What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s a strange question to ask near the end of the eighth year of writing a blog that is mostly devoted to my professional interests but sometimes dabbles in things spiritual. It’s a basic question, but one that many Christians and others merely interested in Christianity struggle to answer with clarity. To be sure, there is plenty of difficult-to-understand doctrinal material to be found in the Old and New Testaments, enough so that we have multiple denominations and traditions that have divided over disagreements both big and small. Yet surely we should all be able to understand and agree upon “the basics.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), to which my church and denomination subscribe, states the following (Chapter 1, Paragraph 7):
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Perhaps that could be more briefly stated, “Yes, there’s hard stuff there, but the most important part is easy to figure out.” So if the gospel—the “good news” itself—is supposed to be simple, why do we have a hard time explaining it? Let me suggest five things that “muddy the waters” on this basic question.
1. We are sinners. Scripture tells us that basically from Genesis 3 on, we have been separated from God, prone to mix sin into even our best thoughts, words, and works. Jesus himself reminds us in Matthew 6 that we cannot “serve two masters,” yet so often we try to “have our cake and eat it,” wanting to be “good Christians” on the one hand while also maintaining worldly respectability, position, or pleasure on the other. Even the best intentioned among us can, if we are not careful, distort the clarity and simplicity of the gospel because of our own sinful tendencies.
2. We make cultural assumptions. That cultural and religious practices will influence one another is perhaps inevitable. Christian worship in different parts of the world, while hopefully similar in broad outlines, will vary in certain particulars according to the cultural milieus of different times and places. This is fine and even to be expected, as long as we don’t make our particular cultural expression a sine qua non of the gospel itself.
3. We make religious assumptions. Over fifteen years ago a young Southern Baptist couple moved to the Midwest for a new job, and before finding a small Southern Baptist church there visited congregations of a couple of other Baptist denominations. The couple declined to join any of those churches, in part because they did not have an “altar call” at the end of their services. To be fair, that was before my wife and I discovered Reformed theology, much less came to understand that the development of the altar call as a part of worship was a nineteenth-century phenomenon never seen prior to that time and still not practiced by many faithful Christians. I had assumed that a religious practice never precisely observed in scripture was nevertheless a vital part of Christianity. If we are not careful, we can all assume that certain beliefs and practices with which we grew up are vital to the faith, when we should examine them in the light of scripture to either put them in their proper place or set them aside.
4. We confuse imperatives and indicatives. The term “gospel” or “good news” tells us that this message is not an imperative—a “do this” statement, but rather than an indicative—a “this is so” statement. To be sure, the Bible is full of imperatives; the Ten Commandments provide a nice selection of those. And there is even an imperative to be exercised in response to the gospel, but the “good news” itself is an indicative: a message, a declaration, an “indication” that something wonderful has happened. We err when we confuse these.
5. We confuse the gospel itself with its results. If you enjoy hearing exciting “testimonies” of God’s work in people’s lives, then you’ll be bored with mine. I was raised in church and became a believer as a child. Yes, I was a sinner, and yes, I repented and believed the gospel—and that is wonderful. But you know what I’m talking about. People get way more excited about a testimony like that of Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020), a great Christian apologist who passed just a few days ago. Zacharias was a religiously skeptical teenager that attempted suicide and when he woke up received a Gideon Bible in his hospital room. He read it and was converted. His whole life was turned around and he began a life of wondrously productive ministry. Whether the apparent change in a person’s life is relatively small like mine, or big like his, the change results from the gospel—the change itself is not the gospel.
If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably wondering “when are you going to answer your own question?” Now. I’m going to do it now. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is most simply laid out in 1 Corinthians 15, where the Apostle Paul wrote this:
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….(1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
That’s it, stated most simply right there in the Bible. Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again. That is the gospel, the news, the indicative—the thing that is so regardless of my response to it, or yours. The imperative—the thing that you and I must do in response to the gospel—flows from it. Turn back a couple of books and you’ll find that stated simply also:
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31)
I’ve copied here just four verses for you; if you want a statement of what the confession calls “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” there it is. Of course, there are ideas just under the surface even in those verses that are not immediately apparent. That Jesus is described as Christ brings with it certain understandings of deity as well as his role as Savior, while the instruction to believe in him as “Lord” includes repentance by implication, since acknowledging his Lordship would require turning from sin to following him. But the basic message is there:
Christ died for our sins and rose again. (Indicative.)
Believe in him and be saved. (Imperative.)
That, in a nutshell, is both the gospel and what we are to do in response to it. Everything else in the Bible points here, to the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While we can and should search the scriptures for understanding and guidance on every matter to which it speaks, let us not in so doing lose sight of “the main thing,” much less obscure others’ view by adding our own baggage, however well-intentioned. The gospel is simple. Let’s keep it so.