What is the Gospel?

If I were to ask you what you are into as far as a hobby, or skill, or anything else you enjoy doing, what would that be? Would you be able to tell me with some detail as to why that thing is so great, or be able to tell me how I could do that thing? In recent years, I have become an avid ocean and wave photographer. Living in California, I have grown up with a love for the ocean. I have surfed for over ten years, and have been going to the beach for twice as long. A few years back, my in-laws got me a GoPro camera and immediately I realized I needed to start doing cool things. I decided I wanted to start taking pictures of waves in the water. In the time since then, I have sold some of my images, I picked up sponsorships from a few companies, my images have been featured on websites, and I have made my wife get out of bed hours before the sun comes up to go with me to shoot waves at sunrise to get the perfect lighting.

I wouldn’t say I am a professional or expert at ocean and wave photography, but I could easily sit for hours and tell you what spots to shoot waves at, what time of day to go, what conditions to look for, proper techniques for getting the perfect shot. I actually don’t know everything about ideal camera settings, but I could tell you enough about it to at least get started. The point is, I can’t tell you everything there is to know about wave photography, but I can tell you and show you enough that you could do it yourself. And if you are in southern California the offer is out there.

But, I say all this to say that it is very easy for us to talk about and explain things we are good at or we find important. We might not be able to explain everything, but we could, at the very least, tell people the most important or crucial things they would need to know in order to do it themselves or be decently informed.

I have to admit that for a long time after becoming a Christian, I could not tell you what the message of the gospel was. You might ask, “how do you know you were saved if you couldn’t explain what the gospel was?” Great question. I knew that I had repented of my sin, and placed my trust in Christ, but I could not tell you exactly why all that was necessary. Since that was the case, I was virtually no good for the kingdom because I didn’t know the gospel well enough to tell others.

In the last six or so years, I have taught the Bible in a number of different settings. There is always something that I love to press on those I am teaching, and that is their knowledge of the gospel. I don’t think there is anything more crucial in Christianity than a believer’s knowledge of the gospel. I typically pose the question something like this, “how many of you would agree that in order for a person to be saved, they have to believe the gospel message?” Sometimes the question needs some clarification, but I can get most people in a room to agree with me when I ask the question. Once that happens, I ask, “Then who can tell me what the gospel is?” I then get nothing but quietness and blank stares. After a few seconds of awkward silence, one person will sheepishly start raising their hand. I quickly jump to call on them and ask them to assume that I am not a Christian, and ask them to tell me what the gospel is. They usually say something like, “Jesus came and died on the cross for our sins so that we can go to heaven.” While this is absolutely true, a statement like this leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Who is Jesus? Why did he die? What are sins? It’s amusing to watch other people with a look on their face that shows their relief that they are not the one on the spot. This then leads into a wonderful discussion on what the gospel actually is.

I don’t do this for the sake of making people doubt their salvation, but I do want them to seriously consider it. If we truly believe that a person needs to believe the gospel message in order to be saved, then how do we know we are saved by it if we cannot properly articulate what the gospel is? Aside from that, how can we impact the kingdom at all if we don’t know the gospel well enough to tell others? After all, making disciples of all nations is what we are commissioned to do (See Matthew 28:19). Disciple-making begins with bringing people into obedience to Christ through proclamation of the gospel.

Think back to the story I told in the beginning about my hobby for wave photography. I may not be an expert or know everything, but I can definitely tell how to get started and even become decent at it. I could thoroughly explain and even demonstrate for hours, and do it happily. You could probably do the same with something you find important or enjoy doing. Why is it so different for Christians when it comes to something so important as the gospel? Hopefully, we can all get to the point where we might not know everything or consider ourselves an expert in theological matters, but we would be able to thoroughly explain for hours what it is to be a Christian, and do it happily. Is there any greater joy than being used by God to proclaim the good news about what he has done for us in Christ? In order to experience this joy, we must have a good understanding of what the good news is.

By now you are probably saying, “Okay, what do you say the gospel is?” First, let me give credit where it is due for the way I explain the gospel. It comes from a model set out by the book What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert. I would imagine Gilbert wouldn’t want credit for this method for explaining the gospel because ultimately the credit belongs to God, but I am going to at least give Gilbert some credit. The method covers four crucial components: God, man, Jesus, and the response. My explanation of the gospel goes something like this:

There is a God who is creator of all things and is completely sovereign over his creation. God is also righteous and holy. This means that he always does what is right and just, and he is absolutely and morally pure. God created man in his image to be holy like him, however, man rebelled against God, and now all humanity is cursed with a sin nature. Since God is holy, he cannot be in right relationship with sinners or look favorably on sin. Since God is just, this demands him to respond to sin with his wrath and judgment. In other words, God must punish sin because he is a just judge. Humanity is sinful, but also depraved. This means that humans are not only sinful, but they have no ability to change or remedy their situation before God. In order for God to look favorably on sinners without punishing them, the price for sin has to be paid, and their sin has to be atoned for. God loves sinners so much, that he offered grace and mercy through Jesus coming and paying the price for sin that we owe. Christ suffered under God’s wrath on our behalf by dying on the cross. But, he resurrected as proof that the debt for sin has been paid. Christ paid the price for our sin, but he also gave us his righteousness. Now, if our response to this good news is to repent of our sin and place our trust in the finished work of Christ then we will be saved. However, if we reject God’s offer of grace and mercy we are still under his wrath because Christ’s atoning work does not apply to us and we will pay the price for sin.

This is just an outline I follow in explaining the gospel, and it would obviously look different in a conversation setting. Plus, I would want to point people to Scripture where it attests to these things. However, what I have written above can be explained to someone in a matter of minutes, and sometimes that is all we might have with a person who needs to hear the gospel.

