What is the Gospel?

Excerpt from What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

MAN THE SINNER

I just paid a parking ticket the other day. It was easy. I read the charge against me, flipped the ticket over, checked the box that said “I plead guilty to the charge,” filled out a check for $35 to the Metropolitan Traffic Citation Department, sealed the envelope, and dropped it in the mail.

I’m a convicted criminal.

For some reason, though, even though I checked the “guilty” box, I don’t feel terribly guilty. I’m not going to lose any sleep over my walk on the wrong side of the law. I don’t feel the need to ask anyone’s forgiveness, and now that I think about it, I’m even a little bitter that the ticket was $10 more than the previous one I got.

Why don’t I feel bad about breaking the law? I suppose it’s because, when you get right down to it, breaking a parking regulation just doesn’t strike me as being all that important— or all that heinous. Yes, I’ll be sure to drop an extra nickel in the meter next time, but my conscience isn’t exactly torn up over the whole thing.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that most people tend to think of sin, especially their own, as not much more than a parking infraction. “Yes of course,” we think, “technically sin is a violation of the law handed down by God on high, and all that, but surely he must know there are bigger criminals out there than me. Besides, nobody was hurt, and I’m willing to pay the fine. And come on—there’s no need for a whole lot of soul-searching over something like this. Is there?”

Well, I guess not, at least not if you think of sin in that cold way. But according to the Bible, sin is a lot more than just the violation of some impersonal, arbitrary, heavenly traffic regulation. It’s the breaking of a relationship, and even more, it is a rejection of God himself—a repudiation of God’s rule, God’s care, God’s authority, and God’s right to command those to whom he gave life. In short, it is the rebellion of the creature against his Creator.

What Went Wrong

When God created human beings, his intention was that they would live under his righteous rule in perfect joy, worshipping him, obeying him, and thereby living in unbroken fellowship with him. As we saw in the last chapter, he created man and woman in his own image, meaning that they were to be like him, to be in relationship with him, and to declare his glory to the world. Further, God had a job for humans to do. They were to be his vice-regents, ruling his world under him. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God told them, “and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

Man and woman’s rule over creation was not ultimate, however. Their authority was not their own; it was given to them by God. So even as Adam and Eve exercised dominion over the world, they were to remember that they were subject to God and under his rule. He had created them, and therefore he had the right to command them.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God planted in the center of the garden, was a stark reminder of that fact (Gen. 3:17). When Adam and Eve looked at that tree and saw its fruit, they would remember that their authority was limited, that they were creatures, and that they were dependent on God for their very lives. They were only the stewards. He was the King.

When Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, therefore, they weren’t just violating some arbitrary command, “Don’t eat the fruit.” They were doing something much sadder and much more serious. They were rejecting God’s authority over them and declaring their independence from him. Adam and Eve wanted to be, as the Serpent promised them, “like God,” so both of them seized on what they thought was an opportunity to shed the vice-regency and take the crown itself. In all the universe, there was only one thing God had not placed under Adam’s feet—God himself. Yet Adam decided this arrangement was not good enough for him, and so he rebelled.

The worst of it, though, is that by disobeying God’s command, Adam and Eve made a conscious decision to reject him as their King. They knew what the consequences would be if they disobeyed him. God had told them in no uncertain terms that if they ate the fruit, they would “surely die,” which meant above all that they would be cast away from his presence and become his enemies, rather than his friends and joyful subjects (Gen. 2:17). But they didn’t care. Adam and Eve traded their favor with God for the pursuit of their own pleasure and their own glory.

“The Bible calls this disobedience of God’s commands— whether in word, thought, or deed—“sin.” Literally, the word means “missing the mark,” but the biblical meaning of sin is much deeper. It’s not as if Adam and Eve were trying very hard to keep God’s command and just missed the bull’s-eye by a few degrees. No, the fact is that they were shooting in the opposite direction! They had goals and desires that were categorically opposed to what God desired for them, and so they sinned. They deliberately violated God’s command, broke their relationship with him, and rejected him as their rightful Lord.

The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin were disastrous for them, their descendants, and the rest of creation. They themselves were cast out of the idyllic garden of Eden. No longer would the earth willingly and joyfully present its fruits and treasures to them. They would have to work, hard and painfully, to get them. Even worse, God executed the promised sentence of death upon them. They didn’t physically die right away, of course. Their bodies continued to live, lungs breathing, hearts beating, limbs moving. But their spiritual life, the one that matters most, ended immediately. Their fellowship with God was broken, and thus their hearts shriveled, their minds filled up with selfish thoughts, their eyes darkened to the beauty of God, and their souls became sere and arid, utterly void of that spiritual life that God gave them in the beginning, when everything was good.

