The Message of Jesus: Believing the Gospel
Many Christians are afraid of the gospel. We are afraid of the gospel because it is too good. Many of us are more comfortable with religion than we are with the gospel. We prefer to read the Bible as a divine rulebook that guards the entrance to the kingdom than to read it as God’s witness to his redemption of the whole cosmos through his Son.
We prefer to think that when God breathed the life of his Word into the Bible, he was merely creating a religion—a divine formula to show humans what things to do and not to do in order to get on God’s good side and stay there.
But the gospel is not a new and improved religion. The gospel is an affront to religion. It is the end of religion, the end of all systems of works designed to make us acceptable to God. The gospel, by contrast, tells us that God himself has already, through Jesus Christ, made us acceptable. The gospel is good news; religion is bad news; and the gospel wins. Christ is victorious. Sin is vanquished.
We are overcomers only in Christ, not in our overcoming anything. We are sinners, always have been and will continue to be to the day we die. Whatever we may have overcome is like removing a spoonful of sand from the beach. Unless and until we are found in Christ, we remain dead in our sins. And we are found in Christ only by trusting him to be for us who he says he is and to do for us what he says he does. Only when we trust him will we accept his gift of mercy and life, and only when we wake up to our sinfulness will we trust him.
As long as we think we are “doing OK,” or that we “aren’t all that bad” or that we are “making progress” or even that we will never be “good enough,” we will not trust him. All such thinking is trusting not him, but ourselves. It is thinking that his acceptance of us is based on how well we behave. It is thinking that if we do better, then he will accept us, or conversely, that he accepts us because we have been overcoming.
God accepts us because he wants to accept us, and not because we have measured up. God dealt with our sin by the blood of Christ, not by giving us a new and improved law code. We are justified because God justified us himself, personally, through his Son. God did for us in Christ what we could not do for ourselves, and he calls on us to trust him to be our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
That means we do not have righteousness. It is not just a matter that we “have got some problems.” It is not just a matter that we have “a few things to overcome.” It is not even a matter of “putting sin out of our lives.” It is a matter of understanding that we are hopeless losers, sinners through and through, and that even our “good” deeds are thoroughly laced with selfish impurity. Until we see that, until we see ourselves for what we really are, we will not trust him who alone saves sinners.
Fear of the gospel
Many Christians are afraid of the gospel because it puts everybody on the same level—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means we, being sinners ourselves, have no ground to feel spiritually superior to people who do things that disgust and offend us. Others are afraid of the gospel because the gospel requires them to believe that God will save them in spite of their sins. We have a hard time trusting God to do exactly what he promised to do—forgive us our sins.
We want to prove to him we can “do it.” We want to show him we’ll be faithful, that we will be obedient, that we will be “good Christians.” But the truth is, we won’t be. We will sin, and we will sin again, and again. And until we believe the gospel, instead of some fairy tale about having to please God before he will accept us, we will not enter God’s rest. God saves us; changes in our behavior do not.
We can live in misery, struggling to be found worthy by perfect obedience and constantly failing and fearing that God is waiting to squash us like flies, or we can trust his Word. (Or even worse, we can live in appalling arrogance, actually believing that we are worthily obeying God and trusting him to accept us for our “holy deeds.”)
God is our salvation; our improved behavior is not. To repent is to turn to God and away from ourselves. It is to concede that we are sinners and that we need God’s mercy. It is to trust God to be faithful to his word of grace spoken in his Son before the world began. It is to remove our little homemade crown and hand it over to our Maker, the author of eternal salvation.
God is our righteousness; our illusion of good behavior is not. When we come to see our righteousness as filthy rags, as indeed it is, then we can begin to see our need for God’s grace and mercy. When we believe his word of salvation in his Son, then we can begin to trust him to forgive all our sins and save us.
Why is it so hard to trust God to forgive us and to make us his perfectly righteous children in Christ? Perhaps one reason is because we can’t stand to think of ourselves as, or to think that others might think of us as, bald-faced sinners. We prefer the façade of pretending to be good, decent folks. But we are not good, decent folks. Nobody is good, decent folks. At best, we are less destructive and wicked than we could be if we let ourselves go entirely.
Have you ever noticed that if you behave decently for a day or two, you begin to feel like you are a pretty good person after all? And conversely, if your natural self gets loose for few minutes and you behave like the ratbag you are, then you feel depressed, disappointed and frustrated that you are not as grand as you had been imagining?
