What gospel do you believe and preach? This sounds like such a simple question, but not all Christians are on the same page regarding the definition of such a basic element of the faith.
The Simple Gospel
Early in the twentieth century, the Fundamentalist movement tried to resist growing Modernism by self-consciously focusing on what it saw as the most essential tenets of the Christian faith, its fundamentals.
An emphasis was placed on the message of saving faith in order to counter the Social Gospel. The Fundamentalists emphasized that the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnate in human flesh, lived a sinless life, paid the penalty for our sins by His death on the cross, and rose again the third day. Those who repent of their sins and believe in His atonement for theirs are saved from damnation. This became known as the simple gospel.
The error of Fundamentalism was that it was itself a retreat, a fall-back position to the essentials as its leaders defined them. It was a truncated message. The simple gospel, while true, does not represent all that the gospel is. It is only a statement of what we mean when we say we are saved by the blood of Christ. It does not address all that Jesus Christ is in the gospel message.
What is Salvation?
Salvation in Scripture is more than “going to heaven” or “not going to hell.” In a familiar text (Matt. 7:14), Jesus said “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth into life …” Salvation is to an eternal life that begins when we enter the gate. In Acts 2:28, Peter echoed these words by referring to salvation as “the ways of life.” The simple gospel speaks of “the gate” but does not reference “the way.” Evangelical churches tend to be good at describing “the gate” to eternal life but not so good at pointing out “the way” of eternal life.
Why? The modern church tends to use the termsalvation as a reference to justification by faith alone. It tells the sinner who professes faith, “You are in the gate; you are justified.” They then stop there, perhaps fearful of mixing works with grace, but nevertheless leaving the way of the new believer quite vague. The correct course is not to confuse faith and works but to demand faithfulness of all who profess faith. Jesus clearly saw the way as an extension of a man’s entrance into the gate by faith.
The simple gospel rightly sees entrance at the gate by faith as an event. The theological equivalent is to say justification is an act. We can say we were saved (past tense) but this is also our present and continuing status (present perfect tense). This status was often referred to when salvation was used in the Old Testament (the Hebrews being “saved from Egypt” or “saved from” enemies).
Salvation also meant the ongoing blessings salvation provided, so we see references to God’s “garments of salvation” and “wells of salvation.” Salvation in the Old Testament often referred to an ongoing protection, and was referred to as a “shield,” “helmet,” or “horn” of salvation. Paul used almost identical “armor” terminology in the New Testament to describe our ongoing life of salvation. Salvation is an ongoing status because eternal salvation begins at the gate but it is manifested in our walk of faith, our faithfulness. The act of justification is always accomplished by regeneration, so we continue as new creatures in Christ, “born again” to an empowered life of faith.
God’s salvation is a big-picture, covenantal salvation that transcends the individual. This is why God could tell Israel and later Judah of the terrible judgments that were coming on them yet still refer to Himself as the God of salvation.
What Is a Gospel?
Our word “gospel” means more than just “good news.” It comes from Greek words that have as their root evangel (hence the word evangelize and the noun evangelist). The word had a long history before its Christian use. It originally referred to a messenger who brought good news. Before modern means of communication, a messenger was dispatched to report, “Thus says my master.” Good news was often rewarded. In Greek thinking, good news was attributed to the gods, so the messages were sometimes accompanied by sacrifices. There was, then, a religious connotation to the evangel.
The religious meaning of evangel was amplified by the imperial cult, which was the deification of the Roman emperor. This began with Julius Caesar and was firmly established in the reign of Augustus. Everything about the emperor was good news, an evangel, or gospel. Since the emperor represented a divine blessing or even presence, everything about him had an aura of religious sanctity. His rule was itself a form of grace.
Ulrich Becker, writing in the New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology, quoted a decree of Greeks in Asia in 9 B.C. which marked the birthday of Caesar Augustus:
It is a day which we may justly count as equivalent to the beginning of everything—if not in itself and in its own nature, at any rate in the benefits it brings—inasmuch as it has restored the shape of everything that was failing and turning into misfortune, and has given a new look to the Universe at a time when it would gladly have welcomed destruction if Caesar had not been born to be the common blessing of all men … Whereas the Providence (pronoia) which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere … and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings [in the Greek the “evangel”] that have come to men through him … Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province … has devised a way of honoring Augustus hitherto unknown to the Greeks, which is, that the reckoning of time for the course of human life should begin with his birth.1
That was the gospel of the imperial cult. Its salvation was by Caesar.
When the word gospel was used in the New Testament, it immediately conveyed a messianic theme and was, in fact, a challenge to Rome’s gospel. In the New Testament it is Jesus Christ who brings in a new order and hope to the world, because He is a King like no other and His Kingdom will know no end.
This claim was not lost on the Romans. Pilate was anxious to ask Jesus if He claimed to be a king (Luke 23:1–3). In Acts 17 a crowd dragged Jason from his home because he was known to be a Christian friendly to Paul and Silas. The charge against the Christians was that they “turned the world upside down” (v. 6). What had the Christians done to warrant such an accusation? The charge was that the Christians “do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, one Jesus” (v. 7). This concerned everyone in Thessalonica (v. 8). Why? Because the claims of the gospel co-opted those of the imperial cult. The gospel of Jesus was being substituted for that of Rome.
Caesar’s gospel was messianic. He would be a blessing to mankind, the consummation of life, the savior who would create a new universal order. It was more than political promises, it was a faith that these things were certain.
Likewise, when Jesus cast out a demon (Matt. 12:28), it represented a faith whose implications He told the people to consider: “If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” In fact, Jesus had already been proclaiming “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35).
When Mark wrote, he called his account “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Mark used historical narrative to show what the gospel entails.
The gospel does include the message of personal redemption, but that is only how men enter the Kingdom. The gospel accounts revealed what the Kingdom itself was like. The miracles of Jesus and the disciples represented the new order that Rome’s Caesars could promise but not deliver. The Kingdom of God could turn grief to joy and want to plenty. It could heal sickness, suffering, and pain. The miracles represented the reign of Jesus, the King who had established His Kingdom. The gospel of the Kingdom of God represented the real new order.
To restrict the gospel to an individual’s conversion is to speak of the gate alone. The way of the Kingdom (Acts 2:28) is life lived in the reality that Jesus Christ is King. The gospel is an invitation to both personal redemption, and life as citizens of the Kingdom of our Lord. It is more than a complimentary benefits package. Reducing the gospel is more than a simplification; it represents a truncation of the message into a man-centered emphasis. The gospel is all the good news of who Jesus Christ is and all His Kingdom means in time and eternity.
1. Becker’s source is given as E. Barker, From Alexander to Constantine: Passages and Documents Illustrating the History of Social and Political Ideas 336 B.C.–A.D. 337,  1959, 211 f.; cf. W. Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones, II, No. 458; for other data on background see G. Friedrich, TDNT II 721–5).