We used to sing a chorus in Sunday school that went like this:
Oh, I’m traveling on the “hallelujah Line”
On the good old Gospel Train,
I am on the right track,
And never will go back
To the station of sin again!
The refrain went on to spell out what the Gospel is in no uncertain terms.
A member of a “high” (liturgical) church once told a believer in a small, strongly biblical fellowship, “We’re all going to the same place, it’s just that we [denominational name deleted] are traveling first class, and you people are going third class!” Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. While there are true believers in nearly all denominations, millions have taken the wrong train. The “aesthetic appointments” in some church “stations” rival those of the classic “Orient Express” from Paris to Istanbul, but one fears that the destination of many who think they’re on the “Gospel Line” will prove to be closer to Istanbul than to the New Jerusalem.
In this article we’d like to look at the word Gospel and its derivatives, tracing them back to Bible usage. One active American-bred religious group uses the word Gospel freely, but what they call “the Gospel” is actually a message of human merit, works, and striving for “godhood.” Others, much closer to the Bible, nevertheless have an understanding of the Gospel that is severely marred by the admixture of human ideas.
When I was a boy a very evangelistic young man said to me regarding his rather conservative, mainline Protestant church background, “Oh, they have the Gospel all right, but they keep it well buried!”
A modern musical used the ancient spelling of Gospel: “God spell” (“Good News”) for its title. This is a close translation of the NT Greek word euangelion (from eu-, “good” or “well,” plus the root word for message). Originally the Greek word meant a reward for bringing good news, but came to have today’s meaning: good news.
The main NT meaning is the good news about Christ, the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith. In his farewell to the Ephesian elders, the Apostle Paul referred to “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Those who preach a religion partly of human works, or of striving to “stay saved,” or even of “hanging in there” to prove you really are saved, are preaching news that is not quite good enough to be called euangelion or “God spell.”
Sometimes the word is used in the NT with no modifiers, simply “the gospel” (e.g., Mk 1:1; Eph 3:6; 2 Tim 1:8,10).
Other times it occurs in phrases, such as “the word of the gospel” (= the “message of good news” [Acts 15:7]); “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19); “the gospel of the kingdom” (good news that the kingdom of Christ, requested in the Lord’s prayer for nearly 2,000 years, is actually coming! [Matt 4:23; 24:14]); “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15); and “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4).
A later usage of Gospel is to refer to the four NT books telling of the life of Christ. As Justin Martyr pointed out in the second century, there are only four authentic ones: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Other books called “gospels” always slipped in some heresy (usually gnosticism or legalistic works-salvation) and were rightly rejected by the faithful.
One of the words derived from euangelion describes the four men who wrote the Gospels, namely euangelistes (English=the Evangelists).
However, a more common usage for that word is for the spiritual gift of reaching people with the good news of salvation in Christ alone. It is not an office (like elder and deacon) but a gift that Christ bestows on believers from all walks of life (Eph 4:11). Those who give their full time to this ministry are called evangelists.
Sadly, many of those who present themselves as such on TV (“televangelists” is the media’s somewhat snide term for them), by stressing money excessively and by marring their ministry through moral lapses, have put this great gift in a poor light. (Few of these TV evangelists are clear on the Gospel, either!)
For these reasons we should all do everything we can to encourage true evangelists and to see that they are listened to, respected, and well-supported without having to plead for funds.
In Acts, Philip the deacon is referred to as an evangelist (Acts 2:18). As shown in Acts 8, part of his ministry of evangelism (this word does not occur in the NT) was personal (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch) and part was public (e.g., Samaria).
Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). Whether this was his primary spiritual gift or not (apparently he was a “missionary”), Timothy was meant to evangelize.
All Christians likewise should do something to get out the good news. Today we have even more opportunities than the first century believers, with such means as radio, TV, films, the printed word, and many other creative methods of outreach. However, “gossiping the Gospel,” as one lady put it, is perhaps the most effective means for ordinary people to spread the good word–a satisfied customer sharing with a potential “buyer.” (Of course, we don’t really buy the Gospel; it’s absolutely free!)
Though the word evangel has never caught on to replace “Gospel,” the verb form evangelize (Gk. euangelizo) has. In the NT it is used more broadly than we use it. We tend to use it almost exclusively for the good news of the Gospel of grace. In the NT we find it used for the good news of the long awaited birth announcement to Zacharias concerning his son John (Luke 1:19) and announcements God made regarding the prophetic picture to the OT prophets (Rev 10:7).
The main NT usage, though, is just as we use it today: proclaiming the good news of God’s Son among the nations (Gal 1:16).
By way of summarizing, we have adapted the NT Greek words to our tongue as evangelist, evangelize, evangelism, and evangel, though this last one has never replaced Gospel as the people’s favorite word for the good news that we are saved by grace through faith plus nothing.
The chorus we started out with got the message of Free Grace right in its refrain, too:
I need no fare,
I’m riding on a “pass,”
‘Tis the blood for sinners slain,
I am trav’ling on the “Hallelujah Line”
On the good old Gospel Train!
Let me close with a couple of lines from an appealing old spiritual:
Get on board, little children,
Get on board!