Dr. Arnold interviews Greg Gilbert on the subject of the gospel.
Topics of conversation include:
- A definition of the term gospel
- How there can be confusion over this word as it is commonly used today
- The four key principles that make up the gospel.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He has co-authored the book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011). He is the author of Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation (Baker, 2019), as well as What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010)
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:17):
The Apostle Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 like this—”Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” Well, Paul connects the word gospel to the salvation of the Corinthians. Admittedly, gospel is a word we use a lot. In fact, it forms the basis of the word evangelical, which is the term that many Christians use to describe themselves. The gospel is that which saves people. But what is the gospel? What is it that we must believe in order to be saved? Well, this is obviously a question of great concern. God is saving sinful people. That stands at the heart of the Bible, and our eternal destinies are staked on getting the gospel right.
Brian Arnold (01:05):
And today there’s a lot of confusion about what the word means, and what the content of the gospel is. For our good and for the good of our neighbor, and ultimately for the glory of God, we must hear, believe, and pass on this gospel—that God has reconciled people to himself for thousands of years. Well, to help us understand what the gospel is, we have with us, Greg Gilbert, who is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the author of Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest In Your Salvation, coauthor of What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, and for our time together today, he is the author of What Is the Gospel? Greg, welcome to the podcast.
Greg Gilbert (01:48):
Thanks, Brian. It’s really good to be with you.
Brian Arnold (01:50):
So we always ask our guests one big question. And today is a question you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, writing about, and preaching about, and that is—what is the gospel? I can’t think of a bigger question that we can ask, as it is our hope. But that word is so overused, and, I think, under-understood as a concept. So let’s just dive right into it. How would you define the gospel?
Greg Gilbert (02:15):
Yeah, well the gospel is…I mean the word itself means good news, right? It’s sort of two old words, good and spell, which are stuck together. And you get “good word.” And the question, of course is, well, what is that good word? What’s the good news? And I think as you read the New Testament, with it’s Old Testament background, what you come up with is that the gospel of Christianity is the good news that even though we are rebels against God in our sin, and deserve to die for that rebellion against the king, instead of destroying us, God in his love and mercy and compassion, sent his son Jesus willingly, who was incarnate. He lived the life we should have lived, right from the very beginning, on our behalf. He died in our place, the death that we should have died because of our rebellion against God. And then he rose again, so that if we’re united to him by faith, then we’ll rise right along with him to newness of spiritual life and the hope of the great resurrection at the end. So that’s a short way of putting it, but I think that that just about covers it. But there’s a lot more to say.
Brian Arnold (03:20):
I think it does. It is the story. It’s the message. It’s the message we’re called to herald, especially as those called to preach, to tell people over and over again, that God is saving sinners. And it is the story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. But there’s a lot of even confusion about how the word is used today. I was actually…our men’s group kicked off an eight week series this morning at my church, and are talking about “gospel manhood.” And you see gospel used adjectivally so much these days to describe the type of ministry we want to have. What do you think about that? Do you find that a helpful way to use the word gospel? Or do you think that’s led to some of the confusion around the term today?
Greg Gilbert (04:00):
Yeah, you know, it just kind of depends on how it’s being used. I think there are certain ways that the word can be used that are…that do tend to blur its edges a little bit. So for “gospel manhood,” for instance, I would probably prefer to use “Christian manhood,” or “gospel work.” I would probably, unless I’m talking about the preaching and proclamation of the gospel itself, I’d probably want to use “Christian work” to describe that, because the thing is that the gospel is…it’s a very particular technical few sentences of proclamation that stand at the very heart of the Christian, you know, whole worldview. But there’s a lot that Christianity has to say that isn’t that gospel, right? I mean, there are implications of it, and ramifications, and there’s a whole life that flows out of the message of the gospel. But I think it’s really important that we protect the edges of it and say—the heart of our message is this right here.
Brian Arnold (04:59):
Well, and you boil that down in your book, What Is the Gospel? to some key kind of principles of what that content looks like. So let’s walk through some of those together. You begin with God. Why do you start there?
