The gospel is the transformative news that by God’s grace alone, through faith, our open rebellion is atoned for in the cross of Christ. As Christ willingly sacrificed His life and took the punishment we earned, our sins are justified, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and God’s wrath is satisfied, so that all things might be reconciled to the Creator.
WHY THE GOSPEL?I think it’s important for students to know and understand why it is we need the Gospel. Especially in the “first world” countries, a lot of our students see no need for anything billed in the same way “self help” books are promoted. Our culture says to bootstrap it! Pick yourself up! Take care of business! Fix your own problems! Be the hero! Our students need to know that their choices have implications and consequences. They also need to know that God, by his nature, cannot just look the other way. The common analogy I’ve started using is this: Imagine there’s a judge presiding over a case where the defendant has tortured and murdered an entire family, leaving only one child alive. If that judge were to say, “Do you promise to do better next time? Okay, you’re free to go,” that judge would NOT be just, fair, righteous, or worthy of praise. That’s what a lot of people think God does, “Oh, just try harder.” Our actions have consequences. We may not like it, but they do.
THE GOSPEL CENTERS ON THE CROSSIt all comes back to this. As pastors, we know this. But think about the past 6 months of your preaching and/or lessons…how many of them pointed to the work of the cross? It’s central to everything we believe, and without it, there is no hope. It’s too easy for students to think, as one of mine voiced last semester, “Jesus died on the cross because no one believed him and they had to get rid of him because he was bugging them.” Hearing that out of a student, even a fringe student like the one who said that, cuts at my core. We need to help students realize the centrality of the Cross.
THE GOSPEL TRANSFORMSOur students, whether they realize it or not, are beyond broken. They try and put up a good front, but it’s one that cannot be sustained and cannot withhold in the chaos of life. Often, I find students think that the Gospel assists them as they go through life trying to be better, the Gospel encourages them to be better people, or the Gospel makes sure they don’t go to hell. Students need to know they gain a new identity because of Jesus. I’ve preached this illustration several times. I take a mug and explain how the mug is designed with a purpose (keep my coffee hot, keep my hand less hot), just like we are. Then, I smash that joker with a hammer. I show what it’s like to try and hold the shattered pieces together to accomplish it’s original look and purpose. Even as I try and hold it together, I know that if coffee were to be poured in, it’s useless. And if I flinch, I could cut myself and it would fall apart. It just won’t work. Students, in that illustration, would often see God as a giant Gorilla Glue Dispenser, coming in, piecing things together, hoping you can hold it in place long enough to fix. In reality, as I pull out a brand new mug, I tell them that God recreates them in a way we never could imagine. Sure the illustration breaks down, but it’s a visual reminder that they are transformed, not just reassembled.
THE GOSPEL JUSTIFIES AND ATONES FOR SINAs we’ve said throughout this series, sin must be paid. It is not a debt ignored or a blemish covered. When students start to process the holiness of God and the wretchedness of their life, pray that they would realize the weight of their decisions and, even more importantly, the gift of Jesus. With this, I usually use an example of a credit card to open up the concept, even though it runs far deeper.
THE GOSPEL IMPUTES RIGHTEOUSNESSNot only does God take away the sin we earned, he gives us the holiness he earned. As a part of the transformation, the identity and holiness and righteousness of Christ literally becomes a descriptor of us, through Christ. For this, I often describe wearing dirty clothes, having filthy clothes, and running through mud. This means I can’t be clean. It’s forever-mud. Christ comes, takes off our clothes covered in sin and filth and dirt, and gives us his mantle of righteousness. The result? When God looks at Jesus, he saw all of the bad things we’ve ever done. When God looks at us, he sees a perfect and holy child of God. This wasn’t some super-secret trick…it was what God CHOSE to do so that we could be with him.
THE GOSPEL IS NOT EARNEDWhether you are Calvinist, Armenian, a mix, or even both, the Gospel, and really salvation, is not earned. Our students need to know that their status with God does not elevate their status among their peers. They’ve been fortunate enough to have an unpayable debt paid, which should drive them to worship and holiness. I tell students that SINCE our debt is paid, we serve Him, worship Him, and want to know Him. It’s not earned, but that also means it’s not revoked.
THE GOSPEL RECONCILES CREATIONAs a part of salvation, we are reconciled, or brought back together, in relationships that have been damaged. We don’t have time here to unpack all of that, but I would strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of When Helping Hurts. They do a great job of going through those relationships, and their impact on the world.
The story of Scripture is the story of God seeking a relationship with people seeking themselves. There seems, at first, a predicament. God is righteous and cannot be near sin, while at the same time, God is loving and desperately wants His people. As the transformation occurs through the justification, atonement, and imputed righteousness, God is able to uphold both righteousness and love. No longer is there a chasm dividing Creator and His beloved creation. God does not have to sacrifice His righteousness; sin is punished. He does not have to sacrifice His love; relationships are reconciled and returned to the manner in which they were designed and created. Humankind is counted with the righteousness of Christ, allowing for the relationship to be restored. The Gospel is a message of hope and grace to people often ignorant of the need’s very existence. In the beginning, humankind broke the world. From that moment forward, God adamantly chases His people but cannot sacrifice His character. As a result, we come to a beautiful, refreshing, nonsensical message that our debt is paid. Often, students of the Bible want to dive into the Word and go deep. After “grasping” the Gospel, they want to go deeper. However, there is nothing deeper, nothing more impacting, nothing more profound than the message of the Gospel. Perhaps the heart of the message can be felt in the words of the hymn writer William Rees as he writes:
On the mount of crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide, through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers poured incessant from above, and Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.