The Gospel Has Become Confusing
Many Christians are terribly confused about the gospel of Jesus. For instance, some believe the gospel is social justice.
In this way of thinking, the gospel and social justice are synonymous.
But here’s the problem: they’re not.
Others say the gospel is loving God and loving our neighbor. And though some will disagree with me, this isn’t the gospel either.
Social justice (the biblical term is simply justice) is a reflection of God’s eternal moral character and is expressed through His eternal moral law. For example, commandments 6 to 10 (Exodus 20) lay out God’s design for how we should treat one another. These instructions are filled out in more detail throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These transcultural principles provide the basic framework for how we should live today, a framework that prohibits treating people with partiality, taking bribes, lying, stealing, murder, and charging interest to the poor. While these instructions are good for telling us how to live with one another, they are NOT the gospel.
Others believe the gospel is love. But while it may be popular to say that “the gospel is love” or “love is the gospel,” this statement is also biblically incorrect. Yes, God is love. And it’s true that because of love, God sent Jesus. However, love is not the gospel. Love is the heart of God’s law.
Let me explain.
Love and the Law
We first find the word and principle of love in the Old Testament. It is most often written in the general form. For example, God’s people are commanded to “love the Lord with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5). The passage tells me what to do but not how to do it. This is quite different from other verses, which offer both “what” and “how” commands. For example, consider this command: “Fear the Lord your God…” (Deut. 6:13a). Again, this generally tells the reader what to do. But then that statement is followed by “how” statements—the specific acts that God requires: “serve Him only and take your oaths in His name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you” (Deut. 6:13b-6:14).
Just a few chapters later, we read this: “love the Lord your God” (a “what” statement”), “to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws” (a “how” statement) (Deut. 30:16). And again in Josh. 22:5: the “what” command is again “to love the Lord your God,” while the “how” command is “to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Loving other people means returning to God’s justice, to His eternal moral laws.
Put simply, to love God and neighbor is law. Let us recall the words of Jesus:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)
Friends, love is law, not gospel.
What is the Gospel?
So, if love is law and justice is law, then what is the gospel? Glad you asked.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul informs us that the gospel is the message “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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” In short, the gospel is the good news of God’s work and initiative to rescue sinful humans and reconcile them back to Himself.
It is important that we get this right. Asserting that the gospel is anything other than Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, making it anything other than this presentation of the risen Christ, takes our focus off of Jesus, the only source and hope of our salvation. It is only through the power of the gospel that I can have a relationship with the God who is love and be transformed by the power of His Holy Spirit. Jesus is the foundation for both love and justice.
While justice is great, doing justice won’t save us. Only the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus can save us.
One final thing: law and gospel ought to be distinguished from each other because they have different functions. But they should not be seen as polar opposites. Both the law and the gospel are needed in the life of the believer. As believers, we are saved by the gospel, “for it is the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). And, the law is the tool that, among many things, reveals the moral character of God the Father and teaches us how to love God and our neighbor.
Responding with Truth
So when we hear our friends or our pastors trying to convince us that “love is the gospel” or “social justice is the gospel” how should we respond?
1. Start with prayer. Ask the Lord, through His Holy Spirit, to reveal the truth of the Scriptures.
2. Ask questions. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s always good to ask questions before accusing someone of intentionally teaching wrong theology. “What do you mean by that?” “Are you aware that …?” “Can you help me understand …?” These are just a few questions that can help disarm a potentially difficult conversation.
3. Practice patience and grace. It took a lot of conversations and reading (and re-reading) of God’s word before I understood the difference between law and gospel, along with the importance of keeping the two in their proper places. In my case, I tended to see everything as law. And while the law has an important place in the life of believers—it tells us how to live, it reveals sin, it gives boundaries, and it reminds me of my need for a savior—the law does not and cannot save me. In a culture where gospel literacy is tragically low, we have to exercise patience and grace to help others come along and move from error to truth.
4. Speak truth to error. Our culture vilifies people for speaking truth, but truth is exactly what we are called to proclaim. We can and should pray, ask questions, and practice patience and grace; however, if we do all of those things and never speak the truth of the gospel, we will have missed an opportunity to share. Yes, kindness and winsomeness are Christian buzzwords right now—and I don’t want to knock someone for being “winsome” (whatever that means). But I do want to encourage you to be bold. Speaking truth about the gospel is a loving act, as it reveals the love of God who is love perfected.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds the people of Corinth that he’s been given the ministry of reconciliation: declaring that a way has been made back to God. The gospel is that way back to God. May we never confuse, distort, entangle, or reduce that message, for it is the power of God unto salvation.