As followers of Jesus Christ, we proclaim the gospel—we announce the good news of what Christ has done for all humanity. But the gospel is not just words to pronounce—it also involves practical application in our lives.
When we accept the gospel of grace, it affects the way we think and the way we live. When we realize that we are sinners saved only by God’s mercy, we become more patient with other sinners. When we realize that we have been forgiven an enormous debt, we become more forgiving. The better we understand and appreciate the grace shown us, the more gracious we become toward others. We see the need for forgiveness in ourselves and in others.
However, the more we see the need to be like Christ, the more we see how inadequate we are to this calling. We do not forgive as well as we should, or as well as we want to. We continue to need forgiveness for our lack of forgiveness, as well as our many other shortcomings. We do not find it in ourselves to do what we know we should.
So we look to God for the strength to forgive, and the desire to forgive. This is a learning and growing process, not achieved all at once. We look to God to change not just what we do, but who we are and how we think and what we value.
A matter of trust
In this often-slow process of change, we need to trust Christ. We need to trust that he will, in his own time, make us like himself. We need to trust that he will change others, too. Although the church and its members are not perfect, and although they disappoint us and sometimes even hurt us, we need to trust Christ to do his work in them just as he does his work in us. We are all sinners on the journey together.
Trust in Christ affects the way we live—the gospel persistently reminds us to be forgiving, and to be aware that forgiveness will always be a necessity in this world. Just as we need continual forgiveness from God, the people around us need continual forgiveness from us. Even people with the best of intentions make mistakes. Even people who love us hurt us sometimes. In this world of pain and tears, forgiveness is necessary.
If this world is all we have to hope for, we have a rather meager hope. But in Christ, we have a sure hope of a far better world to come. The world needs a major overhaul, and we trust that Christ will do it. Our faith in the future, the heavenly world that Christ has promised, changes our values in the present. We put less importance on the things that this world values, and we put more emphasis on the things of Christ.
This change in values doesn’t happen instantaneously. Like other changes in our lives, it is a slow process with breakthroughs and backslidings. Sometimes we get mired in the temporary things of the world, and sometimes we are able to cast them away as irrelevant and unnecessary burdens. As we value people more than things, as we value truth more than money, as we value grace more than revenge, the gospel is changing our lives.
Friends, we are not just to know the gospel and preach the gospel—we are to be living examples of the gospel—examples of grace and faith and love. We want our lives to support the gospel, to commend the gospel, to make it attractive to others. We want the words we say about Jesus Christ to be accompanied by the sweet aroma of a Christlike life.
Few things can bring the gospel into disrepute more than a Christian with a corrupt life. People hear of sexual immorality within the church and devalue the gospel even before they hear it. Get your own house in order, they might say, and then we might listen to what you say.
Certain television evangelists have given the gospel a bad name. Church treasurers who steal give the gospel a bad name. Immoral priests have undermined the gospel. Church members who gossip and slander cause the gospel to be ridiculed. Hypocrisy undermines the good news. Self-righteous judgmentalism, on the other hand, hurts the gospel as much as adultery and crime. The point is that our behavior affects the reputation of the message. One bad example can mar thousands of good words.
A good example, however, helps the gospel to be favorably received. That is one of the dynamics at work in friendship evangelism. People can be won to Christ in only a few words after they have seen some good examples of the gospel in action. As Paul wrote, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Some behaviors are worthy of the gospel, and some are not. Our example is important. Our lives should reflect the grace and faith we have in Jesus Christ.
When we trust Christ, we are willing to do what he says, confident that his instructions are what we need. Our behavior should include not only obedience to the commands of Christ, but also sensitivity to the expectations of our cultures. We do not have to obey cultural expectations, but we are sensitive to them because that is part of the way that we show love to others. We are considerate, gentle, patient and kind. Faith and love makes a difference in our lives.
Jesus said, Let your good deeds be seen so people will praise God (Matthew 5:16). Peter wrote, Let your good deeds be seen so people will glorify God when the right time comes (1 Peter 2:12). But we do not do good deeds simply for show—we do them because they are right. We were made for the purpose of doing good deeds (Ephesians 2:10). We were made for love, and love means more than good feelings—it means helpful words and helpful actions.
Cause and effect
However, the gospel is not a list of good deeds that we must perform. The gospel is a message of grace—but after this message has taken root in our lives, it produces the fruit of good works, because the more we value the grace and love we have been given, the more we want to dispense grace and love to others.
Even so, we must distinguish between root and fruit, between the gospel and its results. We should not preach the results as if they were the message, because if people try to imitate the results without being motivated by the grace of Jesus Christ, they have mere religion, a fake faith, a legalism, not the gospel.
We preach the gospel of grace. We can point people, as the New Testament does, to the results that God’s love will have in our lives, but we must remember that these are the results and not the focus of the message. But on the other hand, if there are no results, we might wonder whether the gospel has really been understood. This calls for patience. Just as we have a continual need for grace, others do too, and we have to trust Christ to do the work that only he can do.
The gospel commends good works, and good works commend the gospel. It is important to distinguish them, but not separate them. They go together, and grace is the horse that pulls the cart of good works. Our job is to help the horse. Our behavior should be a reflection of the gospel, based on grace, pointing toward faith and love.
How can we better live the gospel? That is something worth thinking about, worth talking about and worth putting into practice.