What is the Gospel and Why Does It Matter?
September 5, 1999
We begin with these strong words from the Apostle Paul to the churches of Galatia:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:6-10).
During my candidating visit to Calvary Memorial Church ten years ago I was asked to speak to a joint assembly of the adult Sunday School on the topic, “What is an evangelical?” I was reminded of that occasion a few weeks ago when I received an e-mail from a professor doing a sociological study of Oak Park. In seeking to accurately portray the various groups in our community, he interviewed me and several others he identified as “conservative Christians.” Evidently he didn’t understand everything we said because he wrote me afterwards with this question: “Calvary calls itself an evangelical church. What do you mean by that term?” I replied that the word evangelical comes from the “evangel,” which means “gospel” or “good news.” An evangelical Christian is a person who is wholeheartedly committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe it and we attempt to share it with others.
The Gospel Declaration
No question is more central for our time than this—what is the gospel? In June Christianity Today published the most extensive evangelical statement on the gospel in this century. Titled “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,” it explains in great detail what we believe the gospel is—and just as importantly, what it isn’t. Because of my friendship with one of the authors of the document, I was asked to be one of the first signers. You can find this statement on the Internet at http://www.ankerberg.com/The-Gospel-of-Jesus-Christ.html.
Why does it matter what we believe about the gospel? Paul gives us four answers in Galatians 1:6-10.
There is only one gospel and only that gospel can save us.
There are many spiritual counterfeits in the world.
Those who preach a false gospel will be eternally condemned.
There will always be a temptation to please men rather than to please God and to water down our message for the approval of others.
When God commands us to believe the gospel, he does not intend that we should comparison shop the available options for salvation. It’s not as if God says, “You can take my offer or you can see if you find a better deal.” In truth, there is nothing with which to compare the biblical gospel. It stands absolutely alone and is the only way to eternal life.
Today I am beginning a two-month series on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shortly after the gospel statement was released in June, I was invited by Moody Press and the drafting committee to write a short “gospel book” that would explain the Good News of salvation in street-level language that anyone could understand. This seems to me to be the most important writing assignment I have ever been given. After thinking about it, I decided to rearrange my preaching schedule for the fall so I could spend the months of September and October preaching through the gospel step by step. This will benefit all of us because we will be taught again what the gospel really is. You will learn it and in the process be encouraged to share it with others. These sermons will be in the category of Applied Theology as we together learn how God saves sinners. I encourage you to bring your friends during the next eight weeks and I ask for your prayers as I prepare these sermons that will eventually become chapters in the gospel book.
This message introduces the entire topic. If an evangelical is a person who believes the gospel, then it is all-important that we properly define the gospel. No one should be an accidental evangelical. Or a cultural one. We live in a time of unprecedented religious dialogue and inter-religious cooperation. Catholics, Orthodox believers, and evangelical Protestants agree on many issues of moral and cultural concern. But do we really agree on the gospel?
The Glories of the Gospel
This is an issue of more than just passing concern. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the heart of our message and the basis of our unity. Here in Chicago we are surrounded by Catholic churches on almost every corner. We have every right to explore the difference between what we believe and what the Catholics believe about the gospel. I do not say that for the sake of controversy but for the sake of clarification.
Several hundred years ago the Puritans talked about the “glories of the gospel.” By that they meant the wonder of God’s plan for saving sinners. He saves sinners by declaring them righteous in his sight on the basis of the blood of Jesus, and he does it through faith alone. And most amazingly, he justifies sinners while they are still sinners (see Romans 4:5). He doesn’t say, “Clean yourself up and I will accept you.” Or “Let me infuse righteousness in you and if you cooperate with me, you will eventually be justified in my sight.” No! He says to sinners, “Come just as you are and I will declare you righteous right now.”
As a place to begin, may I suggest that you take a concordance this week and check every reference to the word “gospel” in the New Testament. You will be blessed by what you read. The Apostle Paul had more to say about the gospel than anyone else. Let’s look at three ways he described it.
I. It is God’s Gospel — Romans 1:1
Paul called himself an apostle of “the gospel of God.” The gospel begins with God! He made the first move and if he didn’t make the first move, we would make no move at all.