Not Just Them, but Us

The Bible tells us that it is not just Adam and Eve who are guilty of sin. We all are. Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And just a few paragraphs earlier he says, “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10).”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is full of stumbling stones, and this is one of the largest. To human hearts that stubbornly think of themselves as basically good and self-sufficient, this idea that human beings are fundamentally sinful and rebellious is not merely scandalous. It is revolting.

That’s why it is so absolutely crucial that we understand both the nature and the depth of our sin. If we approach the gospel thinking that sin is something else or something less than what it really is, we will badly misunderstand the good news of Jesus Christ. Let me give you a few examples of how Christians often misunderstand sin.

CONFUSING SIN WITH SIN’S EFFECTS

It’s become fashionable lately to present the gospel by saying that Jesus came to save humanity from an innate sense of guilt or meaninglessness or purposelessness or emptiness. Now of course those things really are problems, and many people feel them deeply. But the Bible teaches that humanity’s fundamental problem—the thing from which we need to be saved—is not meaninglessness or disintegration in our lives, or even a debilitating sense of guilt. Those are merely symptoms of a deeper and much more profound problem: our sin. What we must understand is that the predicament we’re in is a predicament of our own making. We have disobeyed God’s word. We have ignored his commands. We have sinned against him.

To talk about salvation being from meaninglessness or purposelessness without tracing those things down to their root in sin may make the medicine go down easier, but it is the wrong medicine. It allows a person to continue thinking of himself as a victim and never really deal with the fact that he himself is the criminal, unrighteous and deserving of judgment.

REDUCING SIN TO BROKEN RELATIONSHIP

Relationship is an important category in the Bible. Human beings were made to live in fellowship with God. What we must remember, however, is that it was a specific kind of relationship in which they were to live—not the relationship between two equals, where law, judgment, and punishment are out of view, but the relationship between a King and his subjects.

Many Christians talk about sin as if it were merely a relational tiff between God and man, and what is needed is for us simply to apologize and accept God’s forgiveness. That image of sin as lovers’ quarrel, though, distorts the relationship in which we stand to God. It communicates that there is no broken law, no violated justice, no righteous wrath, no holy judgment— and therefore, ultimately, no need for a substitute to bear that judgment, either.

The Bible’s teaching is that sin is indeed a breaking of relationship with God, but that broken relationship consists in a rejection of his kingly majesty. It’s not just adultery (though it is that); it is also rebellion. Not just betrayal, but also treason. If we reduce sin to a mere breaking of relationship, rather than understanding it as the traitorous rebellion of a beloved subject against his good and righteous King, we will never understand why the death of God’s Son was required to address it.

CONFUSING SIN WITH NEGATIVE THINKING

Another misunderstanding of sin is to say that it’s just a matter of negative thinking. We saw that in some of the quotes in the introduction to this book. Get rid of your old wineskins! Think bigger! God wants to show you his incredible favor, if you’ll just get rid of all those negative mind-sets that hold you back!

Now that’s a compelling message to self-reliant people who want to believe they can take care of their sin all by themselves. That’s probably why men who proclaim that message have managed to build some of the largest churches in the world. The formula is pretty easy, really. Just tell people that their sin is no deeper than negative thinking and that it’s holding them back from health, wealth, and happiness. Then tell them that if they’ll just think more positively about themselves (with God’s help, of course), they’ll be rid of their sin and get rich, to boot. Bingo! Instant megachurch!

Sometimes the promised goal is money, sometimes health, sometimes something else entirely. But however you spin it, to say that Jesus Christ died to save us from negative thoughts about ourselves is reprehensibly unbiblical. In fact, the Bible teaches that a big part of our problem is that we think too highly of ourselves, not too lowly. Stop and think about it for a moment. How did the Serpent tempt Adam and Eve? He told them they were thinking too negatively about themselves. He told them they needed to think more positively, to extend their grasp, to reach toward their full potential, to be like God! In a word, he told them to think bigger.

Now how’d that work out for them?

CONFUSING SIN WITH SINS

There is a huge difference between understanding yourself to be guilty of sins, and knowing yourself to be guilty of sin. Most people have no problem at all admitting that they’ve committed sins (plural), at least so long as they can think about those sins as isolated little mistakes in an otherwise pretty good life— a parking ticket here or there on an otherwise clean record.

