What is the Gospel? Or, to translate the word ‘gospel’, what is the Good News? You may think it a rather unexpected, or even silly question, to be asking on the website of a college which exists to teach the bible and Christian theology. And yet, I would suggest it is not. I believe there is a great deal of confusion over this word and guess that if you were to put this question to a number of churchgoers, you would get various answers. In the majority of the larger denominations for example, you’d most likely be told something along the lines that the Gospel is simply the love of God. Or that Jesus loves you and has a plan for your life. Some people asked may also talk about Jesus dying for us, but not be clear as to how this works.
The thing is, we can answer this question in many different ways. The Gospel is like a multi-faceted gemstone which has beauty running through it which looks different when viewed from different angles. And of course, part of this beauty is the good news that God loves us. But the message left there could apply to dozens of religions. What really makes Christianity different is Christ. Christians believe that God has sent his Son into the world to show what he, God, is like; to demonstrate his love for us and to reconcile us with himself. In Jesus’ death we see that no matter what we human beings do to him, he will still love; ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
And yet, profound as these these things are, there is still more. And here is where we come to what I see as being the heart of the Gospel. The key word missing above is ‘sin’. Such an old fashioned word is it not? And yet, we are all steeped in it; born into it; unable to avoid it, in thought, word and deed. How do we get rid of this sin; the things we say and do which we shouldn’t; or the things we don’t say and do which we should?
If we are honest, we’ll admit that we can’t sort this out ourselves. We can’t go back and put right everything we’ve ever done wrong. And we can’t pay God some kind of compensation, because he doesn’t need anything we can offer. And anyway, everything we do have, he gave us in the first place, including life itself. We know that God is a God of justice and that wrongdoing should be punished. And this is where the angle of so-called ‘substitutionary atonement’ comes in. We can’t always do right or put right our wrongs, but Christ could and did. He lived a perfect life and, in his death, took the punishment for sin that we deserve.
Now it is precisely here that we seem to run into problems for so many people in the 21st century. Substitutionary atonement is now seen by many as a liability for the Christian church and even evangelical individuals and organisations are falling out about it. For many today, the doctrine is seen as an embarrassment or even an offence. We should not talk about sin and punishment to people in church; we should not point out the hopeless predicament we’re in and the desperate need of a Saviour. No! all of this is too negative. We might even put people off coming to our services! The idea that God should send his own Son to be punished for our transgressions has been rejected by many today as being a monstrously unjust idea. Steve Chalke, the well-known Baptist pastor, speaker and writer, has described the doctrine as ‘cosmic child abuse.’
And yet, throughout the Old Testament we read of a people who know they are sinners and who are instructed by God to offer substitutionary atonement to him so that they may be forgiven; their best goats, lambs, bulls, turtle-doves, whatever it may be; cosmic animal abuse if you care to use Steve Chalke’s disturbing terminology. And all of these sin atoning sacrifices are, in the New Testament, said to have been shadows of an ultimate sacrificial atonement to come. ‘(Christ) entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12).
God has always reached down to bring his people up out of the mire. We can’t lift ourselves up because in our natural state, we are at enmity with God (James 4:4) ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10). So the coming of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of love; not a warm, fluffy love, but a love as hard as nails which refuses to be deflected. God the Son became a human being as we are (though without sin) and reached down into this murky world to raise up all those who would believe out of the mire, washed clean and ready to be presented to their heavenly Father; ‘Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’ (Colossians 1:21-22).
God knows that we need to know we are forgiven and that therefore, we need to know that justice has been done. Jesus ‘was delivered over to death for our sins’ (Romans 4:25) through a love for us that is so great that, not only does this love pay the price – take the punishment – for sin, it leaves us in do doubt that the price is paid, so that we can know for sure that we are free and forgiven. But, for us to be in this condition of freedom and forgiveness, we must attach ourselves by faith to this Saviour, this lifebelt which has been thrown down to us, so that we are pulled from the slime into the very kingdom of God, where he has ‘raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ In this joyous state, we rejoice in St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:1; ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’: and in Ephesians 1:7; ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.’
Let me reiterate again that there is absolutely no way that we could do this by ourselves. We need a Saviour. There are many people calling themselves Christians today who do not know they need a Saviour and indeed, do not know what they need to be saved from. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. If we for one moment believe we do not need a Saviour; that we can somehow earn our own way into God’s favour by our own good deeds, we blaspheme against God. ‘I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die’ (Gal 2:21).
Whatever your own views on this topic, I’d urge you to think on it carefully, to search the scriptures and examine ‘whether these things be so’ (Acts 17:11). And I pray that God will bless you in your efforts.