In Evangelicalism, it is common to hear that the “gospel” is the proclamation that Jesus came to die on a cross to save sinners. But such language seems a bit too narrow. As Wright and others have more recently stated, the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. The gospel is a message, one that declares, above all worldly political leaders, that Jesus is king.
The reason that such a coronation is considered “gospel” is because it declares that God has been faithful to His covenant. He has not abandoned His promise to His people or the world. It is precisely in Christ, in the coronation of the Messiah, that God’s covenant faithfulness (i.e. His righteousness) is realized. As Beker states in Paul the Apostle, “The question of God’s faithfulness to Israel is answered in the gospel, and the affirmation of God’s faithfulness demonstrates in turn the reliability of God’s act in Christ for the salvation of the Gentiles” (p. 151). This is how Paul can say that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16): for in the proclamation of the message that Jesus is Lord, the world sees that God is active and faithful to keep His covenant.
There are three levels of meaning that need to be brought to light if we are to better understand God’s righteousness (dikaiosyne theou): (1) covenantal, (2) forensic, and (3) eschatological.
(1) I think that a basic explanation of the covenantal aspect of gospel has been described above, so I won’t belabor the point. The gospel is the declaration that God has been faithful to Israel and the whole world in Christ. Sins exist. God created his covenant with man in order to deal with sins, which He does through forensics.
(2) The forensic aspect takes place in a law-court setting. Israel (God’s universal people) being the helpless “defendants” stand before God, the judge, in the courtroom with the other nations, rulers, authorities, powers, etc. acting as the accusatory “plaintiffs.” With one act of declaration, God justifies the covenantal people and simultaneously judges the plaintiffs.
(3) The eschatological aspect is that level of meaning that brings the first two into the horizontal sphere of reality. In Christ, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is realized. Israel, failing to remain obedient to the covenant needed a faithful representative to act in their stead. Thus Christ became the faithful Jew and fulfilled the task of Israel. Hence, the age-old Jewish eschatological expectations become the proleptic new in the Christ-event. There is no longer an anticipation for the “age to come,” for Christ’s resurrection inaugurated the coming age.
For centuries, many exegetes have placed primary emphasis on the forensic nature of justification in the gospel: “Christ came to justify sinners.” When in reality the fundamental aspect in Paul is on the covenantal aspect of God’s righteousness (which tangentially includes forensics) that Paul relays to the reader through a law-court metaphor. Christ therefore came, not simply to “save” sinners, but to make God’s righteousness known and realized. This is the (capital “G”) Gospel.