For many Evangelical Protestants, the gospel is justification by grace alone through faith alone. It’s the good news that God has declared sinners righteous solely on the basis of the work of Christ, a declaration that sinners receive by resting on Christ alone for salvation.
It’s not difficult to see that this understanding of the gospel inhibits ecumenical efforts with Roman Catholics. If the gospel is the Protestant doctrine of salvation, then by definition Catholics don’t believe or preach the gospel. This is one reason why some Evangelicals abominate any effort to seek agreement with Catholics. There can be no communion between light and darkness, between gospel and non-gospel.
Evangelicals are committed to the authority of Scripture, so it’s fair to ask whether the New Testament endorses this understanding of the gospel. Leave aside the question of whether or not it’s true that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. The question here is: Even if it is true, is that what the Bible means by the gospel?
We start with Jesus. He proclaims good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to captives, life to the dead. For Jesus, the good news is “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3). His gospel is about a happening: “The time is fulfilled” (Mark 1). In Jesus, God invades the world in order to reclaim his disordered creation. If we take Jesus’s preaching as our guide, it seems that we can preach the kingdom without uttering the phrase “justification by faith.”
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter says that the gift of the Spirit is a fulfillment of a prophecy from the prophet Joel. He retells the life of Jesus, announces the resurrection, and calls the audience to repentance. Jesus is at the Father’s right hand and has poured out his Spirit to give new life to the world (Acts 1). In his first recorded sermon (Acts 13), Paul recounts the history of Israel from exodus to David, reviews the ministry of Jesus, and proclaims his resurrection. Jesus fulfills the hope of Psalm 2: The Father raised Jesus from the dead to install him as king of Zion. When Paul talks about justification in that sermon, he doesn’t mean that believers are regarded as righteous in God’s sight. “Justify” in this context means “liberate,” which is why recent English translations render the word as “freed.”
At the beginning of Romans—the epistle of justification by faith—Paul introduces himself as an apostle set apart for the gospel and explains the gospel as a message about God’s Son, born in the flesh as a descendant of David and raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit. By preaching this message about “Jesus Christ our Lord,” Paul is bringing about the “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Rom. 1).
When Paul reminds the Corinthians of the things of “first importance,” he doesn’t mention justification. Rather, the gospel Paul preaches is the story of Jesus: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and . . . he was buried, and . . . he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15).
The only place in the New Testament where “gospel” and “justify” are found in the same vicinity is Galatians 3. There Paul sums up the gospel with a quotation of God’s promise to Abraham: “All nations shall be blessed in you.” God reckoned Abraham righteous because he believed that message, but the message itself isn’t about justification. It’s about God’s intention to spread blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed.
This doesn’t mean that justification or the historic differences between Catholic and Protestant teachings are insignificant. The Reformers were right: Sinners are put right with God only by the grace of God in Christ, and this grace comes only to those who believe the gospel and are united to Christ. The Reformers were right to complain that medieval teaching and practice obscured the very gospel the Church professed.
It does mean that Catholics and Protestants affirm the gospel together. Every time we say the Apostles Creed, we confess the gospel of “Jesus Christ, [God’s] only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. … On the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Protestants and Catholics share a commitment to the good news of Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, the Son incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.