What is the Gospel? Part 1 – Greg Albrecht
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”—Romans 1:16-17
Paul 1) categorically states that he is not ashamed of the gospel, 2) defines the gospel as the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, and 3) asserts that the gospel inherently includes a righteousness from God—a righteousness by faith—precluding any sort of righteousness which may come, or seem to come, by some other source.
Let’s pause and consider Paul’s bold, imperative and dogmatic statement—
I am not ashamed of the gospel.
Are you ashamed of the gospel? Of course in order to fully answer that question we must address what the gospel is. So let’s do that first. Let’s take our helicopter of biblical understanding and hover over this passage. Let’s hover over not only the ink and paper of our Bibles, but let’s take some time to ponder and assimilate the revelation of Jesus Christ that is a part of this written message.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the power of God. It saves us from ourselves, if we believe.
What isn’t the gospel? The gospel is not exclusively contained within the four walls of a building, in a denomination or in a religious institution. It is not a unique set of truth claims that make one church better or special. The gospel is not a matter of memorizing doctrines or reciting a creed. The gospel is not “religious.” The gospel is not about ceremonies, rituals and prescriptions.
The gospel is not about us. The gospel is not of human origins. The gospel does not depend on human efforts. God may, through the gospel, reach out to us and allow us to be involved in his work, but we should never think that any part of the power of God depends on our power, for as soon as we do, we become fools. Eventually, if we continue to allow ourselves to think that way, we will wind up in the salt mines of some religious outpost, pounding rock salt for our religious task masters.
The gospel is Jesus. Period..
Some believe that the gospel is about what Jesus taught. They believe that if we can only follow his teachings, then we will have captured, gained or internalized the gospel. But the gospel is more than words on the pages of your Bible. The gospel is not an academic enterprise.
Paul spoke to this issue in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians when he said that the wise man, the scholar and the philosopher may see the gospel as foolishness. God, in his wisdom, mercy and grace often confounds the wisdom of this flesh by making his gospel evident in the weak and foolish things, the lowly and despised things—for that matter, weak, foolish, lowly and despised people.
Why does God use the weak, foolish, lowly and despised to make the gospel known? So that no one can boast that the gospel is about them, or any part of them. I take comfort in that insight. Perhaps you will as well.
Some believe that the gospel is about the deeds of Jesus —what he did. They say that in order to be a true Christian, you must do everything Jesus did. As soon as we assume that the gospel is, in any manner, shape or fashion, about what we do, then we are departing from the very core and foundation of the gospel, which is Jesus. Jesus is the gospel.
Jesus did many things in his life that are not required, necessary, or even expedient for Christians today. That should be self-evident, but it isn’t, believe me. I know, I’ve been trapped in this philosophical ditch. Many of you have fallen for this same, misleading, fallacious idea as well.
If you fall for the idea that the gospel is about the deeds of Jesus, then you must do everything Jesus did, just as he did it. Jesus was, of course, a Jew, therefore, some who accept this completely wrong-headed notion, believe themselves to be Christians, but still believe that many portions of the old covenant are still necessary—absolutely required for Christians. Thus they see portions of the Old Testament as absolute requirements for Christians today.
Depending on the interpretation of some human authority or founder or teacher, such requirements might include Jewish dietary laws, Jewish days of worship, the seventh day Sabbath, annual Jewish holy days, and all kinds of Jewish ordinances and old covenant observances.
The logical inconsistencies between the old covenant and Jesus’ teachings never seem to enter the mind of individuals who fall under the influence of this unChristian and unbiblical teaching. Jesus was a Jew, he came to fulfill the old covenant, he came to do what needed to be done under the terms of the old covenant, to end it, and to inaugurate a new covenant in his blood.
If we accept the fatally flawed premise that the gospel is all about us doing precisely what Jesus did, then the New Testament explanations, illustrations and definitions of what the new covenant is are twisted, undermined, perverted, corrupted and eventually destroyed.
For example: When some read and teach the Sermon on the Mount with the flawed premise that the gospel is about what we do, they completely miss the point!
The Sermon on the Mount is not all of the gospel, it’s part of the gospel. The Sermon on the Mount prepared its original audience to be ready to receive and experience the gospel. Jesus didn’t give the Sermon on the Mount for the purpose of making the law and its demands more difficult to fulfill than it was under the old covenant. He gave the Sermon on the Mount to demonstrate that he and he alone could fulfill all righteousness. For that matter, the righteous demands of the old covenant were not enough. The old covenant did not include Jesus’ saving work on the Cross, nor did it impart the victory of his resurrection.
