The word “gospel” is a noun and an adjective and a verb and an industry that has become as amorphous as the word “evangelical.” I often hear about how this or that is a “gospel” issue, or how the litmus test of a good church is whether or not they are “gospel-centered.” Blogs and coalitions and conferences and genres of music claim the name.
I understand the heart of most of the above; the idea of a “making the main thing the main thing” is one I ascribe to. Whatever the gospel is, it should definitely be central and never sidelined by distractions or sideshows or false gospels about prosperity or self-sufficiency or “your best life now.”
But what is the gospel? If we went around the room in a Bible study and everyone had two minutes to articulate the good news of the Christian gospel, the answers would probably widely vary. That is either the genius or the challenge of the gospel.
The most concise summary of the gospel I’ve ever read is in this passage from John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, which would fit the size of a tweet (with 15 characters to spare!):
“The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for Man.”
The gospel is the good news that we can return to the garden, to that place of full harmony and communion and shalom as creatures in creation with the Creator.
To understand that gospel we must understand what went wrong in the garden, and that is the first part of Stott’s quote: “the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God.”
Our first parents couldn’t stomach the fact that there were things God could do or know that they could not do or know. They could not accept that it was forbidden for them to eat of tree and “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). They could not accept that they were not autonomous, free to be or do whatever they wanted. They could not accept boundaries around something that they felt was perfectly good.
The first sin and the root of all subsequent sin is the idolatry of self. It is pride, autonomy, control; the inability to accept rules or restrictions on your freedom. It is knowing the law and disobeying it anyway; knowing God exists and yet not honoring him as Lord (Paul lays it out well in Romans 1:18-32). It is believing we are on par with God and that we needn’t defer to His authority.
So that’s the problem. We cut ourselves off from God because we don’t want to go his way; we want to go our own way. We even want to go our own way in terms of getting back to the garden; so we try and try and try to keep laws and be moral and do all the religious things. But it doesn’t work because this too is really just about the idolatry of self: what I can do to get myself out of the ugliness I’m in and back to pristene Eden.
The solution cannot be us. It cannot be anything we can do. It can only be what God does; it can only be his initiative and effort, his grace. And that’s the second part of the Stott statement: “the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for Man.”
In Jesus Christ God became the man we failed to be, and lived as we should have lived, and then took the punishment we deserved. His resurrection proved his lordship and confirmed the gospel: that God alone authors our salvation, and Jesus alone is our way back to the garden. For us as individuals and as cultures and as creatures.
Jesus is the only way back. All we have to do is accept this fact.
But it’s easier said than done. For if pride is the original sin, then humility is the original virtue. To accept Jesus is to humbly acknowledge that he is Lord and I am not. To return to the garden and a restored relationship with the Creator, we must trade our pride for humility, understanding that we haven’t and couldn’t and will never earn or deserve such a thing. It is to humbly accept that God’s answer is the only answer, and salvation is on his terms, not mine. It is to give up our selfishness and autonomy and embrace the selflessness and humility of the cross.
Life in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, builds on this humility. The more we walk in the Spirit, the easier it becomes to serve him and others rather than ourselves. Where sin revolves around selfishness, Christian virtue is built on selflessness. Even secular thinkers recognize this. Émile Durkheim defined morality as “everything that forces man to take account of other people, to regulate his actions by something other than the promptings of his own egoism.”
The gospel is the good news that we (people, systems, nations, ecology) can be freed from the prison and destruction of self-interest and unchecked autonomy. All we have to do is surrender our control to Christ and stop worshipping the idol of self-sufficiency. In an age of DIY spirituality and “be who you want to be” morality, that news can be tough to swallow. But it’s still good news.