What is the gospel?

What is the gospel? This may seem an obvious or even a stupid question. Of course we all know what the gospel is. This essay by DB Knox may make you think again.1 Is the gospel we preach the same gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles?

The message of the New Testament preachers may be summed up as a message about Jesus. This was what God had sent them to proclaim. Thus Acts sums up Philip’s evangelistic message to the Ethiopian eunuch as, “Beginning from this scripture2 he preached unto him Jesus”.3 Jesus is the message.

The first fact about Jesus that the preachers established was that he had come from God. God had sent him on his mission. In a word, he was God’s Messiah, sent, commissioned and anointed by God for the work that he discharged. Jesus was God’s vice-regent, God’s anointed one. This was how Paul began his preaching career immediately after his conversion: “He confounded the Jews of Damascus, proving that this is the Christ”.4 From the beginning this was the message of the apostles in Jerusalem. Luke wrote that “they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ”.5

True to Moses and all the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostolic message about Jesus was set in the context of judgement. It was a message of escape from condemnation, a fleeing from the wrath to come.6

The message goes back to John the Baptist; he is the first preacher of the gospel of God. This is clear from the way his ministry is incorporated into the gospel narrative and is actually described by Mark as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”.7

John the Baptist preached Jesus, “saying to the people that they should believe on him that should come after him, that is, on Jesus”.8 But it was Jesus as judge that John proclaimed. Jesus was the coming one who would thoroughly winnow his threshing floor, separating out the chaff and destroying it with unquenchable fire while getting the good grain into his store house.9 John described this coming judgement as a baptism of fire in which the chaff would be consumed.10 It was a divine judgement, a divine baptism. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. For this imagery John was indebted to Isaiah who, in describing God’s future judgement and cleansing of his people, had combined the imagery of washing with the imagery of burning.11

The imminence of the inauguration of this kingdom or rule of God was the burden of the message of John the Baptist. Kingdom (i.e. ruling) is exercised through a king. God is king in his kingdom. John proclaimed that the king is to be the coming one, the Messiah foretold in the prophets. John was certain that the Messiah was already in their midst, the one greater than himself, who would inaugurate and usher in the judgement of God, the winnowing of God’s threshing floor and the burning up with unquenchable fire of the chaff. It was in the light of the imminence of this kingdom or rule of the Messiah that John called on his hearers to prepare for it by repenting and by showing that repentance, not only by the reality of a changed lifestyle,12 but also through the symbol of baptism in order that, when that day came, the penitents might receive the forgiveness of their sins which Jeremiah had foretold would be a feature of the new covenant brought in by the Messiah.13 The proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God is a proclamation of the nearness of the judgement of God, the day of the Lord foretold and looked forward to in the Old Testament.

The message of Jesus was identical with the message of John. Like John, Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God and called his hearers to repent: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”.14 At this point, it should be noted that the translation of gospel as ‘good news’ is a mistake. In the Bible, the Greek word ευαγγελια means ‘news’.15 The proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was not in itself good news to every hearer. Its imminence was, however, news—startling news which called for an immediate response, the response of repentance. For the news of the kingdom was the news of the judgement of God.

The certainty and the awfulness of judgement was much in the mind of Jesus during his teaching ministry. He taught explicitly that the consequences of condemnation in the judgement were too awful to contemplate. Condemnation to the Gehenna of fire is referred to several times by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In the same sermon, he warned about the destruction which awaited those on the broad way in contrast to the life which was the destination of those who entered on the narrow way.

