Logos Assembly September 2021
I am presenting on the Gospel today, but as I do so, I want to point out a few ways in which sometimes well-meaning Christians get the gospel wrong. They may use many of the same words, but because some of the words mean different things and there may be other assumptions at work, the actual gospel message being presented is watered down, distorted, not the high-octane gospel message of the Bible. Hopefully, you know this by now, but not all Christian churches are created equal, meaning, not all Christian churches are equally faithful to Scripture, equally healthy, or equally discipling their members.
One of the ways we know this generally is simply by how things are going in the battlefield of our culture. Professing Christians are a massive portion of our nation’s population, and yet, we are being bossed around by a far smaller minority of sexual deviants and activists. Why? I believe a significant part of the answer is that what passes for preaching the gospel in many North American evangelical churches is at best a very watered-down version of the gospel, and at worst, it isn’t even the gospel. The result is that there are many people who profess faith in Jesus who are either not really Christians at all, or else are such weak and confused Christians that they are not equipped to face challenges. The final verse of our text says that being saved by grace means becoming God’s workmanship and producing good works. Professing Christians who are not producing those good works call into question whether they are truly God’s workmanship. One time I was talking to Pastor Jim Wilson, and he said, “God does a better job than that.”
Some Gospel Distortions
One of the ways the gospel is sometimes distorted or watered down is by presenting it as a helpful aid for life. God can help your family. God can help your business. God can help your love life. God can help you feel better. Of course there is a sense in which God does help His people in all of life, but that isn’t the gospel. The gospel isn’t a self-help solution.
Another way the gospel is sometimes distorted or watered down is by making it seem like the gospel is something within anyone’s power to accept. We can give this impression when the entirety of a gospel presentation is, “just ask Jesus into your heart.” Sometimes the Bible verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking is quoted from Revelation, and it is misconstrued to be referring to the door of an unsaved sinner’s heart, as though Jesus is waiting around for us to act. He would like to help, but He hasn’t been invited in yet. The gospel is not merely, “you can ask Jesus into your heart.”
And this leads to a third distortion of the gospel that is sort of the flip side of the previous one, and that is presenting Christ and His Cross as not really very powerful or potent. If the gospel is all about asking Jesus into your heart, and He’s standing at the door knocking, hoping you will let Him in, what kind of Savior is that? And more specifically, it creates the impression that the death of Jesus only made it possible for some to be saved, if only they will ask. The Cross is God’s best effort at saving sinners. That’s like saying God bought a bunch of get-out-of-jail cards, if anyone wants one. But that’s very different than God Himself breaking into the prison and leading the jail break, guaranteeing the freedom of many particular prisoners.
These distortions also make God’s love sort of anemic and sentimental. The get-out-of-jail cards He left at the front office are not for anyone in particular. It’s only a generic love. And it raises the question: does God’s love in Christ only work if we want it to? It might work for some but not for others. And so many people actually say that: your religion works for you but not for me. The Cross in this view didn’t guarantee or accomplish anything for sure. And when it works, apparently it’s primarily an emotional response, making you feel really bad or really good or something, but that veers dangerously close to manipulation. And it often leaves people feeling very uncertain about their faith, God, and truth, as they see their salvation as bound up with an emotional experience. Their emotions become their standard.
What is the Gospel?
Our text makes it clear that the gospel is not a self-help solution because it says before we are saved, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). Dead people can’t help themselves, and there’s not really anything that can be done for dead people. You can’t really help the dead.
The only thing that can be done for the dead is raise them. How much could Lazarus do for himself in the tomb? Could Lazarus even ask Jesus for help? If Jesus stood at the door of his tomb and knocked, could Lazarus let Him in? This is why our text says that when God saves us, He makes us alive. He raises us from the dead. While it is true that in salvation the Spirit gives us a new heart and Christ comes to dwell in us, it is not true that Jesus is waiting around for us to let Him.
