What is the Gospel?
What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.
It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.
The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditional promise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.
Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.
It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.
This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”
The Promise of Love
Someone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.
The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!
Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.
Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.
Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.
Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.
The Promise of Justice
One aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.
To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.
How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).
The second, future aspect of the Gospel promise applies here. Another way of wording it is “Even if you go to Hell, you still have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will rescue you from damnation. You will not be stuck in Hell forever. Eventually God will get you out”
This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”
Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.
Where people get the Gospel wrong
Pretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.
Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox
Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.
Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.
Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”
Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”
If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”
However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.
The Promise of Grace
The Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.
Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.
Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.
Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.
Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.
Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name
The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.
This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.
Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?