I don’t think most churchgoers actually know what the gospel is.
At the risk of sounding like an uppity, presumptuous layman blinded by the Dunning-Kruger effect (yes – I know how this looks), I’m pretty well convinced that the majority of preachers don’t actually know what it is, either.
And, of course, not knowing what the gospel is constitutes a major problem for American Christians and anyone we influence, hence my urgent contention that we have collectively strayed into apostasy.
The Mystery Kept Hidden
Of course, there’s no shortage of people who know the right words to say – everyone can quote the gospel, as Paul presented it in 1 Corinthians 15, in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we insist that the saved and the unsaved are plainly identifiable as those who either affirm or deny those terms.
But that clearly wasn’t the gospel preached by Jesus himself at a time when he actively concealed his identity as the Christ (Luke 9:18-21), nor was it the gospel preached by his disciples (Luke 9:1-6), who couldn’t bring themselves to accept that he was going to die, much less announce it in a preaching tour (Luke 9:44-45).
And, we are told by the writer of Hebrews regarding the Israelites led by Moses: “We also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did.” (4:1, 2)
Yet, the particulars Paul laid out as “the gospel” were a “mystery kept hidden for ages and generations,” not revealed until the 1st century (Colossians 1:25-27; Ephesians 3:9; Romans 16:25-27). Prior to that time of revelation and fulfillment, they were mysteries the prophets themselves struggled to apprehend and into which “even angels longed to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
According to Paul and Peter, only God Himself knew about Christ’s death and resurrection and its implications and effects – neither the prophets and patriarchs, nor the angels and demons knew about it, until it actually happened.
Yet, we are told that “the gospel” was preached by Jesus and his disciples for years prior, and it was known also to Moses and the Israelites and, presumably, innumerable others who lived and died in the millennia leading up to the year 30 A.D.
Personally, I’ve rarely seen this apparent contradiction addressed from the pulpit, and when I have, I can’t remember a satisfactory explanation – one that didn’t introduce still greater contradictions and needless complications and hermeneutical gymnastics.
Typically, one of two preposterous scenarios are proposed to account for this: 1) Ancient people, going back to Adam and Eve, actually did believe and worship on much the same terms as modern evangelicals, but were somehow led astray by “legalism” in the time prior to Jesus – contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament; or 2) the ancient Israelites were somehow saved to eternal life through some provision of the Law of Moses – those sacrifices of bulls and goats actually did save them, also contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament.
And I don’t base my conviction that the American church has missed the gospel solely on its failure to address this apparent dilemma. I think this is only symptomatic of the fact that the church is working from the wrong paradigm of what the gospel actually is.
The dilemma resolves itself, however, when we read it within the right paradigm of what the gospel actually is:
Christ’s death and resurrection are the how of the gospel.
They’re not the what of it.
His death and resurrection are how the gospel was accomplished, but are not, in themselves, the gospel.
No, the what of the gospel is salvation by grace through faith.
Of course, that’s no big shock to anyone, and it might be a bit of a let-down after my big, audacious opening, because everyone already knows that.
The confusion comes when we start defining each of the operative terms in that phrase.
Good News for Serial Killers, Bad News for Gandhi
As previously discussed, our definition of “faith” is often set in contrast to reason with regard to our epistemology, resulting in the self-lobotomizing error of Fideism, which masquerades as belief in Christ, all the while inoculating people against it.
Where our popular soteriology (our study of how we’re saved) is concerned, “faith” is typically set in opposition to works: in contrast to the notion of being justified by what we do, this concept of salvation says we’re justified by what we believe.
According to this understanding of the gospel, “faith” is defined as Doctrinal Correctness: if you believe X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’re “saved,” which is defined as “going to heaven when you die instead of hell.” You might get bonus points if you do good works, but God’s grace (as this “gospel” defines it) is such that you can safely live as you please and sin with impunity and presume upon His forgiveness, so long as you believe correctly. You might even live your entire life on earth as a serial murderer and child rapist, ignoring all appeals from your conscience and laughing from afar at the things of God, but then affirm the correct doctrines in the moments before your execution by “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” and, according to this “gospel,” you’ll be assured a trouble-free afterlife, spared God’s punishment for all the evil you committed on earth.
On the other hand, if you never affirm X, Y and Z, it doesn’t matter how much good you do or what circumstances prevented you signing off on the required doctrinal checklist – you are going to hell, and no amount of good deeds or honorable character qualities will save you.
This is “the gospel” we celebrate and proclaim as the glorious expression of God’s grace and love for humanity.
Everyone doesn’t necessarily preach it precisely on those exact terms, and some offer various caveats, conditions and qualifiers to mitigate the galling vapidity of it all, and some might offer different values for what the X, Y and Z of minimal doctrinal affirmation are, but that’s the essence of “Christianity” as it is popularly understood, particularly among evangelicals: what you do doesn’t matter, only what you believe.