Nevertheless, we know that salvation is by faith, by believing in Christ’s work for us. We are told that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). “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?” (Rom. 10:14)
But how can dead people hear someone preaching? Ezekiel is actually given this very picture in the Valley of Dry Bones (Ez. 37). He preaches to the dry bones and they come together and flesh comes upon them, and finally, he calls the Spirit to fill them. God uses preaching to call the dead to life, and our text says that they are saved by grace through faith. But that faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). It’s not of works, which means that we don’t even come up with the faith ourselves, otherwise, we would have a reason to boast (Eph. 2:9).
In all of this, we are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” We are New Creations, and Paul says elsewhere that it is the same sort of act as the first creation: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). We supply the darkness, and Christ commands the light to shine in our hearts. We supply the blindness, and Christ makes us see.
Finally, we can be even more specific about Christ’s work on the cross. Christ’s death was not merely an expression of His love and an attempt to save sinners (if they will only let Him). The particular kind of death we are in before we are saved is the death of trespasses and sins, slavery to the devil and disobedience, and we were children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God bmade alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by ccanceling dthe record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. wHe disarmed the rulers and authorities2 and eput them to open shame, by ftriumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:13-15).
So how does Christ make us alive? By forgiving our trespasses. But how does He forgive them since He is perfectly just? Can God let a mass murderer into heaven? Does He just give some sins a pass? No, that would be unjust and wicked. He cancels our debt and sets it aside by nailing it to the cross.
At the same time and in the same action He also disarms the rulers and authorities – Satan and all his demons – how? Well, Satan is the “Accuser.” His power over anyone is based on their guilt. Satan is a prosecuting attorney, and He brings the accusations of all our sin. But if Christ has died in our place, and all of our particular sins have been nailed to His cross, then every accusation of Satan falls flat. Satan is put to open shame. Christ has triumphed over them.
But this means that when Christ said, “It is finished.” He actually accomplished the salvation of His people. He paid for the particular sins of particular people, such that their specific debts were paid, the wrath of God has been satisfied, and therefore, they cannot help but come alive.
The gospel is the good news that we are utterly powerless to save ourselves. We provide the sin and guilt. We provide the corpse. We provide the darkness. We do not merely need “help.” We need to be made alive. The gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord. And that means that He is not knocking on the door of our hearts, hoping we will let Him in. Jesus always gets His man, woman, or child. He does not need our permission to save. If He needed our permission to save us, no one would be saved. Christ did not die in order to try to save people in general. Christ died for particular sins for particular people so that they would be saved completely, certainly, and to the uttermost.
“And fthis is the will of him who sent me, gthat I should lose nothing of hall that he has given me, but iraise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who jlooks on the Son and kbelieves in him lshould have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day… No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:39-40, 44).
It is this potent gospel – the gospel of God’s mighty grace that makes mighty Christians. But a weak gospel makes weak Christians. The more people think they can do in their salvation the weaker the gospel, and ironically, the weaker their faith. But when we understand our own utter weakness, the power of God bestows a more powerful faith.
How do you know you’re a Christian? Do you love Jesus? Do you want to follow Him? Do love singing His praises? We love Him because He loved us first. Do you love going to church? Do love being around other Christians? John says that we know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.
How do you know that you’re really alive? Are you breathing? Is your heart beating?
Or do you not really love God? Are Christians annoying? Are you secretly counting down the days till you can leave home, leave church? Then you aren’t alive in Christ. You’re still dead in your sins and trespasses. And this is the first part of the gospel. You are lost. You cannot save yourself. You cannot do anything to help.
But the second part is this. We proclaim Christ crucified for the particular sins of particular sinners, so that their debts might all be paid, so that they might walk out of the grave of sin and death. And just as Jesus called Lazarus and told him to come forth, so too, Christians ministers (and all Christians are authorized) to proclaim this gospel to dead sinners and God promises to use that announcement to make dead sinners live, and when they gasp for air, the first thing they do is call on the name of the Lord.
In Narnia, the children explain that they had been calling for Aslan, and Aslan explains to the children that they could not have called for Him unless He had first called for them. And so it is with the gospel. So it is with our Christ our Savior. Do you love Him? It is because He loved you first.