In 1 Cor.15:1-5, the Apostle Paul wrote:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
For many, this is the “go to” passage for evangelism. “Jesus died for you, etc.” However, as I pondered the Apostles’ messages as summarised by Luke in the Book of Acts, something didn’t seem right. In Acts, the message is “Jesus is Lord through his resurrection from the dead; therefore, repent and put your trust in him, and your sins will be forgiven.”
We might also compare the gospel preached by John the Baptist, and by the Lord Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
And the angel’s message in Rev.14:6-7,
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
There is also a theological problem with using 1Cor.15:1ff as a summary of the evangelistic message. If we tell a friend that “Jesus died for you, and paid the price for your sins,” then a thoughtful person might reply, “Oh, that is great: so I am already saved from sins, and don’t need to worry about religion, or even behaving myself. All my sins are paid for by Jesus, if what you say is right!”
Of course, at this point the aspiring evangelist will quickly start to back-pedal and explain that, “No, no, you must also believe: you have to put your trust/faith in the Lord Jesus.”
“Hang on,” says our unbelieving friend. “I thought you said that Jesus died for ‘our sins’ – for ALL of them, including my sin of unbelief.” He might even say, “Aren’t you turning faith into a kind of good work that must be added to what Jesus has done, in order for a person to be saved? Doesn’t that contradict what the Bible says about being saved by faith alone, apart from good works?”
It was questions like these that led me to doubt whether 1Cor.15:1ff really does summarise Paul’s message for non-believers. But how should we interpret his words in this passage?
As we have seen, the word “gospel” (God’s good message) can be used in a variety of ways. It can be about the coming of the kingdom; it can also be about impending judgment (Rev.14:6-7), which goes with the coming of God’s kingly rule; and of course it can also be about the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins through him. All of which is “good news,” even though not everyone will receive it as such!
I think that in 1Cor.15:1ff Paul is talking about God’s good message that he explained to those who had responded to the news of Jesus. In other words, it was his message to believers, to “brothers” (vs.1-2).
So when Paul tells the Corinthians that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, etc.” he was addressing those who already professed faith-trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was explaining how the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is the basis for how God can forgive our sins when we put our trust in Christ.
This passage is a prelude to Paul’s rejection of the denial of bodily resurrection which was making inroads at the church in Corinth, a subject that occupies the rest of his chapter.
1Cor.15:1ff is not a summary of what we tell unbelievers: it is a summary of some first principles for those who have already believed.