WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? (Excerpt from An Urgent Call to a Serious Faith by Dave Hunt)
What is the gospel that saves—and from what does it save us? In order to answer that question, we must go back to the Garden of Eden. It was there, in the most perfect environment that God’s heart of love and His creative power could provide, that man’s rebellion against his Creator had its awful beginning. Eden is not mythology but history, as human experience, selfish ambition, and false religions continue to demonstrate to the present day.
Surrounded by beauty, satisfied by abundance, and enjoying the fellowship of their Infinite Friend, our first parents, nevertheless, fell to the seductive lies of Satan. “Ye shall be as gods” was his deceitful promise—and to realize that delusion has been man’s passion ever since. False religions, such as Hinduism and Mormonism, are based upon this lie.
Though not deceived himself (1 Timothy:2:14), Adam, in loyalty to Eve, joined in his wife’s disobedience and ate of the forbidden fruit. Thus, “by [this] one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans:5:12).
A Planned Salvation
Death not only ends this short earthly life, it separates sinful rebels from God forever. In His infinite foreknowledge, wisdom, and love, however, God had already planned how He would restore life and reunite mankind with Himself. Without ceasing to be God, He would become a man through a virgin birth. Only God could be the Savior (Isaiah:43:11; 45:21); thus the Messiah had to be God (Isaiah:9:6; 45:15; Titus:1:3, 4). He would die for our sins to pay the penalty demanded by His own perfect justice: “Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!” Hymn writer Charles Wesley declared. Then He would rise from the dead to live in those who would believe in and receive Him as their Lord and Savior. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life would be theirs as a free gift of His grace—the only way man could receive it.
Centuries before His incarnation as the perfect man, Christ Jesus, God inspired the Old Testament prophets to declare His eternal and unchangeable plan of salvation. Definitive criteria were provided by which the coming Savior would be identified. Jesus and His apostles did not invent a “new religion.” Christianity fulfills scores of specific prophecies and is therefore provable from Old Testament Hebrew Scripture!
So it was not a new gospel that Paul the apostle preached. It was “the gospel of God (which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures) concerning his Son Jesus Christ” (Romans:1:1-3). Thus, the Bereans could check Paul’s message against the Old Testament (Acts:17:11); and he could use the Hebrew prophets, which were read in the synagogue each Sabbath, to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah (verse 2-]3). Not Buddha, not Muhammad, not anyone else—only Jesus Christ has the require credentials. The fulfillment of scores of specific prophecies in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth provides absolute proof that He is the true and only Savior.
The Only Escape from God’s Judgment
In Hebrews:2:3 the vital question is asked, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” The answer is unequivocal: there is no escape for those who reject Christ. The Bible makes that solemn fact abundantly clear. To reject, add to, take from, or otherwise pervert or embrace a substitute for “the gospel of God” is to perpetuate the rebellion begun by Adam and Eve and to leave one eternally separated from God and His proffered salvation.
No wonder Paul wrote, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians:5:11). So must all who know Christ persuade men to believe the only gospel that saves! We do this not for any credit or reward, much less to get others to “join our side,” but out of love and compassion for all mankind—the same love that God manifested in providing salvation for sinners and that He has implanted in the hearts of all true believers.
The “gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians:1:13) “wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved” (1 Corinthians:15:1-2) is simple and precise, leaving no room for misunderstanding or negotiation: “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (verses 3-4).
This “everlasting gospel” (Revelation:14:6) was promised “before the world began” (2 Timothy:1:9; Titus:1:2) and cannot change with time or culture. There is no other hope for mankind, no other way to be forgiven and brought back to God, except through this “strait gate and narrow way” (Matthew:7:13-14). Any broader road leads to destruction according to Jesus himself.
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 on 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 30 what Christ’s death accomplished—the payment of the full penalty for our sins (any attempt by us to pay in any way or any part demeans what Christ accomplished and rejects the gift of salvation God offers).
Christ has commanded us to “preach the gospel [good news!] to every creature [person]” (Mark:16:15). What response is required? Both the desperate question and uncomplicated answer are given to us: “What must I do to be saved?...Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts:16:30-31). Neither religion, ritual, nor good works will avail—God calls us to simply believe. “For by grace are ye saved through faith” (Ephesians:2:8)—“whosoever believeth him [will] not perish, but [has] everlasting life” (John:3:16).