Something I want to leave you to consider is: can you explain the gospel with the same effectiveness that you could with something you are good at or enjoy doing? If the gospel is as important as we say it is—probably the most important of all things—then we should be able to communicate it more clearly than anything we are good at or enjoy doing. Because as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:14-15, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”

Who Should I Thank?

Imagine you are sitting in a nice restaurant. It doesn’t matter who is with you if anyone. You have just finished your three-course meal which involved pan-seared brussel sprouts with bacon bits; a main course of grilled salmon, mashed potatoes, and vegetables; and a dessert of apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream. That was me imagining myself there. When the server comes to pick up your plates, he or she sets down the bill and says, “Someone paid for your meal in full already, have a nice evening.” What comes to your mind immediately? You will probably insist that the server tell you who did it. If that’s the case, why would you insist that the server tell you who paid for your meal? It is more than likely because you feel compelled to express gratitude in thanking the person who paid for your nice dinner.

This is, of course, is a hypothetical situation, but we know this kind of thing happens all the time. It’s happened to me multiple times. I know that some might respond differently, but I could safely assume that most would respond the way I described above. I use this example to show the natural impulse in humans to be thankful. Not only do humans have a natural impulse to be thankful, but we have a desire to know what the object is to which our gratitude should be directed. The truth of the matter is that we cannot express gratitude and thankfulness unless there is someone that can receive it.

“there seems to be something innate in humans that gives us the sense that we are undeserving, and that there is a mind and heart behind the things that are given to us that we don’t deserve.”

I don’t want to deduce it down to semantics, but there’s a need to see the difference between being thankful for something and being thankful to someone. In keeping with tradition, there will be many families who go around the table and have each person state what they are thankful for. You can imagine the things that people will express thanks for: job, house, family, etc. If these are things to be thankful for, to whom should the thanks be given? Who can I give thanks to for these things that I do not deserve?

The main thrust of giving thanks comes from the idea in the last question. The Greek word for “thanksgiving” (eucharistia) contains the word for “grace” (charis). The most simplistic definition of grace is to get something that you don’t deserve. When we talk about giving thanks and getting what we don’t deserve, there is an element of being. What I mean by this is that there is a heart and mind behind the granting of such things that we don’t deserve. There’s also a moral thread that we need to be aware of in realizing that we are undeserving. If we felt like we truly deserve what we have, there’s really no sense in being thankful for it. Have you ever met a child are even adult that felt entitled to something? Are they very thankful?

From this, there seems to be something innate in humans that gives us the sense that we are undeserving, and that there is a mind and heart behind the things that are given to us that we don’t deserve. Okay, I’ll stop dancing around it. The reason why we have a sense of being undeserving is because we are. And the mind and heart behind that which is given to us is God. Even those who don’t believe in God or utterly reject him are still beneficiaries of his common grace. What’s interesting is that many people like this will gladly celebrate Thanksgiving without thinking about what they are actually doing.

What does it look like for them to take their worldview to its logical conclusion? I just read an article this morning from Forbes by Ethan Siegel called Be Thankful For the Universe That Created You. In the article, Siegel works his way through all of the things that we should be thankful for that make our existence possible. It is hard to ignore the tone of the article that clearly suggests that it is quite a miracle that we exist at all. The first sentence of the article says, “We all have a lot to be thankful for, but the biggest one we all have in common is that we all exist.” The reason why Siegel says this is because the scenario that he puts forth for our existence suggests that we really shouldn’t exist under it. And yet, here we are, we exist. But, why should we even be thankful we exist? Why is existence a good thing? That’s a topic for another post, but Siegel says we should be thankful for the various things in the universe that our existence is dependent upon, including gravitational forces, nuclear fusion, and molecular clouds. The last sentence of the article says, “Be thankful for the Universe that created you; it’s the one story we all have in common.” Well, I am thankful for the universe and its fine-tuning, but to whom should I be thankful for it? If there is no mind or heart behind my existence, why should I be thankful, especially if my existence is dependent upon randomness and chance?

The way I see it is that I shouldn’t exist, nor do I deserve to exist, and I should be thankful to the One that is the source of my existence. This is the only scenario that being thankful makes sense in. I also realize that I don’t deserve all that I have and that I should be thankful to the One that has granted to me all that I have. This is the only scenario that being thankful today makes sense in. Today means not only am I thankful for the common grace I have received, but also the grace I have received through Christ.

As you are sitting around the table today, think about the object of your gratitude. Giving thanks only makes sense when there is a heart and mind that has granted to you that which you are thankful for. Just like in the example I used in the first paragraph, you wouldn’t ask, “what paid for my meal?” you would ask, “who paid for my meal?” There is always a heart and mind behind a situation like this, and we shouldn’t think it’s any different when we offer thanks for what we have on a day like today. The heart and mind behind all we have is that of a good God who is gracious enough to even allow those who reject and despise him to benefit from his grace. And if God isn’t the object of your gratitude, then I would ask you to ponder who is the object of your gratitude.

We all know that it is important to make sure that people who deserve it are thanked, and that the gratitude goes to the right person. It’s easy to remember how it feels when we aren’t thanked or when someone else gets the gratitude for something we did. Is there anything that gets us more worked up than that? This is why I call to attention the need to be aware of the fact that gratitude, especially today, must be given and that it really matters who gets that gratitude. Lastly, if you are having trouble thinking of something to be thankful for, let me end with a quote from Ethan Siegel, “We all have a lot to be thankful for, but the biggest one we all have in common is that we all exist.”