"Excerpted from the book, What Does God Want?, by permission of the author, Michael S. Heiser."
It may sound odd to ask that question at this juncture. We’ve just spent a good bit of time walking through the story of the Bible, the story of how God wants us in his family. We join that family by believing the gospel.
I’ve discovered that a lot of people who attend church don’t really understand the gospel. Some can’t articulate it. Others who can express it coherently often struggle with truly surrendering to its simplicity. They suffer inside over truly believing that the gospel is all that’s necessary for everlasting life.
Some of you may wonder what I’m talking about. I’m willing to bet, though, that as I explain what I mean, you’ll either see yourself or someone you know in what follows.
We’ll start by defining the gospel. I’ll ask some questions along the way that are important to consider for clarity. We also need to talk about what the gospel isn’t. When we get to that part of the conversation, you’ll see what I mean by the struggle I mentioned.
What’s The Gospel?
It’s fairly easy to define what the term “gospel” means. The biblical word “gospel” refers to the message of salvation. The English word “gospel” is a translation of a Greek word (the original language of the New Testament) that referred to a reward given to someone who brought good news. Hence you’ll often here the term “gospel” equated with “good news”—the good news about the message of salvation.
Let’s think about that. It might feel like we learned something. I suppose we did, but we didn’t actually learn the thing we needed to know. It’s nice that we can now define a term. But we actually haven’t said anything about the content of the message of salvation. We’ve defined what the word “gospel” refers to, but not what the gospel actually is.
So let’s talk about what the gospel means. What is the content of God’s offer of salvation? What are the details of the good news? And why is it good news? The word appears almost 100 times in the New Testament so we ought to be able to figure this out.
The apostle Paul probably talks about the gospel message more than any other New Testament writer. He uses the word “gospel” for the message he preached about Jesus:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you. . . . 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 Cor 15:1-4)Paul defines his message, the gospel, elsewhere:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith. . . . (Rom 1:1-5)The content of the gospel—the good news—emerges clearly in these passages. Here are the elements:
The Son of God became a man. He suffered and died on the cross so that our sins would no longer keep us out of God’s family. He rose from the dead so that we could also overcome death and be with his Father, our Father, the only true God, forever.Let’s probe that a bit. If this is the good news, why is it good? Lots of reasons. It’s good because our salvation doesn’t depend on our own performance. You don’t see anything about your amazing track record or having a clean rap sheet in those passages. The content of the gospel is not about what you’ve done, or might do, or need to do. It’s about what someone else did for you. That’s good news for all of us, because none of us is perfect. None of us pleases God all the time. None of us is fit to live in his family and be called by his name on our own. We have to be made acceptable to God. The content of the gospel tells us how that happens.
Notice that Paul described his ministry of telling people the good news as “bringing about the obedience of faith.” He wanted those who heard his message to “hold fast” to what he said. How do you “obey” the gospel? Get baptized? Give money? Behave well? Don’t be a jerk? Help the poor? Those are all worthwhile things, but No. God wants “the obedience of faith.” You obey the gospel by believing it.
Did you also notice that Paul didn’t say “the obedience of comprehension”? We may not completely understand things like God becoming a man in Jesus, or how the resurrection could happen. That’s okay. God doesn’t demand we figure it all out and then get back to him to take a final exam. He wants belief. Understanding why these things are rational can wait.
The content of the gospel is God’s offer to forgive you and give you a permanent place in his family. His offer shows his love and kindness. The Bible sometimes uses the word “grace” in the place of those terms. Since there is no greater power, God wasn’t coerced into the offer. No one is twisting his arm. He offers you salvation because he wants you. All he asks is that you believe.
That is the good news of the gospel.
Why Do We Need The Gospel?
You might think I answered this already. I sort of did, at least in a roundabout way. But in light of my experience in Christian circles, I need to be blunt.
Why do we need the gospel? Because without it we have no hope of everlasting life with God. Zero. We are estranged from God because of sin. Believing the gospel is the remedy.
The Bible describes our predicament in several ways. Jesus said he was here to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). By nature we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1, 5) and “ungodly” (Rom 5:6). We were “alienated from God” (Eph 4:18) and “hostile” toward him (Col 1:21), because we were his “enemies” (Rom 5:10). It’s not a pretty picture.
The biblical story we walked through explains why we are what we are. We aren’t born into the family of God. We’re outsiders. Yet God wants us in the family. Lacking God’s nature, we abuse our intelligence and freedom to get what we want, often harming others in the process. We live in self-destructive ways. When we don’t image God and we break his laws, when we violate, manipulate, and otherwise abuse others, we sin. We are by nature sinners—self-absorbed and rebellious. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
It’s easy to read that and be depressed or angry. But the good news of the gospel story is that God knew all that and loved us anyway. It’s also useful for a reason that may never have occurred to you. It’s what makes the gospel entirely different than any other religion’s teaching about salvation. Every other religion either denies sin is a problem or says the solution is human performance—repeating rituals, saying prayers, observing religious days, or otherwise being good.
To be blunt, only the gospel is honest about the human situation and human inability to do a thing about it. Other religions in effect lie to you—they tell you that you can fix the problem of your own distance from God, or that you don’t have a problem. The gospel is the only truth that tells you God had to provide the solution and did. The gospel is transparently honest. It tells you the truth even though it hurts. That shows love. Lying to you isn’t love.
Are There Other Ways To Be Saved?
I more or less just answered this, but I want to approach the question from a different angle.
God offers forgiveness, salvation, and everlasting life with him for free. It’s not something earned or deserved. In fact it cannot be earned or deserved. What’s required is belief, or faith—putting one’s trust in God’s promise and the completeness of what Jesus did.
