What Exactly Is “The Gospel”?


“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature,” Jesus tells us in Mark 16:15. Are you obeying His command?

“Gospel” is a word that most of us have heard countless times in our lives, but which few can readily define. The Greek word for “gospel” (evangelion) is essentially translated “good news”. But what does that mean? The label “good news” is a little like the label “nice”. It doesn’t offer much in the way of substantive detail. “Good news! I just saved fifteen percent on my car insurance by switching to GEICO.” “Good news! The stock market went up five hundred points today.” “Good news! My favorite brand of ice cream is on sale.”

Or is “good news” of a far more substantial sort? What sort of “good news” are we referring to exactly when we speak of “the gospel”?

The Gospel – All of It

Those who hang out in Protestant circles probably have a quick, easy description of the gospel: That Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

That is not untrue – but also not the whole story.

Jesus did not take on human flesh merely as a substitution for the rest of us. It’s not as if He suffered and struggled so that we could avoid suffering, but rather, so that we could embrace suffering with Him. As Romans 8:3-4 puts it, “ For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so [Jesus overcame] sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

In largely scriptural form, the full gospel is as follows:

“God is love, and he who lives in love lives in God” (1 John 4:16). God loves everyone without condition and with abandon. He doesn’t play favorites (Romans 2:11).

However, all have fallen victim to sin and are deprived, in and of themselves, of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

“But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

“So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

“So I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance…” (Ephesians 4:17-18).

“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

“Therefore, brothers, be all the more eager to make your call and election firm, for, in doing so, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10).

“My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).

“If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:8-9).

“Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). Whoever eats Jesus’ flesh (in sacramental form, obviously) and drinks his blood has life in them (John 6:53-55). And not merely a life of their own, but one intimately connected to all the baptized, who are a part of one very large family that is always looking out for each other through prayer – whether on this side of Heaven or the other (Matthew 17:1-8; Hebrews 12:1).

It’s Not Complicated

I think one of the reasons we tend not to pay much attention to Jesus’ admonition to proclaim the gospel to every creature is that we over complicate the task. We think we need a PhD or a Masters degree in order to share the faith with others, which is not at all true.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, so there is more than one way share the gospel. Here is a second version for those not so biblically inclined:

Life has authentic and lasting meaning because God is real and is perfectly good and is the source of it all. He is love. Human beings are good because they were created by God and are called to be united to Him in perfect love forever. (“Good news” indeed!) But love is inherently free. We must freely choose to love as long as we are on this earth, or suffer the natural consequences of not doing so. We will reap what we sow. If we choose to sow love, we will be perfectly fulfilled by Love Itself for all eternity. If we choose instead to reject the path of loving God and others, we will quite literally be burned by love for all eternity.

The challenging news is that true love is a deep and intensive endeavor. Because of a really bad choice by the first human beings, love is not something we can now accomplish on our own. The good news, though, is that God, of course, is well aware of this and has sent His Son in human flesh to re-enable us to love Him and others through prayer, the sacraments, and sacrificial actions. This path, through Christ’s life, is the only way. There is no other Name or plan by which human beings can be saved from our plight.

Are You Useful to Yourself?

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Laity had this to say of every Catholic’s call to spread the gospel:

The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate.

Indeed, the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact that the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself. (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1, 2)

This is an interesting way of looking at the Christian life, is it not? What the Church is telling you is that the purpose for your life, the very reason for your existence, is to manifest God’s presence to the world, to make Him and His ways better known. To the extent that we neglect this purpose, we are not merely failing to do God’s will in an “external” sense, but are not doing our own selves any favors in the process. Apart from God’s will, we are and have nothing of any actual value.

Make no mistake. The work of evangelizing, of “proclaiming the gospel” to the world is largely the task of the laity, not of the clergy. According to our Catechism,

Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 899)

God is real. He is love, beauty, truth, and life to perfection. And we the lay men and women of the Church have both the duty and privilege of making this gospel better and better known both by our words and actions until it, with the Second Coming of Christ, conquers the entire earth – which God has guaranteed us it will one day do.

For my money, I’d say that’s very, very “good news” indeed!

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