In the chapter following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus as speaking of the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, which would be the fate of many (unbelieving) Israelites.16 The future judgement was the theme of some of our Lord’s parables, for example, the parable of the wheat and the tares where he said that the sons of the evil one would be gathered out of the kingdom of the Son of Man and would be cast into the furnace of fire, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.17 He repeated the same phraseology in the parable of the net cast into the sea: the wicked, he said, will be cast into the furnace of fire where shall be the weeping and gnashing of teeth.18 Later in his ministry Jesus warned his disciples lest, through failure in self-discipline, they find themselves cast into “the eternal fire”19 or into “the hell [literally ‘Gehenna’] of fire”.20 On another occasion, addressing the Pharisees, he asked them, “how can you escape the judgement of Gehenna?”21 The phrases “furnace of fire”, “eternal fire” and “Gehenna of fire” are doubtless imagery, but they are images of the most awful reality. Jesus did not mince his words. The facts he believed and taught were too simple.

The Old Testament, as well as our Lord’s teaching, is full of the certainty and awfulness of judgement. The certainty of judgement is not news to a Bible-oriented person. The news of the New Testament is not that there will be a judgment, but rather that this judgement is imminent; the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God—that is, his judgement—is at hand. Action is called for from the hearer.

When, after the Day of Pentecost, the Christian preachers proclaimed the Christian message, the theme of their message was Jesus. The first sermon began with the words, “Jesus of Nazareth”22 and it was Jesus as God’s Messiah that was proclaimed. Peter concluded that first sermon with the words, “know that God has made him Christ”.23 It was, of course, notorious in Jerusalem that Jesus had been crucified—had suffered the most ignominious condemnation of the law—but the Christian preacher proclaimed that the crucified Messiah had been raised by God from the dead on the third day and exalted to the right hand of power in the universe. He was Lord of all.24

The kingdom of Jesus was the theme of the apostolic preaching, as Paul’s Jewish enemies at Thessalonica rightly reported on the matter to the city magistrates.25 An examination of the preaching of the apostles as reported in the Book of Acts confirms that they continued the emphasis of John and Jesus, and that the burden of the Christian message was the imminence of judgement. Peter, in his address to Cornelius and his friends, was explicit that judgement through Jesus, now Lord of all, was the message that “God had commanded us to preach to the people” and that Jesus was the one “ordained by God to be the judge”.26 When Paul preached to the Athenian senators at their own request, the judgement day and Jesus as the judge was the climax of his sermon.27

As Peter preached to Cornelius, so Paul preaching to the Areopagus underlined the fact that the resurrection of Jesus was the ground and proof of the fact that he was judge, for judgeship is an exercise of lordship. The supreme accolade of the king is that he is the judge of his people. Jesus, Lord of all, is the judge of all.

A very clear indication that judgement by Jesus, God’s appointed judge, was the essence of the early gospel message is contained in Luke’s summary of Paul’s address to Felix, the Roman governor of Judaea. Felix had invited Paul to address him and his court, “concerning the faith in Christ Jesus”.28 Doubtless many other notables would be present. It was, literally, the opportunity of a lifetime for Paul the missionary, an invitation to expound the true faith about God to the governor of God’s people. It is interesting to read how Luke summarizes Paul’s address: “He reasoned of righteousness, self-control and judgement to come”. Judgement was the thrust of Paul’s message to the governor’s court. He spoke so vividly and so convincingly that Felix was terrified.29

The epistles provide further testimony that judgement was the news that the apostles preached. In the opening section of Romans, Paul speaks of “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel”.30 In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, he speaks of the coming wrath from which Jesus will rescue us. In the opening paragraphs of the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes in vivid imagery the judgement day which will coincide with Jesus’ return as Lord: “in flaming fire rendering vengeance to those that know not God”.31

Judgement is the most conspicuous theme of the Book of Revelation. This theme is succinctly focused in the message of the angel flying in mid-heaven who proclaimed to all men “the everlasting gospel”: “Fear and glorify God the creator, for the hour of his judgement is come”.32

The judgement of God through Jesus Christ was the message that the apostles preached. This message prevents the gospel from being earthbound, as is so much modern preaching and evangelism. Although it deals with the present, calling for a response now, it has an eternal dimension. It is startling news. Moreover it overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation for it quickly reaches the conscience of the hearer, whatever his culture. Indeed, it is impossible to re-interpret this message to fit the age. It is “an eternal gospel”.33