It is the gospel alone that saves those who believe it. Nothing else will save. Therefore, we must preach the gospel. Paul said, “Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (1 Corinthians:9:16). Sentimental appeals to “come to Jesus” or “make a decision for Christ” avail nothing if the gospel is not clearly explained and believed.
Many are attracted to Christ because of his admirable character, His noble martyrdom, or because He changes lives. If that is all they see in Christ, such converts have not believed the gospel and thus are not saved. This is the solemn teaching of Scripture (John:3:36).
Paul said that “the gospel of Christ…is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Romans:1:16. He also called it “the gospel…by which also ye are saved” (1 Corinthians:15:1-2); and “the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians:1:13). Clearly, from these and other scriptures, salvation comes only through believing the gospel. Christ told His disciples to go into “all the world, and preach the gospel” (Mark:16:15), a gospel that the Bible precisely defines.
The Non-Negotiable Gospel
Salvation comes on God’s terms and by His grace, and we negotiate the gospel neither with God nor with one another. “The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John:4:14). Salvation is a work of God and His Son. We either believe it or reject it. We don’t “dialogue” about it. Nor does any church or religious organization have a franchise for dispensing it. Salvation is free from God without any “middleman.” It is granted to “whosoever” will take God at His world and accept His pardon by faith.
It is also called the “gospel of Christ” (Mark:1:1; Romans:1:16; 15:19; 1 Corinthians:9:12). He is the Savior and salvation is His work, not ours, as the angels said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke:2:11). Salvation could be accomplished only by Christ, and when He had paid the full penalty by suffering on the Cross for our sins, he cried in triumph, “It is finished” (John:19:30).
Paul specifies the gospel that saves: “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1Corinthians 15:3-4). “I am the door,” said Christ: “By me if any man enter in, he shall be saved” (John:10:9).
The gospel contains nothing about baptism, church membership or attendance, tithing, sacraments or rituals, diet or clothing. If we add anything to the gospel, we have not only declared it to be insufficient but have corrupted it and thus come under Paul’s anathema in Galatians:1:8-9.
The gospel is all about what Christ has done. It says nothing about what Christ must yet do, because the work of our redemption is finished. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians:15:3). His death on the cross is in the past, never to be repeated.
Nor does the gospel say anything about what we must do, because we can do nothing. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus:3:5); “for by grace are ye saved, through faith…the gift of God [is] not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians:2:8-9). Whoever offers God anything for salvation has denied the sufficiency of what Christ did and has rejected God’s salvation.
Instead of works, the gospel requires faith. It is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans:4:5) … “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John:3:16).
The gospel is a two-edged sword. It declares, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” The same verse also says, “he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John:3:36).
Right here we come to the most difficult part of the gospel to accept: that those who do not believe it are eternally lost—no matter what good works they do.
The reasons for that fact are grounded in both God’s love and His justice. God’s justice requires that the infinite penalty for sin must be paid. For us to pay would separate us from God forever, so He became a man through the virgin birth to pay the penalty for us. No one can complain against God. He has proved His love by doing all He could for our salvation. He has Himself paid the penalty and on that basis can be both “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans:3:26).
Christ pleaded in the Garden, “If it be possible [that is, if there is any other way mankind can be saved], let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26-39). We know that there is no other way, or God would not have required His beloved Son to bear the full brunt of His wrath against sin. That men nailed Christ to the cross is not the basis of our salvation. That heinous act, perpetrated by men, would only add to our condemnation.
Contrary to the message of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there was no payment for sins’ penalty in the torture that men inflicted upon the Lord. The idea that the godless Roman soldiers were God’s servants meting out His punishment for sin upon Christ contradicts both the Scripture and common sense. Did they smite Christ just enough times and just hard eno0ut to punish Him for the sins of all mankind, as the movie implies? They punished Christ for the sins of billions of people from the beginning to the end of time? Impossible! It was, in fact, the evil in their hearts that caused the soldiers to abuse Him as they did. And that, too, was sin for which Christ died.
Here, displayed before the universe for all time and eternity, was the greatest proof of the evil in each and every one of us—the creature taunting, torturing, and crucifying its Creator! But when man was doing his worst against Him, God did His best to man in the greatest possible demonstration of His love, grace, and mercy. In response to Christ’s incredible cry, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke:23:34), God punished Him for the sins of the world.
Our salvation was procured not by what His tormentors did but by Christ taking upon Himself “the sin of the world” (John:1:29) and suffering the eternal death (“that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” – Hebrews:2:9) in the separation from God (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” -Matthew:27:46) that all mankind deserved. As the great Hebrew prophet foretold: “The LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all…. It pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin…” (Isaiah:53:6, 10).
