In February of 2005 I did a post called "What is the Gospel?" and I thought I would mention that to you in light of some recent discussions on the topic.
It started with a question from C. J. Mahaney on the Together for the Gospel Blog. Mark Dever answers:
So there it is--the gospel is about our holy and loving God, creator and judge, His creation of us in His image, our sin against Him, His amazing provision of us in Christ, whose life, death and resurrection was for us. He then calls all who hear this message to turn away from their sins and trust in Christ alone for forgiveness of sins, restoration of a relationship with God, and even adoption as His children, now and forever!
Mark Lauterbach at Gospel Driven Life offers seven elements of the gospel we all ought to be able to agree upon. He also recounts a conversation between Charles Simeon and John Wesley that is very helpful. (Hat Tip - John Schroeder)
But, as is often the case, I think Joe Carter at Evangelcal Outpost comes through with the wisest words on this. And of course I think his words are the wisest because they are most in line with my own thinking!
What is the gospel? The gospel--the "good news"--is news about Jesus Christ.
What is the most serious threat to the gospel in the evangelical church today? The church’s simplism of the gospel; narrowing the aboutness of Christ in order to make it presentable in a way that is formulaic and manageable.
For example, biblical passages such as John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:4-6 are often referred to as “the gospel in a nutshell.” By referring to these verses we can provide a simple summation of the “gospel”, allowing us to “witness” to those with short-attention spans. But as life-altering, world-shatteringly important as those verses are—and I cannot overemphasize just how good that news is for us---the gospel cannot be squeezed into a “nutshell.”
Indeed, the entire universe is not large enough to contain the good news about Jesus! The gospel is more than just news for fallen man. Even if there were no anthropos or no cosmos the seraphim would still proclaim the good news about Christ. The gospel is greater than just the redemption of fallen human nature, greater than the redemption of all creation. The gospel is not about me and it is not about you. The gospel is the news in toto about the Savior, Redeemer, and Sustainer of creation: Jesus Christ.
The most serious threat to the gospel is, therefore, the attempts to limit the gospel about Jesus to a propositional truth, to a narrative, to a story, to a verse, a book, to a Bible, or to a million other “nutshells.” True, the gospel is contained in all of those forms. But any attempt to share the gospel that does not proceed from “the gospel is…” to “but the gospel is also…” is simply inadequate. Even if we were able to proclaim all the news that is contained in those nutshells, though, it would not exhaust the good news about Christ.
Joe hits a home run with those words. In my own post, referenced above, I suggested that we ought to think of all of these gospel summaries we commonly use, like EE, Four Spiritual Laws, Romans Road, Way of the Master, etc., as pedagogical devices something akin to summaries of people and events you might find in junior high history textbooks or encyclopedias. They are valuable, they contain truth and they can communicate enough information to familiarize you with the subject, to some small degree.
But there is a world of difference between an encyclopedia entry on George Washington and a full biography of George Washhington. Similarly, the greatest value of these gospel summaries is in their ability to point people to the full gospel contained in the pages of Scripture.
I think our forefathers were wise in calling the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the "gospels." The whole of those books contain the gospel. If someone wants to know what the gospel is, it is entirely appropriate to hand them a Bible and to tell them to start reading the book of Matthew and keep reading through the book of John - then they will understand the gospel because then they will have read the story of Jesus, which is the gospel.
But having done that they will not have exhausted the knowledge of the gospel - they need to keep reading through the book of Acts epistles which explain and apply the gospel. But having read through the epistles they will still not have exhausted the gospel, they need to go back and read through the Old Testament to understand more and more of the gospel.
The thing that is always difficult in these discussions of "what is the gospel?" is the presuppositions we bring to the discussion. As Joe intimates, the thing that is often presupposed, but not stated, in the question "what is the gospel?" is "what is the best formula?" Is it EE or the Four Spiritual Laws, etc? Also, it is usually presupposed that the gospel will be shared in a single encounter.
Often a single encounter is all you have so you have to share as much of the gospel as you can. But in the Bible evangelism usually takes place over many encounters, and snippets of the gospel are given at a time. One of my favorite books on a theology of evangelism is Conversion in the New Testament by Richard V. Peace, and he suggests that the gospels are more properly the story of the evangelism of the apostles. With that in mind he points out that the evangelistic process took three years and included many different facets including teaching, conversation, story-telling, example, community, etc.. The gospel wasn't reduced to a formula.
In short, the gospel is a big story, it is the whole story of God's work of redemption of His people through the work of His Son Jesus Christ.