THE GOSPEL CHANGES EVERYTHING
Written by Doug Ponder on June 26, 2015
The Gospel and Its Effects
The gospel is not everything, but it does change everything.
That brief, dense sentence is the key to understanding Christianity. The gospel is not a message about everything, but it is a message that changes everything.
The first idea clarifies what the “gospel” is. The word gospel means “good news.” In the Bible the gospel is not just any good news, but the specific good news that Jesus is Savior and Lord of all the earth. It is the good news that sin, Satan, and death have been defeated, that we have been forgiven and reconciled to the Creator we rebelled against, and that all things will be made new—and this is all true because of Jesus. That is the gospel. It’s good news!
The gospel doesn’t take very long to say with words, but its effects will take eternity for us to appreciate. It is a very deep well, and many buckets of living water can be drawn from its depths. Hence we say, “The gospel changes everything.” No stone will be left unturned, and no idea, no plant, no person will be left unaffected by the redeeming rule of Jesus the Savior-King.
Yet often, much too often, we forget or reject either half of that truth: the gospel is not everything, but it does change everything. When we forget or reject the first part, we turn the gospel into something other than good news. When we forget or reject the second part, we make the gospel impotent.
The Road to Bad News
“So I told my roommate that the gospel says ‘stop sleeping around.’”
“The good news of the Bible is that God has a wonderful plan for your life.”
“The gospel is stop sinning.”
“The gospel is love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
“The gospel is repent and believe in Jesus.”
The road to bad news begins by confusing or combining the gospel and its intended effects. Remember that the gospel is the good news about who Jesus is and what he has done. It is not a message about something that we must do—even though there are many things we are called to do. When this confusion takes place, when the gospel is combined with its effects, people are no longer declaring the good news of grace but the bad news of moralism. Moralism simply refers to the idea that we must act right or better ourselves (morally) in order to receive God’s love, forgiveness, blessing, etc.
There are conservative and liberal forms of moralism. Conservatives most often highlight personal sins, matters of truth, the importance of holiness, and so on. Liberals most often highlight corporate sins like the need to love our neighbor, to not be racist, to be good stewards of the earth, and so on. Each group insists on good behavior in certain areas, but each group also obliterates the gospel in the process. By confusing and combining the gospel and its effects, they essential preach a message of, “If you want to be loved and forgiven, you have to live like this…”
That message, whether in conservative or liberal clothing, is always bad news. It is bad news because you cannot live up to those standards well enough to earn God’s love, forgiveness, or blessing. And to think that you can live up to those standards reveals extreme dishonesty about your life that comes from a deep place of blinding pride. You are not good. You never will become good through your own effort. Thus the road to bad news is the road to hell. It confuses the gospel of grace for the false gospel or moralism, which can only produces versions of ‘good, clean living’ and ‘socially responsible altruists’ who still don’t see their need for grace.
The Road to Powerless News
“My husband is a godly man who loves Christ, but he’s a racist.”
“I’ll fight you over doctrines, but everything else is just preference or opinion.”
“If I’m truly forgiven, then I can live however I want to.”
“We both believe the same things. We just choose to live differently.”
Whereas the first road led to bad news by combining the gospel and its effects, the second road leads to powerless or irrelevant news by separating the gospel and its effects. This error makes the mistake of thinking that the gospel is an infinitely small message about something like forgiveness only. Instead of a fathomless well of living water, imagine a sealed Tupperware container in the back corner of your fridge. It’s “there,” but it hasn’t been touched in months. It doesn’t impact your life. It doesn’t really matter.
By contrast, the gospel really is a message that changes everything because of what kind of message it is. It’s the good news that our worst enemies have been defeated. It’s the good news that we are loved not because of who we are, but because of who God is. It’s the good news that our rebellion has been punished in Jesus so that we could be set free—free not to indulge in the sins Jesus died to save us from, but free to worship the God who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. It’s the good news that this broken world, and all the broken people to turn to God, will one day be set right again. And all of this, as we have already said, is true because of who Jesus is. He is the Redeeming Lord, the Savior-King.
And that means it will never do to say, “We believe the same things, but we choose to live differently.” Anyone who believes that Jesus is Lord necessarily believes that his words are truth, that his commands are loving, and that his wisdom is supreme. We don’t come to Jesus like a buffet, taking a little of this but leaving off all of that. Jesus is a whole person, an undivided person, both Lord and Savior. If the good news we preach isn’t that, then it really isn’t powerful enough to matter.
But this is not how Jesus himself thought about the gospel. It is said that when a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, he told her, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus was telling her the good news—Forgiven! Clean! Reconciled!—all of which would come true in him. That’s the gospel. But notice what Jesus says immediately after this: “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). That isn’t the gospel, but it is an obvious implication of the gospel. You can’t divorce the good news of salvation from the sins Jesus died to save us from.
A similar thing happened when Paul confronted Peter about his racism. Paul writes, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). Paul was smart enough not to confuse or combine the gospel and its effects, so why was he saying that racism and regeneration cannot coexist in the same heart? Because the gospel is the kind of message that necessarily has certain effects. Thus Paul continues, “I saw that they were not acting in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). So the gospel is not the good news of racial reconciliation, full stop, but the good news of the Reconciling Lord who will unit all things through his blood. And if you believe that, then you can’t remain a racist. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates his brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20).
The Road to Life Everlasting
The only path that doesn’t lead to death or irrelevance is the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus himself. He tells us all, “Neither do I condemn you,” and he hastens to add, “Go, and sin no more.” Not because a failure to “sin no more” erases the grace of the gospel, but because the logic of the gospel is obvious. Slavery to Christ means freedom, while slavery to sin means death (Rom. 6:16-18). We keep the gospel and its effects clearly distinct, therefore, so that all can hear the free offer of God’s grace. Yet we never divorce the gospel from its effects, so as to make the costly grace of Jesus some cheap take-it-or-leave-it trinket. Instead we seek to bring all our lives “in step with the truth of gospel,” which extends to every idea, every attitude, every action, every decision, every dream. The gospel changes everything!
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 the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.