And this is why we have a church culture that admits actual debate over whether someone has to “accept Jesus as Lord” in order to be saved, or if it’s enough to just “accept Jesus as Savior” (take a minute and google “lordship debate” if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
The Killing Letter
Now, it’s true that Paul often set faith in contrast to works in his choice of wording, which has been used to support the phony “gospel” under discussion, as well as to suggest a contradiction between Paul and James’ respective teachings (“Just faith? Or faith and works?” –James 2:14-26).
Context is everything, though, and when we pay attention to it, there is no contradiction. When Paul spoke of “works,” clearly he just meant it as shorthand for “works of the law.” (See Ephesians 2, Romans 3 and Galatians 3, among a slew of other passages.)
And that makes a world of difference for our definition of “faith.”
“The law,” of course, refers to the Law of Moses – the requirements of the covenant God made with Israel. The Law of Moses was their national constitution: the basis for Israel’s government, with God Himself at its head.
A law, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than a threat to kill those who are subject to it for non-compliance.
Now, I tend to get a lot of resistance when I point this out to people. I find that many people, even conservative-leaning Christians, tend to have a relatively favorable view of government (not necessarily individual office holders, but “government” as a concept), and many even take it for granted that government programs are the answer to most problems in the world. When you see the government as a benevolent caretaker, the idea that everything about it revolves around its potential to kill can be grating to your sensibilities (especially when the people with the most favorable view of government also tend, ironically, to be most opposed to the death penalty).
But, everything in the New Testament – the entire Bible, actually (along with the study of civics, history, law, government, etc.) – hinges on this point, so it’s worth taking the time to drive home, even at the risk of belaboring what might, to some, be an obvious point in an already lengthy discourse.
The underlying principle all governments have in common in whatever form they take – the defining quality that makes it a “government,” be it a Bronze Age theocracy, an imperial autocracy, a liberal democracy or anything in-between – is violence, or the threat thereof, and nothing else.
Yes, governments generally do more than just execute people: they provide various services and infrastructure and administer less severe punishments, and they offer incentives for behaviors desired but not compulsory, like getting married or “going green.” But, none of those sticks and carrots would be possible without first establishing their monopoly on force – on violence. They have to levy taxes to be able to do all that (since governments produce nothing by themselves), and we don’t pay taxes because we want to – we do it because they’ve got all those people with guns. That’s why we pull over when the flashing lights appear in our rear-view mirror, and that’s why we obey court summons and pay fines or submit to detainment – because we know those people with guns will come after us if we don’t. No, they won’t shoot us on the spot if we don’t immediately comply (hopefully), but if we resist and keep resisting, the situation will escalate and our death is the inevitable result if we don’t comply at some point.
Government is the sword, and nothing else. Take the sword away and everything else we call “government” goes, too.
That’s why the apostle Paul said “the letter (of the law) kills” and called the Covenant of Moses “the ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).
And he wasn’t saying any of that as if it’s a bad thing – Paul was a fan of the law. He just understood what it is and what its limitations are.
Law isn’t bad, people are. That’s why we need laws. If it were something people could be counted on to do on our own, there’d be no need to threaten us into compliance: the fact that we need to be told, under pain of death, to obey things like “Don’t murder” and “Don’t steal” is a pretty good indication of our fallen nature.
And in the case of Israel’s national religious life, faithful worship of the God of Abraham wasn’t something they could be counted upon to do on their own. In order to create the society and culture within which the Messiah could emerge, within which his work and teachings could be understood, observance of God’s requirements had to be compulsory.
But, according to the Law and the Prophets themselves (Jeremiah 31:31-34), that was never intended to be the final state of affairs.
Because what good is compulsory worship? It means nothing to God if it doesn’t mean everything to us.
If it’s just because there’s a carrot in it for you if you do it and a stick at your back if you don’t, it’s not really worship. Genuine worship doesn’t need to be enticed or coerced. To know and trust God is to know He is worthy of worship and adoration, and rendering it is its own reward.
Likewise, obeying all of the other applicable aspects of the law is also its own reward, because those laws are a reflection of His character and values. If you have faith (in the genuine, biblical sense), you don’t do it because you’re afraid God will get you if you don’t. You do it because you love and trust Him and want to see His will done on earth as it is in heaven – you know He doesn’t give commandments just to ruin our good time or make life more difficult, but to benefit us and make our lives as fulfilling and dignified as possible.
And, in fact, genuine faith means doing it even when – especially when the situation is reversed: when the reward for faithfulness is a cross.
So, “salvation by grace through faith, not by the works of the law” doesn’t exclude works. There have to be works. The only question is why you’re performing them.
There’s obedience under law, which justifies and saves no one, and then there’s what Paul called “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5 and 16:26), which does.
The two resemble each other outwardly, because they both entail works, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other if you only look at the surface, but the differences between them are as great as the differences between marriage and prostitution.
