What Is the Gospel?
A while back, I contributed a chapter entitled “The Gospel for All Nations” to a book called Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (InterVarsity). Here are my five concluding observations:
1. Divine, not human: The gospel is God’s saving message to a world living in darkness and a humanity lost in its sin. The gospel is not a human message, nor was its conception a function of human initiative, but its origin and its impetus derive solely from God. For this reason our role with regard to the gospel is not that of evaluation, criticism or reformulation, but that of grateful acceptance and obedience. Humans are not equal partners with God as far as the gospel message is concerned; they are rather his commissioned representatives, charged with proclaiming the gospel in the exact form in which they received it (e.g., John 17:20; 20:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4).
2. Required, not optional: Acceptance of the gospel is not optional for salvation but rather required, owing to pervasive human sinfulness. As the Book of Hebrews states, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”; “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time . . . to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:27–28). Apart from believing in Jesus Christ, “God’s wrath remains” on people (Jn 3:36), and they are spiritually dead (Jn 5:24; Eph 2:1). People must be “born of God” (Jn 1:12; 3:3, 5; 1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), that is, be spiritually regenerated (Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3). As Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians, “and you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit . . .” (Eph 1:13). Inclusion in Christ comes only by hearing and believing the gospel.
3. Christological, not merely theological: The gospel is not vaguely theological, as if it were amenable to various ways of salvation depending on a person’s belief in a particular kind of god, or depending on the degree to which people were able to hear the gospel presented in a clear way; it is decidedly and concretely Christological, that is, centered on the salvation provided through the vicarious cross-death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence Paul is able to speak of “the gospel . . . regarding his [God’s] Son . . . Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:2–4). Significantly, this gospel is not a New Testament novelty but was “promised beforehand through his [God’s] prophets [such as Habakkuk, Rom 1:17 citing Hab 2:4] in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2). Abraham already had resurrection faith (Romans 4; Galatians 3; Heb 11:8–12).
4. No other gospel: The messianic motif pervading all of Scripture and centering in the Lord Jesus Christ coupled with the risen Jesus’ “Great Commission” for his followers to go and disciple the nations inextricably link an understanding of the gospel as the exclusive message of salvation in Jesus Christ with the church’s mandate to engage in missionary outreach. This is clear especially from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John, the book of Acts, and several of Paul’s writings. Conversely, any messages proclaimed in the name of Christ that feature a “different gospel” or a different Christ (such as compromising his simultaneous full humanity and deity, e.g. 1 John 4:2–3) are rejected. The church must engage in missions, because “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). If anyone confesses with his mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead, he will be saved (Rom 10:9; see also vv. 10–13).
5. No other name but Jesus: In light of the clear biblical passages mentioned above and in view of the strong and pervasive trajectory of scriptural references to the gospel there is no proper foundation for arguing for salvation apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that humanity is universally sinful, and that God’s wrath remains on every individual who has not placed his or her trust in Jesus Christ on the basis of his substitutionary death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. While there may be philosophical or larger theological objections to such a notion (such as the difficulty experienced by some of reconciling this notion with the love of God), while there may be commonsense concerns on the basis of human conceptions or “fairness” or other similar considerations, there can be little doubt that Scripture nowhere teaches, or easily allows the implication, that there is a way to salvation other than through explicit faith in Jesus Christ during a person’s lifetime (e.g., Heb 9:27–28). In fact, this is not an obscure topic; it is the central contention of the biblical message concerning the gospel, that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
For Further Study, read the entire essay in Faith Comes by Hearing, pp. 201–19. See also my book, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, 2nd ed. (New Studies in Biblical Theology; InterVarsity, 2020).