Jesus as God’s appointed judge of all men, guaranteed and testified to by the resurrection, was the essential and novel feature of the message the apostles believed themselves commanded by God to proclaim. But along with which, equal in importance, was the fact that Jesus was the saviour from condemnation in the judgement. Thus Paul told the Jews in Pisidia, in his sermon in their synagogue, that God had fulfilled his promise of bringing to Israel from among David’s descendants a saviour who was Jesus, and he described the message he was bringing his hearers as “the word of this salvation”.34 Salvation was from the wrath of God. Paul summed up the work of Jesus in the phrase, “Jesus who rescues us from the wrath to come”.35 The coming of Jesus at the end of the world would usher in both wrath and salvation from wrath. Jesus would be both judge and saviour. Paul reminded the Philippians as they waited for the coming of Jesus, “we wait for a saviour from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ”.36 In Romans 5:9 Paul expressed the same sentiment that Jesus is the saviour in the future judgement: “We shall be saved from the wrath through him”. Salvation on the judgement day, “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”,37 is the message of hope that the gospel preachers brought.

The gospel of salvation was essentially a future hope, a sure and certain hope that, through Jesus, the believer, in his lordship, would be saved when the day of doom broke. Thus Peter reminded his fellow apostles, “we believe that we shall be saved …”.38

In the New Testament, salvation is not only a past event and a present possession but a future experience. As a past event—“By grace you have been saved through faith”39—it is unrepeatable and not to be annulled, for “God is faithful”,40 but its fruition is still to be experienced on the awful day of the wrath of the Lamb. Jesus had pacified the wrath of God. So the news is news “of peace by Jesus Christ”.41

Paul is the gospel preacher whose message we know most about. We have seen in Luke’s account in Acts that judgement was the apex of his sermons. His discourse before Felix majoring on “righteousness, self-control and judgement to come” unfolded the gospel in the same terms as John’s report of Jesus’ upper room discourse. Jesus had foretold that, when the Spirit had come to the disciples which the Father would send in Jesus’ name, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. This is the same trilogy as in Paul’s sermon to Felix. Judgement was the culmination of the message. Apprehension of the righteous judgement of God is the point through which the Spirit of God works conviction of sin and consequential fear of the wrath (“Felix was terrified”) and then, by the grace of God, the Spirit works repentance in the convicted heart.

The gospel preachers aimed to bring about a sense of guilt. This is plain in the account of Paul’s sermon before Felix. It is plain in our Lord’s prediction that the Spirit in the disciples would convict the hearers of the gospel of sin, righteousness and judgement to come. An examination of the gospel sermons in Acts confirms that this was the preacher’s object. The Sadducees recognized it when they accused the apostles of “intending to bring Jesus’ blood upon us”.42

Repentance in the present was the gateway to salvation in the future on the day of God’s wrath. John, Jesus and the apostles called for repentance—that is, a change of attitude, a real change of heart towards God, and the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God and the Lord. The acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and the calling on him for his help brought salvation, in accordance with the promise of God given through the prophet Joel.43

Not the saviourhood of Jesus but the lordship of Jesus is what the enquirer is invited to believe in for salvation.44

Since judgement was real, and righteousness real, and sin real, guilt was real and the wrath real. Since too God had made known through the resurrection of Jesus that the judgement day was fixed and the judge appointed, the preachers aimed to bring about in their hearers a sense of guilt to correspond to the reality of their guilt so that an awkward and fearful conscience might realize that it was an awful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,45 and so, in repentance, they would turn back to God and cry to him for salvation from the consequences of their sin. The evoking of a sense of guilt through the gospel message is clear in the reports of the sermons in Acts. Thus in the first sermon, Peter, proclaiming for the first time the fact that God had made Jesus Lord and Christ, concluded his sermon on the Day of Pentecost with the words, “this Jesus whom you crucified”.46

