What is the Gospel?

by Al Martin

All of the major categories of concern in the biblical gospel are predicated upon some fundamental realities pertaining to God Himself. Where those realities are unknown or disbelieved, the gospel cannot be understood or savingly embraced.

For example, if you’ll turn with me to the 17th chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles you will notice that in this chapter we have a summary of Paul’s ordinary evangelistic endeavors in the opening verses of Acts 17. “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews; and Paul, as his custom was.” Here’s the key phrase. This was his ordinary pattern of evangelistic endeavor. “Went in unto them, [that is, those who gathered in the Jewish synagogues], and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures, opening and alleging that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom, said he, ‘I proclaim unto you, is the Christ.’”

Now here, in these settings, Paul would go into the synagogue and move immediately to what we would call “the front and center issues of the gospel.” Namely demonstrating that: Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God, and that the Christ of God had to suffer and be raised from the dead to procure the salvation of men, and that this Jesus—who did indeed suffer and die and was raised from the dead—was God’s anointed Messiah, in whom alone salvation was to be found.

You see, in the synagogue he could assume a faith in the revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Scriptures that begin with the statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” An Old Testament body of revelation. That is, it’s a fuse that oozes with the supernaturalism of the God who is; the God who could speak worlds into being; the God who holds man, the creature, accountable to Him for his actions. That God says to Adam, “Of all the trees you may freely eat, but of the tree that is in the midst of the garden you shall not eat of it, for in the day that you eat of it thereof ye shall surely die.” He is the God who brings judgement upon man as a sinner; the God who hates sin and who sends hell out of heaven upon the cities of the Plain for their crass and shameful abandonment to sensuality, bestiality, and homosexuality.

A Jew understood this from the revelation of God’s sacrificial system given to Moses and the establishment of the priesthood. They understood that God was holy and God could only be approached in terms of an innocent victim having its life drained from it, its blood shed and offered up before God. So, in the synagogue setting Paul could assume the fundamental tenets of what we call ‘biblical theism.’ That is: the Bible’s teaching that Almighty God is our Creator, Almighty God is our Lawgiver, and Almighty God is our Judge.

In this very chapter of Acts we note further on in the chapter that some of the pagan philosophers overhear the Apostles speaking of these central issues of the gospel. Verse 5, “But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took unto them certain vile fellows of the rabble, gathering a crowd, set the city on an uproar.” Then we read in verse 10, “ And the brethren sent Paul and Silas unto Berea; who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.” Result? Verse 12, “Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few.” You see his pattern? They went into the synagogue, and here are devout people, people who have embraced the Old Testament revelation concerning God.

We read in verse 16, “While Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with them that met him. And certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, ‘What would this babbler say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods.’” Why? “Because he preached Jesus and the resurrection.”

When they heard this they said, “He’s setting forth a strange God: a God who dies and is raised from the dead. We’ve not heard of any such gods amongst all our gods! We have not heard of such a strange God who dies and rises from the dead.” So, what do they do? “They took hold of him, and brought him unto the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you?’” “We’ve heard you speak about Jesus and the resurrection. You seem to be a setter forth of strange gods. Tell us more about Jesus and the resurrection!”

Verse 20, “For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.) And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said—.” Now, this is very crucial. I’ve read the whole passage so you get the flow of thought. They hear him speaking of Jesus and the resurrection, they say, “He seems to be the setter forth of strange gods. Tell us more about these things: Jesus and the resurrection.” Here are people who want to hear some preaching about salvation and a crucified, risen Christ!

What did Paul give them? “‘Ye men of Athens, in all things, I perceive that ye are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed your objects of worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’” Here they had an altar to this god and to that god and to the other, and just in case they missed one they had an altar to an unknown god. “What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you.”

“God loves you, and Jesus died for you, and He rose from the dead. Believe and you will be saved!” No. He didn’t start with, “God loves you. Christ died for you.” Where did he start? He said, “What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you.” “You’ve asked me to tell you about Jesus and the resurrection, but you will not have the stuff to make sense of Jesus and the resurrection until you have the stuff of who God is!”

