What is the message of the Gospel? And why does it matter?
In this extended post, I’ll lay out what I believe the message of the Gospel is – and no – I don’t think it’s as simple as the Four Spiritual Laws.
I’d like to approach this by asking three questions, then going over what the Kingdom of God is and why understanding His Kingdom is important. Here are my two questions:
- Was it necessary for Christ to die?
- What was the Nature of the Atonement?
What is the Atonement?
The Atonement is the work Christ did in His life and death to earn our Salvation. The ultimate cause of the atonement as the love of God (John 3.16: For God so loved the world…) and the justice of God (Romans 3.25: God had been forgiving sins before Christ because of the future payment Christ would make on their behalf – our sins are paid by Christ (looking back)). The atonement is an act of love and justice. God’s demand for justice against sin is fully satisfied in Christ.
The Necessity of the Atonement
Was it necessary for Christ to die in order for God to save human beings? First, it’s important to remember that God wasn’t required to save anyone. He could have let us all die in our sins and had His justice fully satisfied. For example, when a third of the angels rebelled in Heaven, God did not spare them (2 Peter 2.4), so it’s important to remember that He could have left us in sin and eternal punishment – that would have been just.
But, God is not only a God of justice, God also loves us! In a very real sense, while the atonement was not necessary, it was a “consequence” of God’s love toward us. Moreover, Matthew 26.39 shows that it was not possible for Christ to be our payment without dying for us:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Luke 24.25-26 also shows that Christ dying for us was necessary in order to fulfill God’s justice against our sin:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Piecing together the thought development in Hebrews, we learn that since “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), a better sacrifice is required (Heb. 9:23). Only the blood of Christ, that is, his death, would be able really to take away sins (Heb. 9:25–26).
It was necessary for Christ to die in our stead so that God’s justice could be fully satisfied and so that His love could be poured out on us so that we could have a personal, eternal relationship with Him.
The Nature of the Atonement
“The primary emphasis of Christ’s work was not on us, but on God the Father. Jesus obeyed the Father in our place and perfectly met the demands of the law. And he suffered in our place, receiving in himself the penalty that God the Father would have visited upon us. In both cases, the atonement is viewed as objective; that is, something that has primary influence directly on God himself. Only secondarily does it have application to us…” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)
The nature of the atonement had two parts: Christ’s obedience for us and Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Consider that His perfect obedience is part of His atoning work for us:
- Romans 5.19: by one man’s obedience, many are made righteous
- Matthew 3.15: it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness
- Hebrews 2.10+17 = Christ needed to learn obedience so that he could be our perfect representative
- Matthew 4.1-11: fasting
- Hebrews 5.8: learned obedience through suffering
- Heb 12.3-4: suffered through intense opposition
- Isaiah 53.3: acquainted with grief and sorrows
Yet, the pain of the Cross was important as well. The physical pain was immense. It was a slow death of inflicting on yourself suffocation and yet, in order to breath, you inflected on your feet and hands immense pain as your pushed yourself up on nails through your feet to take your next breath.
But the pain of bearing sin was more difficult for Christ than we’ll ever fully understand or appreciate. Remember, Jesus was perfectly holy and hated sin as much as God does (Isa 53.6; Isa 53.12; John 1.29; 2 Cor 5.21; Gal 3.13; Heb 9.28; 1 Peter 2.24: He bore, He became, He took away…..). God the Father put all of our sins on Christ – He imputed to Christ our sins the same as Adams’ sins were imputed to us. God literally thought of guilt for our sins as belonging to Christ and so He could pour out His wrath on Christ instead of us.
