GOOD, BAD, GOOD, GOOD
Written by Doug Ponder on January 8, 2017
Bad News before Good News?
It’s common for Christians to say things like, “You have to know the bad news about sin before you can know the good news about salvation.”
I truly thank God for those Christians who are earnest in evangelism and committed to the “hard truths” of Scripture about topics like sin, judgment, and hell. But when it comes to that sort of presentation of the gospel, I think they’re starting in the wrong place.
Certainly it’s true that you cannot know the good news apart from the bad news—you cannot know what it means to be saved if you do not know what you are being saved from. But you also can’t know the bad news apart from the good news that precedes it!
In other words, presentations of the gospel that most faithfully represent the story of Scripture don’t start with the bad news that you’re a sinner.
A Not-So-Hypothetical Example
Suppose a stranger came up to you and said:
Do you know the Ten Commandments? Have you kept all of them?
(No, of course not.)
And what do you call someone who tells a lie?
You ever stolen anything—even something really small? What does that make you?
You ever looked at a woman with lust? You ever used God’s name in vain? Did you always obey your parents?
(Again, of course not.)
So that makes you a liar, a thief, an adulterer, a blasphemer, and a disobedient rebel. Do you think people like that should get into heaven?
Now if you answer, “Yes” or anything to that effect, the stranger will then say: Well, God is righteous. He must punish sin or he is not just. That means you are going to hell unless you receive forgiveness in Jesus.
Every bit of what the stranger told you is true. God says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). And he says, “All have sinned and for short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And again he says, “The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). God says all these things, but this is not where God starts when he speaks to us.
Starting in the Wrong Place
It is incredibly significant that the Bible itself does not begin with the bad news of sin; it begins with the good news of a Creator who made everyone and everything with love, wisdom, purpose, and goodness (Genesis 1 – 2).
By starting with the bad news of sin and judgment, we create three significant problems.
1. Putting Humanity at the Center
“I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12). The Bible repeatedly says that the first and greatest reason God saves us is to showcase his goodness and power and wisdom and love—his glory, in other words. This is the chief reason we were rescued is so that “we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:10). By starting with the sinfulness of humanity, we make salvation firstly about us instead of being firstly about God. This is tragically ironic, since the very essence of sin involves a man-centered preoccupation with the self! Instead, the gospel must begin with the good news about God. Because God is the gospel, as one author rightly says—so there is no better gift he can give than himself.
2. Overemphasizing God’s Holiness
Beginning with the bad news of sin make it seem like the most important aspect of God’s nature is that he is our judge. This overemphasizes the holiness of God to the neglect of his goodness or love. Put another way, starting with the sinfulness of humanity overlooks why God wanted to create us in the first place. It paints God as a predominantly angry deity, a nitpicker who can’t stand to have his rules broken. Instead, the gospel should begin with the good news that ‘the God who is there’ is the one seen in the face of Jesus Christ (John 1:18; 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 1:1-3), who is the source of everything good, beautiful and true, at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). The reason he is righteously angry against sin, therefore, is rooted in the goodness of who he is. God is for what is good, and therefore against what is evil.
3. Reducing Sin to Law-Breaking
The last problem with starting a presentation of the gospel with the bad news of sin is that it tends to limit sin to law-breaking, instead of showing that sin is law-breaking and life-destroying—both morally wrong and effectively bad. For example, life is not only taken away as a punishment for sin (Romans 6:23); life is also forfeited as a consequence of turning away from the only source of life and light and joy that there is. This is the argument Paul makes in Romans 1 concerning the effects of idolatry in our lives, and this is what sets the stage for the “full” good news of Romans 8. For salvation is more than forgiveness alone, and so the good news of the gospel must include more than heaven and forgiveness. Jesus has come to set right all that we set wrong (Eph. 1:10; Acts 3:21; Col. 1:20; Rev. 21:5). He has came to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found” (Rom. 8:19-23). It is “in this hope we are saved,” Paul says (Rom. 8:24a).
Good, Bad, Good, Good
The rhythm of the gospel, therefore, isn’t bad news → good news. It’s good news → bad news → good news → good news.
It starts with the good news of creation and the glorious Creator who made us for himself, apart from whom no good thing ever was, or is, or will be.
It continues with the bad news of our ancestor’s fall and the continued rebellion of every one us today. “Each of us has turned to our own way” (Isa 53:6).
It highlights the good news of God’s grace in the face of our sin, pointing to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to forgive us, revive us, and reconcile us to the Creator we have betrayed and abandoned.
And it concludes with even more good news about the return of Jesus to renew all things, restoring all that was lost, binding up all that was broken, and setting right all that we put wrong.
If we lose sight of the biblical rhythm of the gospel, the message which is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16) functionally loses some of its potency. For while the “bad news first” presentation of the gospel is still good news, it’s not as nearly good as it could be!
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.