So, he starts out, “The God that made the world and all things therein.” He starts with creation. He doesn’t prove the existence of God. He affirms it. He asserts it, and says, “The God who is is the creator of heaven and earth. Furthermore, He rules what He made, being Lord of heaven and earth.” God is Creator. God is sovereign over His Creation. Dwells not in temples made with hands. He is spiritual in His being. He is immense. He fills heaven and earth. There is no temple or earthly sanctuary that can contain Him.

Verse 25, “Neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything.” This is what the old theologians call ‘the aseity of God.’ God needs nothing that His creatures can give to Him. The notion that God is lonely and brokenhearted, so that’s why He made man, and now He is doubly lonely and brokenhearted, because man has turned away from Him is nonsense! That’s blasphemy! God was perfectly self-contained in the glory of His inner trinitarian being from all eternity, delighted with Himself, totally fulfilled in Himself. He needs nothing from man the creature!

He says, “Seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” He’s not a deity who started the world and then left it! He continues, by His imminent, providential care, to give to all life and breath and all things. Paul goes on to speak of this God as the Lord of the nations who has sovereignly disposed and determined the very boundaries of the nations, who has made Himself accessible to men.

He concludes in verse 30 by saying that this God, “Commands that all men everywhere should repent; inasmuch as he’s appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness.” Now, here is his first mention of Christ: “By the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”

You see what he’s saying? “Until you Athenians come to grips with the basic, fundamental doctrine of God, who He is, and what you as creatures are in relationship to Him as Creator, Governor, and Judge before whom you will stand in the last day, anything I tell you about Jesus and the resurrection at best will be a fascinating philosophy, and at worst you will reject it as downright foolishness.”

Until we take seriously the message of the Bible about God as our Creator, as the sovereign Ruler of His world, as the Lawgiver who has bound us by His holy Law saying, “Thou shalt and thou shalt not,” and who will in the last day bring us into judgement, judging us by the man who He has ordained, even the God-man Christ Jesus, whose resurrection is a witness in validation that he will judge the world—until those issues have become established in the heart and mind of a man or woman, boy or girl, they will make no sense of Jesus and the resurrection.

Some of you will know that in recent months I have been engaged in a series of expositions of individual texts of the Word of God; texts that in a very focused and concentrated way set forth some of the central truths of the gospel, of the grace of God. I have brought these texts under a heading of a series entitled “Simple Signposts to the Celestial City.”

Taking John Bunyan’s words from the immortal Pilgrim’s Progress in which he describes Heaven as “the Celestial City,” I have sought to take a fresh approach to these biblical texts by likening them to signposts, and reducing their contents to very simple statements that do no violence to the words of the texts, but hopefully have helped to fasten them upon our minds and bury them in our hearts. I have repeatedly stated that my purpose in considering these simple signposts has been twofold.

First of all, I have been fishing. The Lord Jesus said to His followers, “Come after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” I have unashamedly been seeking—by the means that God has ordained—in the language of the Apostle Paul, to persuade some of you to believe. Again, in the language of the Apostle, I have been, “Entreating you to be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

The second purpose in opening up these individual texts is in keeping the purpose for which God gives pastors and teachers to the church. For according to Ephesians 4:12 He gives pastors and teachers, “To perfect the saints unto service work.” One of the works of service which God has given to us as His people is the privilege of bearing witness to others concerning the salvation of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

It has been encouraging to know that at least several of you have found help in these very texts as you have sought to seize opportunities for witness, as God has given you those opportunities in the course of your ordinary experience and context.

We conclude that series of studies on the Simple Signposts not by turning to a specific text as we have done with all thirteen of them, in which we have concentrated on one specific text of Scripture, but by a topical approach to the subject “What is the Gospel?” Hopefully, in each one of those individual messages, some aspect of the very central issues of the gospel have been expounded, pressed upon your consciences, and made the basis of earnest appeals that you would embrace the Lord Jesus Christ.