If we must fulfill all of the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, we are doomed. We are theological road kill. Our goose is cooked. We are spiritual toast.
The Sermon on the Mount highlights that Jesus has entered into our world to do for us what we can never do for ourselves. He is the gospel. The gospel is all about him.
Jesus is the only one who can fulfill the lofty and humanly impossible demands of the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the gospel is good news for us. The gospel is the good news that God has become one of us in the person of Jesus and that the power of God was not only once among us, but is still with us in the person of the risen Lord. The gospel is the power of God working in us, not human abilities to build character, to obey, or to do what must be done.
Now, after that brief discussion about the gospel and what it is and what it isn’t, we return to Paul’s declaration that he is not ashamed of the gospel. It’s possible therefore for humans to be ashamed of the gospel—in fact the vast majority of humans are. Why?
We can be ashamed of the gospel because we quickly find out that its message, its power, its Source and resources are outside of our control. We might be ashamed of the gospel because we naturally want to assume that we can handle all of the difficulties and problems that present themselves to us. But when we understand and comprehend the gospel, we come to see that the gospel doesn’t ask us or allow us to play an important role in our salvation.
By way of illustration, think of the gospel as a dramatic play being enacted on a stage. In the stage production of the screenplay we and our actions don’t play the leading role. In the gospel, Jesus is the playwright, the divine author, the producer and the director. As the divine author of the gospel he has written himself into the play and plays the leading role.
Jesus is center stage in the drama of the gospel…if we are Christians, then the drama of our lives means that he and he alone is in the spotlight. The gospel is all about Jesus. What happens when humans come to see that fact? Well, we feel minimized and devalued. We want to feel as if what we do is critically important.
We’re generally ashamed, for example, to take hand- outs. If we are on the edge financially and we need help from others, if we need someone to bring us some groceries, if we need someone to help us with the rent—that’s humbling. Our pride often gets in the way of accepting human help and it often prevents us from accepting divine help as well.
We are ashamed to admit that we really can’t handle our problems ourselves, and that we need help. That’s why that word believe in Romans 1:16 is so important. We must believe in the power of God, that he is big enough and strong enough to do what needs to be done for our salvation, without any of our help whatsoever.
But if someone comes along and uses words like “gospel” and “Jesus” and “grace” but still allows us to think that what we do is critically important, that we somehow are partners with God in our salvation, we are easy prey—because we want to feel that we have some control of our spiritual lives and destiny. That’s how and why people who think they are Christians can actually be ashamed of the gospel.
But Paul says, in Romans 1:16, he is not ashamed to receive God’s grace. He is not ashamed because God had transformed him. Paul, who was once the king of legalism, is now the apostle of God’s grace.
The second verse in our passage, Romans 1:17, says that the gospel is revealed by God—it is not naturally known, understood or apprehended. He has to reveal it to us.
God does not reveal the gospel as a reward for our religious performances. We can memorize the Bible, we can never miss church, we can pray six hours a day, we can give all that we have to the poor, we can work our fingers to the bone serving the less fortunate, we can crawl on our knees, until we bleed, up a cobblestone path to an edifice that calls itself a church—but that won’t gain us the gospel.
We can have a high IQ, with so many letters and degrees behind our name that it looks like alphabet soup, but academic brilliance won’t gain us the gospel.
Humans are hard-wired to think of our relationship with God as being based on cause and effect, and thus our very nature is hostile to God (Romans 8:7). Our human nature enables us to fall for the idea that we can, at the very least, contribute to any righteousness or virtue that God requires of us, and thus our nature contributes to a masquerade of the gospel and robs us of the power of the gospel.
For lack of a better title let’s call this hard-wiring within our natural make up religious moralism and legalism. Religious duties, deeds, moral behaviors and legalisms stress truth without grace, human performance without acceptance of Jesus’ complete and sufficient work on the cross.
Religious moralism and legalism is the idea that we are acceptable to God because of our performance. The idea is that we can influence how God thinks about us as a result of our behavior. According to such a perspective, when we have a “bad” day the heavenly Dow-Jones will announce that our spiritual stock is down, because, according to this view, what we do is the basis of the value of our heavenly stock.
On the other hand, if we have a good day or good week, then when our name appears on the heavenly Dow-Jones ticker tape, it is followed by an increase or decrease of our spiritual worth.
