What is the true Gospel?
There is no question of greater importance facing the world today. This is so because only the true Gospel will provide the answer that can save us from spending eternity under the wrath of God. Therefore, as we seek to identify the true Gospel, we will endeavor to discover answers to the following questions: What is the authority that structures and determines the true Gospel? What is the message of the true Gospel? What is the mandate of the true Gospel?
We hear sermons of various kinds; we read the Bible here and there; we generally hear a lot of good things about the Gospel. We hear about how we are to walk as Christians; we see rules in the Bible that God has given to us for the good of mankind. But, we begin to wonder, what is the essential structure of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Can we strip away the peripherals and get right down to the very substance, the inner core of the Gospel?
In order to know what the Gospel actually is, we must first of all determine the authority that structures and determines what it is. This is necessary because the nature of the true Gospel is defined and established by its divine authority. In fact, the nature of every religion, gospel, and ideological system is defined and established by its recognized authority.
A Mohammedan, for example, may wish to know how to live as a good Mohammedan. So he carefully consults the Koran, a book in which Mohammedans believe God has spoken. The Koran, therefore, is the written authority that establishes the Mohammedan gospel, that is, the Mohammedan religion. An orthodox Jew has a different authority. It includes what we call our Old Testament, along with the writings of the church fathers that are considered to be divinely inspired. That is the authority that establishes the nature and character of the Jewish religion. On the other hand, a Mormon has as has divine authority the Bible, plus the Book of Mormon, which is believed to be divinely inspired. Because the Book of Mormon came later than the Bible, it has become a shadow that lies over the Bible. That is, someone who follows the Mormon gospel examines everything he reads in the Bible in the light of what is found in the Book of Mormon.
Similarly, the Roman Catholics follow still another gospel. The authority that structures and determines their gospel begins with the Bible. But the Apocrypha books are also a part of that authority, as are the visions of Joan of Arc, the visions of Fatima, and the infallible utterances of the Pope. All of these are looked upon as divine, and together they make up the authority that establishes the character of the Roman Catholic gospel.
Likewise, the charismatic gospel has its authority. It believes that the Bible is the Word of God, but it also believes in divine revelation through visions, voices, or tongues, which expands their authority beyond the Bible. Therefore, it has as its authority the Bible, plus the messages presumably received from God through dreams, visions, and tongues. This widened authority structures and determines the character of the charismatic gospel.
Bear in mind that every time we have a different authority, we also have a different kind of gospel. In other words, every gospel is structured and determined by its authority. So when the authorities differ, the gospels themselves differ.
But what is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, who alone can save men and woman from their sins? What is the Divine Authority by which it is structured and determined? These are some of the most insistent questions facing the church today, because we are living in a day when gospels are proliferating. Every place we turn we find different kinds of gospels. Indeed, we wonder, how can I really know I am following the true Gospel?
One definition sometimes offered to describe the true Gospel is set forth in I John 4:2. There we read that if we confess that Christ has come in the flesh, then we are of God. Yet as we read in Luke 4:34, the demons also admit that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and they are still under God's wrath. So that particular definition standing alone may not be adequate in every case. We have to know more about what defines and establishes the Gospel. We must, therefore, discover the divine authority that structures and determines the character and nature of the true Gospel.
The Bible indicates that it alone and in its entirety is the authority that establishes the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Revelation 22:18-19 says it best: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophesy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."
By that statement God established the parameters of the true Gospel. It is circumscribed by the Bible alone.
The Bible, therefore, is the true divine authority. It is the only complete authority that establishes the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because it is the divine authority, because it is from God, is it to be entirely authoritative in our lives. We must eagerly read it; we must eagerly study it with a view to being obedient to it. And if we discover in our lives any kind of practice, or any kind of doctrine that is contrary to the Word of God, then as children of God, there will be within us an earnest desire to change that practice or that doctrine so that we will become more faithful to the Word of God.
If we follow and authority that is narrower or wider than the Bible alone and in its entirety, we are not following the Gospel of the Bible. Regardless of how holy it may appear to be, such a gospel will not lead to salvation.
