When it comes to theology, we tend to take a doctrine and strip it down to its basic form, leaving out all the intricacies and complicating details. We zero in on a particular verse or repeated theme in Scripture and then we say “That’s what it is all about.” We do this so that we can fit the doctrine neatly in our minds, keep it there, and pass it on to others.
One manifestation of this tendency is seen with respect to how we define the gospel. We ask: What is the gospel? We answer: It is the forgiveness of sins. We might add that the good news is being saved from the wrath of God through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ – sin condemns us to death, Jesus takes our sin away and satisfies the justice of God. That, we could say, is the essence of the gospel. However, while the gospel is nothing less, it is more. Forgiveness of sins is one dimension of the gospel, but not the only one.
If we insist on restricting the gospel to one-dimension, we rob it of its multifaceted glory. We see its multifaceted glory in a passage such as Colossians 1:12-14. Paul has begun his letter to the church in Colossae by giving thanks for the faith of the Christians there and for their reception of the gospel. Paul explains how he and others are praying for the Colossians, specifically for their growth in the gospel. As he then shows them how the gospel itself is the source of sanctification in the Christian life, Paul uses several different ideas to describe the gospel.
“the Father, who has qualified you”
God qualifies the believer by justifying the believer. God declares the believer to be free of sin and in right standing before him. This is so because it is God himself, in Jesus, who bore the punishment for sins and dealt with them once and for all.
“to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light”
God does not justify us and then leave us to our own devices. He justifies us for a purpose. Being justified, we are entitled to share in the covenant promises of God; the inheritance of eternal life.
“he has rescued us from the domain of darkness”
The enemy is not only the sin within us, it is the devil outside of us and all his forces of evil seeking to darken and destroy the kingdom of light. Satan and his domain of darkness keep the sinner in bondage and it is only Jesus who can rescue us and break our chains.
“and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves”
Again, Jesus does not rescue us from the darkness and then leave us outside the prison walls to fend for ourselves. Rather, he transfers us, or carries us into his kingdom. With the mention of the “beloved Son” we are reminded that this kingdom can also be described as the family of God. We are not merely one of millions of citizens in the kingdom, we are beloved sons and daughters of the king.
“in whom we have redemption”
Redemption speaks to the costly price paid by Jesus to deliver us from the domain of darkness. It was a price no one else beside Jesus could pay.
“and forgiveness of sins”
There can be no redemption, no deliverance, no justification, no inheritance, without the forgiveness of sins. Sin lies at the root of all human misery and condemnation and until sin is dealt with there cannot be any hope. The gospel is that, in Jesus, sin was dealt with, putting us in a position to receive the multitude of blessings God has for his children.
In this particular passage in Colossians, Paul uses about six distinct images to convey the truth of the gospel, and he could have used many more. The gospel is the death of the old man and the birth of the new man. It is the cleansing of our filthy sins with the precious blood of Christ. Or it is the victory of Christ against the evil forces of Satan.
It is true that we could categorize all these different descriptions into essential and external components of the gospel, or into the core truth of the gospel and then all its varied effects. But the point is that the gospel encompasses a wide-range of ideas and images and we should not limit ourselves to thinking about it in a one-dimensional way. The gospel is gloriously multidimensional and we give God the glory when we contemplate on the gospel as such.