Why did Jesus die on the cross? For years I thought it was so I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. Or so I wouldn’t say certain four letter words the culture had deemed inappropriate. Or so I wouldn’t listen to Metallica or the Beastie Boys. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but my impression was that Jesus died to make up for my shortcomings in the things I was supposed to be doing for him. God was displeased with us but, because of Jesus, would forgive so we could try and do better the next time. We were good people trying to do what God wanted and who rejoiced in the cross inasmuch as it made up for the few (or many) failings we had.
This impression of the gospel was encouraged and continues to be encouraged. You’ll find it in youth groups designed to entertain students so they won’t go out sinning on the weekends. You’ll find it in sermons insinuating guilt for those who fail to live up to the right standard while listing behaviors good Christians are supposed to be doing. You’ll find it in churches where the outwardly righteous gather and ‘sinners’ feel uncomfortable because they don’t have it all together. Those who preach this version of the gospel usually do so out of a sincere desire to steer people away from sin and towards a more godly life. God likes good people so be a good person but since we’re all sinners God sent his Son to make up the difference. The essence of the message – God wants our good behavior. This is not the gospel.
Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was it so his followers would work to eradicate poverty? Was it so they could join arms as part of the kingdom that would bring justice to the earth? Was it so humanity could abandon violence and love their neighbor as themselves? This version of the gospel has become popular in a culture that increasingly sees the life and ethic of Jesus as more acceptable than the person and death of Jesus. Jesus died to set an example and unleash his followers to bring peace and justice to the earth and create the kingdom of God in their wake. God is displeased with those who neglect the poor and don’t recycle while living selfish American lives.
This can be seen in places like the United Methodist Church which recently released a “Rethink Church” ad campaign that asked, ‘if church was a literacy program for homeless children, would you come?’ and ‘what if church considered ecology part of theology, would you come?’ It can be seen in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments at the progressive Catholic forum where she said, “some (who) oppose immigration reform, are sitting in those pews, and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the gospels.” It can be seen in churches that cancel the worship of the risen Savior to serve the community. In other words, Jesus died so homeless children could read, the planet could be saved, the borders could be opened to immigrants, and the lady down the street’s yard could be mowed. Those who preach this version of the gospel do so out of a sincere desire to be a force for good in the world and follow the example of Christ. God likes those who care for the planet and the people on it and his cross is our ultimate inspiration to offer our lives on behalf of others. This is also not the gospel.
While it is true that the gospel should lead believers to godly behavior and that Christ’s followers should strive to make a difference in the world – neither of these is the gospel. The clearest definition of the gospel in the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
To sum up, the gospel is not about what we do but about what He has done. Christ died for our sins. We are all sinners and all have no hope whatsoever of pleasing a holy God. It doesn’t matter if we save sex until marriage, use clean language, and avoid the Beastie Boys. It doesn’t matter if we feed the hungry, bring justice, negotiate peace treaties, or serve our neighbors. All have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10), and we are dead in our sin (Eph. 2:1) and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10).
This means we had no hope. The nice church lady who spends her time baking cookies and visiting sick people has no more hope than the prostitute addicted to cocaine. Both are sinners who can do nothing to fix their situation. That is why Christ’s death and resurrection is the gospel. It is through His death and resurrection that the price for our sins – past, present, and future – is paid and we have life. Without His death and resurrection, our sins condemn us to eternal death.
Therefore, Jesus didn’t die to promote abstinence, clean up our language, filter our entertainment choices, give teens a healthy alternative on the weekend, give me a new to-do list every sermon, or fill a church with ‘good’ people. Some of these may be good, but when we focus on them we preach the wrong gospel. Jesus also didn’t die to eradicate poverty, spread social justice, end violence, teach English to children, save the planet, promote immigration reform, or have a good reputation in the neighborhood. Some of these may be good, but when we focus on them we preach the wrong gospel. Jesus died to save sinners from their sins and give them life to the glory of God. It’s all about what He has done and not what we do. Until we understand that, we will never live godly lives or change the world for His glory.