Some might see this title and say that it doesn’t matter how you define the gospel so long as the person sharing the gospel encourages the hearer to “believe Jesus.” That claim has a good motive; it expresses a desire to not over-think the conversation or burden it with many words. It is possible to over-complicate an explanation of the gospel and do harm. But a claim that “believe Jesus” expresses the essentials of saving faith is also dysfunctional. We can do harm by over-simplifying the gospel message to the point that it is no longer the gospel at all. Defining what constitutes the gospel message is a faithful task that honors God and demonstrates love for our neighbor. What is necessary to understand the gospel? What are the essentials of saving faith?
When presenting a summary of the gospel, I prefer to state that it is salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That summary does not stand on its own as sufficiently descriptive of the gospel, but it does provide an appropriate outline of the gospel. In that summary, which is based on Ephesians 2:1-9 (and especially verse 8), we have the four basic and necessary components of the gospel: (1) salvation (2) by grace (3) through faith (4) in Christ. I hope to show in this post that those four components contain the necessary elements of a gospel presentation for witnessing. I will use Ephesians 2:1-9 and Romans 3:21-26 as case studies to trace each component.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1-9 ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)
First, by saying that the gospel is a message of salvation, it implies that there is a God who is Creator, Ruler, and Judge. We need salvation because we have sinned against a holy God and we deserve the wrath of God. All of humanity finds itself in this desperately lost condition. Ephesians 2 deals with this in verses 1-3: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins…and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Romans 3:23 addresses this as well.
Second, and more obviously, by saying that the gospel is a message of salvation, hope is introduced. We are lost, we are dead, we need saving; the gospel is the message of rescue and reconciliation. Ephesians 2:1-3 also introduces this hope as it states that the believer was dead and was and object of wrath. Romans 3:21 addresses this by stating that the gospel is the manifestation of God’s (imputed) righteousness.
In Christ: Salvation is in Christ Alone
Salvation is possible, but how are we saved? Christ is the one who saves. A message of saving faith must adequately explain how the object of our faith—Christ—is qualified to save. Specifically, such an explanation should explain the person of Christ (the sinless Son of God), his work of penal substitutionary atonement (died on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for sin), and the confirmation of successful propitiation (that he rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures). Ephesians 2 lightly touches on the qualification of Christ to save in verses 5 and 6 by looking mostly to his resurrection. Romans 3:24-25 definitively states that Jesus is qualified to save: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood…”
By Grace: Christ Offers the Gift of Salvation on the Grounds of Grace Alone
Salvation is in Christ alone and we know that he has purchased it, but what are the grounds; why are we saved? We are saved by grace; salvation belongs to Christ and he offers it freely with no regard to works. We are not the recipients of salvation because we have coaxed God or endeared ourselves to him. Ephesians 2:4, 7-9 expresses this culminating in “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Romans 3:24 makes the definition of grace clear; it is a gift. Verses 27 and 28 go on to further the point.
Through Faith: Faith is the Only Instrument for Dispensing the Gift of Salvation
If the grounds of salvation are only grace, how is the gift received? Is it universally applied to humanity whether we are aware of it or not? No, the gift of salvation is mediated by faith. Faith is recognizing that we are dead in our sin and that our only hope is believing Jesus, what he says, and trusting what he has done to save us. We are to have faith in the person and work of Jesus as well as the confirmation of successful propitiation in the resurrection of Christ. Ephesians 2:8 indicates that salvation is mediated through faith. Romans 3:21,25 make it plain that faith in the person and work of Christ is the only means of receiving salvation: “…righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…[justification occurs] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
I contend that (1) salvation (2) by grace (3) through faith (4) in Christ and the underlying detail form a complete definition of the gospel for the purpose of witnessing.
- I don’t think that it is necessary that a gospel presentation be arranged into four components in order to contain all the necessary elements of a gospel presentation. The four components I have outlined are used merely to organize the underlying detail. For example, some organize the essentials of saving faith into five categories: (1) Jesus Christ; (2) the Son of God who died and rose again; (3) to pay one’s personal penalty for sin; (4) gives eternal life to all who trust Him; and (5) Him alone for it. I agree with the categories and the underlying detail. Jimmy Stallard, Professor at Baptist Bible Seminary and Pastor, describes the essentials of the gospel in four main categories: (1) the gospel of grace; not by works, the lost condition of mankind, Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, and the reality (and impact) of the resurrection. So, any difference in identifying these four components is not an indication of disagreement in what constitutes the essential gospel, but rather diverse arrangements of summary that convey the same essential detail.
- While not a component of the gospel message, a complete gospel presentation should include an encouragement for the hearer to turn from their sin, turn to Christ in faith, and confess Christ as savior.
- Although this point is slightly out of scope for this topic, I think it worthwhile to consider: there are truths that—while not essential to understand and affirm in order to have saving faith—will result in damage to or distortion of the gospel if contradicted. Examples of such truths would be: the doctrine of the Trinity; the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture; the incarnation of Christ; and the hypostatic union.