One of the worst things that could possibly happen in the church is for the people of God to forget the centrality of the Gospel, not only in our justification (right standing before God), but also our sanctification (process of becoming more like Christ), and ultimately in our glorification (the finished work where we are perfectly conformed to Christ image). The most beneficial thing for the people of God to do is to constantly meditate on the Gospel, viewing all of life through the lens of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Even still, it is of the utmost importance that the church continues to remind herself of what the Gospel is and what it is not, because slipping into error at this point can result in a faulty view of God, people, and the rest of creation.
What the Gospel is Not
The first common misconception of the Gospel is that it is simply submission to a moral code of conduct. One of the great difficulties in interpreting the biblical text is how to understand the moral imperatives. Jesus was often asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is interesting is Jesus never gave the exact same answer, and what is revealed in that is Jesus wasn’t interested at all in what that person could, or would do, but rather He was after their heart. Perhaps the best example is seen in Matthew 19:16-30, in the story of the rich young man. After the man insisted that he had obeyed the law without fail, Jesus then said, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man’s reaction is evidence that what he claimed to be true about himself, namely that he was a righteous man, did not extend from an intrinsic reality or renewed heart. He was resting his justification solely on the belief that he had kept the entire law. However, Jesus clearly instructs us that our righteousness can do nothing in regards to our standing with God (Rom 3:10-31; 4:5).
A second misconception that is often made about the Gospel is that it is a ‘get out of hell free card.’ Now, there are few that would actually be so bold as to define the Gospel this way, but if we would simply examine how we often describe the Gospel, or how we share the Gospel with others, perhaps we would see that too often it gets boiled down to escaping hell. The intention behind sharing the Gospel this way does not originate from a wicked place, but rather a place that understands the reality of hell and how awfully it truly is. However, what tends to happen is a type of ‘one-and-done’ evangelism, whereby we share that Jesus came to die in order to forgive our sins so that we can spend eternity with Him and not go to hell. There really isn’t anything particularly wrong with that statement. As a matter of fact, Paul wrote essentially the same thing, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3b-4).” However, if we make our escape from hell the point, then it can lend itself to being primarily man-centered (Christ died ultimately for you) and fear based. Perhaps, this method of sharing the Gospel is not far reaching, but Christians should always remember that heaven is not for those who are afraid of hell, but for those who love God and respond to Him in faith (Eph 2:8, 9).
A third misconception that has been made about the Gospel is that it is to be understood as social liberation. It is clear from the lives written of in Scripture that the Gospel has definitive results on society as those redeemed live, work, and play within a specific social structure. However, movements have arisen from within Christianity that emphasize the immanence of God, the structure of society, human companionship, and Christ as a model of correct ethics as the central focus of the Gospel. Thus, the emphasis is not on the person and work of Jesus Christ, rather man’s responsibility to alleviate oppression. The command to ‘look after widows and orphans (Jas. 1:27),’ is clear and Christians are called to impact the culture. No true Christian would contend that social concern is a responsibility of the church, but it simply is not the Gospel as it is biblically defined.
What is the Gospel?
First and foremost, the Gospel is rooted in the nature of God and is made known and accomplished for us by the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the attributes of God were on display. Christians profess that God is both just and merciful in that, because He is holy, sin must be punished in accordance with His justice. However, God desiring to show mercy to sinful men, offered to us His Son, on whom His wrath was poured so that He might extend mercy to us and not give us the punishment we deserve (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10; Eph 2:1-9). In his crucifixion on our behalf, Jesus assumed our sin and became sin for us, so that in his death we might be made righteous before God (2 Cor 5:21). However, the Gospel not only centers on the death of Christ, but also on his resurrection. As a matter of fact, Paul writes that the work of salvation is impossible and incomplete without the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12-17). Therefore, at its core, the Gospel is rooted in God’s nature and is accomplished by the work of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, which justify those who believe (Rom 5:9).
Secondly, the Gospel is the story of Scripture. In the previous section it was mentioned that a Gospel that is just concerned with the forgiveness of sins and escaping hell is ultimately man-centered and fear based. Here is why the Gospel that Paul is describing is different from that Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15:3b-4, Paul writes, “For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. Paul does not simply have a ‘forgiveness of sins and escape hell’ view of the Gospel, and that is clearly seen by the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.” In Paul’s mind, Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, was the totality and summation of all that was written about in the Old Testament. Paul knew well that a summary of the Gospel, much like what is written in 1 Corinthians 15, does not make sense divorced from the whole of redemptive history. Thus, the Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ as written about in the Gospels, but it is also the broad narrative of the entire scope of Scripture—to put it simply, the Gospel is the story of God.
Finally, the Gospel is the restoration and reconciliation of creation to the Triune God. The Gospel is often presented as it has been presented above—that Christ bore the sins of humanity, received the blow of God’s wrath on our behalf in order that we might stand justified before the Father and spend eternity with Him. However, the Gospel also has a broad cosmic scope, whereby all of creation will be renewed. In Revelation, John writes that he saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first had past away. Then he said that the one that was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new (Re 21:5).” Now, it is important to note that describing the Gospel as it is described above is not wrong, but there is an important element to the recreation of all things that reminds us that God is seeking to set right all that went wrong in the fall (Gen. 3). If we neglect this, then we are in danger of missing out on a glorious aspect of the Gospel and we are in danger of robbing God of the worship that is due Him.
Remembering the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the role of every believer. We not only begin with the Gospel, but we also walk according to it and will ultimately end in it. Proper understanding and meditation upon the Gospel will guard the church from losing sight of its mission, which is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that [Christ] commanded (Matt 28:19). Let it never be said that we have forgotten the Gospel that we once joyfully received. May we never believe we have matured beyond it, and may we never be deceived into believing it is something that it is not.