of the gospel simple enough for a child to understand and yet profound enough for scholars to study it all their lives and barely tap the depth. A world-renowned bible scholar (Karl Barth) was allegedly once asked in a public forum discussion to summarize the core essence of all Christian theology in one single sentence. He wisely and famously responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
 For a more in-depth exposition of the gospel, see the Applied Theology Series Volume 5, “The Gospel in Theology” by Steven L. Childers and John M. Frame, published by Pathway Learning.
 The reason it’s so important for us to know the unfolding story of God’s purpose for the world is because our understanding of universal history is what gives our lives meaning. The way people understand the meaning of their lives depends on how they see the big picture of the human story and where they see themselves fitting into it. When we lose the bible’s true story about history, we lose the power to withstand other false stories that rob us of joy and meaning. There are different stories being told about the big picture today. One teaches that the world and humanity came into being through a mysterious and random convergence of mass and energy over billions of years for no reason and for no apparent purpose. The other story is about God’s good creation, the fall of humanity and the world, God’s redemption and restoration of what was lost in the fall, and of the coming consummation of his creation purposes when he will make all things new for eternity. The greatest battle today is the battle for the minds and hearts of people. This battle can only be won by recovering the overarching, life-altering, culture-transforming, story of the bible–called the good news of the kingdom.
 Historically Christians have understood God’s purpose for the world through the lens of the Bible. The problem is that a Christian can know all the stories in Bible, and even master Christian doctrine, and still not know this greater unfolding story of God’s overarching purpose for humanity and the world. Clowney called this “The Story in the Stories” that believers often miss. See Edmund P. Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology, 13-48, 155-198, IVP, 1995.
 Jesus’ ministry on earth did not end when he ascended back to heaven at the right hand of God the Father. Instead, that was just the beginning. Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) Jesus is referring to the greater impact that his ministry on earth will have after his ascension to the throne of God through his people, the Church, by the power of his Holy Spirit.
 The early church father Augustine (354-430 AD) describes the essence of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ as restoring all things lost in the fall by using a series of Latin couplets that describe God as “Former and Re-Former,” “Creator and Re-Creator,” and “Maker and Re-Maker.” Augustine presents to us the essence of salvation in Christ as transformation, seeing creation as formation, the fall as deformation, and redemption as reformation. Likewise, in his theological writings from the late nineteenth century, Herman Bavinck concludes from Scripture that the essence of salvation is “Grace restores nature.” See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 577.
 “Paul teaches that God’s redemptive plan encompasses heaven and earth. Its penultimate goal is to restore cosmic wholeness by unifying heaven and earth in the Messiah (Eph. 1:9–10); its ultimate goal is that once again, God would be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). See John J. Hughes, The Transforming Power of Christ’s Love, in Scripture and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Wayne Grudem, p 138.
 This understanding of the gospel includes a robust biblical doctrine of creation that far transcends a narrow focus on what happened at the beginning. It’s a vision of God’s lordship over the whole universe he has made, both at the beginning, and for all time. It is a view of God’s salvation that is as wide as creation, reaching beyond the redemption of souls to the redemption all things (e.g. Paul’s teaching in Col. 1). See Herman Bavinck’s masterful exposition of this view of the gospel as “Re-formation” of fallen creation in his Reformed Dogmatics,Volume 4,Holy Spirit and New Creation, The Transformation of Creation, 716-727.
 Your purpose in life as an individual member of Christ’s body is linked directly to God’s purpose for his corporate body, the church—to be the embodiment of the rule of Jesus Christ on earth by demonstrating to all nations now a preview of God’s kingdom that has not yet come. This understanding of God’s mission gives a deep sense of purpose to followers of Christ in both their private and public lives. Sin takes not only private forms in individual lives, but also public structural forms in society. And no part of culture is neutral, so there is always an ongoing, cosmic battle with evil in all spheres of life. But the good news is that the supremacy of Jesus’ Lordship extends over every area of life; it is not restricted to the sphere of personal salvation or the church. As the former prime minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, famously said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!” See Abraham Kuyper. Sphere Sovereignty. In Bratt, James D., Abraham Kuyper: A Reader Eerdmans, 1998.
Jesus’ union with his church is so strong that you, as one of his followers, now share in his ongoing ministry as prophet, priest, and king, in the world. In your prophetic role you proclaim and uphold God’s truth in a world filled with lies. In your priestly role you pray and intercede for others to experience God’s mercy and blessing. And in your kingly role you use all your resources to help make God’s invisible kingdom more visible, not only in human hearts, but over all things. Ref: Richard Lovelace, Renewal as a Way of Life, 131-158, Wipf & Stock, 2002.
 When the Apostle Paul writes the Corinthian church, he quotes what seems to be a standard summary of the good news in the first century: “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…” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” refers to God’s purposes revealed to Israel in the Old Testament Scriptures to rescue the world after Adam and Eve sinned. Here he builds on the good news of the Old Testament that “Your God reigns.” (Is. 52:7, Rom. 10:15) But Paul’s explanation of the gospel extends beyond Jesus death and resurrection in the past (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) to include Jesus’ present and future rule as the ascended King over all things by the Spirit. (1 Cor. 15:25-28) Jesus will continue his rule until he completes the mission that God the Father gave him to make all things new so that God would be “all in all.”
 Paul presents Jesus as the second man and the last Adam. (1 Col 15: 45-47) When the first man, Adam, was tempted in the garden, he failed to obey God resulting in eternal death for humanity (Rom. 5:12-14). But when the second man, Jesus, was similarly tempted throughout his life, he perfectly obeyed God resulting in eternal life for humanity. (Rom 5:18-19).
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