What is the Gospel?
- She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
- The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
- For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
- For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
- For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
If we synthesize what each of these is saying, note the consistent themes.
It tells of a person – Jesus
We see in this that the foundation is not a truth but a person, and the truth about Jesus. Man – fully man. Only Son – fully God. Came to this world – God became man.
All of these gospel passages say the same thing. The gospel is about Jesus. In fact, Jesus is the good news of the gospel. Jesus is the gospel. He was an historical real person who lived in time and space. He was not a legend or myth. He was not a literary figure simply created in the mind of an author. He was a real person who really lived. The writers of Scripture who tell us about him were either eyewitnesses or wrote what eyewitnesses told them. He is described by them as the most absolutely unique person who has ever lived, which explains the other qualities they emphasize: the Son of God, born of a virgin, morally perfect life, miracle worker, teacher, healer, a life which bewilders an honest seeker to this day. The gospel is about Jesus.
It describes what he did
Jesus didn’t simply live. The gospel also describes his saving work on our behalf. Came into the world; died for our sins; raised on the third day; made him to be sin; suffered. These are summary descriptions of the narrative of Jesus’ life. His life was extraordinary by any measure. His teaching drew thousands to hillsides. His miracles shocked everyone, even those who believed in him. His power scared them. They’d never seen anything like it. The priorities of his life were so different – loving the sinner and the spiritually disenfranchised. Refusing to pander to the spiritually elite. A life of love lived for God’s glory. The religious people of the day didn’t like him, in fact, they conspired to kill him.
This they did through political pressure. If you think the Chicago political machine is corrupt, read the story of the Pharisees and the Romans. But this was all according to God’s plan for Jesus to be the Savior. Jesus was crucified on a cross. A real Jesus actually crucified on a real cross. Dying as if he was a criminal having never sinned once. He never did what God’s law said ought not to be done and he never once failed to do what God’s law said should be done. Just that is staggering for us sinners to comprehend. His every thought and motivation was completely pure and perfect.
As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This verse captures the essence of how Jesus’ death accomplished our salvation. Only one who had never sinned could die for sin, otherwise he would be dying for his own sin. Jesus died for our sin – the wonderful doctrine of substitutionary atonement. He had no sin but on the cross he had all our sin. God the Father treated him as if he was us, transferring our guilt upon him. God treated him as if he was us which frees God to treat us as if we are Jesus.
Jesus takes our guilt, we receive his righteousness. Because of Christ’s atoning work and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, God sees us as if we are as righteous as Jesus and makes an eternal declaration: holy; righteous; justified. Are we morally righteous in our lives? No. We are sinners. This is why anyone who really gets the gospel is not proud but brokenhearted and humble that God would save someone like me.
This is the glory of the gospel. He died. He was buried. As 1 Corinthians 15 says, he rose again on the third day. Why did he have to be resurrected? His death on the cross destroyed sin’s grip on us and his resurrection destroyed death’s grip on us. He ascended to heaven and is now at God’s right hand. The gospel centers on who Christ is and what he did to save us.
It has glorious effects for those who believe
The one basic requirement for salvation from the guilt of sin and receiving forgiveness of sins and eternal life is a turning from sin known as repentance and a trusting in Jesus as Savior. The Bible calls this “faith” or the verb “believe.” It answers the question of how Christ’s redemptive work can be applied personally to me. The jailer in Philippi came trembling to Paul and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31) What he tells the jailer is God’s answer to all humanity’s plea, Believe in the Lord Jesus. So the gospel is first and foremost a person; it is also a story of God’s rescue of sinners; it is also personal in that each of us must personally believe for the gospel’s saving power to be ours.
Let me contrast the actual gospel with what I am calling “almost gospels” – gospels that appear to save but fall short of God’s true gospel and therefore don’t save, but damn.
The religious gospel
Religion says that the way to God or any god is by what I do or don’t do. Religion places the saving responsibility upon us. We are the ones who do it, earn it, and therefore, can boast about it. Religious people rest their hope on being good people, nice people, moral people, doers of good things, being better than most, avoiding what they consider major sins, raising good kids and being positive parts of society. They look in their mirror and think, I’m religious, I believe in God, I do good things, and I must be on a path to heaven.
These kinds of people believe in an almost gospel. You hear this when you talk about saving faith and they immediately will reassure you by telling you what religion they are: I’m Catholic. I’m protestant. I’m Greek Orthodox. I’m Muslim. I’m this or I’m that.
The religious gospel is not the actual gospel. In fact, while it sounds nice, it is the opposite of the actual gospel. The actual gospel says that it is not about what I do but what Christ has done. The religious gospel glorifies man. The actual gospel devastates man and crushes us under our inability to save ourselves. The actual gospel’s starting point is that I cannot save myself. I need a Savior and his name is Jesus.
The experience gospel
This one is subtle because it sounds almost right. People who believe in the experience gospel will always talk about a spiritual experience they had. You ask them what they believe and they immediately tell you a story about when they were a kid or when they went to some event and they did something. “I went forward.” “I threw a pinecone in the fire.” “I grew up in the church.” “I prayed a prayer.”
Look carefully again at the gospel verses. These experiences have little or nothing to do with the actual gospel. The apostle doesn’t say to pray a prayer or walk an aisle, he says, Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.
A believer in the actual gospel builds their faith on Jesus and only on Jesus, not on an experience. It is faith in Christ that saves. Not my growing up Christian. Not my walking an aisle. And not technically in my prayer, although a prayer of genuine faith is a means to salvation.
This is subtle, but it may be the difference between heaven and hell for you. Trust in Christ fully and don’t let your salvation rest even in the smallest degree on something you have done. As the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
The effects gospel
A third almost gospel is when a church centers itself on the effects of the gospel instead of the actual gospel. What do I mean? I mean that the gospel is transformational, but the transforming fruit is not the gospel. We must not confuse sanctification with justification, the fruit for the root.
How many churches or Christians are known as churches devoted to the family, or justice issues, or outreach or something else? These are not bad things, but fellowship and ministry and service and holiness are not the foundation. That would be like building a house upside down.
The actual gospel is Jesus. The actual gospel is God. The actual gospel is a cross and empty tomb. The actual gospel is faith as the means by which Jesus’ redemptive work is applied to me. The gospel has glorious fruits and effects which make them very attractive potential foundations, but they are not saving foundations. Rather, they are beautiful rooms in the gospel house.
The historical gospel
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;the third day He arose again from the dead;He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Nicene Creed (325 AD)
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Bethel Church Doctrinal Statement
As the promised Messiah, Jesus was sent by the Father to deliver people from their sins. He became fully human at the Incarnation without ceasing to be fully God. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, and lived a perfect life free from sin and guilt. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross, and His death provided the all-sufficient atonement for sin. Christ became our representative before God, voluntarily substituting Himself in our place and bearing our sin and guilt. His sacrifice made provision for the forgiveness of sins, satisfied God’s wrath toward believing sinners, and established a New Covenant between God and man. Because of Christ’s redeeming work, it is now possible for people to experience genuine reconciliation with God and eternal life with Him.
Are we all on the same page? Do you personally believe in the actual gospel or in an almost gospel? The foundation of this church is Jesus and our only gospel is faith in Jesus for salvation. We can disagree on many things or have different perspectives on lesser matters, but on this we must unite and upon him we build this church.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2011 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2012 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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