There's a lot of discussion taking place regarding the essence of the Gospel. People are asking questions like "What is the center of the Gospel?" and "Can (or should) the essence of the Gospel be distinguished from its implications?" Some insist the gospel is just the message of Christ's substitutionary atonement and that anything else is an "entailment" or a "result." However, the Bible says the essence of the Gospel is bigger than this.
For instance, in Romans 2:16 Paul says that Christ coming to judge and put the world to rights is part of his gospel. And in Acts 13:32 Paul says that the good news includes the fact that in Christ, the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled. But perhaps the most explicit places where the fullness of the Gospel's essence is seen is in Mark 1:14-15 and Luke 16:16, where Jesus defines the gospel as the coming of the kingdom of God which includes the restoration of all things. In other words, the Gospel is certainly not less than Christ's atoning work on the cross work, but it is more.
As I've come to understand it, the Gospel is the good news that God's Kingdom has come from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus. This includes all he accomplished by living a perfect life (fullfilling the law–what theologians call his active obedience), all he accomplished by his substitutionary death on the cross (breaking the curse of sin and absorbing the Father's wrath–what theologians call his passive obedience) and all he accomplished by being raised from the dead (conquering death and thereby guaranteeing the eventual renewal of all things).
In other words, Christ's life by itself is not the center of the Gospel, the cross by itself is not the center of the Gospel, and the resurrection by itself is not the center of the Gospel. Anyone of these without the other two fails to bring about redemption. In a sense, you could say the Gospel has a tri-centrality to it. So, we don't have to choose between parts of Christ's finished work as being the center of the Gospel. It's much more theologically accurate to say that Christ himself (his life, death, and resurrection) is the center of the Gospel.
I think this is basically what Tim Keller is getting at when he says the center of the One Gospel is incarnation, substitution, and restoration. Not one. All three. He puts it like this:
In the person of Jesus, God emptied himself of his glory and became human (incarnation). Through the work of Jesus God substituted himself for us and atoned for our sin, by grace, bringing us into fellowship with him in the church (substitution). At the return of Jesus, God will restore creation and make a new world in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever (restoration).
I like that.
As I was discussing this with a friend of mine, he shared these helpful insights:
I agree that the essence of evangelism is calling people to repent and believe. What some today are rightly concerned about is that many younger folks are saying that rehabbing houses and feeding the poor is just as much 'proclaiming the gospel' as verbal communication. If you study the Biblical texts, 'preaching the gospel' is almost always a verbal call to repent and be converted. And I think some today are rightly afraid that simply helping make the world a better place (like in mainline Christianity) will become identical to 'living out the gospel' or 'preaching the gospel.'
But its another thing to say that the gospel content –the good news of what Jesus has accomplished–is only that our individual souls are saved and not that the world is going to be renewed. The good news of the Gospel includes our sins being forgiven and that we are finally going to be given a new heavens and new earth. We must be careful not to imply that some of the benefits of the cross are good news (like pardon and justification) and some are not (like resurrection, restoration of the world, home.) Or, that one is more important than the other. Or, that one is the essence of the Gospel and the other only an implication.
Jesus is the divine curse-remover and creation-renewer. Christ's law-fulfilling life qualified him alone to be our substitute (which is why I often say that we are not saved apart from the law–rather we are saved in Christ who perfectly kept the law for us). Christ's substitutionary death on the cross broke the curse of sin and death brought on by Adam's cosmic rebellion. And his bodily resurrection from the dead three days later dealt death its final blow, guaranteeing the eventual renewal of all things "in Christ."
The tri-fold dimensions of Christ's finished work, then, are both individual and cosmic. They range from personal pardon for sin and individual forgiveness to the final resurrection of our bodies and the restoration of the whole world. Now that's good news-gospel-isn't it? If we place our trust in the finished work of Christ, sin's curse will lose its grip on us individually and we will one day be given a renewed creation. The gospel isn't only about reestablishing a two-way relationship between God and us; it also restores a three-way relationship among God, his people, and the created order. Through Christ's work, our relationship with God is restored while creation itself is renewed. This is what theologians mean when they talk about redemption. They're describing this profound, far-reaching work by God.
Of course none of this is available for those who remain disconnected from Jesus. Sin's acidic curse remains on everything that continues to be separated from Christ. We must be united to Christ by placing our trust in his finished work in order to receive and experience all the newness God has promised. For, as John Calvin said, "As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us." But for all that is united to Christ, everything false, bad, and corrupting will one day be consumed by what is true, good, and beautifying-and this includes the material world.
As the beloved Christmas hymn "Joy to the World" puts it:
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
In this remarkable line, we broadcast in song a Gospel as large as the universe itself. The good news of the Gospel is that the blessings of redemption "flow as far as the curse is found." This hymn reminds us that the Gospel is good news to a world that has, in every imaginable way, been twisted away from the intention of the Creator's design by the powers of sin and death, but that God, in Christ, is putting it back into shape.
Because of our various fears, insecurities, and tendencies to overreact to abuses, we have a real knack for creating dichotomies where dichotomies aren't supposed to be. I guess I'm just not sure why there's so much disagreement. Do you?