Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part II

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 Gospel

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.

The Penalty

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.

10 thoughts on “Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part II

  1. The doctrine of sin is difficult to convey to non-believers. As I said in my comment on your previous post, this is partly due to the easy conscience of modern man. But it’s also true that there are many people whose sins are fairly petty and who think it manifestly unjust that, say, an uncharitable thought should be equated with murder or adultery. (And, as you very well know, its a very short step from the fideism you advocate to antinomianism.) In any event, I think we would do well to speak of sin as an essential brokenness and estrangement, and of wicked deeds as occasional symptoms of this underlying condition. If I am innocent of any scarlet crimes, it is not because I am incapable of scarlet crimes, but because I have somehow steered clear of occasions of sin. A rotted floorboard is a bad floorboard, even if no one has yet fallen through it.

    • Yes, modern man does not believe in sin, except for spectacular cases such as mass murder. But we have to acknowledge the biblical testimony, that what seem to us minor sins are not inconsequential, but are both offenses against a holy God and, as you say, indications of a radical disorder within us.

      You say that I am advocating fideism, the notion that faith needs no reasons. I have not expressed this view, and I will discuss the nature of biblical faith in part II of this series.

      • To be just, there are modern men who do believe in sin. I was once in a perfectly civil online discussion on original sin, among conservative Christians and conservative atheists. The atheists disagreed, of course, with the theological implications but agreed that the doctrine touched on a profound truth about human nature.

        (Theodore Dalrymple is an atheist but nevertheless uses the term because it hits on that truth.)

      • Alan@ I misused the term fideism. I was grasping for a simple way to denote the doctrine that “works” make no difference whatsoever.

        Mary@ Of course there are many people alive today who believe in original sin, but insofar as they do, I’d say their thinking is not modern. Modern thought maintains that humans are essentially good, and only accidentally bad, owing to misfortunes of “environment.” All of the great modern projects attempted to bring out man’s essential goodness by modifying that “environment.” Of course, all of these projects failed.

    • Hi JMSmith,

      Maybe it’s just that I’ve heard it too often, but I think the “sin as essential brokenness” line has dangers of its own. It makes sin sound like a sickness, in which we–rather than God and our neighbor–are the primary victims, and which should be more the occasion for self-pity than guilt.

      On the other hand, I like your point that a lack of grievous sins is usually more due to circumstance than virtue, as proved by how readily we give in to the temptations we do experience. I guess your point is that, while it may be hard to feel strong guilt over minor sins, we can still feel shame because of what they reveal about us. The point is to accept that God’s standard is the correct one–the only on a being of His holiness could possibly hold–and feel properly ashamed of not meeting it.

      • Speaking of sin as brokenness does, as you say, run the risk of encouraging valetudinarian self-pity. Maybe there’s a better figure of speech. What I want to convey is the idea of that we are broken and therefore dangerous, like a car with bad brakes. One can drive a car with bad brakes without having an accident, but if a child runs into the street, that car is going to do something really bad.

  2. I think it is either Chesterton or Lewis – I forget which – whose description of the judgment of sin is a useful conveyance of the concept. The author describes the difference between the man who leads a relatively good life (though is still a sinner, of course) and the man who leads a life full of sin and depravity. He explains that the reason the “good” man only committed minor sins was not that he is himself a specially good person, but simply that God blessed him with a life in which temptation was relatively easy to avoid. Thus a man who is blessed with a life relatively free of temptation, and yet still sins in even a minor way (as well all do), may be judged even more damned than the man who appears to have led an evil life. This is why murderers can be saved: God rewards the depraved sinner who truly accepts God’s help and guidance and thus manages to resist temptation even just a little bit. Whereas the “good” man, upon reaching judgment, may hear the pronouncement, “You were given every help and guidance; you were protected in life from any serious temptation – and yet STILL you disobeyed the Law of the Creator.”

    The evil actions of the murderer, the pedophile, the depraved drug addict – are symptoms of their mortal evil. Once delivered from their terrestrial bonds, and having accepted God’s grace, their souls may be perfected. Whereas the man whose terrestrial existence is full of goodness and charity may, upon being separated from his mortal body and his spiritually easy terrestrial existence, be really a mean and evil person. We are not judged on how successful we are in avoiding temptation in this life, but on how hard we try to be good with the materials we are given. Certainly if we believe God Himself has extended us a loving hand to forgive and cleanse our sins, to reject that offer of help is evidence that we really are not trying at all to be good.

  3. Pingback: Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part III « The Orthosphere

  4. Pingback: Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part I « The Orthosphere

  5. Pingback: Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part IV « The Orthosphere


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.