The sermon was effective. A sense of guilt immediately arose in the hearts of the hearers who asked, What shall we do?”47

In Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch48 the chief content of the sermon is the narration of the facts about Jesus and how, in him, God had fulfilled the promises he had made to their forefathers. Yet the preacher assumes a sense of guilt in the consciences of his hearers, for the sermon reaches its climax in the statement, “through this man is proclaimed to you the remission of sins and by him every one that believes is justified from all those things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses”.49

In preaching to Gentile audiences, the apostle is milder in his assertion of the guilt of his hearers. It is from the ignorance and foolishness of idolatry that he asks his hearers to repent and to turn to faith in the true creator God who has fixed the judgement day.50 Before sin-hardened Felix, however, he did not mince his words as he preached of repentance, self-control and judgement to come.51

Though the preachers of the gospel proclaimed the judgement of God and referred to it in the most vivid and awful language available to them, yet the message was a gracious message because it was news of God’s gracious action of providing salvation from condemnation in the judgement through Jesus. He is the one who rescues us, said Paul, from the coming wrath. Both Peter and Paul, the preachers of the New Testament of whom we know most, designated Jesus as saviour. Peter, in his reply to the Sanhedrin, told how God had exalted Jesus to the throne to be prince and saviour.52 Paul told the Jews in Pisidian Antioch that God had fulfilled his promise in giving Israel a saviour, Jesus,53 and went on to describe the gospel message that he was bringing his hearers as “the word of this salvation”.54

Not only is the gospel the news of salvation but it is the instrument of salvation. It is the power of God for salvation, as Paul told his Roman readers.55 To the Ephesians he called it “the gospel of your salvation”.56 It is through the preaching of the gospel that God sends his salvation.57

Salvation consists in the forgiveness of sins. Those whose sins are forgiven need not fear the judgement, for they will be acquitted. Paul quoted the Psalm, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered”.58

It is a message of news of peace. “The gospel of peace,” as Peter described it to Cornelius.59 That is, peace with God,60 reconciliation with God,61 escape from under the wrath of God.62 It is news of liberty and freeness in God’s presence on the day of judgement.63

The message of forgiveness of sins against the background of the judgement was the unchanging gospel message from the beginning. The purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry was that those who responded might obtain the forgiveness of their sins. The imminence of the judgement when the judge would thoroughly winnow his threshing floor or burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire only made the need for forgiveness more urgent. The message which Jesus commissioned his disciples to proclaim throughout the world was the forgiveness of sins through Jesus.64 The apostles carried out this commission. In the first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, echoing John the Baptist’s language, told his anxious enquirers, “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”.65 And he repeated the promise to Cornelius, telling him that God had commanded the apostle to preach, not only that Jesus is the judge, but also “through his name everyone who believes on him shall receive forgiveness of sins”66 and he told the Sanhedrin that through Jesus God would give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.67

Paul preached the same message. At the beginning of his ministry he told the synagogue worshippers in Pisidia, “through this man is proclaimed to you the forgiveness of sins”.68 At the end of his ministry he recalled the commission that he had received on the Damascus Road, and told King Agrippa this commission was that he should be the means of bringing the truth to the Gentiles “that they might receive the forgiveness of sins”.69 The forgiveness of sins, or justification from wrongdoing, was identical. Paul put the two together in the same sentence in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch: “through this man is proclaimed to you forgiveness of sins and by him everyone that believes is justified from all things”.70 Another example of identical meaning of justification and forgiveness is Romans 4:2, 5-7.

