Christ Is the Gift of the Gospel
I love being a Christian. It’s a tremendous joy to live anchored to the character of God and the power of the gospel. Even when obedience is difficult, there is joy in knowing that God’s commands flow from perfect wisdom and love. As a result, I grieve when a professing believer seems to have no motivation to pursue Christ.
There are a variety of reasons why many professing believers limp along beginning with the sad reality that some have never been truly born again. But another reason we can actually address is that we often fail to preach a Christ-centered gospel. Sure, any true gospel presentation will discuss Christ; otherwise, it’s not a gospel presentation. But very often, we present Christ as a means to an end rather than as being the end. We call people to receive heaven, happiness, fulfillment, or forgiveness instead of calling them to Christ who is both Savior and Lord.
My point is not that these other things don’t matter or that we shouldn’t talk of them in gospel presentations. Jesus often warned people about hell and pointed them to the glories of heaven. Paul spent several chapters in Romans arguing that our sin has hopelessly offended God, and that our only hope of avoiding God’s wrath is justification. The NT marvels at the present blessings that come through the gospel. Therefore, we should hold out every blessing of the gospel as motivation to receive it. But ultimately, the gospel is about union with Christ and everything else is secondary. Therefore, we must call people to Christ and only secondarily to forgiveness, justification, and eternal life.
You might be surprised to hear me claim that union with Christ is the fundamental blessing of the gospel, because we often view justification as primary. Justification is very important, because it describes the essence of how sinners are declared righteous and receive a right standing with God. If someone misses the fact that salvation is all grace based on the declaration of God, not human works, they don’t have the gospel (Gal 2:16–21; 3:1–3, 10–14). We also must emphasize justification by grace alone, because whether it be the Jews of Paul’s day, the Catholics of Luther’s day, or the many legalistic religions of our day, sinners want to believe that they can save themselves. Therefore, every evangelist must clearly proclaim, “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified” (Rom 3:20). Instead, we are “Justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).
But if we never move beyond justification, we haven’t presented a complete picture of the gospel. This failure is a big reason (from a human perspective) why so many professing believers limp along with little motivation. After all if the gospel is purely about justification, then why pursue holiness? The sinner reasons, “Obedience is hard and contrary to my passions. I’m already forgiven and assured of a place in heaven. I have everything I really want from God, so why should I sacrifice for him?” If the gospel is solely about justification, we don’t have a great answer for these questions. You’re really in a bind if you’ve primarily called someone to receive a temporal benefit like happiness, freedom from addiction, or marital peace.
But the gospel is much more than justification; it is fundamentally about receiving Christ and being united to him. When Jesus preached to the lost, he consistently called people to believe on him and to enjoy a relationship with him. It’s true that an essential aspect of coming to Jesus was acknowledging our sinfulness and need of Christ’s perfect righteousness (Matt 5:20; Luke 13:1–5; 18:9–14; John 3:3, 5, 14–17). But Jesus did not present himself as merely a means to forgiveness, justification, and eternal life. He called people to a personal relationship with him that transformed all of life. He said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and Iwill give you rest. Take Myyoke upon you and learn from Me, for Iam gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. ForMyyoke is easy andMyburden is light” (Matt 11:28–30). Jesus called the lost to something more than the exchange of justification; he called them to a new way of life rooted in Christ. Again Christ says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Mysake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:24–26).Contrary to the belief of some, this is not a call to a make a post-conversion decision of dedication; otherwise, he wouldn’t claim that eternity is at stake. No this is a call to receive the gospel, and again Jesus presents himself as the primary gift of the gospel. A Christian is someone who comes to Jesus, is in Jesus, and follows Jesus.
We might think that after Jesus’ death and resurrection the focus shifts, but it doesn’t. Christ remains the primary gift of the gospel, even in Romans and Galatians, which emphasize justification. For example Romans 3:21–26 assumes that justification results from being in Christ. Alien righteousness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22). We are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). Later Romans 8:1 states, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” I am justified and free from condemnation because I stand in Christ, not vice versa.
Galatians also grounds justification in union with Christ. “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christand not by the works of the law” (Gal 2:16). God says I am not saved by saying a prayer that will rescue me from hell or even by receiving some impersonal gift of justification. I must believe on Christ as my redeemer. Therefore, if we present the gospel as an impersonal gift someone can receive apart from receiving a personal relationship to Christ, we’ve misrepresented the gospel. Rather, we ought to think of justification in the personal language of Philippians 3:9. Paul’s desire is to “be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
We must also make Christ the center of our message, because union with Christ provides more than a legal declaration. Through union with Christ we are reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18–20) and adopted into his family (Gal 4:4–7). Union with Christ also regenerates the sinner, freeing him from the bondage of sin and giving him the hope of glorification. These are all significant aspects of the gospel, but we often fail to emphasize them. For example consider the typical gospel presentation from Ephesians 2. We begin by using vv. 1–3 to establish that man is a sinner who deserves the wrath of God. Then we jump to vv. 8–9 to demonstrate that salvation is not of works; rather it is a free gift that we receive by faith. We think we’ve shared the whole gospel, because we’ve said that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. But vv. 5–6, say that more is involved in the gospel. “Even when we were dead in trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ(by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sittogether in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Again, union with Christ is foundational, and the new life he gives is not an appendix to the gospel; it’s an essential aspect of union with Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17). But because we are so determined to emphasize the free nature of grace, we skip right over new life, and the gospel becomes little more than an impersonal ticket to heaven.
If people miss the new life Jesus gives, then either they will miss the gospel all together, or they will begin their Christian experience without understanding how the gospel transforms all of life, not just my eternal destiny. Many Christians are sympathetic to this concern, but they struggle to know how to incorporate a changed life into their evangelism. I know that I have. There have been times where I have tediously walked someone through justification as if it is the gospel. Once I’ve brought the person to understand their need of justification, I find myself struggling to challenge the person to count the cost of following Christ before they pray. I end up presenting the gospel as if there’s an awkward marriage between free grace and full surrender. But if Christ is the center of my presentation, there is no awkward marriage, because the demands of discipleship directly follow the new life I enjoy in Christ. Therefore, I must call people to come to Christ and receive both his perfect righteous and his victorious life. With this foundation, the new believer can go forward resting in Christ’s perfect righteousness and motivated to follow our “gentle and lowly” Savior.
Christ is the gift of the gospel, and everything else flows from him, so preach Christ for all that he is. In my next post I’ll discuss how we continue to live in him once we have received him.