Jesus faced all of this pain alone (John 13.1 + John 16.31-32). And while He hung on the cross, Romans 3.25-26 tells us that Jesus bore the guilt of our sins alone. God the Father, the mighty Creator, the Lord of the universe, poured out on Jesus the full fury of his wrath. Jesus became the object of the intense hatred of sin and vengeance against sin which God had patiently stored up since the beginning of the world. He became our propitiation: a sacrifice that bears the wrath of God until God’s wrath is satisfied and turned away. Consider this extended quote from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, his chapter on the Atonement (I quote):
Although we must be cautious in suggesting any analogies to the experience Christ went through (for his experience was and always will be without precedent or comparison), nonetheless, all our understanding of Jesus’ suffering comes in some sense by way of analogous experiences in our life—for that is how God teaches us in Scripture. Once again our human experience provides a very faint analogy that helps us understand what it means to bear the wrath of God.
Perhaps as children we have faced the wrath of a human father when we have done wrong, or perhaps as adults we have known the anger of an employer because of a mistake we have made. We are inwardly shaken, disturbed by the crashing of another personality, filled with displeasure, into our very selves, and we tremble. We can hardly imagine the personal disintegration that would threaten if the outpouring of wrath came not from some finite human being but from Almighty God. If even the presence of God when he does not manifest wrath arouses fear and trembling in people (cf. Heb. 12:21, 28–29), how terrible it must be to face the presence of a wrathful God (Heb. 10:31).
With this in mind, we are now better able to understand Jesus’ cry of desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46b). The question does not mean, “Why have you left me forever?” for Jesus knew that he was leaving the world, that he was going to the Father (John 14:28; 16:10, 17). Jesus knew that he would rise again (John 2:19; Luke 18:33; Mark 9:31; et al.). It was “for the joy that was set before him” that Jesus “endured the cross, despising Jesus wondered why he was dying. He had said, “The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus knew that he was dying for our sins.
Jesus’ cry is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, a psalm in which the psalmist asks why God is so far from helping him, why God delays in rescuing him: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. (Ps. 22:1–2) Yet the psalmist was eventually rescued by God, and his cry of desolation turned into a hymn of praise (vv. 22–31). Jesus, who knew the words of Scripture as his own, knew well the context of Psalm 22. In quoting this psalm, he is quoting a cry of desolation that also has implicit in its context an unremitting faith in the God who will ultimately deliver him.
Nevertheless, it remains a very real cry of anguish because the suffering has gone on so long and no release is in sight. With this context for the quotation it is better to understand the question “Why have you forsaken me?” as meaning, “Why have you left me for so long?” This is the sense it has in Psalm 22. Jesus, in his human nature, knew he would have to bear our sins, to suffer and to die. But, in his human consciousness, he probably did not know how long this suffering would take. Yet to bear the guilt of millions of sins even for a moment would cause the greatest anguish of soul. To face the deep and furious wrath of an infinite God even for an instant would cause the most profound fear. But Jesus’ suffering was not over in a minute—or two—or ten. When would it end? Could there be yet more weight of sin? Yet more wrath of God? Hour after hour it went on—the dark weight of sin and the deep wrath of God poured over Jesus in wave after wave.
Jesus at last cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why must this suffering go on so long? Oh God, my God, will you ever bring it to an end?
Then at last Jesus knew his suffering was nearing completion. He knew he had consciously borne all the wrath of the Father against our sins, for God’s anger had abated and the awful heaviness of sin was being removed. He knew that all that remained was to yield up his spirit to his heavenly Father and die. With a shout of victory Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Then with a loud voice he once more cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). And then he voluntarily gave up the life that no one could take from him (John 10:17–18), and he died. As Isaiah had predicted, “he poured out his soul to death” and “bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). God the Father saw “the fruit of the travail of his soul” and was “satisfied” (Isa. 53:11).
Grudem, Wayne (2009-05-18). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (pp. 576-577). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
It’s important to understand the full depth of God’s wrath and Christ’s propitiation for our sins:
it assumes an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for. It’s also important to note that God was first affected by Christ’s propitiation, then we were affected. God’s wrath was satisfied, then we were offered a new life in Christ.
The Kingdom of God
Colossians 1.13 says “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Christ’s work for us literally rescues us from the Kingdom of Satan and brings us into the Kingdom of God.