But now that we know that the Bible is the authority that establishes the true Gospel, we wonder what the central message of the true Gospel is. We could say that the Gospel is God's love letter to mankind whereby we can become righteous, know the love of God, come into the more abundant life, or learn to live to God's glory. We can think of a lot of verses in the Bible that describe and perhaps even crystallize the essential nature of the Gospel.
Actually, however, I think we can find summed up in John 3:16 the core meaning of the Gospel. This verse strips away everything else and gets right down to the essential message. There we read: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Ordinarily theologians focus on the first part of the verse: "For God so loved the world…" And that is a glorious phrase that introduces us to the amazing truth that God in His magnificent love has provided salvation to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the love of God and the salvation He has so generously provided cannot be fully understood unless we also understand the meaning of the word "perish" found later in this verse. Only too seldom do we hear a sermon on that statement, "…shall not perish…" But the phrase, "shall not perish," is also an integral part if the Gospel.
When we search the Scriptures, we find that the word "perish," as it is used in John 3:16, does not mean "annihilation." In our English language when we say, "I will perish," we think of dying, of ceasing to exist. But in the Bible the word "perish" has another definition. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23). And the living death that God has in view is to exist throughout eternity in hell. That is the predicament of rebellious mankind. That is what it means to perish.
The terrible problem of mankind is that we are sinners. Remember Romans 3:10-11: "There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." The heart of man by nature is desperately wicked, as we read in Jeremiah 17:9.
Because we sin-even a single sin- we will perish. Because we have been created in His image, God holds each one of us completely accountable to Himself for the conduct of our lives. God has appointed a day at the end of the world when we are to be judged. The Bible says in Hebrews 9:27, "…it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment…." And because all of us are sinners without the Gospel, we are all on our way to hell.
This terrible truth cannot be seen with our physical eyes because we cannot look into the future. But what we see with our physical eyes is not the whole story. In fact, it is a very shallow and incidental part of the whole story. For example, we may have had a friend who died. We have seen him as a man who lived out his life well regarded by his fellow man. But then he died. He was eulogized at his funeral as one of the greatest, and then we all went about our business and forgot about Bother Jones. But if Brother Jones died without the Gospel, that is, without being saved, the next thing he will be aware of is that he is standing before the Judgment Throne of God, where he must answer for every sin he ever committed; and these will be multitudinous. Any one of these sins could condemn him to eternal damnation. For him there is no escape; there is no reprieve, no parole. There is no way out.
Every day approximately 200,000 people die all over this earth. When we realize that most of these 200,000 people die unsaved and that the next conscious thing they will know is that they are standing before the Judgment Throne of God, subject to eternal damnation, then we become aware of a horror story of magnificent proportions.
We sometimes hear about an earthquake in which 50,000 people are killed. We hear about wars in which 700,000 or 800,000 people are killed. We hear about man's inhumanity to man. We hear about famines that kill many thousands. But none of these hold a candle to the most dreadful tragedy of all, the dreadful, daily trauma that faces mankind.
The horrors of man's inhumanity to man, the horrors of famine, of war, or of whatever the trauma, result only in physical death. But physical death in itself is not the horror story. The horror story is that after death there is the judgment. God's perfect justice demands eternal damnation as payment for sins.
Unfortunately we do not hear this part of the Gospel preached too frequently. It is so reprehensible, so sorry, so serious. It is so terrible that we want to forget about it. We would rather just talk about the love of God. We would rather talk about moral living. We would prefer to talk about all kinds of things rather than this very important teaching of the Gospel.
Wonderfully, the truth that hell is waiting for the human race is not the whole story. If God had written the Bible simply to tell us that we are going to hell, we could still praise God that at least He warned us. But that knowledge would not do us much good, because we are all sinners. Because of our sins, we would still end up in hell. But woven into the fabric of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, like a golden thread running through the entire Bible, is the massage of hope. It is the message that we can know the love of God by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior. That is the other side of the Gospel coin, the central part of the Gospel presentation: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Now why is it that if we believe in Him we will not go to hell? The Bible tells us that it is because Christ became sin for us! We read in II Corinthians 5:21: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." Or, as Isaiah 53:6 puts it, "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (that is, all who will hang their lives on Him).