The gospel is not about us. It’s about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God is the author of the gospel. When confronted with human rebellion, he chose to become our Redeemer and our Deliverer. That is why the Bible tells us that the Father sent the Son to the earth (John 17:3). It’s not as if a committee of humans petitioned God to send Jesus to the earth. That was entirely God’s doing.
Furthermore, what we know about the gospel comes from God himself. We know what we know because he has told us in his Word. The truth of the gospel does not depend on the church, or human tradition, or any particular denomination. Therefore, we base what we say on the authority of God’s Word. And we deny there is any gospel other than the one revealed in the New Testament.
II. It is the Gospel of Christ — II Corinthians 2:12
Not only does the gospel begin with God, it centers upon the Lord Jesus Christ—who he is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. In these days of political correctness and mushy theology, we need to reassert the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. One week after the gospel declaration came out in June, the CNN show “Crossfire” featured a debate on the subject of the gospel. Bill Press represented the liberal view, Ralph Reed the conservative, and in the crossfire were Jerry Falwell and Tony Campolo. After discussing religion and politics for a bit, Bill Press came to the main issue. How can Christians claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven? “That is wrong,” he declared, as if it were un-American to say such a thing. Jerry Falwell did a fine job of defending the biblical viewpoint while Tony Campolo was a bit unclear.
Even though it isn’t popular, we must say what the Bible says: The only way to know God is through the reconciling death of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. That means the eternal destiny of all people depends on whether they know Jesus as Lord and Savior. Acts 4:12 says it explicitly: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” We may not care for those words, but there it is in black and white. Jesus said the same thing in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Lest I be misunderstood, let me be even more explicit. The Bible offers no hope to sincere worshipers of other religions. There is no other way and no other name than Jesus Christ. Sincerity is not enough to get you to heaven. Only Jesus saves.
This is why we preach the gospel, this is why we send missionaries to the ends of the earth, this is why we urgently do the work of evangelism. We’ve got the Good News the world needs to hear.
The Gospel in a Nutshell
Here in a short form is our message: Jesus Christ has come into the world—fully God and fully man. He perfectly obeyed God’s law and perfectly fulfilled God’s will. He died in our place and as our substitute, paying for our sins. He rose from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven. He will one day return to the earth to establish his kingdom. In the meantime we are commissioned to preach the gospel to all people everywhere.
To say it this way means that the gospel doesn’t center in our feelings or our sentimental notions. The gospel is rooted in time and space, in the facts of history, in the Incarnation, in the truth of what God did when he sent his Son to the earth.
God did this out of love and pity for us. He knew there was no hope unless he took the initiative to save us. Salvation begins with the admission that there is nothing good in us, nothing in us that can contribute to our salvation, that we are utterly helpless and unable to save ourselves, and that salvation must come from outside of us. We confess that we need the help that only Jesus can supply.
God offers salvation on one simple and single condition—a wholehearted faith in Jesus Christ, trusting him alone as Lord and Savior, resting upon him for complete salvation, renouncing all self-trust, admitting our sinfulness, confessing our need, and crying out to Jesus to save us from our sins.
Those who trust in Jesus Christ and him alone are saved forever. They are forgiven of all their sins, born again, brought into God’s family, declared righteous while they were still sinners, their sins are placed on Christ and his righteousness is imputed to them, and they receive a new nature that enables them to walk in a brand-new direction. They are given eternal life and guaranteed they will go to heaven when they die. This is what John 3:16 means when it says that “God so loved the world.” This is the Good News Jesus told us to preach “to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
Why do we need this message? Because no one can be good enough! No one can work hard enough! No one can do anything to merit a place in heaven! The great danger we humans face is that we will change the gospel message into a “Christ plus” religion. So we believe in Jesus but then we add in good works, religion, baptism, the mass, the sacraments, giving, church attendance, and being a nice person as part of what God requires for us to go to heaven. The truth is, “Christ plus” faith will send you to hell. It is “only Jesus and Jesus only.” Paul taught “all of Christ and none of me.” If we teach “some of Christ and some of me” we are not teaching a biblical gospel.
