The gospel is not about something we do but about what has been done for us, and yet the gospel results in a whole new way of life. This grace and the good deeds that result must be both distinguished and connected. The gospel, its results, and its implications must be carefully related to each other – neither confused nor separated. One of Martin Luther’s dicta was that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that remains alone. His point is that true gospel belief will always and necessarily lead to good works, but salvation in no way comes through or because of good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another, nor may they be separated (Eph 2: 8–10; Jas 2: 14, 17–18, 20, 22, 24, 26).
Ever since reading J. I. Packer’s famous essay introducing John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I have liked ‘God saves sinners’ as a good summary of gospel:
God saves sinners. God – the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves – does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners – men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot.
The gospel is news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God. Becoming a Christian is about a change of status. First John 3:14 (emphasis added) states that ‘we have passed from death to life,’ not we are passing from death to life. You are either in Christ or you are not; you are either pardoned and accepted or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often used a diagnostic question to determine a person’s spiritual understanding and condition. He would ask, ‘Are you now ready to say that you are a Christian?’ He recounts that over the years, whenever he would ask the question, people would often hesitate and then say, ‘I do not feel that I am good enough.’ To that, he gives this response:
At once I know that… they are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian… It sounds very modest but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith… you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him!
Lloyd-Jones’s point is that becoming a Christian is a change in our relationship with God. Jesus’ work, when it is believed and rested in, instantly changes our standing before God. We are ‘in him.’
The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved. And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the ‘coming wrath’ at the end of history (1Thess 1:10). But this wrath is not an impersonal force – it is God’s wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken.
In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God’s wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32). Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17-19, in which God’s curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves – we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11-13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16-19). In fact, the ground itself is ‘cursed’ (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25).
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death – and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these ‘horizontal’ relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our ‘vertical’ relationship with God. All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery – all the effects of the curse – is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20. Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race – the main thing that will save us – is to have our relationship with God put right again.
The gospel is good news, not good advice. The gospel is not primarily a way of life. It is not something we do, but something that has been done for us and something that we must respond to. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the Septuagint — the word euangelizo (proclaim good news) occurs twenty-three times. As we see in Psalm 40: 9 (ESV) — ‘I have told the glad news of [your] deliverance in the great congregation’ — the term is generally used to declare the news of something that has happened to rescue and deliver people from peril. In the New Testament, the word group euangelion (good news), euangelizo (proclaim good news), and euangelistes (one who proclaims good news) occurs at least 133 times.
D. A. Carson draws this conclusion from a thorough study of gospel words: Because the gospel is news, good news… it is to be announced; that is what one does with news. The essential heraldic element in preaching is bound up with the fact that the core message is not a code of ethics to be debated, still less a list of aphorisms to be admired and pondered, and certainly not a systematic theology to be outlined and schematized. Though it properly grounds ethics, aphorisms, and systematics, it is none of these three: it is news, good news, and therefore must be publicly announced.
What is this ‘gospel’ for which Paul is willing to glory in being a slave? What gospel would make Paul happy to lose everything in order to share it? First, it is worth reflecting on the word itself. ‘Gospel’ – euangeloi – is literally ‘good herald.’ In the first century, if on a far-flung battlefield an emperor won a great victory which secured his peace and established his authority, he would send heralds – angeloi – to declare his victory, peace and authority. Put most simply, the gospel is an announcement – a declaration. The gospel is not advice to be followed; it is news, good (eu) news about what has been done.
The apostle Paul is the herald of this announcement. It is a good reminder that the gospel is not Paul’s; it did not originate with him and he did not claim the authority to craft it. Rather, it is ‘of God’ (v 1). We, like Paul, are not at liberty to reshape it to sound more appealing in our day, nor to domesticate it to be more comfortable for our lives.
Christianity is a way that says if you come to Jesus Christ, even if you aren’t good and decent, even if you aren’t wonderful, and even if you don’t have a good record, anybody through Christ can find God. Somebody says, ‘How can that be?’ Let me just put the gospel in a nutshell: because Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and died a perfect death, now God treats you, when you believe in Christ, as if you have done everything Jesus has done and you have suffered everything Jesus has suffered. God treats believing sinners as if they had done everything Jesus has done and suffered everything Jesus has suffered.
That means when you believe in Christ you’re adopted not on the basis of your record, but on his record. You’re adopted into the family and treated as if you’d accomplished everything he’s accomplished. That’s the gospel. Somebody says, ‘It’s too easy.’ I don’t know how many times people have said, ‘That’s just too easy. You mean you just receive it?’ Yeah, but you have to receive it through repentance, and that’s what’s not easy at all. The only way to get to that peace is through paying the pain of repentance. In other words, all you need is nothing, but most people don’t have that.
– Tim Keller
Words found in 1993 Sermon, “Peace Through Conflict” by Timothy Keller
One of the main metaphors the Bible gives us for facing affliction is walking – walking through something difficult, perilous and potentially fatal.
The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. Many ancients saw adversity as merely something to withstand and endure without flinching, or even feeling, until it goes away. Modern Western people see suffering as something like adverse weather, something you avoid or insulate yourself from until it passes by.
The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking – through darkness, swirling waters or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.