The central message of Christianity is something we Christians call the Gospel, a word that literally means “good news.” Christianity is a “good news” religion. It exists to tell the world that something good, something true, something beautiful has happened, and now everything can start to get better again. Everything can start to be remade, rebuilt from its brokenness–even you and me!
One of the things that I love most about being an evangelical is that the Gospel is constantly put front and center in my life because I hear it proclaimed from the pulpit in church nearly every week. I see it in action in the lives of my friends. I watch as it transforms people, moving them from sinner to saint. And we evangelicals are careful to tell you that there’s nothing you can do to earn this Gospel, this salvation. It’s a free gift from God. It comes by grace, through faith. You can’t buy it. You can’t work for it. You can’t earn it.
Why is that? It’s because of what the Gospel is. The Gospel is an event, a story. It’s the story of Jesus.
Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [many].
The Gospel is the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. When we proclaim the Gospel, we proclaim the news (which just so happens to be very, very good) that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, appearing to many. The Gospel is a proclamation of historical fact, which like all facts of history, can neither be changed nor earned.
This is a profound comfort. A comfort so glorious and gracious, in fact, that we find it very difficult to live with. The fact is that you and I are prone to change the Gospel. We’re apt to add to it, to make it earn-able. We engulf it in doctrinal tests to determine who’s out and who’s in. We define it in terms of behavior, turning the Gospel into some sort of morality test. (Which, of course, isn’t good news at all, because if Jesus is the standard of morality, then who among us could ever hope to pass that test!) We’re all tempted to add things to the Gospel, but adding anything to the Gospel destroys it, changing it from an event in real time and space to a philosophy, a doctrine, a list of rules, or a set of behaviors.
But the Gospel is not abstract. It is not intangible. It is not conceptual.
The Gospel happened. The Gospel is blood and flesh, nails and wood, thorns and fists. The Gospel is a tortured scream, an agonized groaning, a declaration of God-forsakenness. It is a desperate look to heaven, a final breath, a surrendered spirit. The Gospel is a suffocated man on a Roman cross. A man who was God. Now dead.
The Gospel is myrrh and aloe, a king’s burial. It is strips of linen, a stranger’s tomb. The Gospel is silence. Burial.
The Gospel is the first breath back from the dead, renewed hands folding up burial clothes. The Gospel is a stone rolling away from the inside, terrified soldiers, gleaming light. It is an angel laughing, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is the tears of Mary, hands grasping at the gardner’s feet–Jesus’s feet. The Gospel is two men walking along the road talking with a stranger, the risen Jesus they did not recognize. The Gospel is doubting Thomas’s fingers running across the wounds on Jesus’s hands, proof which led to his declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” It is Jesus and Peter, sharing a breakfast of reconciliation. “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.”
This is news. World-changing news. But this news cannot be changed. This news cannot be earned. You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the Revolutionary War. It is an event that happened long before you were born. Earning it is simply not part of the equation.
And yet we do. We change it. And I think most of us change it one way–we limit it. We say, “Sure, Jesus died and rose again. God loves the world so much that he offers salvation to everybody for free! That’s all true and it applies to every one…every one, that is, except for me. I am depressingly special, because I still have to earn my way back to God.”
This is what we believe in our deep, deep hearts, isn’t it? We think that God only likes us if we’ve had a day of little to no sin. We think that God will only bless us if we set the course of our lives to accomplish some great thing for him. We so easily forget that the Gospel is a true story that does not change as the years pass. It’s not a philosophical statement. It’s not a logical argument. It’s not even a doctrine! The Gospel is a statement of historical fact. It’s the story of Jesus.
When we change the Gospel, when we believe that God will only accept me if I don’t sin or that I have to somehow earn God’s saving grace, we are denying the story, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We change it from the story of Jesus into the story of me. We put ourselves into the middle of the story of the world. We say, “I’ve got to pull myself up by my own moral bootstraps. I’ve got to make my way, against all odds, back to God!”
But the Gospel is not about you; the Gospel is for you. It’s the story of Jesus dying and rising for you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his death and resurrection. That already happened. What could you possibly do to earn something that already happened? Could you earn the Revolutionary War? How ridiculous! And yet everyday we live our lives as though we have to earn the Gospel, that God loves us so much that his Son came, died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many.
We receive the Gospel. We receive it by faith. We say, “Okay, God. This is what you’ve done. I can’t change that fact. I can’t go back in time and pull you off the cross. I can’t do anything to earn what you’ve already done. I believe it. I receive it. Thank you.” The Gospel has happened, and that is good news. Jesus’s death and resurrection have provided the means for you to be reconciled back to God, to be forgiven of all your sins, and to be made new. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it.