Faith in Jesus, expressed in repentance or acknowledgement of him as the divine Lord, king and judge, is the way of obtaining this salvation. Believing the news the preachers brought gave rise to an anxiety, as well it might. For the news was of the day of doom, its imminence underlined by the resurrection of God’s appointed judge, of which the preachers were witnesses. To the anxious enquiry, “What must we do in view of this news of God’s judgement?”,71 the preachers had the further news of God’s grace: “acknowledge the lordship of Jesus and you will be saved,” they assured their hearers.72

This belief on the name of Jesus the Lord and Saviour, when exercised in the context of the gospel message of judgement, was expressed by prayer to Jesus, calling on him for salvation on “the great and terrible day of the Lord”.73 Prayer to Jesus for salvation in the context of the cataclysm of the judgement was the natural expression of faith in him—that is, of belief that he was God, Lord and Saviour, able to hear the prayer of the penitent and able to save. And the promise of the gospel was that all who called on him were saved from judgement through their sins being blotted out, covered from the face of the judge from the moment they believed in Jesus the Lord.

To sum up, the gospel was the news that God had fixed the judgement day when he would judge the world in righteousness, and he had appointed the judge, Jesus, whom he had sealed in this office by the resurrection from the dead and by his exaltation to the throne of God as Lord. He was king and judge, and not only king and judge, but saviour from the consequences of the judgement of God on sinners. For God in his graciousness had sent his son Jesus to be the saviour of the world, so that all who call on him for salvation, all who recognize his lordship and seek his help, will receive that salvation, which consists in the forgiveness of their sins and justification in the eyes of the judge.

So the news is not only of the judgement but more significantly, of salvation in that judgement.

A reflection from Tony Payne

One of the more striking things about DB Knox’s writings is how ordinary they are. The prose is clear enough, but pedestrian. There is little sense of flow or dynamism, and few rhetorical flourishes. The passive voice dominates. The diction is formal. The argument is simply set forth, unfolding without illustration or summary, supported by copious biblical examples and quotations, in a style that almost defies the reader to read on.

Yet somehow, at least for me, the very plainness of DB Knox’s writings forms part of their power. There is never any sense that you are being carried along by the brilliance of the packaging. It’s just the ideas, and how often the ideas sparkle and shine.

This extract is no exception. When I first read this chapter some years ago, it was like putting on a set of spectacles that brought several vague and misty perceptions into sharp focus.

The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, for example, which had always been something of a puzzle to me, now seemed transparent. The cousins had preached the same gospel—the announcement of the coming kingdom of God in which all would be judged. John expected the judgement to come with Jesus, and to come almost immediately. He did not realize that the judgement would be delayed—or rather that it would fall first on Jesus himself on the cross.

I also found a new clarity about the relationship between Jesus as Lord and Jesus as Judge. I was used to thinking of “Jesus is Lord” as an excellent little three-word gospel summary, but how did judgement and wrath fit into that? I should have seen it from Acts 17 and all the other places; I should have seen it from Two Ways to Live! But somehow DBK brought it into stark clarity simply by saying that “judgeship is an exercise of lordship”.

And then, of course, there was this short paragraph, introduced without fanfare and almost in passing, but containing a scathing indictment of modern evangelism:

The judgement of God through Jesus Christ was the message that the apostles preached. This message prevents the gospel from being earthbound, as is so much modern preaching and evangelism. Although it deals with the present, calling for a response now, it has an eternal dimension. It is startling news. Moreover it overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation for it quickly reaches the conscience of the hearer, whatever his culture. Indeed, it is impossible to reinterpret this message to fit the age. It is “an eternal gospel”.74

This points out a subtle and ongoing danger for us, it seems to me. While few of us would (presumably) be satisfied with a gospel that was simply ‘Come to Jesus and have all your problems solved’, we are often sorely tempted to preach an attractive Jesus who connects with people’s aspirations, hungers and needs. Want real and satisfying relationships? Want the freedom to live authentically? Want to find purpose and meaning in life? Want a new story to live by? Want to find resources for dealing with suffering and pain? Want to be a better dad? Come to our special dinner/course/breakfast, and we’ll show you how.

