This is a very important question! After all, how can we “preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15) or “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15) if we don’t know what it is? “It is the power of God for salvation” ... yet many of us are entirely ignorant of it! I think it’s time we change that.
The best way to answer this question is to consult Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let's begin with the Bible. There are 93 references to the “gospel” in the New Testament, but most of these assume that the reader already knows what the gospel is and so they aren’t very helpful for determining the content of the gospel.
However, 15 of these passages say that the gospel is of something in a manner that indicates the content of it (instead of indicating the source of the gospel or the effects of the gospel). The gospel is a message that concerns Jesus Christ (cf. Mk 1:1; Rom 1:9; 15:19; 1 Cor 9:12; 2 Cor 2:12; 4:4; 9:13; 10:14; Gal 1:7; Phil 1:27; 1 Thes 3:2; 2 Thes 1:8) and His Kingdom (cf. Mt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14). The context of these passages will typically flesh this out even more, especially the opening passages to Paul's letter to the Romans and the 15th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians:
Rom 1:1-4 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
1 Cor 15:1-4 Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, 2 by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
We see in Scripture that the notion of “salvation” is also closely linked with the gospel. Forms of the words “save” and “salvation” appear 129 times in the New Testament and hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Also, if we consider the immediate context of the “gospel” passages, these save/salvation words appear much more frequently than other terms that refer to Jesus’ work, such as “justification”, "sanctification", or “redemption”.
In other words, the way the New Testament speaks of the gospel, Christ is its central content and salvation is what he came to bring. So, we might state the gospel message this way:
Jesus Christ died and rose for our sins
so that we may be saved.
so that we may be saved.
If you look up the words “gospel” and “Good News” in the Catechism, then you find affirmation of what we have discovered in Scripture. For example:
333 Again, it is the angels who "evangelize" by proclaiming the Good News of Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection (cf. Lk 2:8-14; Mk 16:5-7).
389 The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the "reverse side" of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Him
422 "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4:4-5). This is "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1): God has visited his people. He has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his descendants. He acted far beyond all expectation - he has sent his own "beloved Son" (Mk 1:11; cf. Lk 1:5,68).
571 The Paschal mystery of Christ's cross and Resurrection stands at the center of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world. God's saving plan was accomplished "once for all" (Heb 9:26) by the redemptive death of his Son Jesus Christ.
638 "We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this day he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33). The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross:
"Christ is risen from the dead!
Dying, he conquered death;
To the dead, he has given life." (Byzantine Liturgy, Troparion of Easter)
763 It was the Son's task to accomplish the Father's plan of salvation in the fullness of time. Its accomplishment was the reason for his being sent (cf. Lumen Gentium 3, Ad Gentes 3). "The Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures" (LG 5).
1086 "Accordingly, just as Christ was sent by the Father so also he sent the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit. This he did so that they might preach the Gospel to every creature and proclaim that the Son of God by his death and resurrection had freed us from the power of Satan and from death and brought us into the Kingdom of his Father. But he also willed that the work of salvation which they preached should be set in train through the sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 6).
1391 "On the feasts of the Lord, when the faithful receive the Body of the Son, they proclaim to one another the Good News that the first fruits of life have been given, as when the angel said to Mary Magdalene, 'Christ is risen!' Now too are life and resurrection conferred on whoever receives Christ" (Fanqith, Syriac Office of Antioch, Vol. I, Commun., 237a-b).
1846 The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God's mercy to sinners (cf. Lk 15). The angel announced to Joseph: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21).
2763 All the Scriptures - the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms - are fulfilled in Christ (cf. Lk 24:44). The Gospel is this "Good News." Its first proclamation is summarized by St. Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5-7); the prayer to our Father is at the center of this proclamation.
Also, from the Glossary in the back of the Catechism:
GOSPEL: The “good news” of God’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is this Gospel or good news that the Apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the entire world (571, 1964). The Gospel is handed on in the apostolic tradition of the Church as the source of all–saving truth and moral discipline (75). The four Gospels are the books written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which have for their central object Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son: his life, teachings, Passion and glorification, and his Church’s beginnings under the Spirit’s guidance (124, 514).
Now that you know what the gospel message is, go out and proclaim it by your words and your life! Memorize it so that it comes from the heart as a conviction, as a truth at the very core of your life. We should be able to proclaim to anyone, and at a moment's notice, the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
For more information, see the following articles:
- Jimmy Akin: What Is the Gospel?
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: Gospel and Gospels
- Vic Scaravilli: Understanding Your Faith: The Basic Gospel Message
- Marc Cardaronella: This Is the Message We Proclaim
- Chris Goulet: How to Share the Gospel: For Catholics!
- Cameron O'Hearn: A Catholic's Guide to Sharing the Gospel