There are times in the Church when we want to define something rather easily and simply so as to make it memorable and easy to grasp. But in so doing, we run the risk of doing harm to its deeper, richer, and more accurate meaning.
I wonder if we have not done this with the word “gospel.” Most of us have been trained to define the word “gospel” as “good news.” Clearly there is good news in the Gospels and, by extension, the whole of the New Testament. However, as we shall see, “good news” as a definition falls short of what the term actually means.
Further, in our current cultural setting, the way in which many hear the phrase “good news” also creates, I would argue, a false impression that all Scriptures are pleasant, happy, cheerful, consoling, and so forth. But the Scriptures are not all in this mode of “good.” Many of the Scriptures challenge, provoke, and even trouble and strike fear.
Yet, because “good news” has become an interpretive key of sorts, many thus filter what they see, hear, and preach of the Scriptures. If something does not come across as good news, does not fit into the template of being cheerful and consoling, it is either recast with a twisted interpretation, or it is sometimes wholly set aside. For example, the Lord Jesus often issues fierce messages against sin and unbelief, warns about judgment and Hell, and insists that we follow Him unreservedly, even if this means accepting the Cross, the hatred of the world, or the loss of relationship with certain family members. But because such logia of Jesus Himself do not fit the modern concept of “good news,” such strong statements are too easily set aside by many as not sounding like “the Jesus they know.”
Thus, the common definition of gospel as “good news” tends to be a poor template by which to understand the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It makes people averse to the harder sayings of Jesus, even dismissive of them. A woman once remarked to a priest I know who had preached on a difficult topic, “Now, Father, I come to Church expecting to hear something uplifting and encouragement from you. But I did not hear that today from you.”
What then is the fuller and richer understanding of the word “gospel”? Pope Benedict addressed this topic well in Volume I of Jesus of Nazareth:
“The Evangelists designate Jesus’ preaching with the Greek term Evangelion. But what does this term actually mean? The term has recently been translated as ‘good news.’ That sounds attractive, but it falls far short of the order of magnitude of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world. The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful or pleasant . The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a changing of the world for the better. “When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform. Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action (Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1 pp. 46-47).
Therefore note some qualities of the term “gospel” and of the nature of God’s Word:
1. The term is not necessarily indicative of something pleasant or happy. It originally referred to the utterance of an emperor, even if the content was not particularly pleasant. For example an “evangelion” might announce an increase in taxes or the summoning of an army. In God’s Word, the Gospel might include promises of salvation, offers of forgiveness, and blessings. But it might also include the teachings on the need for repentance, on the requirement to take up a cross, on accepting that we may well be hated, and on the fact that judgment is looming.
2. The emphasis of the word “evangelion” was that it had authority behind it, authority capable of changing your life. Thus if the emperor announced that he was paving a nearby road, or raising taxes, or summoning men to arms, or declaring a holiday—whatever the message contained, you knew your life was going to change, perhaps dramatically, due to the emperor’s authority. With the Word of God, too, there is declared in the term “gospel,” the truth that when God speaks, His Word has the power to change your life, either by conferring great blessings, or by announcing more challenging things (such as the fact that the day of judgment is looming for us all, or that certain of our behaviors are not acceptable for membership in the Kingdom).
3. The Gospel is not merely noetic (informative); it is dynamic (transformative). God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Thus when God says “Be holy,” His words contain the actual power to effect what they announce, provided we receive them in faith.
4. The Gospel is no mere written word. The Gospel is Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. Therefore the Gospel saves all who receive it (Him) with faith and heed its warnings and teachings with the obedience of faith.
Thus, the term “gospel” means more than “good news.” And given our cultural setting and its presuppositions related to the word “good,” the notion that “gospel = good news” can be downright misleading. It is better and richer to understand the term “gospel” to refer to the life-changing and transformative utterance of God, which is able to save us if we obey its demands in faith. It is in fact Jesus Himself who is the Word made Flesh. Perhaps this is less memorable, but it is more true and less misleading.