The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
- Mark 1:15
"By this gospel you are saved...that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time..."
- 1 Cor. 15:2-6
What is the gospel?
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the summary explanation of who he is and what he accomplished for you. The word gospel literally means "good news". It's good news because it's an answer to a problem. So...what's the problem?
The problem is no one deserves to go to heaven
Christians don't deserve to go to heaven. Muslims and Jews don't deserve to go to heaven. Agnostics, atheists . . . NO ONE is worthy of heaven.
Worthy means to be deserving. Do you think you deserve to go to heaven when you die? Do you deserve an eternity of peace and good in return for the life you've lived?
If you're like most people, you're pretty good. You and I have both been kind to others, volunteered for charities, given money and so forth. But, of course, no one is perfect. You and I have also committed unworthy acts. We've each at some point committed injustices like leaving some kind act undone, failed to be grateful, unfairly judged someone, lied and so forth.
Also consider the people who have committed injustices against you. Do people who robbed from you or hurt you, maybe for years, deserve the same consequence for their cruel acts as friends who gave to you or helped you? Do the people who injured you or treated you like dirt - or maybe even in the end murdered you - deserve good in return for having done so?
They don't. Injustice does not deserve to be rewarded at all. If we are to accept that there is justice, either in this world or the next, then the consequence of unjust acts must be different from that of just acts.
Even secular law reflects this: Justice and associated behaviors incur better consequences (rewards) than injustice. Injustice incurs either the subtraction of reward, or the addition of punishment, or both.
If the universe is the product of God, then he is our moral judge. Good, bad, right, wrong are his to define. And what is a moral judge to do with the wrongs of which you and I are guilty?
"I can see where this is going, but I'm more good than bad."
Yes, you probably are, but unfortunately things like thoughtlessness, hurtful words, and pain that you and I caused cannot be taken back. We can no more undo our past sins than we can recall ripples on a lake. Their influence proceeds outward across time and history, touching more lives and for a longer period of time than perhaps we ever wished or imagined.
We all hate pain and suffering and injustice, yet we acknowledge this one awful truth: we have each been someone else's worker of iniquity. We have all been someone else's thoughtless stranger, someone else's hurtful friend.
You and I are undeserving. I say this not to put you down, but to reveal everyone's deplorable position before a perfect and just God. What is the consequence of what we have done? What punishment does the guilt of our injustices merit?
The Bible reveals to us with painful clarity that in God's court, the penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Eternal death, or eternal separation from God, for any sin whatsoever. Worse punishment for worse sins (Luke 12:47-48), but zero access to God's presence (heaven) for anything less than perfection.
Why is this? Why such an impossible, unachievably high standard?
The Character of God
The character of God is our problem, and yet it is also our salvation.
God is "holy, holy, holy". He is utterly set apart from all that we know. I don't pretend to know more about that than what's revealed in the Bible. But what God has revealed is that he is holy, he is just, and he is love. He created each of us in order to love us and to have us enjoy his presence forever.
What he will not have in his presence, however, is sin.
Sin is anything antithetical to his holy, just, loving nature; our injustices mentioned above as an example. Those things God hates and keeps removed at a distance from himself. He would destroy them immediately if we, those he loves, were not immersed in them so deeply.
So is anyone worthy of God's perfect love? Anyone so pure they are compatible with the holy presence of God? Not you or I or anyone we know. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are each spiritual losers deserving of eternal separation from any and all of God's glory. That is the problem. But it is also here where the solution so mercifully enters in - the "gospel", the good news, of Jesus Christ.
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is one who is worthy of the glory of heaven and his name is Jesus. God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. Referred to as the Son of God, or Messiah (in Hebrew), or Christ (in Greek), and long prophecied throughout the Old Testament to come, Jesus first and foremost lived a life that was finally worthy of good in return. To Jesus alone did God say, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17). Jesus alone perfectly obeyed God's laws. Jesus alone loved with a perfect love. Jesus alone committed no sin.
More than just coming to teach us and serve as our example for living, Jesus also came to die. When Jesus died upon the cross, he took upon himself sin's penalty of death on behalf of all who will believe and follow him. Only Jesus was capable of dying for another's sin because only he was without sin; he had no personal sin-debt to pay.
Jesus' death on the cross was the single forthcoming act of mankind's salvation which the Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to teach all along. (That was the expression of the gospel to those whom had preceded Christ.) As only God would and could do, Jesus, out of love for his people, became their sacrificial lamb.
"How could Jesus transact this?"
While God's holiness keeps us at a distance from him, and God's justice requires that sin and sinners be dealt with, it is God's love and mercy that we have to thank for providing the way we can become holy and enter his presence. That way was for God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, to bear his own legal consequence of our sins for us. Jesus could transact this because:
Jesus' characteristic of holiness enabled him to live a life free of sin, perfectly obeying all his laws, which qualified him to serve as our guiltless substitute (foreshadowed by the Old Testament's sacrificial use of spotless lambs),
Jesus' characteristics of being both just and eternal permitted his substitutionary death on the behalf of others, which fully satisfied his law, and enabled him to survive the grave; plus...
