There is no gospel without the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross. He took the place of sinners under the wrath of God. This was predicted by the fact that an innocent animal had to die to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve following their disobedience to the Lord’s command to not eat of the forbidden fruit. The Lord slew an animal and "made garments of skin FOR Adam and his wife, and clothed them" (Gen. 3:21). The FOR implies clearly a covering. Their nakedness somehow exacerbated the issue of sin.
The doctrine of substitution is graphically explained in Isaiah 53 and pictorialized in all the sacrifices proscribed throughout the Old Testament. The Messiah, the Servant of God, "will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. … He will pour out Himself to death. … He will [bear] the sin of many, and intercede for the transgressors" (Isa. 53:11-12).
In the Old Testament the word most used to describe the work of the animal sacrifices is the word atonement. The idea comes from the Hebrew word kapher meaning "to cover." The animal sacrifices only covered sins for one year then had to be repeated the next. In actuality these animal sacrifices were but signs, pictures, projected pictures of what Christ would someday do in the future on the cross. They really were not efficacious. God was not really interested in the blood of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:4-6; Psa. 40:6-8). God was looking forward to the death of His Son for sinners! But with Christ’s sacrifice there would be no atonement but a final, complete and finished work, by Him, Israel’s Messiah, that once for all settled the issue of sin.
Unfortunately, there are various bogus or half-true theories of Christ’s sacrifice. There is the (1) "Ethical atonement" view that just kind of "solved" the problem of sin; the (2) "Payment-to-Satan view that would cancel out any claim the devil may have on human beings, the (3) "Recapitulation theory" which states that Christ simply did what Adam could not do and so satisfied God, the (4) "Commercial theory" that says God’s honor had been injured by sin and now Christ simply restored that honor by living a perfect life, the (5) "Moral Influence view" that states Christ primarily demonstrated the love of the Lord in such a way as to win sinners to Himself, the (6) "Duns Scotus view" that says the heavenly Father could have used anyone, even an angel, to die for sins. There are many other theories but they are all lacking in what the Bible says about the sacrifice of Christ for sinners.
Paul states the work of Christ plainly when he writes, "Christ [is] our Passover [who] has been sacrifice" (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter puts it succinctly when he writes, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18). Sinners who trust in Christ are "being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24). And, "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3b).
Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross is absolutely essential for the gospel. Without this there is no salvation!