Part V: The Word Made Flesh
What is the Gospel?
We can talk about objectivity and reality all day, but those are just philosophical underpinnings. In the last few essays, my hope was to provide sound reason and evidence for the integrity of truth, and the truth of the Bible. The ultimate point of it all, though, is the resounding message of the Scripture: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In The Prodigal God, Tim Keller takes a piercing and beautiful look at the Gospel through one of Jesus’ most famous parables—commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, Keller refers to it as the parable of the two lost sons, and the prodigal, lavish grace of God the Father. (You can read it in Luke 15).
“Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. Each acts as a lens coloring how you see all of life, or as a paradigm shaping your understanding of everything. Each is a way of finding personal significance and worth, of addressing the ills of the world, and of determining right from wrong.” –Tim Keller
In antiquity and modernity, we see people divided into these two basic frameworks of living. Of course, many people are a mixture in some ways, but we tend to either adopt the worldview of living by good, upright moral standards (and condemning those who turn from them), or we adopt the worldview that we should pursue our own goals and fulfillment according to what pleases us, regardless of culture and convention.
The former can be crushing, because we are never up to par. The latter can be destructive, as our hearts lead us into spirals of greed, addiction and selfishness.
The Gospel of Jesus enters with a denunciation of both these inadequate, hopeless paths, and offers a radical alternative.
The problem of sin
Sin traces its roots back to the Garden of Eden. God created all things and saw that it was good, including Adam and Eve. But when they actively disobeyed God, sin entered the world and affected all of mankind and creation. Because of sin, there is death, disease and decay. Above all, there is separation from God because He cannot tolerate sin. That’s why there were so many rituals and sacrificial laws in the Old Testament about how men had to approach God, because by nature, all were unclean and sinful.
Most of us think sin is breaking God’s rules. But when Jesus came and condemned some of the most religious, moral people of his day, he revealed that sin is more profound than that: it is displacing God in our hearts, and putting something else on the throne. (Adam and Eve’s ultimate sin wasn’t just eating fruit, it was a heart that desired to be like God). We are all worshipers by nature—don’t think you are ‘free’ if you don’t worship God. You can worship self, money, success, relationships, and a host of other things.
That is why Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The character of God
I’ve been asked before: so why is that so bad? Why does God care so much anyway if we worship Him or if we sin?
The Bible begins with the declaration of God as creator. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) As creator, God has the right and authority to tell us how we must live. One analogy used in Scripture is that of a potter and clay. In discussing God’s sovereignty in the New Testament, Paul writes:
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:19-21)
So why is God’s law and standard so high and impossible? In short, God’s law is reflection of His character. In it, we see his perfect and pure moral standard. God is holy, and He cannot tolerate sin. That sounds harsh, especially to our culture today. But if you even think about human courts of law, we see that they are designed to execute justice, even if it’s done imperfectly. We are rightly outraged if criminals are let off the hook. God cannot be a God of justice if He lets sin slide. That would compromise His righteousness. And because He is God, He has the authority to declare what is right and wrong and execute judgment.
No one can give you a ‘reason’ why God has this or that particular standard – we tend to ask that when we encounter parts of God’s law that are especially hard to swallow or naturally distasteful to us. But in knowing God’s character, we must understand His love and His law are not set in opposition to each other. Like a child dislikes his parents’ command to not eat all the cookies, we often chafe against God’s law because we fail to see how they are for our good. A child just knows sugar tastes delicious; he doesn’t think about calories or diabetes. In the face of God’s infinite wisdom, we are more limited than a child before his parents. Our asking ‘why’ must stop somewhere, and in short, the end of questioning must be because God has spoken. He does not owe us any explanations.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
This all sounds horribly bleak. But the bad news must come before the Gospel, which literally means ‘good news.’ We can’t fully appreciate how good the Gospel is unless we understand how desperate our situation is: as sinful and helpless before a holy God, rightfully deserving condemnation. If the way of salvation were only by keeping the law, no one would make it. This is where the Gospel comes in – that Christ, who is God, came as a man to live the perfect life that we could not, and die as a substitute in our place, taking the punishment for our sin and satisfying the justice of God.
Probably one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “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) The law will only condemn us, not save; salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.
The Gospel does not end at the cross. Christ’s death bore the punishment for our sins, but His resurrection gives the hope of eternal life. The Apostle Paul vigorously defends the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ as the cornerstone of Christian faith and doctrine:
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
He goes on to joyfully proclaim the future resurrection believers can look forward to because of Christ’s victory:
“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:52-55)
This, then, is the radical alternative of the Gospel. It does not begin with a call to live better or obey more. It does not begin with meditation or philosophy or trying to reach some higher spiritual plane. We are helpless to reach God, and foolish to try by our own definitions or self-made formulas. The Gospel begins with the lavish grace of God, who sought out sinners that never sought Him.
“Jesus does not divide the world into the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.” He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways. Even though both sons are wrong, however, the father cares for them and invites them both back into his love and feast.” –Tim Keller
Note (but an important one): I’ve tried to summarize and capture the heart of the Gospel as best I can. A lot of people have condensed it into key bullet points, tracts to hand out, etc. These are all good and helpful, but I think it’s very important to remember that God did not give us the Gospel in bullet points or blog posts. He gave us the whole of the Bible, filled with stories and laws and poetry and prophecy. That is how God chose to reveal Himself, and there’s really no adequate summary for the fullness and depth of Scripture. Otherwise, I think God would’ve delivered that to us.
Next time: What is faith?