What is the Gospel? How would you define it? What Scripture verse(s) would you reference? If I said to you, “Fill in the blank. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is ______________,” what would you say?
One very common way to answer that question is by simply repeating the words of John 3:16. Many people consider it to be the Gospel in one verse:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
That’s the Gospel. God loves you. And he loves you so much that he sent Jesus Christ to the Cross to die for your sin so that by faith in him you can be forgiven and live forever in Heaven. That’s the Good News. Many, many, people hold that view, including many prominent evangelists, pastors and theologians throughout church history.
For example, that was Billy Graham’s view. Regarding the definition of the Gospel, the 20th century’s most famous evangelist once said, “This is the one Scripture that I always preach on in a crusade, usually on the opening night. I suppose it is the most familiar passage in the Bible. It has only twenty-five words in the English translation of it, but it is the Gospel in a nutshell.”
Similarly, the 19th century “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon said, “I cannot preach from this text anything but a simple Gospel sermon.” Apparently, he felt constrained by the words of John 3:16 to stick to a basic Good News message because the words of that verse so matched that message.
Likewise, the 16th century reformer Martin Luther once referred to John 3:16 as “The Gospel in Miniature,” describing it as the very heart of the Bible and the message of Jesus Christ.
So, if John 3:16 came to your mind when I ask you, “What is the Gospel?” you are not only in the majority, but you are also in really good company. Graham, Spurgeon and Luther is not a bad endorsement list!
Why then, have I titled this blog post “God Loves You” is NOT the Gospel? Am I just being provocative? Contrarian? Or worse, heretical?
Well, I’d strongly prefer to be none of those. I’m simply seeking to define the Gospel in the most Biblically faithful way possible. And, several years ago, I stumbled across a stunning and disorienting bit of Biblical data that changed my understanding of the Gospel and caused me to rethink it, particularly the use of the word “love” in articulating it.
Consider that bit of Biblical data now. It is found in a single verse embedded in the first Apostolic council’s letter to Gentile believers about the life that accords with the Gospel:
It seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul.
Now, at first glance, this verse seems pretty ordinary and even unrelated to the definition of the Gospel. So, what is so stunning about it? What is so disorienting that it would cause me to rethink the content of the Good News, particularly the use of the word ‘love’ in articulating it?
Well, this word ‘beloved’ in Acts 15:25 is the only occurrence of the word ‘love’ in the entire book of Acts. You might want to read that sentence over again to soak it in. Or perhaps I should simply repeat it. This word ‘beloved’ in Acts 15:25 is the only occurrence of the word ‘love’ in the entire book of Acts.
In other words, it is not simply that the word ‘love’ is absent from the book, but rather that there is not even a cognate (same linguistic derivation) of the word ‘love’ to be found anywhere. That is, the words ‘loved’, ‘loves’, ‘loving’, ‘lover’ and ‘lovely’ are all absent too.
Furthermore, none of the Koine Greek words that are often translated with some aspect of human love are in the book either. Agape (unconditional love) isn’t in it. Neither is agapaw (to love). Philanthrwpia, (compassionate love or loving-kindness) does not occur. Nor does phileo (general affection). There is only agapetos (beloved) in Acts 15:25. Basically, there’s no ‘love’ in Acts!
That’s a pretty stunning bit of data. I still find it hard to process. Sometimes I still don’t believe it. I want to get back on my computer Bible search tool and redo my research to see if it is really true! You might be thinking of doing that yourself right now! Why do I find it so hard to believe? Why is it so disorienting?
Consider that Acts is the historical record of the evangelistic activity of the Apostles. It is the God-inspired account of the Gospel going forward to the entire Roman Empire. It is the only New Testament narrative that describes the content and nature of the Spirit-filled, Gospel preaching ministry of men like Peter, Paul, and Philip, men after whom the church patterns our Gospel preaching.
As such, it contains direct quotes from their lips as well as summary descriptions of their sermons to non-Christians. It seems quite strange, then, doesn’t it, especially for those of us who have long understood the Gospel to begin with ‘God loves you’ that the word ‘love’ is not found anywhere in the book of Acts.