But believing the gospel means not believing other teachings or ideas about salvation. The Bible says that there is no other way of salvation. Think about it. Why would God the Father send his son Jesus to die such a horrible death on the cross if there were any other way for you to enter Heaven? The Son had to become a man and death had to be overcome. This was the only way, and believing in God’s plan is the only way of salvation. There is no person besides Jesus who can save (Acts 4:12). Jesus himself put it very bluntly: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
There’s no ambiguity there. No one becomes a member of God’s forever-family except through what Jesus has done. You don’t add the gospel to other beliefs. It is exclusive. Believing the gospel means turning away from other beliefs. That’s one aspect of what the Bible calls repentance. There are others, but they’re best addressed in the next part of our conversation.
What The Gospel Isn’t
Our discussion about the content of the gospel makes it clear that the gospel is about what Jesus accomplished on our behalf. Everlasting life, salvation, is a gift given to those who believe in what Jesus accomplished on our behalf.
Our culture tries to muddle this clarity. It offers self-improvement or vague “spirituality” as substitutes. But the biblical description of the gospel defies such things. The gospel (and salvation) has nothing to do with personal enlightenment, “looking within” on a journey of self-discovery. The gospel is not about exploring ideas from a spiritual smorgasbord. These are intellectual or psychological efforts and activities. They aren’t the gospel.
But these sorts of “alternative gospels” are the easy ones to detect and eliminate. There’s a much more difficult hurdle that impedes many people from resting in the simplicity of the salvation God offers.
I suggested earlier that a lot of people you’d meet in church struggle with the gospel. The reason is because they are caught in a performance trap. You or someone you know may be able to define the term gospel, and perhaps even the content of its meaning. But the idea that believing what Jesus did for you is the sum total of what’s necessary for everlasting life just doesn’t seem right. Surely we have to do something. Otherwise, how could we deserve it?
If you comprehend the Bible’s story and the content of the gospel, you should grasp immediately that we don’t deserve what God offers. And that’s a struggle for many people. We want to feel like we’ve earned the good things we have. We don’t want to be a charity case. It feels wrong to get something good without having worked for it, at least a little.
Guilt distorts thinking in even more subtle ways. It can paralyze our ability to see the gospel as the unconditional gift it is. Guilt is what drives some people to justify a gift by concluding it’s deserved because of something they did for the gift-giver at some point. And if they can’t convince themselves of that, they determine to do something after the fact to make themselves feel deserving of the gift.
Guilt blinds us to the love of God shown in the gospel. Ultimately, we must come to grips with how self-centered this thinking is.
That may sound harsh, but hear me out. Working hard to make someone else think you have value requires you to focus on yourself. You can’t be focused on someone else when the goal is to make another person think you are worthy of their attention or love. We want to feel good about ourselves (i.e., we legitimately deserved something so we aren’t taking what doesn’t belong to us). We also want others to feel that way about us, too (i.e., we want others to give us something because of the way we makethem feel about us).
The gospel strips this away and casts it aside. It exposes us, demanding naked humility. It insists the focus be entirely on God and Jesus. That’s why it’s a hard pill to swallow for so many. It doesn’t let us take any credit.
What it comes down to is that the gospel cares nothing about what you do, but cares everything about who you already are. You’re human. You are the object of God’s love and plan from the very beginning. None of that requires performance. It just is.
Because we’re sinners living in a fallen world, we’re locked into thinking no one would love us if they really knew us completely, inside and out. Consequently, we can’t imagine God loving us since there’s nothing about us that escapes his attention. He knows every thought, word, impulse, and deed. The guilt that creates within us, and the normalcy of our conditional relationships, make the unfiltered love of God for us in the gospel hard to accept. From our perspective, it doesn’t make sense.
I should say at this point that I’m not suggesting that people who hear the true gospel and embrace it with all sincerity aren’t really saved. I honestly believe that they believe and are in the family of God.
What I’m describing is the soul-crushing internal life many of those believers are still living. Their guilt has transformed the love and grace of the gospel into a performance-centered, merit-based experience. They begin to wonder if God still loves them like he did the moment they understood the gospel and believed it. They look at the sins they commit as believers as reasons for God to be unenthused and ambivalent toward them. They are convinced they can’t measure up to God’s expectations and wonder if they “believed enough” or perhaps didn’t really believe at all when they thought they did.
The sad truth is that many genuine Christians live tormented, defeated lives, not because of the gospel, but because of the way their guilt has distorted the clarity of the gospel. When they read Scripture they see only their sins and failures. Every sermon is an indictment (and shame on preachers who preach with that as their main intention). The spectacular wonder of the story gets lost and forgotten.
Salvation is not about performance. It never was, never will be, and never can be. We can do nothing to put ourselves at the level of God, to make ourselves fit for his presence. We lack God’s perfect nature. We are like God, created to image him, but by definition we are less than God, and God knows it. That’s why his solution was Jesus, not you.
It’s absurd to think we can bridge that gap or fill that void by doing this or not doing that. God never learns anything new about you when you fail. He’s known you all along and still loved you right where you were and are. Romans 5:8 says it best: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Did you catch that? While we were still sinners. You do not need to perform at a sufficient level to prod God into loving you. If you give that some thought, it’s really good news. God is never disappointed with you, because He never has false expectations of your behavior. God has loved you all along. “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).
We can boil this down to two thoughts. Salvation—membership in God’s family—cannot be earned. It can only be received, by faith (belief). God offers it because he is gracious and loving. There is no other reason, nor can there be.