The most succinct expression of the gospel in all of scripture appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in 15:3-5. Nowhere else is the matter stated so briefly and comprehensively than in this one text. But before Paul spells out what this gospel is in verses 3-5, he explains what this gospel requires in verses 1-2. Paul writes:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand…
Right out of the gate, Paul makes it clear that his focus is the gospel. The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word euangelion, which very literally means “good news” or “good message.” Gospel is not a word that originates with Paul or even with Jesus. The term grows out the rich soil of revelation in the Old Testament where the prophets announce the “good news” of Israel’s promised return from exile. The key text in this regard is Isaiah 40:9:
“Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (underline mine)
The terms translated as “good news” are the same terms for preaching the good news in 1 Cor. 15:1. It’s an announcement that God is coming to His people to save them. And so it is in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul believes that God is coming to save His people through the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners.
And it is this gospel that that Paul seeks to “remind” us of. And that raises a question: Why is he making this gospel known to them again? Didn’t Paul already preach the gospel to them in Acts 18? Aren’t the Corinthians already saved? Why do they need to hear this message again?
The reason they need to hear the gospel again is the same reason that you and I need to hear it again. The message of the gospel is not a message that we receive in order to get converted and then we move on to other information. If that is the way you think about the gospel’s work in your life, you are thinking about it in the wrong way. The gospel is not merely for getting us saved. The gospel is for keeping us saved.
Paul explains it this way in 1 Thessalonians 2:13:
And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. [underline mine]
Paul believes that the message that saves us is the very same message that sustains us. Christians must never “graduate” from the gospel to other things. It is our lifeblood, and it will be until we die or until the Lord returns. That is why Paul describes the gospel in verse 1 not only as that which we “receive,” but also as that in which we must “stand.” Paul then says something absolutely remarkable in verse 2:
2a and by which you are being saved…
Perhaps this sounds a little strange that Paul would describe being saved as if it were action in progress. Why would he do that? Isn’t salvation something that happened to us (past tense) whenever we first trusted in Christ? It is true that there is a decisive moment in the life of every Christian when he is awakened to the gospel and responds in faith, but that is not the only thing that is true about salvation. Salvation is not merely a past tense thing in our lives. Salvation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a past, a present, and a future to it.
Yes, we were saved from the penalty of sin when we first believed. But the Bible also teaches that we are being saved from the power of sin throughout our lives as Christians. And it also teaches that we will one day be saved from the presence of sin altogether when we are glorified. If your salvation does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end, then it is not real salvation because the Bible teaches that we are works in progress through the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit of God working inside of us to transform us into the image of Christ.
And yet look carefully at what Paul says. He says, “by which you are being saved.” We are being saved by means of something. What is that something? By which refers back to the gospel. God is using the gospel right now not only to save but to sanctify his people. Our ongoing renewal in Christ can only happen as we come back to this good news again and again and again. The gospel is that in which we stand and by which we are being saved.
If this is true (and it is), then you and I must never “outgrow” the gospel. We will never come to a point in our lives when we no longer need the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. We need it day in and day out. We need it week in and week out. Why? Because we are sinners and that is the only way that renewal will come to us. Our wayward hearts need the message to hold us and to keep us. This is the message by which we are being renewed. Without it, there is no renewal.
Paul says that Christians are being saved by the gospel, but then he adds a crucial qualification:
2b … if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
This is the part that really ought to make us snap to attention. It is here that Paul explains what it means if someone who receives the gospel fails to “stand” in the gospel. The gospel can only bring salvation to us “if you hold fast the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” If you don’t hold fast to the gospel, then it is not saving you. And your “faith” is not a saving faith but a dead faith because you have believed “in vain,” which means that you have believed unto no purpose—or without laying hold of the salvation that faith is supposed to lay hold of.
That means that the only saving faith is a persevering faith. The person who believes in Christ and then turns away from believing in Christ is a person who has failed to hold fast to the gospel word and who has believed in vain. They are not saved. The only people who are saved are those who persevere. Why is that? Because it is God who is at work within them causing them to act and to will according to His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). If God is not causing them to act and to will according to His good pleasure, then He is not within them. If he is not within them, then they aren’t saved.
Think of it this way. Imagine receiving a terrible cancer diagnosis from your doctor. After absorbing the devastating news, he immediately informs you that there is a chemo regimen that has proven 100% successful for every person who has ever had your type of cancer. He also tells you that you must come in for chemotherapy treatments six times over the next three months. Relieved, you go to your first chemo treatment as soon as possible. The chemo from the first treatment does in fact shrink the cancer, but you fail to show up for any other subsequent treatments. How will you fare if you neglect treatment and allow the disease to work in your system unchecked? Your lack of perseverance means that the disease wins in the end.
All analogies break down if you press them too far, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is like that treatment. It is not something that you take one time and then move on to other things. It is something that you dose yourself with throughout your life or else you will be overtaken by the disease of sin and judgment. It requires perseverance or else you can and will fall away from its healing properties. You need to live the gospel. Read the gospel. Listen to the gospel. Hope in the gospel. It must be your life, or it is nothing at all.
So exactly what does the gospel require? It requires three things: preaching, faith, and perseverance. The gospel must be preached before it can believed. Once it is preached, it can only be received by faith. And once it is received by faith, the gospel requires perseverance throughout your life.
This is what the gospel requires in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2. On Monday, we will look at what the gospel is from 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.