GOSPEL means good news.
Everyone knows what news is. We read newspapers and watch the nightly news in order to discover facts: certain things that have happened in the real world. Some of these things may affect our lives directly, others not so much. But the main thing about news is that it is always about something. And the good news that we find in the Bible is the greatest news ever; but it is also very surprising news. It is hard news. The reason that it is so hard is that the good news actually starts with bad news: just as no doctor prescribes a cure without first telling the patient what is wrong with him. An honest doctor has to give the bad news first. It is the same with the gospel. Actually, just like with the good news, this bad news is the worst news that we can possibly imagine. Allow me to illustrate with a story that I began to tell my children when I wanted to start to tell them the gospel:
‘Josh, imagine that Mommy and I left you and Hannah with a babysitter. Imagine that before we left we gave you clear warning that if you made a mess, watched that show we told you not to watch, and tied your sister up in the closet, there would be the most serious punishment you’ve ever received. Now, imagine that as soon as we left, you went right ahead and did everything we told you not to do, and many other bad things besides. Now finally imagine that at the stroke of midnight (at which time you should be in bed!), with chocolate oozing between your fingers and broken glass everywhere, you hear the keys jingle at the front door and the babysitter shout with joy—Good news kids, Mommy and Daddy are home!’
What is wrong with this picture? It is something that even children can understand. Good news?
Now that may seem an odd introduction to the gospel. However, it was not much different than the experience of another person who was first introduced to the good news after a time of great darkness. His name was Martin Luther. He was a monk who lived five hundred years ago. A monk was someone who tried to live away from all of the bad things in the world so that he could be completely good, so that God would accept him. When Luther was a monk, the Catholic Church was the only church you could go to. They did not allow people to read the Bible. So the people were in darkness. When he was first allowed to read the Bible (because many monks became priests in local churches), he came across the verse right after our “good news” passage in Romans 1:16. The very next verse says this:
For in it (in the good news) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
What is the first thing we see in the good news? The righteousness of God! The perfect standard of God that we have to live up to! In order to live one day in the presence of a truly righteous God, we would have to be just as righteous as him. Righteousness means absolute goodness, like the purity of light. To live with God would be like a shadow trying to live with pure light: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” [1 Jn. 1:5]. In the good news, the light of God has “come home,” so to speak, right in the middle of your darkness: just as light, so the person of light must live. Just as—that’s what Luther saw. The God of pure light comes home in the gospel, right in the middle of all your rebellion. The perfect holy goodness of God was what is revealed in the gospel. “But my righteousness isn’t just as his righteousness,” Luther desperately thought. And he was right.
Of course there was one great difference between the way my kids reacted to my little story and the way Luther reacted to the Apostle Paul. With the kids, the punishment was probably a spanking and grounding. With even the best of monks or priests, the punishment is an eternity in hell. Luther hated that verse. And he began to hate God too.
As Luther confessed his sins, day after day, and felt no peace, he began to read more of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Chapter 3, he came across a verse that seemed to say the same thing. But for the first time, he saw something there that he had not noticed in that verse in Chapter 1:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe [3:21-22].
Did you just notice what Luther noticed? What is this new insight? Today’s “missional” church is in danger of losing it through presumption.
When N. T. Wright emphasizes the Lordship of Christ in bringing “social justice” to the nations, to the neglect of pardon for the sins of the individual—however much he may allow its parallel existence—he is preaching a gospel that was accurately confessed by the demons that ran into Jesus the first time around [cf. Mk. 1:24, 5:7]. Hence Piper’s response is a perfectly good one:
That Jesus died, rose, and reigns as King of the universe may be terrible news in view of my treason, unless that announcement includes some news about how and why I personally will not be destroyed by the risen Christ.
 John Piper, The Future of Justification (Crossway, Wheaton 2007), p. 46