Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Gospel

God has revealed Himself in the Bible as the Creator. The Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning God” (Genesis 1:1). The Bible makes no attempt to prove God’s existence but rather focuses on God as Creator of all things. The New Testament tells us that God not only created everything, but it was created for him (Colossians 1:16). That is to say that God created the universe for himself—for his glory. He did not create because he lacked something or needed anything (Acts 17:25), but rather in order that he would receive the glory that he deserves (Ephesians 1). Because God created everything, he also owns everything. As Creator he has the deed to the universe and can do with it what he wills (Psalm 24:1). God is under no obligation to operate on the opinions of others, especially finite created humans.

Among the many attributes that the Bible uses to describe God, the most unique trait that God embodies is holiness. Holiness means uniqueness, separation, distinction. On multiple occasions the Bible describes heavenly scenes in which angels surround the throne proclaiming God’s holiness (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). God is holy, unique, and distinct from his creation because he is perfect and lacking in nothing. He is perfectly righteous, just, loving, and merciful. He is perfect in wrath, goodness, graciousness, power. There is no evil in him because he is the standard of good. There is no sense in which he is imperfect or unable to accomplish his will. There is no lack of perfection.

As Creator and Owner, the most holy God requires perfect obedience to his law. If we want to have a relationship with him, we have to be perfect according to his standard. In other words, nothing less than absolute perfection is acceptable to Him. It is not enough to be 51% good. It is not enough to have a super majority of goodness. It is not enough be 99% good. God says that we could live a perfectly righteous life, yet if we failed at one point we might as well have broken the whole law (James 2:10).

This situation poses a serious problem because the Bible also says that everyone is a sinner. There is no perfect person that has ever lived. We understand sin pretty easily; sin is just not meeting God’s standard. Since God’s standard includes things like obeying governments, every time we speed on the highway we are in a real sense breaking God’s law. But we also sin when we don’t do things. For example, we sin when we don’t acknowledge God for who He is. We sin when we think of God flippantly and we sin when we misrepresent God. We sin when we act wickedly and we sin when we think we’re acting good. The Bible says that even our righteous deeds are offensive to God because we think that somehow the little good that we do will bring us favor from God and outweigh the wickedness in our hearts. We sin when we fail to acknowledge God and we sin when we replace God with our own gods of money, sex, power, and pleasure. There are millions of ways that we all sin on a daily basis. The main point is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

God is also perfectly just, therefore, He cannot let sin go unpunished, and He has declared that the penalty for sin is eternal death. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not only do we deserve to die physically, but we are already dead spiritually because of sin (Ephesians 2:1). We have sinned against an infinite God and we must pay an infinite penalty. It may not make sense that what we would consider to be a minor act lying would deserve death. But we understand that under the right circumstances a slap on the face can land one in a federal prison. The issue is not the act itself, but the one against whom the act is perpetrated. Punching a spouse has its consequences, but punching the President of the United States had severe consequences. In the same way when we break God’s law, we are sinning against an infinite being and therefore that act requires infinite consequences.

Unlike every other religion in the world there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. There is no finite righteous deed that can overcome infinite punishment. Every attempt we make to please God on our own is actually an offense to God because we think that somehow by doing good deeds here and there we can make up for our sins against the infinite God. On our own we cannot please God, or do anything that gets us anywhere near heaven (Romans 8:7-8).

Of course, God knows that we can do nothing. So He did something. While as Creator and Owner he could have chosen to destroy this world and start over, he didn’t. He decided to put himself on display by making known his own character that could not be known any other way. By choosing to save and redeem part of humanity he puts on display his grace and mercy. By allowing another part of humanity to suffer the consequences of their sin he puts on display his perfect justice. In everything God does he displays his own perfection. So what did he do? He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to come to earth as both God and sinless man. Jesus lived a perfect life even though He was tempted in every way (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus proved he was God by fulfilling hundreds of prophecies, many of which he could not orchestrate (like the place of his birth); he performed many miracles and proved his power of sickness and disease, the weather, knowledge of men’s thoughts and hearts. The reason the religious leaders of the time hated him was exactly because Jesus claimed to be God in what he said and taught.

After living a perfect life, he demonstrated God’s love by dying for us and paying the penalty for sin. Because he was perfect he did not have to pay for his own sin, therefore he could pay for another’s sin. And because he is God he could pay for an infinite number of sins, not just one person’s sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that God “made him [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And just to be clear, Jesus didn’t pay for sin because of what the Romans did to Him. When Jesus was on the cross, God the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus thereby satisfying the just and eternal penalty for our sin.

But as we remember every time we celebrate Easter, Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose again on the third day and accomplished victory over sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Sin and death no longer held power over Him, and they do not hold power over those who believe in Him. His resurrection clinched the victory that He came to accomplish.

Let me summarize what I’ve said so far. The Creator God is perfect and requires perfection. Man is not perfect, must pay the penalty for sin, and there is nothing he or she can do about it. Jesus came living a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead thereby paying the debt that man owed God.

Now, because of what Jesus accomplished, he offers eternal life to everyone who believes in him. You’re probably familiar with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God has made it possible for us to live forever with him. What we could not do, God did by sending Jesus to die in our place (Romans 8:3).

What does He require of us? To repent and believe. Repentance simply means turning away from sin, and turning toward God. It means not living the way we want to, but living the way he wants us to (Isaiah 55:7). So we must repent. And we must also believe. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” We must believe the good news that the Bible teaches. Put another way, we must believe in Jesus and submit our lives to him.

What happens when we believe? A great exchange occurs. God takes away all the sin we have committed in the past, and will commit in the future, and replaces it with all the righteousness of Christ. Think of it this way: God treated Jesus Christ on the cross as if he lived our life, and when we believe in Christ, God then treats us as if we lived Jesus’ perfect life. Perhaps you have heard the definition of justification “just as if I’d never sinned.” That is true as far as it goes, but justification is so much more than that. It starts with being declared innocent of all charges of sin, and moves forward to declare us perfectly righteous. In accounting terms, not only are we no longer in debt having a zero balance, now we have infinite resources in our account. This is the great exchange: our sin for Christ’s righteousness. This is why Paul could write, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Even though God freely grants forgiveness, it doesn’t mean it isn’t costly. As some have said, it is free, but it will cost you everything. It is costly because we go from being our own master to having Jesus be our Master. We give up living independently from God and surrender ourselves to him becoming dependent on him. Don’t think that you can believe in Jesus and your life can continue on as it always has. Perhaps many things will stay the same, perhaps not. The point is you must be willing to let him change everything if he wants to. So consider the cost (Luke 14:25-33). But also remember that being reconciled to God far outweighs the cost. What we have given up, we give up freely because we love God and he has been so kind and gracious to us. It is costly, but it is like selling everything to buy something one thing that is more valuable than everything put together.