More than a Free Ticket from Hell: Defining the Gospel

The central message of Christianity is the gospel, yet for so many, the message of the gospel has been distorted. Like many generations before, we have turned the gospel from the Bible’s definition to creating our own gospel in our image to benefit us.

The Gospel in Our Image

As I have conversations with people, I realize how much this distortion has taken place. The other day, I was talking to a team member at a retail store. After asking for my email and realizing I had a website, she asked what my website was for. I explained to her that I write and speak about faith and have worked with students as a youth pastor. Immediately, she commented that kids need to stand when adults enter into the room.

For her, as for many who have fallen into the first re-definition of the gospel, faith is about doing good things and being a better person. Good kids stand when older people enter into the room. The gospel is a life addition that makes us have better manners and be better people. The gospel is made in our image as we seek to become a better person who more clearly pictures good behavior in the world.

The second re-definition of the gospel is that it is merely a free ticket from hell. This is the trap that I fell into early in my faith. Growing up in a Christian school environment, I “asked Jesus into my heart” one day after hearing the story of Jesus in kindergarten. After that moment of spiritual transaction, I believed that I would not go to hell and that was where my faith was to stop. Jesus and I were now on good terms, and I could move on with my life because like a good life insurance purchase, I was covered.

Many people have come to believe that the gospel is simply a pass from hell. In making the gospel to directly benefit us, we have turned something that was meant to be about a life-transforming relationship that we have been invited into and made it a ticket to get out of a destination that we do not want to go to. Hell is a real place, and we will all face our eternal destiny based on what we do with Jesus. Escaping hell, though a result of the gospel, was never designed to be the primary aim of the gospel.

The Gospel Invitation

The New Testament gospels provide us with a front row seat of the life and ministry of Jesus. As we journey through the story, we get to experience the person of Jesus and what it looks like to follow after Him.

Jesus’ call to his first disciples looks very different than many current day invitations to faith. He does not approach a group of people with the sales pitch of “Do you not want to go to hell? Believe in me.” Nor, does Jesus tell the crowds gathered at the Sermon on the Mount to “work harder and be a better person.”

The gospel invitation is grounded not in escaping hell or spiritual performance. Jesus invites His first followers into a relationship with Him. At its heart, the gospel is relational. Jesus wants to know His followers and walk through life with them.

In John’s gospel, the call of Jesus to “follow me” (1:43) to one disciple leads to a challenge to a friend of that disciple to “come and see” (1:46) who this Jesus is and what He is about. The invitation of the gospel is to become Jesus’ apprentice as we seek to walk with Him in relationship day by day as we come to see who He is and who He is making us to be.

The gospel is an invitation not to proper beliefs and perfect performance, but an invitation into a relationship with Jesus. It is through that relationship with Jesus that we experience Him personally and become more and more like Him.

The Gospel Definition

The gospel is an invitation to follow Jesus the Person, but the gospel is also a story about the work and mission of Jesus in the world. It is by understanding Jesus’ story and our place in His story that we can fully see the message of hope transform our lives.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes of the wonder of the gospel. In chapter 2 of Ephesians, Paul defines the gospel this way:

  • Without Jesus, we are lost in our sin, dead, and under God’s wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
  • God intervenes in our lives by sending Jesus to live the perfect life that we could not live, dying the death we deserved to die, and rising again from the dead. Because Jesus takes upon Himself our sin and God’s wrath, we can be met with mercy, love, and grace. We have gone from enemies of God to His beloved children. We have been given new life and unending life with Him in eternity. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
  • Our salvation comes not from our performance, deserving record, or hard work, but only because of God’s grace being extended to us that we respond to by faith and believing in Jesus’ work in our place. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Now, we live as people walking with Jesus as He does His good works in the world in and through our lives as He leads us to the places and people He calls us to go to. (Ephesians 2:10)

The wonder of the gospel is that without Jesus we are more lost than we can truly comprehend, yet because of Jesus, we have been given a life that we cannot even begin to explain. We live as Christians, just like the first disciples, walking alongside Jesus as He leads us in His plans for us.

The gospel is a glorious truth that is so much more than not going to hell, yet to so many, the message is offensive because to follow Jesus causes us to come face to face with our own brokenness and lack of ability. We will explore these ideas in the next post.

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