"Joy to the world! The Lord is come:/ Let earth receive her King!/ Let every heart prepare Him room,/And heaven and nature sing!" These lyrics are familiar to untold millions, and especially at this time of year they're introduced to thousands more. Multitudes can hum the tune, many can rattle off the words, yet few know what they mean. Biblical Christians rejoice at the message this song communicates because most of us understand its meaning. Nevertheless, too often we miss the mark in our explanation to the world of this and other such songs.
Assuredly, the "world" craves joy. Yet the prospect quickly dissipates when people are uninformed regarding the conditions for "joy to the world" (e.g., salvation found only in Christ).
Having been involved in Christian schools both as a teacher and the parent of five children, I've sat through more than a few holiday performances aimed at witnessing to lost loved ones, friends, and neighbors. As delightful as these presentations were, however, rarely if at all was the gospel made understandable. Not that the "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Lk 2:10) wasn't reflected somewhat in the plays, or even followed up by the school principal or church pastor through a brief message and a recitation of the sinner's prayer. But rarely was the gospel adequately explained. That's a serious omission, especially in this biblically uninformed, post-Christian generation.
Let's take some samples from a typical gathering at a Christian school play. In attendance to see their fourth-grade, born-again nephew are Uncle Allen and Aunt Zelda. Both were born to parents who were products of the 1960s. Allen was raised in a social/liberal Episcopalian home; he's a cultural Christian who knows some of the "what" of Christianity but none of the "why." Zelda's parents, hippies in their college days, had vowed not to "push" religion on their kids; as a consequence, she is an experientially prone New Ager by default and knows almost nothing about Christianity. The audience is dotted with those of diverse religious understanding, yet they are relatively clueless about the gospel.
The play presents some solidly biblical content. An "angel" tells Mary, "...thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end...." (Lk 1:31-33). In another scene an "angel" gives more of the details of the good tidings to Joseph: "...fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Mat:1:20-21) Later, the little girl playing Mary declares joyfully, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour" (Lk 1:46-47).
If the audience is listening at all, most will have picked up some important details related to the "joy" referred to above: Jesus was born of Mary; the conception was of the Holy Ghost; Jesus is God's Son; He will save people from sin; His kingdom is eternal. Allen is vaguely aware of most of this; Zelda finds some of the points intriguing but they make little sense to her.
At the end of the play the school principal quotes John:3:16 and adds that, as wonderful as the birth of Jesus was, the purpose of His birth was that He would live a perfect life and then go to His death sacrificially in payment for the sins of the world. The principal then asks those in the audience who would like to receive Christ as their personal Savior to repeat with him a prayer of acceptance. I have no doubt that at many such events there are those whom the Holy Spirit has prepared through conviction and understanding, that they might respond to the gospel and receive eternal life. But others like Uncle Allen and Aunt Zelda may not have enough information to comprehend the offer of biblical salvation. Too often evangelicals wrongly assume that unbelievers get the message.
Let me give some answers to basic yet critical questions about the gospel which I've heard through the years from people like Allen and Zelda. Many non-Christians in the Western world are aware of only two things about Christianity: Jesus, its central figure, was born in Bethlehem and died on a cross. What they need to know is that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God (i.e., God, who became a man without ceasing to be God), was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, then died a sacrificial death for the sins of the world on a cross outside Jerusalem.
Why would God become a man? Why would He then die sacrificially? The reason is found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Everything God created was perfect. Adam and Eve reflected that perfection both physically and morally. As creatures of free will who were to respond to Him in loving obedience, God gave them a simple test of their love, a condition with eternal consequences: "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen:2:16-17). They failed. God's clear penalty—death—consequently infected all of creation. "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation....For all have sinned" (Rom:5:18; 3:23). Spiritual death, i.e., separation from God for eternity, was immediate, and hastened the onset of physical death.
So what could Adam, Eve and their descendants do? There was nothing they could do except suffer the penalty God's justice demanded for sin: the destructive consequences of sin in this life, and upon death, separation from God forever.
That's it? Are there no other options? Just one: the Good News. God promised that He himself would pay the penalty His divine justice demanded! Romans:5:18 explains, "...by the righteousness of [Jesus] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life."