Greg Gilbert (05:13):
Yeah, well, because as I read the New Testament, as I see how the Apostles themselves wrote and talked about the gospel, as I see how the early Christians preached the gospel in the book of Acts, they always seem to organize their proclamation around four big questions or topics. And, you know, they talk about it in different ways with different words. It’s not exactly a catechism, but it always, always begins with the understanding that there is a God who created us as human beings, and that we are therefore accountable to him. So that’s where the whole story of the Bible begins. And that’s where the proclamation of the gospel begins. Because you can’t have the rest of it—there’s no sin if there’s no creator. There’s no need for redemption if there’s no sin. There’s no need for a response if there’s no good news. So the whole thing begins with an understanding that we’re accountable to God.
Brian Arnold (06:09):
Well, and the fundamental problem even of sin is that we have inserted ourselves in the place of God. So even that reorientation of beginning with—there is a God, and this God created you, he ordered you, and he commanded you. And out of that now comes our rightful response to him. And that leads to that next piece. But before we even get there, I think it’s important for us to start with God, even because we are so anthropocentric in our day, instead of theocentric. That is, we put man at the center of everything. So that even when we’re talking about things like salvation or the gospel, we’d like to see ourselves as the centerpiece, instead of rightly orienting the whole equation and saying—God is the center of all things.
Greg Gilbert (06:49):
Oh, that’s so true. Even in a lot of, you know, our popular worship songs, as we call them, they’ll be filled up with sentences in which the subject is I. Rather than you have done this, you, oh God, have done these things. So it is just critical, not just for understanding the gospel, but for understanding the universe, to make sure that, you know, not even just in words, but in actions, in worldview—it is God who is at the center of it. He was here long before we were. And we are derivative from him. We need to get that deep into our heads.
Brian Arnold (07:28):
Do you have any examples of this? You’ve got to name names, Greg. No, I’m just kidding. No, we won’t go there. That could be another podcast for another time on worship in the churches. So it’s God. God has created. God is ultimately worthy of our glory and our devotion, and then sin enters into the story. So you go from God and then to man, but as part of man, centering on the problem itself, which is sin.
Greg Gilbert (07:55):
Yeah. And part of that point, you know, the second point…if the rubric is—the shorthand is God, man, Christ, and response—you know, the first thing you’ve got to say about us as human beings is that we’re not a cosmic accident. We were created in the image of God, which, you know, has to do with our role in the cosmos of being the little statues of God in the world that are…they’re supposed to reflect his, you know, benevolent rule of the universe. That was what we were supposed to do. But then we failed to do that. In fact, we…you know, the serpent comes and speaks to Adam and Eve, and they join his rebellion. They join his declaration of war against the Creator. And that’s what plunges the whole world into trouble.
Greg Gilbert (08:42):
I think what’s important about that is for people to understand the sort of cosmic reality of sin, because I think way too many of us think of sin as just the doing of some little thing wrong. It’s like a heavenly traffic violation, right? You parked in the wrong place. You did this, you did that. When actually, sin is the human race putting its finger in God’s face and saying—we declare independence from you. You know, we don’t want to be the little kings in the cosmos. We want the high throne. And that’s exactly what Adam and Eve were doing when they reached out and ate that fruit that God told them not to eat. They were violating a divine law that was there to remind them—they don’t sit on the high throne. And they rejected that law.
Brian Arnold (09:34):
Greg, I think that’s one of the most important points you can make, is to remind people of the sinfulness of sin. That it’s not these small infractions that are being committed. It is on a cosmic level. And I think that answers part of the question of why hell itself is even eternal. Because people would say, “I live 80 years, I live a pretty decent life. I’m good to my neighbors. I work hard at work. I have a family. And then I die, but I don’t know Christ. Why would hell even be eternal?” What we’ve done is we’ve minimized sin. And I think even for people coming to our churches today, who yawn during a sermon, don’t recognize just how significant a sin against a holy God is.