The Cardinal’s Column
Yesterday a friend sent me a copy of the “Cardinal’s Column” by Francis Cardinal George for Sunday, September 5, 1999, as published in the Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Chicago archdiocese. You can find the column online at http://members.aol.com/neworld201/tnw/card_0905.htm.
Before I go any further I should mention I had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal George several years ago at a banquet for a prolife organization called “Aid to Women.” They are doing a fine work of helping young women deal with crisis pregnancies. The organization is supported primarily by Catholics and when I was asked to give the invocation, the lady who called me told me I would be the “token Protestant” at the banquet. I smiled and said I would be glad to take part in such a worthy occasion. It turns out she was 100% correct. My wife and I (and perhaps one or two others) were the only Protestants in a crowd of several hundred. It turned out that Cardinal George was the guest speaker that night and since I was giving the invocation, I sat at a table across from him. My wife was seated next to him and the two of them chatted quite a bit during dinner. After the banquet was over, I was preparing to leave when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Cardinal George. He said he had heard about Calvary Memorial Church and wished to thank us for our ministry in Oak Park. He was most gracious in his comments. My wife and I went away from that evening impressed with his humanity, his warm spirit, his obvious devotion to God, and his gentle way of dealing with people. Even though I have not seen him since that night, I regard him as a friend.
All of that is preface to my comments about his column entitled “The Baptists are coming, the Baptists are coming.” It seems that the Southern Baptist Convention is coming to Chicago next year. As part of a year-long emphasis on evangelism, the Southern Baptists are sending 100,000 church members to the Chicago area to do evangelism. You read the number right—100,000. No one has ever done anything on that scale in Chicago before. Since this area is heavily Catholic, there will be many Catholic-Baptist encounters. Someone asked Cardinal George if he was worried about the Baptists trying to convert the Catholics (which in fact is exactly what they will try to do). His answer was a model of kindness and straight talk. In the first place, he said, we should remember that the Baptists are “disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ and love him deeply.” We should be glad to meet fellow Christians no matter who they are or where they come from. Second, he praised the Baptists for caring enough about evangelism to come to Chicago in the first place. He also noted the common agreement between the two groups on matters relating to sexual morality.
Then he got down to brass tacks. Many Baptists doubt that Catholics are genuine Christians. And why is that? Here are his words: “Most basically, many Baptists think that belonging to the Catholic Church gets in the way of belonging to Jesus Christ.” That is a wonderful way to put it because it shows the Cardinal truly understands evangelical objections to Roman Catholicism. We want to talk about Jesus and all too often Catholics want to talk about the Church.
The Cardinal then related an encounter that took place on an airplane some years ago:
Years ago, I was seated next to a Baptist woman on a plane and, noting that I was a Catholic priest, she asked me if I was saved. It was the first time anyone had asked me that question so directly. Almost spontaneously I answered, “Yes, thanks to the sacraments of the Church.”
For the next few paragraphs Cardinal George goes on to explain exactly what he means. It boils down to this: Even though the Church is often less than what God intends it to be, we still encounter Christ through the sacraments, especially through Baptism and the Eucharist. This is how Christ comes to us, this is how we experience God’s grace, this is how we find assurance. It is through the church and its ministries that Christ comes to us to save us. In the end the sacraments are the earthly means of salvation to be received by faith. (That last sentence is mine, not his, but I think it accurately reflects what he wrote.)
Let me stop at this point and make one important observation. Whatever else you say about what Cardinal George wrote, this much is clear: It is radically different from what I have been presenting in this message—and what I have been preaching at Calvary for the last ten years. I would not say that we differ entirely. I am sure Cardinal George and I agree on the nature of God, the deity of Jesus, the necessity of his death on the cross, his bodily resurrection, and so on. But we differ completely on the way of salvation. I am preaching immediate justification for sinners on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone. He is preaching that salvation comes through meeting Christ in the sacraments of the church.
There is a difference and the difference is not small. Toward the end of his column Cardinal George recognizes this fact as he returns to the question of how Catholics should respond when they talk with the Baptists next year. He pays the Baptists a great compliment when he says:
The great advantage in meeting them is that they are men and women of integrity and will not “split the difference” because they know that the differences are real.