However the older I get, the more I am convinced that people can hear many texts expounded, they can hear whole books of the Bible expounded in order, yet at the end of the day if they are pressed to give a succinct statement of some of the major themes that have been expounded, they are at a loss to do so. Since I have reportedly been preaching the gospel, heralding the message of God’s good news to sinners in the person and work of the Lord Jesus, I thought it appropriate in concluding this series to ask a question.

If we take the common denominator of all of those various texts—Acts 16:31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,” or Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter in by the narrow gate,” or Acts 20:21, “Repentance towards God; faith to the Lord Jesus”—if we take all of them together and seek to reduce them to the common denominators which constitute a full-forged statement of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, what would be left for us to set before men? What would be the result of reducing the various emphases of those texts to their common denominators?

In seeking to answer what is the gospel, I have never found in my own reading anything outside of the Bible which has given a more succinct and helpful summary of the answer to that question than that which is given in what is now considered a classic in our generation, the little paperback by Dr. J.I. Packer entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God; in which Dr. Packer raises the question “what is the gospel?” He answers by saying, “The gospel is a message about..” Then he gives us four heads: God, sin, Christ, repentance and faith.

All of the major categories of concern in the biblical gospel are predicated upon some fundamental realities pertaining to God Himself. The God of the Bible is the awesome, almighty, glorious Creator; He is the righteous, sovereign Lawgiver; He is the strict and exacting Judge of the world.

Then the gospel is also a message about sin. It is the crowning glory of the Christian faith, that it is essentially and fundamentally a religion for sinners! Did not the angel say at the conception of Jesus to Joseph, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He it is that shall save His people away from their sins”? Now, in saving them from their sins He saves them from a thousand other things, but the heart of His mission was announced at His conception! Jesus shall save, deliver, rescue from sin!

It became one of those sanctified clichés. You have five of them in the pastoral epistles called “The faithful sayings.” One of them was this: 1 Timothy 1:15, “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world.” As you’ve been told on several occasions in the past, in the original, the word ‘sinners’ is thrown forward for emphasis. “Faithful is the saying, worthy of all acceptation, Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save.” You see, there’s the glory of the gospel! It is essentially a religion for sinners, but sinners not left sinners. Sinners rescued by the almighty power of the Lord Jesus Christ! “He came sinners to save.”

When a generation of preachers says, “Well, we’ve got people that are fractured, crippled, wounded, emotionally distraught, psychologically battered. To tell them they are guilty and the God of Heaven has a controversy with them about their sin in Adam, and all of their specific sins—the sin of their nature, the sin of their deeds, thoughts, words—to tell them that they have a fountain of pollution within them, that they are essentially evil and not good, that they are fundamentally what they are as sinners from their very conception (David said, “Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,”) you will upset people. My friend, if it upsets them enough to go to go to the heavenly Physician to cut out the cancer, and to go to the Heavenly Mediator to settle accounts with the Judge, it matters not how much they are upset.

It appears to me that when Jesus is speaking of the merciful dispensation of the Holy Spirit underscored, the upsetting work of the Holy Spirit is fundamental in His ministry to the world. Did He not say in John 16:8, “And when He is come, He will convict the world of sin and of righteousness, and of judgement come”? That’s not a very sweet, flattering ministry of the Holy Ghost.

Ah, but my friends, apart from that we will never be lead to the fountain open for sin and uncleanness. We will never be lead to the heavenly Physician who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. I came to call not the healthy who have no need of a doctor, but they that are sick.” Sick enough to know that the bandage of pop psychology won’t help them. The self-help pills, and looking in the mirror and saying nice things about yourself won’t help. They’ve tried all of that, and they know it hasn’t touched the deep springs of their true need!

The kindest thing we can do to men is lovingly, tenderly, but accurately and biblically tell them how bad off they are as sinners, and pray that God the Holy Ghost will convince them of how bad off they are. For they will never run to the Saviour until they are convinced of how desperately they need Him. The gospel is a message about God: Creator, Lawgiver, Judge. It’s a message about sin! It’s about universal sin introduced to our first father; sin that leaves us all with a bad record and with a bad heart.

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