When God sees that our spiritual stock is up (as a result of our efforts) then, according to this fatally flawed assumption, he is happy. If we die on a good day, when our stock is up, then we are more likely to “make it” into heaven. Those who believe in this perversion of the God of the Bible hope they die during a “good” time, when they are doing lots of good stuff. They hope they are wearing freshly washed spiritual underwear when they die—so God will be favorably influenced by their spiritual hygienic efforts.
Religious moralism and legalism leads us to self-loathing and self-hatred, because we cannot measure up.
On the other hand, the religiosity of moralism and legalism can also cause self-inflation, a spiritual balloon filled with the hot air of self righteousness and pride. We can feel smug and superior because of something we think we have done well, and therefore we can’t wait to show our spiritual report card to God.
Legalistic religion is incredibly self-centered. Christ-less religion is all about our capacity to do good things.
Legalistic religion inflates us, it leads to arrogance, smug superiority and self-righteousness. Legalistic religion is all about how “I’m better than you are because I do thus and such.” Religion, apart from God’s grace, is all about self inflation, while, at the same time, it keeps us imprisoned by notions and ideas of how much and how often we must do all of the right things. Religion and its institutions set themselves up as a counterfeit savior, promising that what we are able to produce by paying and praying our way will gain us God’s eternal kingdom.
The gospel is other-centered, it is Christ-centered, it is all about Jesus and what he has done, is doing and will do for us. The gospel humbles us. The gospel is based on the self-humiliation of God, who in the person of Jesus, left the eternity of heaven to come to be one of us here on earth. The gospel insists that Jesus alone is Savior, without any of our help whatsoever. Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.
The gospel is a new work, a new life, it is transforming, it is out of this world, it is the life of Christ living in us. The gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16).
The gospel is new, alive, fresh and dynamic because Jesus is its common denominator, and he is risen—alive and with us now and forever.
Here’s what we read in Colossians 1:6:
…All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.
Three things we can note from this passage about the gospel:
1) The gospel is living, it is alive. It’s like a plant or a tree, it bears fruit, it brings more and more life.
2) God plants the gospel in us when we first yield to God’s grace in all its truth. We begin to understand God’s grace when we believe it. The gospel grows out of God’s grace. The gospel is faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.
3) The gospel will continue to grow in us and renew us and change and transform us, as Paul says, as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it.
The gospel, as our passage in Romans 1:16 says, is the power of God. The power of God is God who lives in us, Jesus and his risen life, the Holy Spirit who indwells us. The power of God produces his fruit in our lives. The gospel is good news because it means that God is at work in human lives everywhere and therefore we have hope. We have a basis for faith, because God is at work within what often may seem to us to be a bleak and corrupted world.
Let’s not forget the invitation of the gospel, the goal of the gospel.
The gospel invites us all to a heavenly feast. The Bible tells us, in many different word pictures, in prophetic passages, in parables, in the law, in the epistles of the New Testament, in scenes from Genesis to Revelation about a great feast—a great marriage supper of the Lamb, a great harvest, about a garden setting, about a great celebration. The Bible teaches us about the tree of life, of manna from heaven, the true Bread of Life and about us being seated in heavenly places.
The food that is served at this grand celebration has the same spiritual significance and value as the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper—communion. We feed on God in Christ. We dwell with him and in him forever. It’s a grand wedding celebration, making Jesus’ first miracle (when he created wine out of water at a wedding feast) so much more meaningful. The gospel is about good news, it’s about joy, it’s about a party!
The gospel is God’s invitation to each of us to “come over” to his house for a dinner party, the house where Jesus has already gone to make a place ready for us (John 14:2). God is inviting us “over” (or “up”) into his eternity. The gospel is both the invitation and the power, the vehicle that transports us to the party.
God wants to know one thing. At the bottom of invitation cards we humans use when planning a dinner or a party we ask the recipient to R.S.V.P.—”Respond if you please.” R.S.V.P. on a invitation means that the invited guest must tell the host whether or not they plan to attend the party. It means the host wants to know your intentions.
Here’s what God is saying to us in the gospel:
“Let me know if you’re coming.”
“Let me know if I can set a place for you.”
“You don’t know the way to my house. On your own, you can’t get here from where you are. But by my power, by faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone, I will make sure that I get you here if you decide to come.”
God wants to know if we’re coming. The gospel is his invitation. We have a choice as to whether to accept or reject that invitation. If you haven’t already, you might want to drop a reply card in the mail to him to let him know your intentions.