What do religion and the gospel have in common? Absolutely nothing.
There are few things more foundational to the Christian faith than “the gospel.” But what exactly does that term mean?
For some, it refers to something religious, as in gospel music. Others think of the four books in the Bible that record Jesus’ life and teachings, which are called the Gospels (e.g., “the Gospel according to Matthew”). Still others use the term “gospel truth” to describe an idea they believe is absolutely true.
Finally, many people talk about sharing the gospel or believing the gospel. This is the most significant sense in which the gospel forms the core of the Christian faith.
The word “gospel” itself simply means “good news.” In ancient Roman literature, the equivalent was the Greek term euangelion, which meant “a good announcement,” “good tidings,” or “good news.” It was later translated into Old English, and the word became gōd (“good”) + spel (“story” or “news”).
But what is this good story, this good news, of the Christian faith? What is the gospel?
Everybody is selfish; everyone looks out for their own interests; every single person will lie, cheat, gossip, break a promise, overindulge, lose their temper, and do a whole host of harmful things from time to time.
One biblical writer commented that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”1 Another wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves.”2
The problem with sin is that it hurts us and it hurts others. But even more significantly, sin fractures our relationship with God.
He created us to be kind, loving, generous, and faithful. When we’re selfish, it’s like we’re rebelling against what we were created to be. And we’re rebelling against our creator.
So if we’re inherently selfish—or to use the biblical word, sinful—then what do we do about it? How do we change that? What’s the solution?
There are two answers people have embraced throughout history to deal with the sin and brokenness of their lives.
The first is achieving our way out of it. We just need to try harder, overcome our shortcomings, and become better people through sheer will and determination.
As it relates to God, we simply need to earn his approval and love. If we do enough good things to outweigh all the bad things, then God will love us.
God becomes a cosmic scorekeeper, floating around his holy throne room, monitoring video screens like the night watchman for morality. We’re left wondering, “How much good is good enough?”3
Unfortunately, religion often propagates this viewpoint. If we do the right things, say the right things, go to church, and jump through all the religious hoops, we can earn God’s approval.
As writer Tim Keller notes, “Both religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationship) are, ultimately, spiritually identical courses to take. Both are ‘sin.’”4
The Good News
Thankfully, there is another way. The Bible says that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He bore the burden of our shortcomings for us. And then he rose from the grave to defeat the power of sin, brokenness, and death in the world.
This was done so that when we abandon our own efforts—which always fall short—and simply accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord, our relationship with God is restored. And we, like Jesus, are given a new life in order to become all that God made us to be.
The first “solution” operates on the principle, “I do good to earn God’s acceptance and love.” But acceptance and love are not something you earn. A father does not love his daughter just because she is good.
A more accurate perspective is, “I am accepted and loved by God simply because I am his child and because of what Jesus has done for me. The good things I do flow out of the acceptance of that reality.”
God’s love for each of us is the liberating, life-giving good news of the gospel message. The apostle John put it this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”5
The good news is that God loves us and gave us his son. Our response is to believe in him and receive the new life he gives.
Karma vs. Grace
Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, drove home the central idea of the gospel. He said:
At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. . . . And yet, along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that. . . . Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. . . .
I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep [expletive]. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions.
The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled . . . It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.6
This concept is truly amazing; it’s “amazing grace,” amazing love. It seems too good to be true, which is why many people have difficulty believing it. But according to Jesus, it is true.
The biblical writer Paul summed it up this way: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.7
And that, indeed, is good news.