Greg Gilbert (10:12):
Oh yeah. And, you know, I mean, I think the medieval theologian had it right when he said that the measure of sin is not the worth of the person who’s doing the sin—it’s the worth of the person sinned against. You know it’s one thing for, you know, a little kid to, you know, hit his…slap his little brother across the face. You know, you get in trouble for that. It’s an entirely different thing for, you know, a fully grown adult man to walk up and slap the face of his king. You know, that’s not just a wrongdoing. That’s treasonous. And so for human beings to look into the face of God, understand entirely what he required of us, and say, “We are not doing that. In fact, we’re going to do exactly the opposite, to try to throw your authority off of us.” It’s the worst kind of cosmic treason against heaven. And God would be perfectly within his rights as a king to destroy us and leave nothing left of us.
Brian Arnold (11:15):
Well, the plight is serious, and sin leaves us in such darkness. In fact, Scripture talks about us as being dead in our trespasses and sins. This is no small issue that Paul deals with in the New Testament, about how serious our condition is. And that’s what makes the gospel so glorious, is that we could not do it. We couldn’t wake ourselves up. We couldn’t dig ourselves out of the grave. We couldn’t flip the lights on, we couldn’t transfer ourselves from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. So just as people are in this point of despair—what shall I do? How can I be made right with God? God sends Jesus. So that’s the next place you turn in explaining the gospel.
Greg Gilbert (11:55):
Yeah, yeah. That’s right. So you’ve got…you know, at a certain point in Genesis 3 you have absolutely nothing but despair, right? I mean, by Genesis 3:14, everything is a wreck. I mean, there is nothing good that’s happening. The only thing good that has happened in the wake of sin is that God didn’t kill Adam and Eve immediately. That’s the only thing good, you know—that they’re still alive, right? So there’s a little flash of hope in that. It’s Genesis 3:15, though, that sets the agenda for the whole rest of the biblical story. And it’s just like a bolt of lightning into the cataclysm, where God essentially says, “I’m going to send another king, Adam, to do what you should’ve done. So when the serpent came to you at that tree, your job, as you know, the one who has dominion over the cosmos under me, your job was to crush the serpent’s head and cast him out of the garden. That’s what you should have done when he asked you to declare war on me. You didn’t do it.” So Genesis 3:15, “One day, I’m going to send another king who will do what you failed to do.” And then you get, you know, thousands of years of sort of prep. But in Matthew 1, there he is, right? He’s here. Finally, the king has come.
Brian Arnold (13:11):
That’s right. I actually want to read that text for listeners who may not know what Genesis 3:15 is. God is saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman.” He’s speaking to Satan, he’s speaking to the serpent, “and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” This, most theologians think, is referring thousands of years into history at the cross of Christ, where Satan thinks he’s triumphed over God. And then the resurrection. Three days later, Jesus walks out of the tomb, takes back the keys of death and Hades, and signals his triumph over those things. That he actually has come as the promised Messiah to save people from sins.
Greg Gilbert (13:53):
Well, and you see that rubric play out, you know, throughout the Bible. The promise in Genesis 3:15 is in view through the entire—you know, more or less at times—but it is in view through the entire rest of the storyline of the Bible. It’s a critical verse.
Brian Arnold (14:07):
That’s right. And the whole Bible fits together this way. So I actually want to…before we go to response, I want to ask you about another work that came out a couple of years after yours. It was Matt Chandler’s Explicit Gospel. I’m sure you’re familiar with that?
Greg Gilbert (14:19):
Yeah, I am. I never read it cover to cover, but I’m familiar with the sort of rubric that he uses, between gospel on the ground, gospel in the air, I think it was.
Brian Arnold (14:29):
That’s right. So I think he would say your approach is kind of the gospel on the ground. It is that nitty-gritty, I’m sharing the gospel with somebody…my background was Campus Crusade for Christ, and so the four laws were how we lived. Right? God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, we cannot know God’s love and plan for his life. And then the next two laws, right? As a way to say, God, man, Christ, response—of how do I share the gospel with someone where they can hear it, be confronted with their sin, see crisis-solution, and respond to him by faith? But there have been other people who are saying…and I think what I really appreciate about Chandler, as well, is seeing the gospel on the ground is that, and the gospel in the air as kind of that creation, fall, redemption, recreation. It’s almost like the gospel on the ground—God, man, Christ, response—is like a systematic theology approach to the question of the gospel, whereas, creation, fall, redemption recreation—or some people will say, consummation—is the gospel in the air. Do you find that a helpful way to kind of work alongside your model?
