What is the Gospel?
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (ESV)
“Of first importance”
The gospel is not afterthought or something to be included once in awhile, but is of first importance and at the heart of our ministries. It is of first importance because it is through the gospel that God works to take people from death to life.
Messianic designation for Jesus encompassing all the prophecies of the Old Testament. The Messiah would be God who became a man to become our substitute.
Explain who Jesus is, God the Son who became a man.
Oftentimes, a pastor will give an invitation at the end of his message and ask people to come forward to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, but the pastor never explains who Jesus is. For many, it’s like saying, “Come forward and receive Narzak as your Savior and Lord.” The person sitting there is thinking, “Who is Narzak? I have no idea, and therefore I will stay firmly glued to my seat!”
It’s true, the name Jesus or Jesus Christ has name recognition, but most of those hearing the name have no real understanding as to who Jesus is. Some believe that he was a great prophet, others a great teacher, healer or example. I have personally shared the gospel with many, many people over the years and have discovered that the majority of Protestants do not know or believe that Jesus Christ is God. I always ask the question, “Do you believe that Jesus is God?”
The majority respond with, “No, he is the Son of God.” Roman Catholics do better with this question than Protestants because they have had the concept of the Trinity drilled into them from youth. But most people are confused as to who Jesus is, and that is why it is crucial to explain that Jesus is God the Son who became a man. How can a person make a decision to accept someone they do not know? And yet that is what happens in many churches.
There are many Scriptural references which teach that Jesus is God the Son who became a man. The pastor or evangelist should know these verses and use them to make the point.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1, 14
“…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Titus 2:13
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. Hebrews 1:8
Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:1
Even though Jesus is the Son of God, it is better not to use that designation. When I first began sharing the gospel, I referred to Jesus as the Son of God, and the person to whom I was witnessing agreed with me saying we are all sons or daughters of God! After that, I decided to make the point that Jesus is God the Son who became a man. In Isaiah 9:6 above, both the humanity and the deity of Jesus the Messiah are in view. “Unto us a child is born” refers to his humanity, and “Unto us a son is given” refers to his deity, for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The hearer needs to understand who Jesus is, and that is why it is important to explain that he is God the Son who became a man. This truth is part of the wonder of God’s love that you are trying to convey to others.
“Died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
This is where the Bad News comes in. A person who does not believe he is a sinner will see no need for a Savior. Therefore, there must be an explanation of the Bad News before explaining the Good News. I am including it here because that is where it comes in the sequence of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
The Bad News is that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Every one of us has transgressed the laws of God in our thoughts, words and deeds more times than we could ever imagine. The First Commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). I broke this commandment every minute of every day of my life for 27 years. I gave no thought to the true and living God but had a variety of gods that were more important to me, such as my first car and the cute girls I was dating. I was a criminal in God’s sight. The problem of sin must be properly explained and not glossed over.
Many have heard that “Christ died for their sins,” but they have no idea what it means. Therefore, we need to explain to people that death is punishment from God on our sins. God did not create people with the idea that we would die. Death was first mentioned in the Bible as a punishment on disobedience of God’s command (Genesis 2:15-17). God, being righteous and just, cannot accept those who commit crimes against him, and that includes all of us. God’s justice decrees that he must punish every crime committed against him. The punishment is death. Most people, when they hear the word “death” think of physical death, because that is the kind of death we are most familiar with. But there are three kinds of death: spiritual, physical and eternal.
When Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, they did not die physically, but they died spiritually. God had created them as physical beings and placed them in a physical environment and gave them five physical senses through which they would take in data from the physical world and with their minds, compute the data and make appropriate decisions. God is not a physical being, but is a spirit being having no physical parts such as head, body, arms and legs (John 4:24). God is a pure spirit, and therefore God built into Adam and Eve a spirit sensor through which they were able to relate to God. God told them that they would die if they disobeyed him, and therefore, when they did what God told them not to do, they immediately died in the spiritual realm.
The spirit “sensor” within them no longer worked properly, which meant they could no longer relate to God. They were dead to the spiritual realm and dead to God (Ephesians 2:1). Later on they died physically, and then, there is eternal death or eternal separation from God and all that is good (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Revelation 20:14-15).
It is the sin and death problems that make it impossible for a person to gain life with God through his own good works because no matter how good he is, he still is a criminal in God’s sight and under the sentence of eternal death.
“Died for our sins” refers to the fact that God the Son became a man, lived a perfect life, allowed himself to be arrested, tried, convicted and crucified. As Jesus hung upon the cross, God the Father took every sin I have committed or will commit and put them on Jesus and punished him in my place. Jesus became my substitute, taking my sins on him and then the wrath of God my sins deserve.
The substitutionary atonement is at the heart of the gospel. This is where we see and understand the great love that God has for us, that the Son would allow the Father to place our sins on him and punish him in our place. Remove this and you lose the depth of our sinfulness and the greatness of God’s love for us.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 1 Peter 3:18
The Old Testament animal sacrifices all pointed to Christ and the work he would do for us through his death. God punished Jesus so he can forgive us and not punish us.
“That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
The resurrection is essential in the gospel presentation because it proves that Jesus has overcome sin and death. Jesus would still be dead if just one sin was left in him, because the wages of sin is death.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. Psalm 16:10
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, Romans 1:1-4
Therefore, the gospel is the truth that we are all sinners or criminals before God, and under the sentence of eternal death or separation from God and all that is good. In his love for us, God the Father sent God the Son to earth to become a man. Jesus was born without a sin nature, and lived a sinless life. He allowed himself to be crucified, and as he hung on the cross, God the Father took all of my sins, put them on Jesus and punished him in my place.
Jesus took the wrath of God for me, and he died. His body was placed in a tomb, and on the third day he came back from the dead, never to die again. God in his love and grace has overcome our two enemies of sin and death, and those who acknowledge to Jesus that they are sinners, and trust him to save them from eternal condemnation are forgiven their sins and given the gift of life eternal with God.
Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, because he knew that God works his power through the gospel to take people from death to life. That is why he said it is “of first importance,” and it should be of first importance in the ministry of every pastor.
Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.
Originally published via