What exactly is “the gospel”?
You’d think most Christians would be able to answer such a “simple” question. After all, we are called to preach the gospel. But really, not many professing believers can give an adequate, biblically sound answer to this question. I’m not saying that to sound pompous or arrogant, or to flaunt my own theological prowess – it’s simply the truth.
Imagine for a moment that someone you know just told you that one of their loved ones passed away. What’s the first question that comes to your mind? To me, it’s usually, “Was (s)he saved?” I can’t help but feel a raw numbness at the funeral of someone who probably wasn’t a Christian. How can we celebrate their life knowing they’re not in heaven with the Lord?
The entire Christian walk or “experience” seems to boil down to where we expect a soul to go after a person passes, but is that really what Jesus came to do? Give us a comfortable experience in the afterlife? Let us live in an eternally blissful state where we’d be continually strumming a harp with a halo ’round our heads?
After all, that’s kind of what we see heaven as. Heaven is the place where we’ll see everyone we love, experience no pain, and simply just exist for the sake of existing. I will never forget, as a child, hearing a new convert who was baptized alongside me ponder that heaven “just sounds really boring.”
It seems that we share the gospel to save people from going to hell. We don’t want them to experience eternal damnation and suffering. It sounds like a noble pursuit to want to help our loved ones evade this fate, but have you ever thought about who wants to go to hell?
No sane, rationally-minded individual would choose eternal torment over pleasure (assuming they understood the true brutality of hell). Even those who hate God would never choose this sort of punishment, so wanting to escape it doesn’t mean you are on the path to being a Christian. Why would anybody want to go to hell if there was a much better alternative?
But the better question is: why do any of us want to go to heaven?
Consider this quote from John Piper:
“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there? ”
We all seem to want to go to heaven because it’ll be comfortable compared to the literally hellish alternative. The real kicker is this: how many of us desire heaven simply to be with Jesus? If we believe Jesus came to Earth to save us from hell, then why don’t we desire going to heaven just so we can be with the One who purchased that home for us with His blood? Why does “going to heaven” conjure up images of tranquility, and not basking in God’s holiness?
1 Peter 3:18 tells us what Jesus came to do, and (surprise) – it wasn’t to get us seats in heaven.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all,
the righteous for the unrighteous,
that He might bring you to God…” – 1 Peter 3: 18 (HCSB)Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville Tennessee. All rights reserved.
Jesus’ suffering on the cross was for much more than getting us into the right side of eternity. His sacrifice was to draw us to God, to have a loving relationship with the Father. As a child, I would often wonder why Jesus had to come to the Earth to forgive us for our sins. Why couldn’t He forgive us while still up in Heaven? But the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh shows that the ultimate gift of the gospel isn’t just forgiveness, but the gift of God Himself.
Fire and brimstone preaching is just as damaging and as much of a distortion as the “prosperity” gospel. One reduces Jesus to a ticket to eternal paradise, whereas the other makes Him an ATM. Jesus wasn’t sent to Earth simply to keep us out of a fiery furnace. To reduce the gospel to what happens after we die is to to miss the point.
The Christian life is much more than where we end up after we leave this Earth. The relationship we have with Jesus through prayer, study of Scripture, and fellowship with other Christians is all part of it. We are much more quick to rush to the deathbed with a Bible and the ABC’s of salvation than we are to warn the stagnant, nominal believers we interact with on a daily basis. Both types of souls are at an immense loss.
In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to, “Go out and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, ESV). The original Greek uses the word “mathétés” for disciple, which can be translated to learner, or pupil. Becoming a disciple of Jesus implies something far greater than repeating a formulaic prayer during an altar call and then continuing to live the same old, ordinary life.
This brings us back to our original question – what exactly is the gospel, then?! Consider this passage in Luke where Jesus was asked how one could inherit eternal life.
Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the law?” He asked him. “How do you read it?” He answered: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. “You’ve answered correctly,” He told him. “Do this and you will live.” – Luke 10: 25 – 28 (HCSB)Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville Tennessee. All rights reserved.
Jesus didn’t tell the young man to pray a special prayer to have eternal life. Get this – Jesus didn’t even mention the man’s sins. If you pray the “sinner’s prayer” because you want your sins forgiven, that doesn’t make you a Christian. Plenty of nonbelievers and atheists struggle with a pricking conscience (to not do so would indicate psychopathy).
The only way to have a relationship with God is to first love Him. Christianity isn’t about being the only people who know how to get to heaven – it’s about loving and following Jesus wholeheartedly. The forgiveness of sins and eternity in heaven are consequences of this relationship. These don’t define the gospel – they are byproducts of it.
Satan knew man’s proclivity for getting caught up in God’s blessings while forgetting the Benefactor. The entire story of Job shows us this. What Satan wanted to determine was if Job would forsake God if he lost the benefits of their relationship. We are faced with that same test everyday – do we love Jesus, or the comforts He brings? The answer to this question determines whether you are a Christian or an idolater.
So, what is the gospel? It’s so much more than the gift of heaven. The gospel boils down to recognizing the Giver is also the Greatest Gift.
This post was originally written in February 2017 and was updated this month. It was written after I read God is the Gospel by John Piper – a truly transforming book that you can buy here.
I am the admin and founder of www.beautyofhope.ca