Gospel, Not Gimmicks

The other day, I used the term “sharing the gospel” in a conversation, and my acquaintance stopped me. “I always hear that,“ he said, “but what does the term “gospel” actually mean”?

What, indeed, does the gospel mean? Literally “the good news”, you would think the essence of it would be part and parcel of the experience for anyone who attends church. Yet, in today’s churches, including many in our own backyard, it is possible to attend church for months without hearing the actual, full gospel, just as it is for an unbeliever to be friends with a Christian for years without the gospel ever being shared.

The gospel, as we know from Scripture, is this: Mankind is inherently sinful, and falls short of God’s perfect, holy standard (Romans 3:23). The cost of this rebellion and sinfulness is eternal punishment and death for all (Romans 6:23, Revelation 20:14-15). Yet while we were still sinners, God in his unsurpassed love sent his son Jesus, fully human and fully God, to pay the price demanded for our sins. Christ took the full wrath of God on himself for our sins, died, and rose, so that we may be dead to sin and raised to eternal life by repenting and trusting in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior (Romans 5:6-11). In Christ alone may those who so repent and turn to Him be saved and given eternal life (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).

What is often shared instead, be it from the popular books of the day, in pulpits nationwide, or from our mouths, is a watered-down idea of the gospel. Often, the gospel is buried under a confused flurry of topics more to do with reassuring people how well we still fit in, vague references to living better lives, or insisting we aren’t here to pressure people into anything.

The gospel has never been about fitting in or being relevant. Still, today’s church has tried every gimmick in the book to do so, and still is perplexed why the outside world dismisses it and its message. It has tried embracing “marketing” the gospel to a target demographic. It has tried “keeping it positive”, to avoid being a “downer”. Some even try to fuse it with other religions and practices to “expand the appeal”. If it’s a man-made philosophy, there are Christians who will believe it’s a magic bullet that is going to powerfully convert people while gaining them acceptance and relevance at the same time. There are two particular issues with this. The first is that Colossians 2:8 states “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”. The second we seem to have forgotten is nothing reaches people as does the immense power of the direct gospel.

Understanding the gospel is not treating it as a mere way to “bring happiness” or “make this life better”. It is, at the very core, about understanding that the unregenerate life is an affront to God; that our sin is hateful to Him; that we weren’t “good” or “pretty good”, just looking to get a warm pat and a nudge up the ladder. The world wants a message that conforms to a positive self-image, instead of facing what’s really in their heart. People do not like to be told they’re not OK; they want affirmation, not rejection.

Yet rejection is what it means to be outside of Christ. It means that the unsaved will be judged fully for their sin and their rebellion against God. It means the full, righteous wrath of God upon their heads, just as Christ stated (Matthew 25:41). The gospel at its core isn’t about filling our life; it is about saving it. The gospel is about recognizing our own inability, our own helplessness, our own insufficiency, and crying out to Jesus to draw us to Him. It is about repenting before God—not just a momentary acknowledgment or as a contingency plan, but in true recognition of just how desperately we need salvation. We are not good people needing a supernatural life coach, or just a little extra encouragement. Christ did not come for good people looking for reassurance. He came for the utterly depraved and fallen, who needed every bit of the substitutionary atonement he suffered on the Cross.

Somewhere along the way, it seems we as Christians have lost confidence in the power of God’s Word. The New Testament reminds us the Word of God not only cuts, but cuts as “two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Nothing compares to God’s unfiltered Word in reaching sinful hearts. Yet, it is almost as if we have become ashamed of the full gospel, and concepts such as “sin”, “wrath”, and “atonement”. We want to somehow tell people how they’re basically good, while at the same time trying to explain to them they need salvation. So we moderate the gospel, perhaps leaving out original sin, or the need for Christ’s Lordship, or the exclusivity of Christ, or the need to turn from what God hates. Sometimes, we even try to make a Christ in our own image, instead of the true one we find in Scripture, putting words in His mouth that placate and validate our sin. We hope in doing this to create a sort of “gospel lite”, something more palatable, less confrontational, less demanding. This is not to say we should teach the law without grace, or salvation without compassion. But a man or a woman who has not heard how deeply sinful we are will not see the need for repentance or a savior.

The gift of salvation is not a nice add-on from our sovereign Lord; it is the most vital matter in the world. I am convinced if we understood, truly understood, just how utterly and fully we need Christ, our lives would be radically different. Our Christian walk wouldn’t be an afterthought, or molded to the culture, or made comfortable or expedient. We wouldn’t be content with living passively in the world, watching people blithely stagger towards eternal Hell. We wouldn’t distill the gospel to niceties, or embrace simply whatever is popular or pragmatic without considering if it is centered on God’s Word. We wouldn’t accept popular teachers who preach only a partial gospel, if any. Charles Spurgeon once preached, “Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies”. Do we have that attitude today, or do we harbor in the back of our mind an idea that somehow, things can still work out for someone eternally without Christ?

The gospel may not be what people want to hear, but it is what they need. It is going to offend, no matter how personally pleasant we strive to be. 1 Peter 2:4-8 states this in no uncertain terms, as does Galatians 5:11, and as Christ did in Matthew 24:10. To the unregenerate heart, the gospel is offensive, because that heart is at war with God. Yet we often reject messages of urgency as “fire and brimstone”, “irrelevant to today’s seeker”, or “insensitive”. We want a message of convenience, prosperity, comfort, and happiness. We are promised none of those things in this world in scripture. Yes, eternal victory has already been accomplished through Christ, but until He returns or calls us from this life, as slaves to Christ, we will have hardship (James 1:2-3). We will have struggles (Acts 14:22). We will have sorrows and pain (1 Peter 4:12-14). The Christian hope does not lie in this life, but in the glorious eternity beyond it.

In Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost, when he preached to the Jerusalem crowds how Christ had been crucified, it is said they were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:36-37). That is what the gospel does. It pierces us, past the facade we’ve built up, past the mask we show to others. Recognizing our own sin, our own fallen nature, hurts. It is not fun, or convenient. It should break our hearts to consider the ramifications of the gospel, and it should torture us to think of sitting idly by while family, friends, and neighbors are dying in their sin. If it does not, and it does not have an impact on our lives, then we have to question how much we really trust what God’s Word promises.

There is no salvation without repentance. We cannot understand the heights and joys of grace until we understand the depth of our need for it. If we treat Christ as simply a pleasant moral addition to the American Dream, we aren’t just sharing a false gospel, but an impotent one. If we think the gospel is focused on feeling good and having a prosperous life, then we are ignorant of the truth. If we think the Crucifixion was just (and only just) an example of love, we have dismissed our need for a savior. If the gospel has not begun a change in us, or we do not know what the gospel means, we are still dead in sin.

Before any of us seek to abide more fully in Christ, we should make sure beyond a doubt that we do indeed abide in him. If you’re chalking up your salvation to a one-off moment you had when you were nine, and you’ve never really repented, surrender to Christ. If you think you’re a Christian simply because you go to church every Sunday, recognize that is not a path to salvation, and pray for repentance. Ask for forgiveness, and put your trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior. He is not a Lord to be cast aside, used as a cosmic genie, or relegated to a secondary place in your life. Each of us has an eternity that hinges on our true trust and salvation in Christ. We don’t need gimmicks or to search for a novel way to spin God’s Word. We just need to understand, embrace, and share the one, true, timeless gospel.

-Zachary Houghton

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