Greg Gilbert (15:35):
Yeah, the only thing that I don’t…the only thing that I would say I’m not thrilled about, and I don’t know if I’ve had a conversation with Matt about this or not, but it seems to me that to talk about one being on the ground and one in the air just separates them too much. Where I would say…you know, I would use more of a rubric that, you know…the sort of command to respond to Christ in faith, you know, because he’s lived for you, died for you, all the rest of it. I would rather kind of say that that is the gate, or the fountainhead, or, you know, like to use Pilgrim’s Progress image—it’s sort of the Wicket Gate into the whole story of the rest of, you know, the gospel writ large.
Greg Gilbert (16:19):
So I, you know, as I…when I look at the New Testament, I’ve written about this in a couple of places…Mission to the Church is one place I wrote about this. It looks to me like the New Testament authors will sometimes use the word gospel using a kind of a wide angle lens. And it pulls in all the promises that God makes and fulfills, based on what Jesus did for his people in his life, death, and resurrection. And they’ll call that whole complex of things gospel. There are other places in the New Testament though, where they don’t use it as a wide angle lens like that. They use a zoom lens, and they will call it gospel. Just the fact that individuals human beings are saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But what they’ll never do is sort of like say that the gospel is some promise out there in the wide angle, right? They’ll never say the gospel is the new heavens and new earth, or the gospel is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. They never do that. It’s always founded on and sort of…you know, the cross and the resurrection, or the fountainhead from which everything else springs. And so I just wouldn’t want to put any separation between those two things. And I just worry that that image of air and ground, it puts a lot of distance between the air and the ground, right? So I wouldn’t want to do that.
Brian Arnold (17:47):
I agree you. I think what we’re seeing today happens so often is people are saying that what you said in Christ, what is the gospel is, that it’s too truncated of a view, but salvation is so much bigger than that. The gospel is so much bigger than that. And instead of seeing this really comes down to—you’re going to stand before God one day, have you accepted Christ as the Savior and substitute for your sins or not? Right? Where the gospel expands, like you said, to Jew-Gentile relations, not as an implication of the gospel, but as the gospel itself. I’ve started hearing language like that. And there seems to be a lot of confusion of these categories. And I think it comes when people say there’s a big, broad story that God is telling here, but they never actually narrow in the lens and focus in on it. That’s a place where I see confusion in the church today.
Greg Gilbert (18:38):
Oh, I do too. Absolutely. People will grab all kinds of things that are very Christian. And not even like put them into the gospel, alongside the other important things, but even talk about those things as if they are the point of the gospel. And once you start doing that, my goodness, you’re on a really bad and fast road.
Brian Arnold (18:58):
I think so. I’m going to take…I tell my classes, I don’t do rabbit trails. I do wisdom trails. So I want to take a brief wisdom trail on this. I think Ephesians 2:1-10 is the greatest explanation of the gospel in Scripture. Just encapsulating that death in our sins, but God makes us alive in Christ. We’re saved by grace, through faith, and now we’re set apart to do good works. And then you get that next section of 11-19, where it is the wall of hostility is being knocked down between Jews and Gentiles, God destroying them, building the church. But that therefore at the beginning of that seems to be missing so often. And these are conflated into identical things, instead of saying that the groundwork that’s laid for us to come into a right relationship with God is the basis from then which we build these more horizontal relationships.
Greg Gilbert (19:49):
Yeah. And you can see at the beginning of verse 11, you can see the hinge in Paul’s mind when he moves from sort of the heart of the gospel into an implication, a ramification of it with that word, therefore, right? He’s gotten a message of the gospel in 1-10, and then he says therefore—in other words, because of that—here’s what happens between Jews and Gentiles.