Jesus' characteristic of love led him to endure that ultimate penalty on our behalf so that all who believe in him will be imputed with his own holy righteousness and FOR THAT REASON ONLY qualify to enjoy his glory forever.
So what does it mean to "believe in Jesus"?
If you believe in Jesus, then you recognize and admit your sinfulness; you repent of each and all your sins. In other words, you acknowledge them to be the rebellion against God which Jesus proclaims they are. You forsake them; all of them when you first come to Christ, and then individually when they arise during your continuance in the faith. If in reverence and humility you ask God for forgiveness, he promises to place your guilt upon the cross of Christ, wiping your own record clean.
Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, - Acts 3:17-19
If you repent, then it was your penalty for sin that Jesus bore on that cross. As Isaiah prophecied more than six hundred years before Christ's atoning act (53:5-6):
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
If Jesus paid for your sins, God's wrath over your sin debt no longer remains. In exchange for the payment of Jesus' life, the righteous worth of Jesus' life is now extended to you, and you are saved from eternal separation from the Lord. Because Jesus himself was without sin, he rose again from the dead to be with God the Father; providing us with utter certainty of who he was. Jesus now reigns from heaven with all authority given to him; his salvation work accomplished, his life for yours, your spiritual debt paid in full.
If your sin debt was fully paid by Jesus, then the life you're living now belongs to him. You are a new creation, a continuation of Jesus Christ's life; you are no longer your own. The words you choose, the actions you take, the people you touch: it should all be as Christ. Jesus-the-hand in you-the-glove. To the extent you're living the life of Christ, you demonstrate the degree to which you have really surrendered your life to him. Christ's essential commission for you: 'I'll finish your life; you finish mine'.
If you are living Christ's life, not only is he in you, but the Bible says you are in him. That might be how, in the spiritual sense, the moment you believe, your old self effectively died back on that cross two thousand years ago. Consider every core aspect about you as crucified; your pride, your selfishness, your lusts, every sinful aspect of your soul - now all dead to the world, but alive to Jesus Christ.
Not being physically dead, of course, and still subject to sin until you are, God commands you to be a living sacrifice. Every day you are to put to death what resembles your old self and grow closer to God. Filling yourself with his Holy Spirit whom Jesus has sent to help each and every believer, you are to persevere over the inclination to sin, and thereby grow towards the goal of living in perfect and continual communion with the Father.
Love the Father as Jesus loved him; serve as he served, obey as he obeyed. That is being a Christian; or literally a "little Christ".
The gospel is thus humanity's single hope for eternal life; a call to repentance, self-denial, submission to the will and authority of God, and following in the teachings, love, joy, and sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is what it means to believe in Jesus. If you truly believe in him, you act in concert with his living presence. If you are in concert with him, you not only share in his death on the cross, but you share in his righteousness, or spiritual worthiness. By sharing in his worthiness, you are enabled to share in his eternal life. Have faith that Jesus has accomplished all of this for you, for that is the good news, and that is the only way anyone is ever rescued to heaven.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12
What's in it for me?
As if belief were a competing product to the alternative, the consequence of having believed is eternal life in the presence of the perfect Lord Jesus Christ. The consequence for not doing so is eternity in darkness, torment, and self-hatred for having neglected such a great salvation.
The reward awaiting believers seems to be nicely summed up in the first seven verses of chapter twenty-one in the book of Revelation. As is often the case with God's providence, this happened to be the sermon topic the week I had dedicated to write this section:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
First to note is the renewal of all of creation. This is not any slight improvement to the status quo, but an entire re-working of life as we know it. Darkness and chaos will be gone, and whatever exists will be shaped in accordance with the character and holiness of God.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Not just creation, but believers themselves will be recreated in the likeness of and to the glory of Jesus Christ. Gone is the sin that stains our lives. Believers will be clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ, and in the righteous acts they were given to accomplish while on this earth.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
Most importantly, with sin taken away, no longer will God be separated from those who believe. The glory that Moses only glimpsed will be ever-present with believers forever.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
God himself will comfort believers from all that has transpired, and never again will there be the agonies of life with which we are all so familiar.
He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."
These promises of a new life in the presence and unveiled love of God are certain; and furthermore God wants everyone to hear them and have confidence.
He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.
All that needs to be done in order to provide you with access to heaven has already been accomplished for you. If you thirst for what God promises, if you are not content with what passes for life here and now, you can find satisfaction by believing in Christ. For those that have faith that Jesus paid the penalty for all their sin, Jesus indeed paid it all.
He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
All that remains for those who believe is the exercising of that belief. If you truly believe Jesus to be the Christ, Emmanuel ("God with us"), then your life will reflect it. It will reflect it more and more each and every day until the Lord calls you to your heavenly home and finally welcomes you, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
Thanks to http://www.provethebible.net/T2-Hist/TheGospel.htm for the exploration of the Gospel