As we saw in part I, the basic message of Christianity, and the basic reason why we ought to be Christians, is salvation from God’s wrath against our sins by repentance and faith in Christ. How does this work?
The Christian message of salvation is generally called the gospel, a word that simply means “good news.” What follows is a summary of the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and reaffirmed by the Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers.
The Catholic or Orthodox reader will probably describe what follows as the Protestant view of Christianity. Fair enough. I am a Protestant, because I see Protestantism as the most accurate expression of Christianity. My intent is not to be sectarian, but rather to give the gospel message accurately.
The most complete biblical statement of the gospel occurs in I Corinthians 15:1-9:
Now I [the Apostle Paul] make known to you, brethren, the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [the Apostle Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
How could the fact “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” be good news? The rest of this essay will clarify the basic elements presented in this passage.
To be understood properly, the gospel must be placed in the proper context: First the bad news that tells us why we need to be saved, then the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ, and then how we respond to the Good News. In the tradition of the Reformed Churches, these three parts are often abbreviated guilt, grace and gratitude. It is the “grace part,” strictly speaking, that is the gospel. Let’s explore these three elements:
To put it bluntly, you’re a sinner. Don’t get in a huff, I’m a sinner too. It’s part of being human. We can’t avoid sinning by trying really hard; sinning is what we do by nature. For example, Romans 3:9-10 reads:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are under sin; as it is written “There is none righteous, not even one.”
Note that “Jews and Greeks” was a proverbial saying meaning “all people.”
Concerning the origin of this condition, Romans 5:12—14 reads:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. [Emphasis added.]
This passage does contain some difficult theology. But for our purposes note how, at the end of this passage, Paul identifies Adam as the “one man” through whom sin entered the world. Paul is here alluding to the Fall: Adam and Eve disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. [See Genesis, chapter 3.]
Consider also Romans 5:19:
For as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
[The “One” whose obedience makes many righteous is, of course, Jesus.]
Sin means disobeying God. What God requires of man is described fully in the Bible; more specifically, it is described in those passages (collectively called “the law”) which say to people in general (not just to a specific person or group) what God want us to do.
But even those who have never read the Bible know that many things they do are wrong. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. According to Romans 1:18—20:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
So the Bible teaches that all are sinners. Most people respond by saying, “Well, I sin some of the time, but most of the time I’m good, or at least not bad. So what’s the problem?”
One problem is that God requires perfection, as James 2:10 reads:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
If perfection seems an unfair standard, consider the following “thought experiment:” You have just run a red light, and a police officer pulls you over. Would the policeman, or the judge, be impressed if you were to say “But I stopped at all the other red lights!”? Obviously not. The law requires you to do the right thing every time.
Also, when you sin, consider against Whom the offense is committed. In the words of R. C. Sproul, “sin is cosmic treason” against the infinite majesty of God. You and I may think that most of our sins are no big deal, but that’s not how God views them.
Furthermore, God’s standards are exceedingly high. For example, the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) reads
You shall not murder.
Most of us have not murdered, and yet Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:21, 22) says
You have heard that the ancients were told, YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
Anger and insults can be just as much violations of God’s law as murder. The Bible elsewhere makes it clear that there are degrees of sin, and degrees of punishment, but the fact remains: God’s standard is perfection.
In like manner, Jesus continues (Matthew 5:27, 28)
You have heard that it was said, YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Sin is much more common than most people think.
Knowing that our sin is pervasive, our next question is: what’s the penalty for sin? The basic answer is: pain and death in this life, and eternal punishment in the afterlife.
Although people sometimes appear to avoid punishment in this life, God rules, and he will judge everyone at the end of the World, when Jesus Christ returns. Everyone will be judged, and those who do not receive forgiveness of their sins through Christ will be punished. The exact form this punishment will take is somewhat uncertain, but the Bible is clear that the punishment will be eternal conscious torment. The traditional phrase to denote this punishment is “going to Hell.”
The Bible, in a sense, takes it for granted that the unjust will be punished forever after they die, because the biblical authors make no direct arguments against contrary views, as they often do when asserting such doctrines as the Resurrection or justification by faith alone. The Bible, then, simply refers or alludes to the eternal punishment of the unjust without taking pains to clarify exactly how this doctrine operates or to defend it against alternate views. Biblical passages on Hell simply assert that it is the eternal destination of the unjust, and it falls to other passages to establish how it is determined whether you are just or unjust.
For example, Matthew 25:41 reads
Then He [Jesus] will also say to those on His left, Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels…
And Revelation 20:11-15 says
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
It sounds harsh, but we have to acknowledge reality. And since all people sin, all people will go to Hell unless God provides a way for us to be pardoned. Fortunately, God has provided for just such a salvation, and we will explore it in part III. To read part III, go here.