I believe that being brought into the Kingdom of God is a necessary part of our message. Consider:
- Matthew 19.23-24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In Jewish thought, rich people were blessed by God. So if those who are blessed can’t get in, who can? The point is that the Kingdom of God cannot be earned, it is made available only through the generosity of God
- Mark 4.26: “He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” The Kingdom of God grows and reproduces, even when it appears that there is no logical reason for the growth. And it will keep growing until the “harvest” when Christ returns in His fullness
- Mark 1.15: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” When people get near the Kingdom of God, they are first asked to repent of their sins and believe (cf. Col 1.20).
- Mark 10.14-15: “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” The kingdom of God belongs to those who trust God unconditionally and who lack self-sufficiency
- Mark 10.23-24: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God belongs to those who depend on God, whether or not it appears that God’s blessing is on them
- Luke 7.28: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” It is one thing to announce the coming of the Kingdom, it is another thing to participate in it. (Matthew 7.21). The “least” is greater than John because we are now in the time of fulfillment, not the time of anticipation. The Kingdom of God belongs to those who participate in it.
- Matthew 21.31: “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ” ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Those who obey God will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (Luke 12.47, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, 15.50, Galatians 5.21, Ephesians 5.5).
- Luke 9.2: “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Jesus sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and bring healing – both physically and spiritually. (Cf Luke 4.43; Acts 8.12, 28.23, 28.31)
- Luke 9.62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” If you keep looking back because you’re distracted, you’re not fit for service in God’s Kingdom. By the same token, if you keep looking back to see or admire what you have accomplished, you’re not fit for service in the Kingdom of God. (Cf Phil 3 (…forgetting what is behind, I press on…))
- Luke 17.20: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The Divine Sovereignty of God and His Kingdom is revealed in works of power and mercy.
- Luke 19.11-27: (no Scripture quoted) The Kingdom of God is given to those who work in it, knowing their master, doing His will and producing “profit” in His kingdom. The Kingdom of God is taken from the one who does not know His master, does not do His will and produces nothing of additional value in His Kingdom
Luke 21.5-36: (no Scripture quoted) As the Kingdom of God draws closer, it produces:
- Reveals the depth of sin that exists in men’s hearts.
What are the common themes in the Kingdom of God?
- Obedience: Jesus is LORD of your life, not a manager or consultant
- Participation: we’re not voyeurs or spectators – we get into the game – we get dirty – we stretch ourselves – we get uncomfortable
- Repentance: We repent from our sin and believe in Christ – our message isn’t one of personal improvement – it’s about Him, not us!
- Humility: We jettison self-sufficiency and self-trust
- Focus: We develop laser focus on the future and what God has asked us to do and say
What is our Message?
The Gospel is more complex than what we often find in Evangelical circles. But our message is simple – anyone can understand it:
- Christ lived a sinless life
- Christ fully satisfied God’s demand for justice for our sin
- Christ learned obedience through suffering
- Christ demonstrated His love for us by dying for us
- Christ took the full wrath of God that should have been poured out on us
Our response is pretty straight-forward:
- We repent of our sin
- We make Christ LORD of our lives
- We learn Obedience through suffering
- We jump in and work hard on God’s agenda & knowing Him
- We stay focused and persevere on God’s agenda & knowing Him
Our message is not:
- An isolated choice made through a formula prayer
- Personal improvement program
- All about me
- Making Christ consulting manager of my life
Our message is:
- A conscious choice made in my heart before God
- Personal regeneration through the Holy Spirit
- All about Him
- Making Christ the LORD or RULER of my life
- Enjoying His presence forever
If you have never made a decision to accept Christ as your Savior and Lord, then now is the time to do this. Ask Him into your heart and move into the Kingdom of God where you’ll be richly welcomed and richly blessed, even while you are taking through sufferings to transform your persona into the image of Jesus Christ.
Founder, Bible and Business