Brian Arnold (20:15):
Right. Okay. Let’s get back to kind of that main structure that we were working with—God, man, Christ, and then we’ll go to response. Before we get there, another question that I would have for you is we talk about Christ and his work. A lot of people today seem to go straight from God to Christ, missing the sin piece, and saying it’s the love of God that we should be using. Now, I grew up in an era where it was…you know, begin with plight, move to solution. Start with the law, take them to the gospel. Go to Mount Sinai before you take it to Mount Calvary. Do you think people are missing that step in between there? And what advice would you say to people who say, you know, don’t take him to sin. That’s going to alienate them from the gospel.
Greg Gilbert (20:56):
Yeah. Well, I mean, what…you know, how often do I see that happening? I see it happening a lot. Sometimes by accident, you know, and sometimes deliberately. But yeah, to the point that talking about sin is going to alienate them from the gospel, I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think that if you’re offering people a solution to a problem they don’t think they have, they’re going to be alienated from your solution. Telemarketers do that to me literally all the time. Right? And, you know, unless they create in my mind a sense of the problem that I have, I’m not going to buy their product, and I’m not going to be interested in it. But when you talk about sin, and, you know…I mean Jesus says that the Holy Spirit comes to convict men of sin, righteousness and unrighteousness, and judgment. Right? That’s what he does. That sense of sin and guilt is what creates the sort of atmosphere which the Holy Spirit then miraculously kind of ignites on fire to bring somebody to faith. So it’s critical. And I think it’s actually the opposite of alienating people. I think it makes them want the solution.
Brian Arnold (22:03):
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that next step then. Bringing somebody to faith at this point of response. How do you even typically do that as a pastor, whether individually or congregationally, bring people to that place where you say—this is the gospel, it is set before you, choose you this day whom you will serve?
Greg Gilbert (22:20):
Yeah, well, you know, I mean, very straightforwardly, I’ll just, you know…every sermon at Third Avenue I’ll preach the gospel. I’ll tell about Jesus’s person and work, and then I’ll call them to belief. You know, just like Jesus and the Apostles did. You need to believe. You know, I know that there’s theological machinery underneath that and behind it. I know that. But I don’t need to…I don’t explain that every single time. Sometimes I do, if it’s in the text and it, you know, it raises the questions. But, you know, at the point of becoming a Christian, to the person who’s becoming a Christian, it…you’re making a choice to believe in Jesus. You know, you’re jumping off the cliff and saying, “Jesus, if you don’t catch me, I’m done.” And so I just call people to believe in Christ and repent of your sins, and, you know, eventually be baptized.
Brian Arnold (23:11):
That’s right. And then they can learn about the theological machinery underneath that over time as they’re discipled in the church. But I agree. I mean, these are oftentimes this moment where the sinner’s eyes are awakened, and they see themselves in their true condition, and Christ is so beautiful to them that they can’t not but respond to it.
Greg Gilbert (23:28):
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, and even when I explain the sort of theological underpinnings of conversion, even when I do that in a sermon, I will always say to non-Christians—look, you can learn more about that. It’s not a secret, right? There’s just a lot to learn, but, you know, if the Lord is working on your heart, and you feel your heart coming to life, the thing to do is not try to figure out right now how that happened. How did you get alive in your tomb? The thing to do is breathe, take a breath of faith, and come out of the tomb. And then we can talk about how it happened, right? But the thing to do right now is believe in Christ.
Brian Arnold (24:08):
Absolutely. The house is on fire—run out, and we can talk about how the stairs were built later. Right? Well, amen, Greg. I think that’s really helpful. I think you’ve set forward just the beauty of the gospel, this message that God is telling from the first pages of Genesis. That we are created in his image. We’re created to have this relationship and fellowship with him. That’s broken through our sinfulness. And the rest of the Bible is telling the story of how he’s going to send his Rescuer, his Redeemer, his own Son, Jesus Christ. Who lives the perfect life, who dies the death that we deserve, three days later comes out from the tomb, ascends on high, he’s coming back again. And until that time, to take this message into the world—of God saving sinners. And reminding them that it’s God who is holy, man who is sinful, Christ who has redeemed, and response that’s necessary from us all. Greg, thank you so much for laying that out for us today.
Greg Gilbert (24:59):
Yeah, you’re welcome.
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