Nowhere does Luke record, “And Paul said to the crowd gathered in the town square, ‘God loves you,’ because he wanted them to understand the gospel.” Nowhere is it written, “Peter told the Samarians how much God loved them in Jesus Christ.” Doesn’t that strike you as odd? They are never recorded as reciting John 3:16! How can it be that the Biblical book about the preaching of the Gospel in the world does not include the word ‘love’ when the whole world seems to understand the Gospel as “God so loved the world…”? How are we to process that ‘love’ is not in Acts?
Well, to help you process, first, here are five conclusions NOT to draw from this bit of Biblical data.
- Do NOT conclude that God is unloving. The Bible makes it crystal clear that God is love (1 John 4:8,16). The issue at hand isn’t whether or not God is love. That’s a settled matter. The question at hand is…what is the place of the word ‘love’ in the articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ given that there is no ‘love’ in Acts?
- Do NOT conclude that the concept of God’s love is absent from the Gospel. Consider the book of Esther. It does not contain the word ‘God’ and yet it is certainly about God. Or more particularly to this topic, consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. It does not contain the word ‘love’ but seems to be about the father’s love for his son. The absence of a word in a book does not equate to the absence of the concept that word defines.
- Do NOT conclude that the Apostles never talked about God’s love as it relates to the Gospel. Acts, like all narratives, is a selective account of history. It is not a completely comprehensive account. Paul may have waxed eloquent about the Gospel being the result of God’s love for hours every day, but Luke did not record it. He could not record everything that was said and he chose to record specific words and events to fulfill the purpose for which he was writing.
- Do NOT conclude that Luke, a physician, was one of those cold-hearted doctors with no bedside manner. Okay, that is a lame attempt at humor, but there is a serious point to be made. That point is this: It seems highly improbable that Luke would write with the intention of excluding love. He wasn’t against love! His account of the life of Jesus Christ certainly includes many uses of the word. It also seems highly unlikely that he left the word out because of his personality type.
- Do NOT conclude that the Apostles thought the Gospel had nothing to do with love. The Apostolic Epistles are filled with the word ‘love’ and it is often used to further describe the Gospel. In those letters to the churches, the Apostles not only seem to want Christians to understand the relationship of the Gospel to the love of God, but also the relationship of the Gospel to living a life of love. They took careful measures to make those connections explicit to Christians.
Now, second, here are three conclusions to consider about this bit of Biblical data.
- The absence of the word ‘love’ in the book of Acts means that it is possible to articulate the Gospel without using that word. I know this blog post is probably the first time you have learned that there is no ‘love’ in Acts. You are very likely going to need some more time to process that reality, but this conclusion seems an obvious one. Acts was written to record the Apostles preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit to the Roman Empire. If Luke recorded that preaching without using the word ‘love’, it certainly means that it is possible to preach the Gospel without using the word, doesn’t it? That seems like a no-brainer.
- The absence of the word ‘love’ in the book of Acts seems to mean that it is preferable to articulate the Gospel without using that word, specifically in evangelistic efforts to non-Christians. Okay, now I might be pushing the data farther than you want to go for right now, but please strongly consider this conclusion. The Apostles are never described in Acts as starting an evangelistic conversation with God’s love, or even including it in their presentations! Never. Ever. Could it be simply because ‘God loves you’ is NOT the best way to articulate the Gospel? I think so.
- A right articulation of the Gospel reveals God’s love. I think the best and most Biblical way to articulate the Gospel is through the use of four key words as they relate to Jesus: Lord, Sin, Savior and Faith (more about that later in another blog post). And when the Gospel is accurately and clearly communicated, it reveals the love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a bit of a paradox. The best way to tell someone that God loves them is NOT by saying to them, “God loves you.” The best way to tell someone that God loves them is by telling them the Gospel. When they hear the Gospel, they will learn about the astounding love of God in Jesus Christ.