Over the last decade, the term “gospel” has taken a prominent place in our theological conversations. Yet, ironically, the more we talk about the gospel, the easier it can be for us to misunderstand what Scripture actually means by that word. One common area of misunderstanding is equating the gospel with the specific doctrine of justification or the moment when we realize our need of a Savior. In that case, we understand the gospel as something that begins our Christian walk but doesn’t have much bearing after.
But when the Scripture speaks of our new life in Christ, it doesn’t limit it to a particular event or a theological principle. Instead, it uses the term “gospel” to describe a new way of living, an all-encompassing reality, a way of moving through the world. Unfortunately, when we forget this, it can manifest itself in our daily walk and keep us from living in the fullness God intends.
So how can we tell if we are not living in the fullness of the gospel?
1. Our Christian walk will look and feel a lot like a religion of works. Ironically, some of us who would be the first to argue for justification by faith end up being the first to forget that we also walk by faith. We’re tempted to engage the process of sanctification differently that we did our initial conversion, as if justification were the momentum we needed to get moving. Once we get our “running start,” we rely on our own stamina to keep going.
This is not to say that good works are not part of our Christian life. As image bearers, we are destined to reflect the nature of God, destined to be conformed to the image of Christ. But living out the gospel means remembering that we accomplish those good works—we live in love and grace and holiness—the same way that we were first redeemed: through humble dependence on God as the ultimate source of our goodness.
2. We will develop Messiah-complexes. If we only understand the gospel as a starting point instead of a way of living, we can quickly develop Messiah complexes. The shift can happen very subtly, because more than likely, it will be accompanied by a real desire to do good: to evangelize, to feed the poor, to preserve right doctrine, or to fight for social justice. But a Messiah complex will always reveal itself because our attempts to do good will lack basic manifestations of the Holy Spirit: His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Instead, you will feel burdened by the work, and left unchecked, will begin to judge other people measuring them by your own faithfulness. You will become frazzled and resentful that you have been left with all the work. But we have not been left with all the work and the world is not ours to save. The good news of Jesus Christ is that HE has come to redeem the world. HE has come to establish His kingdom. HE has come to make us like Himself.
When we shoulder things that are not ours to carry, when we insist on “doing it all,”
we are not living in the gospel because we lack one of its most basic elements: humility. If at the point of salvation I had refused to embrace my own inability, if I had refused to admit my need, Christ would have been meaningless to me. The same is true in our daily life. If I refuse to embrace my human limitations while pursuing good works, I become my own Messiah. And not only that, I can begin to think that I am everyone else’s Messiah as well.
3. We will become overwhelmed by failure and live in defeat. Conversely, some of us don’t struggle with the need to be a Messiah. We struggle with being overwhelmed by failure and defeat. We are so aware of our neediness, so painfully aware of each stumble and struggle, that we begin to see the gospel as only a future reality. One day, I will be glorified. One day, I will be free. One day, God’s promise to save me will be fulfilled.
When we live in defeat, when we think of ourselves first and foremost as depraved sinners, we will focus on our wretchedness, sometimes believing that even our Holy Spirit empowered good works are worthless in God’s eyes. We will slog through this life waiting for the one to come.
But here again, the gospel must take center stage. When we emphasize our own failures, we minimize the power of God. The gospel teaches us that nothing is stronger, nothing is more powerful, nothing is greater that God Himself. Not even our sin. And because the gospel is a way of living, not a specific event, it is not bound by the past or the future. The gospel is a time-transcendent reality; so that in this very moment, we “are being saved.”
Running the Race
When my daughter made a profession of faith at the age of five, I couldn’t help but worry. I remembered my own faith struggles as a young adult, and I’d heard too many testimonies of false professions. I wanted some way to guarantee that her faith was “real” and not simply a response to her subculture or an attempt to gain her parents’ approval. Turns out, one of us did have a false understanding of the gospel. But it wasn’t her; it was me.
In many ways, I was putting too much stock in her profession as an event. I was looking at a new born baby and worrying whether or not she’d be able to run a marathon. Instead, I needed to celebrate the wonder of her birth and believe that just as God had given her spiritual life, He would also sustain and mature that life. Just as He had formed her tiny feet, through time, proper nutrition, and care, He would grow those feet to be able to run the race of faith. And just as her tiny spiritual lungs had filled with life-giving Holy Spirit breath, they would be filled by another and another and another. Each breath happening the same way the first one had—through faith, repentance, and dependence on a God who loved her and had given her life.
When we think of being gospel-centered people, we must remember that the gospel is a way of living, not simply a point in time or a set of theological premises. Ultimately we are redeemed through faith in God’s promise–the promise that we are destined to bear Christ’s likeness, not through our own righteousness, but through His gracious love that seeks us out and restores our brokenness. One day at a time.
By Hannah Anderson