Right on! Too many people today want a “gloppy” theology. That’s what you get when you take a little of this and a little of that, trim off the hard edges, and try to meet somewhere in the middle. The Cardinal is correct when he says “the differences are real.” If we want true religious understanding, we must begin by acknowledging that some things cannot be glopped together in a sugar-water compromise.
Let’s not split the difference, he says, and I say the same thing.
Finally he comes to the end by encouraging his flock to welcome the Baptists, to dialogue with them, and then there is one more step they should take: “Ask them for their prayers, and invite them to become Catholic.” And that’s how the column ends.
I say, “Well done, Cardinal George.” I like dealing with people who are both gracious in their words and forthright about what they believe. My friend, Francis Cardinal George, says that the Catholics should invite the Baptists to become Catholic. Very well, in that same spirit of ecumenical honesty, I here and now invite Cardinal George to leave the Roman Catholic Church and to join Calvary Memorial Church. I don’t know if he will take me up on my invitation, but if so, I promise we will make room for him in our next new members class.
III. It is “my gospel” — II Timothy 2:8
In the end doctrine doesn’t save, Jesus saves. We need correct doctrine to tell us who Jesus is, who we are, and how we can be saved. But it is Christ alone who saves.
It is not enough to know the truth, you must believe the truth. It is not enough to possess the truth, the truth must possess you. Paul called it “my gospel.” Can you say that?
This gospel we preach is so simple that little children can believe it. It is so profound that the greatest scholars have been pondering it for 2000 years. The only thing you bring to the table is your need of a Savior. Come with empty hands and God will fill them.
Let’s Get Back to the Gospel!
Let me now make my close.
The gospel is good news, the best and most important news in the world.
It is good news because it comes from God.
It is good news because it tells us what Jesus Christ has done for us.
It is good news because it can change your life.
The gospel is the reason why Calvary Memorial Church exists. Here is our Mission Statement: “Helping people in our community and around discover the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” This is why God called us into being 84 years ago and it is why we are still here.
As I have come back from sabbatical, people have asked me what is on my heart. My answer is this. God has put heavily upon my heart that we must reaffirm the gospel as our central message. And we must be bold in our proclamation, bolder in the future than in the past.
Here are three concluding statements:
The gospel is the central message of the Bible. Therefore, we must know it. That means knowing enough to oppose any and every false gospel. We must get the gospel right. And we must have the courage to point out when someone else (who may be a nice person) gets it wrong. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is truly preaching the gospel.
The gospel is God’s plan of salvation. Therefore, we must believe it.
The Gospel is meant for everyone. Therefore, we must preach it!
Good News for the “Vilest Offenders”
If the gospel is true, then someone like me can go to heaven. In myself I see much that displeases me, and much more than must displease the Lord. The good news of the gospel is that sinners can be saved while they are still sinners simply by trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Because of the gospel you can know with certainty that should you die tonight, you are going to heaven.
The gospel is everything. It is our only message. The gospel teaches us that in Christ our sins can be forgiven and that the righteousness of Christ is credited to us the moment we trust in him. We lose our sin and we gain his righteousness. And it happens by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. What a glorious gospel this is. This is the only way to be right with God.
Earlier this summer in conjunction with Prison Fellowship we began offering free copies of my book Keep Believing in prisons across America. So far over 2000 prisoners have responded, and more letters arrive every day. These are men and women who have committed every crime on the books—murder, rape, theft, armed robbery, and all kinds of drug-related crimes. To a person, they write because they want hope, they want to find God, and they want forgiveness for their sins. What hope does the gospel offer them?
As I prepared this sermon, one phrase from an old gospel song kept running through my mind. It’s from the second verse of “To God be the Glory,” written by Fanny Crosby in 1875. The verse goes like this: “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God.” And now the key phrase: “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
Can that be true? Can even the vilest offender be pardoned from his sins? Thank God, the answer is yes. And does it really happen in a moment of time? Yes! This is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Hold fast to the true gospel, the Good News that comes from God. For in the gospel we find Jesus Christ. What else do we need?