For many of us, particularly those of us that have grown up within Evangelical circles, the question seems almost absurdly simple. The Gospel is the “good news,” of course!
Good news, you say? Good news about what? Good news for whom? Is it good news for everyone? And if so, why is it not always seen as “good” by those on the receiving end of the “news?”
Over the past ten years, I have spent a great deal of time working with young Evangelicals, the majority of whom were almost entirely incapable of answering the question I have just posed to you. Indeed, when faced with this question, many would simply stare back at me with perplexed looks, as if to say, “Good question. I’ve never thought about that before.”
Towards an Answer:
The path to answering our question is ultimately best traveled through the pages of Scripture itself. For if the Gospel truly is the core of what makes the Christian faith distinctive, than it stands to reason that the earliest recorded sermons found in the Acts of the Apostles should in some way attempt to capture and relay that core. Now for the sake of your own personal learning, I would like to suggest that you read the book of Acts in its entirety before you continue with this exercise. Once you have finished that – and it really shouldn’t take you much longer than 45 minutes or so – I would then like for you to carefully re-read the following passages: Acts 2:14-40; Acts 3: 12-26; Acts 4:8-12; Acts 5:29-32; Acts 10:34-43 and, finally, Acts 13:16-41.
To aid you in your study, I have included a helpful chart – Gospel Exercise – that you can print off to keep track of your findings. In that chart, you will see a list of 27 propositional claims that are found in these narrative passages. Each time you encounter a claim in the passage you are reading, simply make a tally mark next to it in the appropriate column. As you work your way through the passages, you should see that certain claims are repeated more often then others, forming what scholars call the “primitive Christian kerygma,” or, for the purposes of our discussion, the core of the Gospel message itself.
I will now release you to your reading; and we can pick up our conversation once you have finished.
Now that you have completed your inductive study, we can move forward with our discussion. We will start first with what is present in the core kerygma, before moving on to a discussion as to what is not present. As you can see, the two most common features found in the earliest sermons are the following assertions:
(1) “You killed Jesus” or “Jesus died,” and
(2) “God raised Jesus from the dead.”
So above any and all other considerations, at the very heart of the Gospel message is the idea that Jesus has died and that Jesus has been resurrected unto life by the Father. This, of course, flies in the face of the common Evangelical telling of the Gospel in two significant ways. First, many modern tellings of the Gospel often require only a dead Messiah who has paid for my individual sins with His life, all the while pushing the resurrection to the back burner. In other words, in many Evangelical re-tellings of the Gospel, the resurrection is disconnected from the core of the Gospel itself, and is unceremoniously reduced to function as little more than a dramatic “proof” that Jesus was the Son of God. Secondly, the earliest sermons in Acts record that it was the Father who raised Jesus from the dead, which is another way of affirming that the Gospel – and even salvation itself – is ultimately marked by the uniqueness of Trinitarian theology. Sadly, many contemporary Evangelicals have been tragically mislead into believing that the Trinity is a nothing more than a theological peculiarity that is too difficult to grasp, and thus not worthy of our sustained attention or study. But here, in the earliest accounts of the Gospel announcement, the Trinity is at the forefront of the discussion and it is central to understanding what has occurred.
Now, returning to the findings that we have recorded in our charts, we see another group of four assertions that do not occur as frequently as the two assertions mentioned above, but still occur with far greater frequency than anything else mentioned in the sermons. They are as follows:
(3) “You should repent,”
(4) “You will be forgiven,”
(5) “We are witnesses,” and
(6) “This is the promised age.”
Let us briefly take a look at these four items before turning our attention to that which was not widely discussed in the early sermons. The first two items will come as no surprise to the average Evangelical, for they have been perhaps the most central feature of the salvific message as we have historically understood it. But the later two features are not nearly as common in the Evangelical telling of the Gospel. First, there is the issue of bearing “witness.” Here, the term for “witness” is not to be understood as a personal recounting of what “God is doing in my life,” but rather as a legal term in which one is called upon to testify to the facts of the case. In other words, the “witness” that is proclaimed is not subjectively rooted in the emotions and the life experience of the individual believer, but rather, it is rooted in the objective nature of what God has done through Jesus the Christ. Put more simply, the witness of Jesus Christ looks nothing like what most of us have seen when someone has “witnessed” to us.
“Oh, I was so lost before I met Jesus. I was sleeping around with my neighbor’s wife, drinking too much, spending money on whatever would satisfy my cravings, and so on and so forth. But then my co-worker told me about Jesus, and I just knew that He was the answer to my real needs. And ever since I asked Him into my heart, He has been so faithful to me. I have a personal relationship with Him now! And my wife – my wife forgave me! Because she could see the change in me; and now I am just so happy. And I want you to have Jesus too.”
This kind of “witnessing” – the kind of “witnessing” that is all too common in the Evangelical world – is not the kind of “witnessing” that the Apostles are talking about in these early sermons. This kind of “witnessing” puts our lives at the center of the story, as if our life had the power to affect change in others. It’s a dangerously subjective re-telling of the Gospel that leaves our listeners open and vulnerable to soul-crushing disillusionment when our lives fail to live up to their expectations. This is the kind of “witnessing” that leaves us open to charges of hypocrisy. And it is most decidedly not the kind of “witness” that is in view in these early sermons.
Having said that, we can now move on to the final core feature of “primitive Christian kerygma.” As you saw in your study, on par with the idea that one needed to repent and be forgiven, was the idea that in Christ, the “promised age” had arrived. In other words, central to the Gospel message is the idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises made to Israel. But in all but the most rare of circumstances, the modern re-telling of the Gospel makes little use of the Old Testament save for brief references to “the Fall” and a smattering of prophetic passages that “prove” that Jesus was the Son of God. Other than that, the Hebrew Scriptures are generally reduced to morality tales, fit only to explain how Christians ought or ought not to live. But in the Apostles’ early tellings of the Gospel, Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel is central to the Gospel itself. In other words, salvation is not something new that God is doing now that His first plan has clearly failed. Salvation in Christ is the culmination of the salvation that was brought first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, as God worked His mission to restore and reclaim the entire world. And thus, salvation is a corporate, communal project that is far more expansive than the work that God is doing in the life of the individual.
What do you think, reader? What features did you expect to see as being central to the Gospel message; and what has lead you to expect these features?
 This exercise is derived from the work of John Howard Yoder in his Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method.
 For the purposes of this blog post, the final three columns in the chart will not be used.