The Gospel We (Don’t) Believe

If you’re a Christian, you’ve been saved by the gospel. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you sufficiently understand the gospel. Just as it is easy to mistake the essence, purpose, and function of the law, so it is possible—and dangerously easy—to misinterpret the gospel itself. Yes, even believers can have a faulty view of the gospel—to the detriment of their Christian walk.

Here’s a short quiz. Look at Genesis 12:2-3 and see if you can discern where the gospel is located.

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

We can see that this is a promise, not a command. Therefore, God is speaking here with the voice of the gospel, not the law. We can be even more explicit than that, though. These verses are, in effect, the very gospel of Jesus Christ—on par with Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:5: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

How can I say that? Because Paul says that. In Galatians 3:8 he writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’” Paul labels God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12 as “the gospel”—even though it doesn’t specifically mention Christ. This is because the essence of the gospel is God promising to do something on our behalf without any help or assistance from us.

But isn’t Genesis 12 simply foreshadowing the coming of Christ, through which God’s promise will be fulfilled? Isn’t that why Paul can refer to it as the gospel? Well, yes—and that is exactly the point. Every promise—that is, every gospel proclamation in the Bible—is ultimately fulfilled through Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20, ESV). When God makes a promise, it can never be fulfilled through the law (i.e., our works)—only through the gospel (i.e., Christ’s atonement).

At this point, some may say, “That’s all fine and dandy, Cap, but it’s old hat. I already believe that. All Christians believe that.” Okay, let’s put some legs on this doctrine of ours and see if it actually walks.

First, let’s ask where our emphasis lies—on the law or the gospel? Do we spend most of our time thinking and talking about our responsibility or Christ’s sufficiency? As Internet Monk has pointed out, much of our teaching and talking exhorts people this way: “if they would take their talent and use it for the Lord, they’d be blessed. Or if they surrender their all to Jesus, they’ll be happy no matter what happens. Or if they will stop making excuses and get serious about following Jesus, they can please God.” Law, law, law. Law for breakfast, second breakfast, and elevenses—and that’s only what we eat in the morning. Too many of us roll around in the law like mud-stained pigs—and we like it. It makes us feel good about ourselves and how we relate to God. But we were meant to feel good about God based on how He has chosen to relate to us.

Second, let’s ask what we believe about saving faith. Is it ultimately God’s gift, or is it ultimately our choice? Do we contribute to salvation, or is it, as Romans 5 says, a “free gift” (vv. 15, 16, 18)? It can’t be both. The entirety of salvation—grace, faith, and everything else involved—is either a gift (Eph. 2:8), or the result of an act of our will, giving us a right to boast (Eph. 2:9). If I think the ultimate determining factor in my salvation was something that originated in me, then I am ultimately claiming salvation on the basis of law, not gospel.

Scripture sometimes refers to the promise of the gospel as an inheritance (Eph. 1:14, 18; Heb. 9:15). We all know what an inheritance is: something you receive from the work (and death) of a next of kin. Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary atonement act as the work and the death that secure our salvation. An inheritance that comes through the law is, as Paul says, “no longer of promise; but God gave [the inheritance] to Abraham by promise” (Gal. 3:18). If we hope to be saved like Abraham was, we need only trust in the promise of God’s saving work through Christ—through the gospel.