THE DEATH OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST," Bible scholar and theologian George Wigram (1805-1879) poses a question that is still relevant today, namely, "What is the gospel?" Here's what he says:
"I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand, by which also ye are saved . . . how that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve. After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once . . . after that . . . of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all . . . of me also, as of one born out of due time" (1 Cor. 15:1-8).
The assertion I am about to make may seem to many strange (nevertheless I believe it to be truth), that great and general as is the profession of religion in our own day, so little and so rare is the understanding of the gospel, that not one out of ten of the religious would be able to give a simple and a scriptural answer to the question, "What is the gospel?" If any one calls this assertion in question, let him go into the coteries of his religious society, and try whether the question, simple as it is, will not elicit answers so various, as to prove that either there are many gospels, or that the one gospel is most strangely misrepresented in the minds of most. The vagueness of the answers, when the question has been raised about this or that minister's preaching the gospel, also has often struck me forcibly. "Is the gospel preached where I attend? Oh yes! I thought you knew what an excellent, or what a pious, or what a devoted man our minister is," is a frequent reply, as though there were no such a thing as distinct truth in the world. And so, I believe, in many minds the case is, that there is no clear, simple, distinct truth known; but truth, instead of being known in that firm, unvarying form in which it has been presented to us by God in the word, is looked at rather in the fickle, changeable forms in which it has been received by man taught the fear of the Lord by the traditions of men. To illustrate what I mean, I would say, that in any mixed religious society, the mooting such a question as, What is the gospel? would be felt to be throwing down the gauntlet, or perhaps something worse. The Baptist, the Wesleyan, the Independent, the Nationalist, each has his own points in connection with the subject peculiar to himself to be defended. True, he may tell you they are minor points of difference, and that essentially they all agree: but this is a mistake; for, in the first place, they are so far major points, as to constitute, practically, that which fills and holds the mind; and secondly, if you hear the answer, you will find it is not the same gospel at all which is stated. Moreover the effect of introducing the division of clergy and laity (a division which practically holds quite as much among Dissenters as in the Establishment), has been to make almost every Christian who is not pledged in some way by office to the work, to feel that the task of answering questions is not his; and I do believe, that three out of four of Christians you might meet, would feel this was one of the questions which it would be expedient thus to avoid answering. Not that I mean to say that they have not their own statements of the Gospel, but that, in the known multiplicity of thoughts about it, they would rather not risk, as it would seem to them, entering upon controversy. Now, it does seem to me a most gracious thing on the part of our God, to have given us such a testimony upon the subject, as for ever to set aside all reasonings thereupon; while, if I have been right in my estimate of Christianity in our own days, most fully to exhibit its poverty. The statement to which I refer, is that which precedes these remarks. The way in which the apostle gets upon it is remarkable; not saying simply, now I declare unto you the gospel; but introducing it as connected with so many little circumstances affecting those to whom he wrote, as to give it the more point. "I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you . . . which also ye have received . . . and wherein ye stand; . . . . by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain . . . For, I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received," etc., etc. Such a way of introducing his subject was, in a peculiar way, calculated to call attention to it. And how blessed that subject! "That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve. After that he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time . . . so we preached, and so ye believed." This is the gospel! [Editor's note: While verses 1-11 give the context of Paul's gospel, verses 3b-5 give the actual content of the gospel message. Notice the four content conjunctions beginning in verse 3: "that Christ died . . . and that He was buried . . . and that He was raised . . . and that He was seen . . . ."] an artless simple tale of what befell Jesus. Observe, it is all about Jesus. The only actor, the only sufferer here is God. Man may be a spectator, and, through grace, a witness and a recipient, but the whole tale is about God, and his Christ. God, the Holy Ghost, had traced in the word many of the Father's thoughts about Jesus; and here we have this One anointed of the Father gleaning them all up for Himself, and fulfilling them all. Now, do let us remark how the whole action, from first to last, in the Gospel, is God's, and how there is no place assigned to man in it, but that of standing still, and seeing or telling of what God wrought. If we look also a little closely at the text, we shall find the matter dividing itself naturally into four parts; the death, burial, resurrection and manifestation of the Lord. And I think I may justly say here, that the maintaining the proportions of the component parts of truth is not an unimportant matter. To make the ointment used in the sanctuary, not only was the presence of all the appointed ingredients needful, but due attention to the just proportions was requisite likewise. Surely, in like manner, we corrupt the truth, when, knowing all the parts of it, we give a prominence to any one of them beyond, or less than that which the Holy Ghost in the word has; and, indeed, I do see truth now-a-days constantly so misused, and rendered of little effect. And is it not so with this very truth? The great stress which is now laid is upon the death of Jesus, so much stress, indeed, as almost to overlook the other three points: but here THE great stress is upon "the manifestation of the blessed Lord after the resurrection;" even as throughout the [book of] Acts we find the theme of testimony to have been Jesus and the resurrection. So strongly, indeed, does the apostle (Acts 17) seem to have pressed resurrection, that the poor ignorant ones to whom he spake thought that resurrection was a person as well as Jesus, saying (ver. 18), "He seemeth to be a setter-forth of strange gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. Just so here the great stress is upon his manifestation, for while his death, burial, and resurrection are each of them mentioned but once, His manifestation is repeated six times over — to Cephas; to the twelve; to five hundred brethren at once; to James; to all the apostles; to me also. . . . I would press much the careful study of chapter 15 of the first Epistle to the Corinthians."1
1 George V. Wigram, "THE DEATH OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST." The Inquirer [London: Central Tract Depot, September 1840], Vol. 3, pp. 376-379. Also see: G. V. Wigram, "The Cross, the Blood, and the Death of Jesus Christ," Part 3, number 3. Bible Truth Publishers.