Now these sorts of things do go along with being a Christian believer (along with persecutions, being hated, and constantly battling the relentless assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil). And surely there is nothing wrong with telling people about these things, especially in response to accusations that the Christian life is the opposite (that it is a life-denying, joyless slavery, for example).

But apologetics is not the gospel, nor are the benefits of becoming a Christian the gospel. The gospel is an historical announcement about the coming kingdom of Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, who will soon bring judgement, and who now calls on everyone to repent and flee to him for forgiveness of sins while they may. It is a message, as Knox says, that “overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation” because it directly addresses the conscience of the hearer. Judgement is coming in Jesus Christ; you are guilty; salvation is available through this same Jesus; what will you do?

This is not a difficult message to communicate or to understand. It is of course a profoundly contemptible message—one that our culture will regard as weak and foolish, and to which only a minority of people will in all likelihood respond, few of them sophisticates or high-fliers. But then I seem to remember that this was also Paul’s experience when he preached the gospel in Corinth. The Jews and Greeks begged for contextualization. In fear and trembling, Paul gave them Christ crucified instead.


1 This essay is an edited extract from ‘The Gospel of the New Testament’ in DB Knox, Selected Works Volume III, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2006, pp. 9-60. In the course of his lectures and writings, Dr Knox characteristically quoted from either the King James Version or the Revised Version, and sometimes from a combination of both. We have retained this feature.

2 Isaiah 53:7-8

3 Acts 8:35

4 Acts 9:22

5 Acts 5:42

6 Matthew 3:7

7 Mark 1:1. Paul’s interaction with “the disciples” in Ephesus in Acts 19 provides a further indication that the movement initiated by John the Baptist was indistinguishable from the ‘Jesus movement’.

8 Acts 19:4

9 Matthew 3:12

10 Matthew 3:11-12

11 Isaiah 4:4

12 Matthew 3:8

13 Jeremiah 31:34

14 Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:43.

15 The case for ευαγγελια as ‘news’ rather than ‘good news’ is made in more detail elsewhere in an appendix, ‘Meaning of the word “gospel”’, Selected Works Vol III, pp. 59-60.

16 Matthew 8:12

17 Matthew 13:42

18 Matthew 13:47-50

19 Matthew 18:8

20 Matthew 18:9

21 Matthew 23:33

22 Acts 2:22

23 Acts 2:36

24 Acts 10:36

25 Acts 17:8

26 Acts 10:42

27 Acts 17:31

28 Acts 24:24

29 Acts 24:25

30 Romans 2:16

31 2 Thessalonians 1:8

32 Revelation 14:6-7

33 Revelation 14:6

34 Acts 13:23, 26

35 1 Thessalonians 1:10

36 Philippians 3:20

37 1 Corinthians 5:5

38 Acts 15:11; also see 1 Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 5:9-10; Hebrews 10:39.

39 Ephesians 2:8

40 1 Corinthians 10:13

41 Acts 10:36

42 Acts 5:28

43 Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13.

44 Acts 16:31

45 Hebrews 10:31

46 Acts 2:36

47 Acts 2:37

48 Acts 13:16ff

49 Acts 13:38-39

50 Acts 14:15, 17:29-31.

51 Acts 24:25

52 Acts 5:31

53 Acts 13:23

54 Acts 13:26

55 Romans 1:16

56 Ephesians 1:13

57 Acts 28:28

58 Romans 4:7; cf. Psalm 32:1-2.

59 Acts 10:36

60 Romans 5:1

61 2 Corinthians 5:20

62 John 3:36

63 1 John 4:17

64 Luke 24:47

65 Acts 2:38

66 Acts 10:43

67 Acts 5:31

68 Acts 13:38

69 Acts 26:18

70 Acts 13:38-39

71 Acts 2:37, 16:30.

72 Acts 2:38, 16:31.

73 Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20.

74 Revelation 14:6

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