The Penalty Paid in Full
What happened in those hours of darkness as Christ hung upon the Cross will never be known by mankind. The suffering He endured as all the “waves and billows” (Psalm:42:7) of God’s wrath swept over Him is beyond our comprehension. In the face of the most despicable display of the evil in the human heart, when man was doing his worst to his Creator, Christ took all our sins upon Himself and paid the penalty in full.
Christ did not gradually expire from the physical effects of the torture and crucifixion. He had said, “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John:10:17-18). When He had endured God’s full judgment for our sins, He who is God cried “with a loud voice” (Matthew:27:50; Mark:15:37; Luke:23:46), “It is finished” (John:19:30). The Greek word he shouted in triumph was tetelestai. That word was stamped on promissory notes and invoices in Christ’s day. It meant “paid in full.”
Only if we accept that payment on our behalf can we be saved. “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts:4:12): “What must I do to be saved?...Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts:16:30-31).
To “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” includes believing who He is and what He has done. Jesus said, “Ye are from beneath; I am from above…if ye believe not that I am…[I AM is God’s name, Yahweh – Exodus:3:14], ye shall die in your sins” (John:8:23-24). Jesus himself says we must believe that He is God, for He is; and no one less than God could save us. We must believe that the sinless One “died for our sins,” was buried, and rose bodily from the grave. Only be believing this gospel are we saved. So says God’s Word.
But wouldn’t the exceptional good works of a Mother Teresa get her to heaven? No, because we are all sinners, including Mother Teresa. Once we have broken one of God’s commandments, we are “guilty of all” (James:2:10). Furthermore, “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans:3:20). Keeping the law perfectly from now on could never make up for having already broken it. Good works, no matter how good, can never pay for sin.
For God to grant salvation by any other means than faith in Christ alone would be an insult to the One who the Father insisted had to endure His wrath as the sacrifice for sin. Moreover, if He allowed entrance into heaven on any other basis, God would be breaking His own code of justice and going back on His Word. Not even God himself could gratuitously forgive earth’s most notable “saint” without the penalty being paid and accepted by the sinner with gratitude. Christ’s blood avails only for repentant sinners.
Perverting the Gospel
Oswald Chambers warned lest, in our zeal to get people to accept the gospel, we manufacture a gospel acceptable to people and produce “converts” who are not saved. Today’s most popular perversion is the “positive” gospel, which is designed to offend no one with truth. One of our most popular televangelists, for example, has said that it is demeaning to call anyone a sinner and that Christ died to restore human dignity and self-esteem. This televangelist claims to win many to Christ with that seductive message—but such a gospel does not save sinners.
Evangelistic appeals to “come to Christ” are often made for the wrong reasons: in order to be healthy, happy, or successful; to restore a marriage; or to handle stress. Christ died to rescue us from the penalty of sin, not to make us successful. Those who do not admit that they desperately need God’s forgiveness in Christ, and thus to not accept His salvation, are not saved but lost eternally.
Others preach a gospel that is so diluted or perverted that it deceives many into thinking they are saved, when in fact they are not. No fraud could be worse, for the consequences are eternal!
Religion, not atheism, is Satan’s main weapon. “The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ…should shine unto them” (w Corinthians 4:4). To pervert “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20”24), the great deceiver offers many false gospels, but they all, as we have seen, have two subtle rejections of grace in common: ritual and/or self-effort.
Ritual makes redemption an ongoing process (unfinished by Christ) performed by a special priesthood, and self-effort gives man a part to play in earning his salvation. The one denies the finality of the cross; the other denies its sufficiency. Either one robs God of the uniqueness of the gift He wishes to bestow upon fallen man: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans:6:23).
One can only receive a gift. Any attempt to earn, merit, or pay for a gift, even in part, is to reject it. Furthermore, God wants to personally give us this gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. To look to a church, organization, or some religious leader to dispense God’s gift is to reject it from His hand. Jesus said, “Come unto me…I give [my sheep] eternal life…I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved…” (Matthew:11:28; John:10:9, 27-18).
Faith must be in God and in Christ alone. To place it anywhere else is to admit a lack of faith in Him. Let us get serious about faith by believing what God has said. Therein lies our only authority and assurance.
—Dave Hunt in An Urgent Call to a Serious Faith