The gospel, if it is really believed, removes neediness – the need to be constantly respected, appreciated, and well regarded; the need to have everything in your life go well; the need to have power over others. All of these great, deep needs continue to control you only because the concept of the glorious God delighting in you with all His being is just that – a concept and nothing more. Our hearts don’t believe it, so they operate in default mode. Paul is saying that if you want to really change, you must let the gospel teach you – that is to train, discipline, coach you – over a period of time. You must let the gospel argue with you. You must let the gospel sink down deeply into your heart, until it changes your motivation and views and attitudes.
In one of the most overlooked passages in the Bible, Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest prophet in history, and then added that every single believer is now greater in position and calling than him. (Matthew 11:9–11) ‘The least in the kingdom of God is greater than he [John the Baptist.]’ What did Jesus mean? He couldn’t mean that every Christian believer would be more courageous or more godly than John the Baptist. (I know that I’m not!)
What Jesus must have meant is that every Christian believer understands the gospel in a way John never could. John never saw Jesus’ death or resurrection; he never saw how Jesus fulfilled all the rich Old Testament predictions of God’s future salvation of the world. Every believer understands the gospel better than John the Baptist and therefore we are ‘greater.’
How? We have all been given the Holy Spirit and gifts to minister the gospel (1 Corinthians 12), and therefore we have more power to change lives than even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets had. That is why the New Testament calls every believer a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9.) Yes, in the New Testament there are evangelists, counselors, teachers, pastors, and preachers who are (one could say) ‘full-time specialists.’ And yet the Bible says that every believer must evangelize (Acts 8:4), and must admonish, counsel, nourish, and encourage others believers from the Scripture so they grow into Christ-likeness (Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 3:13; 10:24–25).
So the Bible calls every Christian to be not just a recipient of gospel ministry, but also a practitioner of it. The reality is, however, that most believers in most churches live primarily as consumers…
One of the most startling passages in the Bible connects the magnificence of angels with the mystery of the gospel.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care….It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
– 1 Peter 1:10-12
Although angels are incredibly majestic and powerful beings living in God’s eternal presence, there’s something that has happened on earth which is so stupendous that even these immortal beings experience the persistent longing “to look into these things.” What are “these things” that could possibly and consistently consume the attention of God-fixated creatures?
The angels never get tired of looking into the gospel. This means there is no end to gospel exploration. There are depths in the gospel that are always there to be discovered and applied, not only to our ministry and daily Christian life, but above all, to the worship of the God of the gospel with renewed vision and humility.
It is helpful to see that there are four kinds of people in the world:
Law-obeying, law-relying. These people are under the law, and are usually very smug, self-righteous and superior. Externally, they are very sure they are right with God, but deep down, they have a lot of insecurity, since no one can truly be assured that they are living up to the standard. This makes them touchy, sensitive to criticism and devastated when their prayers aren’t answered. This includes members of other religions, but here I am thinking mainly of people who go to church. These people have much in common with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
Law-disobeying, law-relying. These people have a religious conscience of strong works-righteousness, but they are not living consistently with it. As a result of this, they are more humble and more tolerant of others than the “Pharisees” above, but they are also much more guilt-ridden, subject to mood swings and sometimes very afraid of religious topics. Some of these people may go to church, but they stay on the periphery because of their low spiritual self-esteem.
Law-disobeying, not law-relying. These are the people who have thrown off the concept of the law of God. They are intellectually secular or relativistic, or have a very vague spirituality. They largely choose their own moral standards and then insist that they are meeting them. But Paul, in Romans 1:18-20, says that at a sub-conscious level, they know there is a God who they should be obeying. Such people are usually happier and more tolerant than either of the above groups. But usually there is a strong, liberal self-righteousness. They are earning their own salvation by feeling superior to others. It is just that this is usually a less obvious kind of self-righteousness.
Law-obeying, not law-relying. These are Christians who understand the gospel and are living out of the freedom of it. They obey the law of God out of grateful joy that comes from the knowledge of their sonship, and out of freedom from the fear and selfishness that false idols had generated. They are more tolerant than number 3, more sympathetic than number 1, and more confident than number 2. But most Christians struggle to live out number 4, and tend to see the world as a #1, #2, or even #3 person. But to the degree that they do, they are impoverished spiritually.
There is no hope unless God himself has punched a hole in the ceiling of the universe and our great Captain Jesus Christ, who has opened a cleft in the pitiless walls of the universe, bids us come to see him. He has entered in. He was born. He died for our sins. Now he’s raised again. He has risen from the dead. If all that’s true, then you can be saved, then there’s hope for the future, then your sins can be forgiven, then you can have a relationship with God, then the Spirit of God can come into your life and change you.
But the biblical gospel – Paul’s gospel – is clear that salvation, from first to last, is God’s doing. It is His calling; His plan; His action; His work. And so it is He who deserves all the glory, for all time.
The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want. Anyone who insists that the gospel encourages us to sin has simply not understood it yet, nor begun to feel its power.
The gospel is not that Jesus Christ comes to earth, tells us how to live, we live a good life, and then God owes us blessing. The gospel is that Jesus Christ came to earth, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died.
What did you have to do, Jesus is asking, with being born? Did you work hard to earn the privilege of being born? Did it happen due to your hard work and skillful planning? Not at all. You don’t earn or contribute anything to being born. It is a free gift of life. And so it is with the new birth. Salvation is by grace – there are no moral efforts that can earn or merit it. You must be born again.