I've recently come across a several articles addressing the question of the gospel. Christianity Today has been running a series from The Christian Vision Project asking, "Is our gospel too small?" A recent issue of Leadership has an article on Tim Keller's gospel. Mark Dever recently gave a talk addressing various misrepresentations of the gospel. I have also been involved in a discussion with some fellow seminary students regarding the content of the gospel. One thing that I've discovered is that there seems to be significant disagreement on what the essential content of the gospel is.
So, what is the gospel? In 2 Timothy 2:8-9 Paul says, "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David--that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal." Romans 1:3-4 says, "the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord." These statements of the gospel have two elements in common.
First, Jesus is descended from David. Some readers will undoubtedly wonder what Jesus' Davidic lineage has to do with the gospel. Here we must remember that it was to David that God promised, "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). If Jesus is descended from David, then he is the rightful king of Israel and, ultimately, the whole world (see Psalm 2:7-9). When Paul says that Jesus is descended from David, he is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the rightful king of Israel and the Lord of the world. To say that Jesus is descended from David is to say that Jesus is Lord, which is precisely what Paul says at the end of Romans 3:4. So, the first basic component of the gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord! Second, in both places Paul asserts that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. This is an essential part of the gospel. Anything that claims to be a gospel presentation and fails to include Jesus' resurrection is not a whole gospel.
In Greek, the word for gospel is euangelion and it was used by the Roman Empire before Paul ever appropriated it. When a new Roman emperor took the throne, he would send messengers out with the "good news." Sometimes, the announcement of the emperor's birthday was also hailed as a gospel. In the Graeco-Roman world, the word "gospel" was basically an announcement of royal authority. Well, Paul and the early Christians believed that there was another king and that his name was Jesus. Rome's gospel was, "Caesar is lord." Paul's gospel was, "Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead." It should be clear why Paul was chained like a criminal.
The basic message of the gospel includes the double announcement about Jesus' lordship and resurrection. It is important for Christians to be able to unpack this dense and compact statement. The announcement immediately raises a variety of questions. Who was Jesus? If he was raised from the dead, how did he die in the first place? Why did Jesus die? What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord? What does it mean for Jesus to be resurrected from the dead? Again, it is helpful to look to scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul uses a slightly enlarged formula that still contains the basic elements we have discussed, "Christ (Messiah) died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead according to the scriptures..."
There is much more that could be said by way of implication here. However, I'll close by saying that it is of the utmost importance for the church to come to an agreement on what the gospel is. As the church, we are the gospel people. After his statement of the gospel in Romans 1:3-4, Paul says that he, "received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." The church has been entrusted with this good news and that means that we must take it to the world.