But what is there to be disappointed about? Why, given what you are, were you expecting not to behave accordingly from time to time? Our disappointment ought to be in our failure to honor the God of our salvation, not in our failure to look impeccable to ourselves and others. If it were, then we would be free to see more clearly that in spite of our sin, we can rest in the atonement of Christ, for our sins are forgiven in him. The reason we need a Savior is because we need saving. The gospel declares that God has indeed saved us through Christ. In fact, Christ died for us ungodly people while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
Now please don’t tell me that we “were” sinners, but now we are not to be sinners anymore. Please drop the rhetoric. We are sinners. We do still sin after conversion. Every Christian who ever lived continues to sin after conversion. That doesn’t make sin OK. It doesn’t condone sin. It is simply a fact, and one we would all do much better to just admit and quit pretending that if we try hard enough we will become sinless.
There is one way, of course, in which we are not sinners. As believers we are in Christ, and as such we are not sinners in the sense that God does not count our sins against us (Romans 4:8). In other words, when we do not pretend that we are not sinners, but instead put our trust in Jesus Christ who saves sinners, God does not count our sins against us (compare 1 Timothy 1:15).
What must we do about sin? We must trust God to forgive our sins. We must trust him! He is our only hope. We are sinners, and unless God forgives our sins, we come under the condemnation all sinners deserve. We are not going to stop being sinners. I’m sure you have tried, like I have, and discovered that despite occasional bouts of improvement, sin is still alive and well in your life. But God says that if we trust him he will take care of our sins and he will count us righteous in Christ who, for our sakes, became the perfect human.
The Bible is not a rulebook for new and improved religion. It is the Word of God, God’s chosen revelation of himself to us, declaring to us that in Jesus Christ he has dealt with the sins of the world so that whoever trusts him will be saved. That is good news. It is the gospel. It is not religion. Don’t be afraid of it.
I know. You’re still waiting for me to say something about the importance of behaving right. But I’m not going to. At least not in the way you are probably used to. We are overcomers in Christ alone; when it comes to godly overcoming, there is no other way to be an overcomer.
When you trust Christ to be your righteousness, your behavior will be set by the Holy Spirit on the road to improvement, regardless of whether you constantly set “overcoming goals” for yourself. But if you try to improve your behavior without trusting Christ to be your only righteousness, you may or may not be successful, and whether or not you are won’t make a hill of beans of difference in terms of your standing with God.
In other words, salvation is not based on what you do; it is based on what God has already done. When you trust God, you are in Christ, and when you are in Christ, God does not count your sins against you. If you do not trust God, you are still in your sins, because you are not in Christ.
Here’s a gospel tip: don’t make behaving better your main goal in life. If you do, you’ll always be frustrated, disappointed in yourself and miserable, not to mention a judgmental and obnoxious prig. You’re welcome to it if you want it, of course. But will-powering yourself into a better you is a no-win life goal. Will-power goodness is the root of religion; it has no place in the gospel.
Instead, make your main goal in life knowing and trusting in the Lord your God for absolutely everything, including your behavior. When you do that, your preoccupation with yourself and how good you are will fade, and your eyes will begin to open to the righteousness of God and the joy and peace of his kingdom. The Holy Spirit will reorder your priorities, and the pain your sins naturally cause in your life will more readily drive you to God for mercy and help to overcome.
Let me say it another way: Work on yourself and make every effort to change for the better—but not because you think it will make you less a sinner and get you in good with God. Take overcoming seriously. Do it because God wants you to, because Jesus Christ gave you a new life, because it is right, because everybody who loves you wants you to, and because it will make your life much more blessed, rewarding, peaceful and pleasant. But don’t do it because you think that’s how you will get into the kingdom of God. It isn’t.
Regardless of how much you improve (and you need a lot of improvement—I know you; you’re just like me), you are still a sinner, and the only hope of salvation you’ve got is the mercy of God along with his word that in Christ he extends it to you. Trust him, not your good life, when it comes to salvation. When it comes to salvation, trust the word of God that in Christ it is a fait accompli; when it comes to behavior, trust yourself to the supervision of the Holy Spirit and put your heart into overcoming.
Don’t think that good behavior results in salvation; but know that salvation results in good behavior. But don’t let that make you think that poor behavior equals unsaved and good behavior equals saved. It simply does not work that way; don’t forget that we all still sin. Sin involves not merely acts but attitudes, and God knows even the deepest secrets of our hearts.
Rest in this: God loves you; he’s proven it in Christ, and he will make you into what he wants you to be. You can trust him to do it. Get to know him. Spend time with him. Put your confidence in him. Make him the priority in your life, and you will begin to find his love influencing the way you live in the world and the way you interact with others.
Whether we experience hardship or ease, prosperity or poverty, bad times or good times (and Christians experience them all), our ability to cope with what comes our way will depend on our trust in God. But all the while, because we are in Christ, our salvation is not in question. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, and even our faith is God’s gracious gift to us.
Remember, the gospel is good news. It is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Therefore, as Hebrews 10:23 encourages us, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
Author: J. Michael Feazell