What Is the Gospel? A Reformed Orthodox Perspective
By Luke Stamps
I suppose it’s safe to say that there has been a revival of interest in all things “gospel” among evangelicals in the last several years. Evangelical churches, organizations, conferences, blogs, sermons, ministries, and writings are as likely to feature the language of “gospel” as any other biblical theme. And with good reason. Our very name, evangelical, explicitly denotes our commitment to the evangel—the gospel—and all that it entails for Christian faith and life. Evangelical publishing houses have been especially interested in producing books that seek to define, recover, revisit, reclaim or rediscover the biblical gospel. These are praiseworthy endeavors. Each generation of Christian believers must reflect anew on the ancient message that is, as the apostle Paul instructed us, “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
But in our attempts to summarize the main contours of the gospel, we should remember that we are not the first generation of Christians to wrestle with this question. We are not the first Christians to consider how broad or how narrow to define “gospel.” We are not the first Christians to ask how the four Gospels relate to the one gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not the first Christians to make distinctions between the gospel and other aspects of God’s revelation.
The period of Reformed Orthodoxy (roughly 1520-1725) provided many helpful answers to this most basic Christian question: What is the gospel? The reflections of Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), one of the most significant theologians of the period, are particularly insightful in this regard. Richard Muller summarizes Polanus’s definition of the gospel like this:
After completing his analysis of the law, Polanus proceeds to a discussion of the Gospel, “that whole sum of doctrine concerning Christ, already shewn and manifested.” The Law-Gospel contrast here…manifests a concern for the historical dispensation of salvation while the discussion of Gospel and Christ together manifests the inseparability of the incarnate Word from his historical work as fulfilled in the Gospel Word. Indeed, Polanus argues a threefold meaning of evangelium [gospel]: it indicates first the historia Christi or the historical books of the disciples concerning Christ, as stated by Mark (1:1), “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Second, evangelium, Gospel, indicates generaliter [generally] the doctrine of Christ and his Apostles, and third, it indicates specialiter ac stricte [specifically and strictly] the “most blessed…work of redemption of the human race through Christ” (Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree, 133).
Several features of Polanus’s argument are especially relevant for the contemporary discussion about gospel definitions.
First, the Law-Gospel distinction most often associated with Lutheranism was no less prominent in Reformed discussions of the gospel. God’s demands must be distinguished from God’s promises. The New Covenant established by Christ is not dependent upon its members’ obedience. Instead, it is based upon the obedience of Christ, whose righteousness is freely and unconditionally given to believers in the gospel.
Second, Christ and his benefits belong together in the gospel announcement. As Muller puts it, Polanus’ discussion of the gospel “manifests the inseparability of the incarnate Word from his historical work as fulfilled in the Gospel Word.” The gospel is about Christ—his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. It is not, first and foremost, about us. At the same time, the gospel announcement includes, imbedded within it, the good news of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners. To put it in terms of systematic loci, the person of Christ cannot be separated from the work of Christ.
Third, the gospel can be defined in broader and narrower terms. The gospel can mean strictly the good news of salvation in Christ: the “most blessed…work of redemption of the human race through Christ.” But the term can also stand in for the whole of the apostolic witness: the doctrines of Christ and his Apostles set forth in the New Testament. And in yet another sense, the gospel denotes most fundamentally the story of Jesus: his life, death and resurrection as recorded in the four Gospels. Polanus exhibited a remarkable flexibility when offering a definition of the gospel. Perhaps, this example should caution contemporary evangelicals against overly restrictive definitions of the gospel. Perhaps we could avoid some needless debates by emulating Polanus’s flexibility.
Finally, and related to the previous point, Polanus rooted the good news of salvation in the historical accomplishment of Christ. The announcement of individual salvation is not abstracted from the story of Jesus. But as we saw in the second point above, neither was the story of Jesus divorced from its salvific implications. Once again, the person and work of Christ cannot be severed. Both are the subject of the apostolic gospel.
Evangelicals may choose not to follow Polanus on every point. We may seek a different answer to the question—What is the gospel?—than the one he provides. But for the sake of historical humility—and the sanctification that comes from being sharpened by other believers—we ought at least to consider carefully how he and others in the past have defined this doctrine “of first importance”: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog and also blogs at Before All Things. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.