Sins don’t shock us much. We know they are there, we see them in ourselves and others every day, and we’ve gotten pretty used to them. What is shocking to us is when God shows us the sin that runs to the very depths of our hearts, the deep-running deposits of filth and corruption that we never knew existed in us and that we ourselves could never expunge. That’s how the Bible talks about the depth and darkness of our sin—it is in us and of us, not just on us.

On the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, there is what is said to be the largest flawless quartz sphere in the entire world. The sphere is a little bigger than a basketball, and there is a not a single visible scratch, pockmark, or discoloration on the entire thing. It is perfect. People often think human nature is like that quartz sphere. Yes, every now and then we may smear it up with dirt and mud, but underneath the grime it remains as pristine as ever, and all we really need to do is wipe it clean in order to restore its brilliance.

The Bible’s picture of human nature, though, is not so pretty. According to Scripture, the sphere of human nature is not pristine at all, and the mud is not just smeared on the outside. On the contrary, we are shot through with sin. The cracks, mud, filth, and corruption go all the way to the center. We are, as Paul said, “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). We are included in Adam’s guilt and corruption (Romans 5). Jesus taught this, too: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). The sinful words you speak and sinful actions you do are not just isolated incidents. They rise out of the evil of your own heart.

Every part of our human existence is corrupted by sin and under its power. Our understanding, our personality, our feelings and emotions, and even our will are all enslaved to sin. So Paul says in Romans 8:7, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” What a shocking and frightening statement! So thorough is sin’s rule over us—our minds, understanding, and will—that we see God’s glory and goodness, and we inevitably turn away from it in disgust.

It’s not enough to say that Jesus came to save us from sins, if what we mean by that is that he came to save us from our isolated mistakes. It’s only when we realize that our very nature is sinful—that we are indeed “dead in our trespasses and sins,” as Paul says (Eph. 2:1, 5)—that we see just how good the news is that there is a way to be saved.

God’s Active Judgment against Sin

One of the most frightening statements in all the Bible is in Romans 3:19. It comes at the end of Paul’s indictment of all humanity—first the Gentile, then the Jew—as being under sin and utterly unrighteous before God. Here’s what Paul says, as the grand conclusion of the matter: “Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (NIV).

Can you even begin to imagine what that will mean? To stand before God and to have no explanation, no plea, no excuse, no case? And what does it mean to be “held accountable to God”? The Bible is very clear, as we saw in the last chapter, that God is righteous and holy, and therefore he will not excuse sin. But what will it mean for God to deal with sin, to judge it and punish it?

Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” In other words, the payment we earn for our sins is to die. That’s not just physical death, either. It is spiritual death, a forceful separating of our sinful, wretched selves from the presence of the righteous and holy God. The prophet Isaiah describes it like this:

Your iniquities have made a separation

between you and your God,

and your sins have hidden his face from you

so that he does not hear. (Isa. 59:2)

Sometimes people talk about this as if it is just the passive, quiet absence of God. But it’s more than that. It is God’s active judgment against sin, and the Bible says it will be terrifying. Look at how the book of Revelation describes what the end will be like on the day of God’s right and good judgment. The seven angels will “pour out on the earth . . . the wrath of God,” and “all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev. 16:1; 1:7). They will call out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16–17). They will see Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and they will cower, for “he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).

The Bible teaches that the final destiny for unrepentant, unbelieving sinners is a place of eternal, conscious torment called “hell.” Revelation describes it as a “lake of fire and sulfur,” and Jesus says it is a place of “unquenchable fire,” (Rev. 20:10; Mark 9:43).

Given how the Bible talks about hell and warns us against it, I do not understand the impulse some Christians seem to have to explain it in a way that makes it sound more tolerable. When Revelation speaks of Jesus treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty, when Jesus himself warns of the “unquenchable fire . . . where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48), my incredulous question is, Why would any Christian have an interest in making that sound less horrific? Why on earth would we comfort sinners with the thought that maybe hell will not be so bad after all?

We Didn’t Just Make This Up

The images the Bible uses to talk about God’s judgment against sin are truly horrifying. It’s really no wonder the world reads the Bible’s descriptions of hell and calls Christians “sick” for believing them.

But that misses the point. It’s not as if we just make these ideas up ourselves. We Christians don’t read, believe, and talk about hell because we somehow enjoy the thought of it. God forbid. No, we talk about hell because, finally, we believe the Bible. We believe it when it says that hell is real, and we believe it with tears when it says that people we love are in danger of spending eternity there.

This is the Bible’s sobering verdict on us. There is not one of us righteous, not even one. And because of that, one day every mouth will be silenced, every wagging tongue stopped, and the whole world will be held accountable to God.

But . . .”

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