The two resemble each other because they include the same acts, but one is the perversion and counterfeit of the other. The acts are done for their own sake within marriage, as an expression of mutual love. The wedding night isn’t a payment rendered in exchange for the courtship, it’s the consummation of the courtship. In prostitution, the rewards offered are unrelated to the act itself and the two parties are only exploiting each other for personal gratification, and treating something sacred as a mere commodity. So, we rightly condemn it as a perversion and mockery of everything beautiful and good about marriage.
The Life-Giving Word
Salvation by grace through faith – the eternal gospel – has always been implied, and there have always been people who have understood it.
That man is accountable to God for our wickedness, and that God is good and loves man and has the power and wisdom to provide a way to eternal life, despite our corruption has always been knowable to mankind, even though the specifics were not.
It was implied in the Old Testament writings, but it is also written into creation itself, we are told (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-20; Romans 10:18), and in the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15).
Those who heed the message of creation and conscience, Paul said, can seek God and find Him, because He is not far from anyone (Acts 17:23-28).
Unfortunately, we are too often led astray by our own corruption and by the lies we tell each other, so the message goes unheeded, if we find it at all.
That’s why God had to reveal Himself in history by setting one nation apart from the rest and putting them under the supervision of His law – so that what could be inferred from creation, and what was implied in the Old Testament, would eventually be made explicit and clear through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Before, people always had reason to put their faith in God and to trust in His grace, and from that, to believe death wouldn’t have the final word over life – that God would, somehow, make a way.
The patriarchs and the people of Israel and Judah had even more reason to put their faith in Him, because of the way He intervened and revealed Himself to them through their prophets.
But now, because Christ’s death and resurrection are a matter of historical fact, the entire world has a much stronger basis by which to put our faith in Him.
“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter (1 Peter 1:21).
“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead,” said Paul (Acts 17:31).
To reiterate my point from my last entry (because it can’t be overstated): that’s why apologetics is so all-important. Faith is a gift from God, provided through the historical fact of the resurrection. But it provides no faith if it isn’t made known (Romans 10:14-15), and the terms by which we present it make a world of difference.
According to previously referenced passages of Scripture, people don’t necessarily need to know about Christ’s death and resurrection in order to have faith and be saved, but they’re in an infinitely better position to respond in faith if they do know about it.
Mother of Prostitutes
By now, there are likely howls of outrage over my last statement.
“People don’t have to know about Jesus’ death and resurrection to be saved?! That’s heresy!”
No, they don’t, and no it’s not.
Unless we’re to believe everyone who lived and died prior to the year 30 A.D. was automatically doomed, they didn’t have to. There was no portion in the Law of Moses that even mentioned a provision for eternal life (it was about earthly rewards and punishments), and Paul made it clear that people have always been saved by grace through faith, long before anyone could have known about Christ’s death and resurrection.
We’re in an infinitely better position to have faith than they were because we do know about his death and resurrection, but “faith” isn’t the same as knowing about his death and resurrection. Faith is a response to the evidence of God’s grace, and Christ’s death and resurrection are the greatest demonstration of His grace, but they are not the only demonstration.
But we’re so wrapped up in this idea that “faith” amounts to “doctrinal orthodoxy” that not only do we miss a lot of these obvious implications in Scripture, but we’re openly hostile to them.
That’s because we’ve turned “faith” into just another law by which to justify ourselves; instead of a law of works and ritual like the Jewish law, ours is a law of doctrine: “If you meet the minimal requirements of believing X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’ll be given eternal life in exchange.”
And skeptics rightly object to the idea that God would care so much about what people believe over what they actually do. They recognize the quality of prostitution in that idea: an exchange of benefits with no relation to each other, with something sacred exchanged as a commodity.
Now, it’s true that Jesus often used the language of reward and punishment, but that was typically directed to people who thought they were justified under the law. More often, though, he spoke in terms of wise and foolish investment: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it,” he said (Matthew 13:44-46).
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)
And there is no more clear expression of faith than investment. In fact, that’s the only real expression there is for faith: regardless of what you say you believe, where you invest your hope is where you believe you’ll reap the greatest benefit, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he said (Matthew 6:19-21).
So when Jesus said to believe in him for eternal life, he didn’t mean, “Affirm a doctrine about me in exchange for heaven.” He meant, “Invest in me – in my teachings, in my cause, and you’ll be a part of it when it comes to fruition. Invest elsewhere, and you’ll only benefit as far as that investment can offer a return.”
We can see by God’s raising him from the dead that Jesus is the best investment.
If you don’t invest yourself in Jesus, you’ve believed in vain (1 Corinthians 5:2). And, in fact, the Scripture has some dire warnings for people who know about Jesus, but invest elsewhere (Hebrews 10:26).
The Church exists for the sole purpose of guiding people in that investment. In fact, that investment consists of participating in the life of the Church.
Or, it would be, if the Church was preaching the true gospel and fulfilling its true purpose according to that gospel.
As it is, we have a broken, self-destructive epistemology, which leads to a false view of how salvation is accomplished, and so we have a Church with no sense of its true purpose and calling (ecclesiology), which I will address in what follows.