Christian interpreters often wrongly reduce the gospel to a message that explains how a person becomes a Christian. Some define gospel only as justification by faith. Others define it as the message about the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Although these important truths are foundational to the biblical concept of gospel, they do not exhaust what the bible teaches about it. In order to offer a complete biblical theology of the gospel, one must analyze the storyline, relevant vocabulary, and concepts in both the Old and New Testaments.
Due to limited space, I will focus on the meaning of the words translated as “gospel/good news” (euaggelion) and “ I announce good news” (euaggelizō) in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.
Old Testament Background
The noun euaggelion (“gospel/good news”) occurs in secular literature in the ancient world to refer to the birth of a new Emperor. It was “gospel/good news” (euaggelion) because his birth ushered in a new era when the new heir to the throne was announced.
The verb “I announce good news” (euaggelizō) refers to the announcement of the Lord’s salvation and the promise of the Spirit in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek translation of Isaiah is especially helpful for Paul’s use of “I announce good news” (euaggelizō) in Ephesians and Galatians since he either directly quotes or alludes to Isaiah throughout these letters.
In the Greek translation of Isa 40:9, 52:7; 60:6, and 61:1, the verbal statement “I announce good news” (euaggelizō) refers to the announcement of the Lord’s salvation of Israel from judgment.
In Isa 40:9, Israel is exhorted to get on a high mountain to announce this salvation. In Isa. 52:7, the Lord himself announces salvation to Israel and to the nations.
His message of salvation stands in authority over those upon whom he promises to bring judgment, which is why the feet of the one who announces good news are beautiful: namely, he proclaims the good news of the Lord’s salvation from judgment.
The announcement of salvation promises the Lord will deliver those who hear his announcement and who believe by faithful obedience. Furthermore, in Isa. 60:6, the nations announce Israel’s salvation. In Isa. 61:1, the Lord anoints someone with his Spirit to announce the good news of salvation (see also Luke 4:18-19). This announcement comes to Israel as the prophet Isaiah pronounces her imminent judgment in exile. Alongside of the announcement of a future exile for Israel, the Lord gives the nation good news of salvation.
In summary, in each of the above examples, euaggelizō (“I announce good news”) is connected with the announcement of the Lord’s mercy, salvation, or judgment. The Lord himself is present in the announcement. This means the heralds of the announcement are not simply proclaiming what the Lord will do for his people or what he will do to his enemies, but they also proclaim the Lord himself.
When the gospel of the Lord is announced, the Lord himself is there in the announcement in order to affect both the salvation and the judgment that the announcement promises. There can be no good news of salvation without the accompanying message of judgment.
The Gospel in Galatians and Ephesians
The verbal idea “I announce good news” and the noun “gospel/good news” in Paul’s letters convey the same idea as in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The difference between Isaiah and Paul is that in Galatians and in Ephesians, euaggelion (“gospel/good news”) refers to the report about the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan through Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
This redemptive plan includes the unification of Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Galatians) and the unification of all things (Ephesians) in Jesus, the Lord and Messiah, who fulfills God’s promises of salvation in Isaiah.
In no particular order, these promises of salvation include deliverance from God’s wrath (Eph. 2:1-10), new creation of Jew and Gentile as the people of God into one new humanity (Eph. 2:11-3:8; see also Isa. 65:17-25), fellow heirs of God’s promises (Eph. 2:11-22; 3:2-8; see Greek translation of Isa. 9:6; 57:19), forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7), the universal rule of Jesus Christ over all things in heaven and over the earth (Eph. 1:20-22), justification by faith because of his sacrificial death and his victorious resurrection (Eph. 1:7, 20-22; cf. Gal. 1:1-6:15), and the supernatural ability to live out what God has done for us in Christ in Spirit-empowered obedience (Eph. 4:1-6:20; Gal 5:16-21).
The noun euaggelion (“gospel/good news”) occurs seven times in Galatians (1:6-7, 11; 2:2, 5, 7, 14). The verb euaggelizō (“I announce the good news”) occurs six times in Galatians (1:8-9, 11, 16, 23; 4:13). Isaiah 40-66 influences Paul’s understanding of these gospel terms in Galatians, for he either alludes to or quotes from Isaiah throughout the letter.
Paul and Isaiah mention the redemption of sinners from the present evil age (cf. Gal. 1:4, 3:13 with Isa. 44:21; 53:1-12). Paul and Isaiah discuss righteous living/righteousness in the new covenant by means of the power of the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:16-24 with Isa 56:1-5; 60:1-22). Paul and Isaiah affirm the promise of universal salvation of Jews and Gentiles, who have faith, by means of the Messiah/Servant (cf. Gal 2:11-3:29 with Isa 49:1-26; 52:13-53:12). Paul and Isaiah speak to the importance of hearing the report/message about salvation and the importance of receiving it by faith (cf. Gal 3:2-3 with Isa 52:7; 53:1).
We can perhaps define euaggelion (“gospel/good news”) and euaggelizō (“I announce good news”) in Galatians and Ephesians as the proclamation of God’s redemptive promises of salvation revealed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
This redemptive work includes at least the following: (1) the substitutionary death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for Jews and Gentiles to deliver them from the present evil age, and from the curse of the law (Gal. 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1:7; 2:11-22), (2) God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20-23), (3) Jesus’ deliverance of sinners from the present evil age (Gal 1:4), (4) justification by faith alone in Christ alone apart from Torah-obedience/becoming Jewish (Gal. 2:16-22), (5) the abolishment of the Mosaic Law as the badge of covenant membership by means of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant through Jesus, Abraham’s promised descendant (Gal. 3:1-5:1), (6) the reception of the Spirit by faith because of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Gal. 1:1, 4; 3:13-14; Eph. 2:11-3:8), (7) the ability and freedom to live in pursuit of love because of Spirit-empowered obedience for the purpose of fulfilling the entire law (Gal 5:13-6:2; Eph 4:1-6:20), (8) new creation (Gal 6:15; Eph 2:11-22), and (9) membership into God’s new Israel for those who have identified with Jesus Christ by faith (Gal 6:16).
The above evidence leads me to conclude that the concept of gospel in two of Paul’s letters has at least two layers to it: entry language and maintenance language. First, entry language communicates to unbelievers how they can become Christians: repenting and believing by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus so that God will forgive them of their sins (Gal. 2:16-21; Rom 3:21-4:25).
Second, maintenance language focuses on living in the power of the Spirit, which is the reason Jesus died and was resurrected (Gal. 1:4; 3:14; 5:16-21; Eph. 1:4-5; 4:1-6:20). The gospel, therefore, explains to non-Christians how to become part of the people of God and to Christians how to live as the people of God.
Understanding the gospel in this way will emancipate Christians from disconnecting the gospel from the numerous social problems (e.g. racism) that represent the unredeemed, present evil age.
If evangelicals want to offer gospel solutions to the world’s problems, then we’d better understand the whole of the gospel, instead of offering incomplete definitions that lead us to turn a blind eye to various social problems of the present evil age.