Why couldn't God simply have forgiven Adam and Eve and let them get on with their lives? Why make such a big deal over a piece of fruit? These last questions would come from someone like Uncle Allen, who had some exposure to Christianity but never gave it much consideration. His liberal church would have talked a lot about God being love and full of mercy but would have said little or nothing about His justice. God's solution for mankind's problem is a demonstration of His divine and absolutely perfect love, mercy—and justice. The penalty for sin cannot be assuaged; God would be less than just were He to let sinners off without the full penalty being paid. So where does His love and mercy fit in? John:3:16, which may be the best known scripture verse, makes it clear: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son." He became a man to pay the penalty Himself, "that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom:3:26). "For if, when we were [His] enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement" (Rom:5:10-11). That is surely the "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."
Then what must one do to partake of such joy? That was the desperate question asked by the Philippian jailer. No doubt he was impressed after witnessing his stripped and severely beaten prisoners, Paul and Silas, stirred to sing praises to God in spite of their suffering. He asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They replied, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved..." (Acts:16:30-31). That declaration is continually repeated throughout the scriptures. Consider the following from just one book, the Gospel of John: "to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name"; "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life"; "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"; "he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life"; "he that...believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life; everyone [that]...believeth on him may have everlasting life"; "if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins"; "he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." (1:12; 3:15-16; 3:36; 5:24; 6:40; 8:24; 11:25-26).
That's it? Just believe? It's our only option. First, Christ paid the penalty in full. His declaration from the cross was unequivocal: "It is finished." In the Greek the term is tetelestai, which was found marked on bills of sale during the time of Christ and meant "paid in full." In 1 Timothy we're told that Christ "gave himself a ransom for all." A "partial" ransom would fall short, setting no captives free. Second, there is no work that we can do which can contribute to our salvation. "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Rom:4:5). The Apostle Paul admonished the Galatians for thinking they could add something to that which Christ had completely accomplished for them: "Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit [by faith], are ye now made perfect by the flesh [by works]?" (Gal:3:3).
Third, salvation is a gift from God at Christ's expense. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (Eph:2:8). Any attempt to pay anything for a gift is foolish at best, a rejection at worst. Fourth, the penalty for sin is separation from God forever: "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord..." (2 Thes:1:9). Although it is something we finite beings can't comprehend, nevertheless the scriptures declare that Jesus, because He is both infinite as God and our substitute as man, paid that penalty through "the suffering of death...by the grace of God...[tasting] death for every man" (Heb:2:9).
What a glorious God we have, one who calls all men, women and children everywhere to repent of their own attempts to save themselves, and to turn by faith alone to His Son Jesus Christ (Acts:20:21) that they may receive the gift of salvation which is provided in Him alone. To quote one of my own children, "There's no gooder news!"
In Dave Hunt's latest book, An Urgent Call to a Serious Faith, he underscores the critical necessity for explaining the gospel and gives this helpful instruction:
The one true "gospel of God's grace," which God offers as our only salvation, has three basic elements: 1) who Christ is—fully God and perfect, sinless man in one Person (were He less, He could not be our Savior), 2) who we are—hopeless sinners already condemned to eternal death (or we wouldn't need to be saved), and 3) what Christ's death accomplished—the full penalty for our sins (any attempt by us to pay in any way rejects the gift of salvation God offers.)
Without at least a basic understanding of these essentials, a true acceptance of the biblical gospel of salvation is impossible. How can one place trust regarding eternal destiny in something he doesn't understand and in Someone he doesn't really know?
For the believer in Christ, experiencing God's joy is all by His grace. It's "unspeakable...and full of glory" (1 Pt 1:8). Sometimes it's unexpected, but mostly it's the result of doing His will. There is no situation in which we find ourselves where the joy of the Lord cannot prevail. Biblical examples are plentiful of joy abounding under the worst possible conditions. The reason is simple. Not only has God saved us (our ultimate joy), but He will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb:13:5). Furthermore, His grace is more than sufficient (2 Cor:12:9).
If our own joy meter isn't registering where it ought to be, here's the scriptural solution: Joy increases as we grow in our personal relationship with Jesus. It also increases as we love and serve others for the sake of their salvation. Jesus himself endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him, i.e., our salvation (Heb:12:2). Just knowing that the Creator of the universe has died for you and me personally is cause for indescribable rejoicing. There is no barrier—time or circumstance—to delighting in God's goodness. Better yet, we can be witnesses to it anytime and anywhere! Paul's joy thrived in bringing others to Christ: "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy" (1 Thes:2:19-20).
Lord, increase our joy by helping us to reach the lost (Acts:20:24), that they too may understand and receive Your joy. "As it is written [Rom:10:15], How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" TBC