The following article is written in the form of a letter to an unchurched friend. It’s written for the purpose of clearly explaining the nature of the gospel and the basics of becoming a Christian—two things that are often misunderstood in our day.
My dear Friend,
It was great to reconnect with you via FaceTime last week. I suppose that one positive (and ironic!) aspect of this quarantine is that it’s bringing people “together” virtually. Has it really been ten years since we’d last spoken? It feels like yesterday when we were coaching summer soccer camps together, each trying to figure out what direction to take in our lives. Your course has certainly taken some fascinating twists and turns, not unlike my own! I was very sorry to hear about your wife’s recent hospitalization with COVID-19. Please be assured of my earnest prayers for her full recovery.
In our conversation I shared with you that almost thirty years ago God changed my life. I became a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ. Your interest in my story compelled me not only to follow-up with a brief explanation of the gospel, but also to encourage you to consider your own need for God’s saving grace. What is the gospel? The answer to this important question is as consequential as it is misunderstood.
To understand the story of redemption, the gospel, we must first go back to the beginning of time. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Before the world was created, there was only the one, true, eternal, and omnipotent God. Then, according to God’s divine prerogative and pleasure, He created the universe ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing) by His powerful spoken word. Who but almighty God could have created all things? The Bible says, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).
The intelligent design of the universe is clearly evident in its illustrative beauty, variety, order, rhythm, and complexity. Creation is truly God’s theater of glory. It’s where He displays or “shows off” His glory and power. Reflecting upon the sheer magnificence of the stars and planets, the Psalmist writes: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). All of creation—the galaxies, stars, planets, oceans, mountains, lakes, fish, birds, and beasts of the field—proclaims the marvelous handiwork of God. But the crown of God’s creation is humanity. God created mankind out of the dust of the earth. Unlike other living creatures, however, mankind was made in God’s own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). In other words, God created humanity to reflect some of His own attributes. Let me explain.
God made human beings with spiritual, rational, and eternal souls. These characteristics differentiate us from other creatures, such as cats, cows, and caterpillars. God made mankind with the capacity to exercise creativity and dominion in the world. Moreover, our souls were created with original righteousness and holiness. At creation, this enabled humanity to enjoy a perfect and unhindered relationship with God and each other forever. Sadly, this original state of righteousness and unspoiled fellowship with God didn’t last long.
The blessed God, the wellspring of infinite joy, gave us Himself. He provided us with immeasurable provisions and incalculable blessings in creation. But we decided, to our great misery, shame, and ruin, to look elsewhere for fulfillment and happiness. We rebelled against God. We walked away from Him. We exchanged the truth of God for a lie. We abandoned the Fount of every blessing for the polluted well of sin.
The prophet Isaiah describes our spiritual condition: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa. 53:6a). We’ve broken God’s holy law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. This remains mankind’s pattern today. Consequently, we’ve forfeited God’s best for us. We’ve lost our original righteousness, broken fellowship with God, and brought upon ourselves misery, death, and eternal judgment. A right relationship between God and man has been lost, and now there is only hostility and alienation. Sin has hardened our hearts, darkened our minds, disordered our affections, and corrupted our wills. Yes, things are really that bad; and that’s why the world is in its present condition.
Sin is infinitely worse than the COVID-19 contagion. It’s a deadly spiritual plague that’s infected more than a small percentage of the world’s population. Sin has infected everyone in the world, and its effects aren’t only temporal; they’re eternal. The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). It also states, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 16:25). That’s really bad news. We, humanity, believed Satan’s lie that life apart from God is better than life with Him. This has made us spiritually blind, lost, and culpable before God, our Maker.
But God has not left us to perish in our sin. He has not forgotten or abandoned us! He has not simply given us over to our wicked desires and the just penalty of our sins. That’s the good news of the gospel—the staggering and life-changing announcement that Jesus Christ rescues us from what our sin and rebellion deserve. We deserve God’s wrath and judgment for our sin, but through faith in Jesus Christ we receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness!
Rather than leave us to perish in our chosen defiance, God did the unthinkable. In love He sent His beloved and eternal Son into the world to save us from our sin. In love He pursued us. God knows that our sinful condition rendered us utterly incapable of faithfully pursuing Him, of working our way back into His favor. God knows that we are unable to cleanse our own hearts from the stain of sin. We cannot heal ourselves from this deadly spiritual contagion. We are incapable of fulfilling the requirements of God’s law, and even our best good works are tainted with sin. We have all fallen immeasurably short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).
We may grade ourselves on a moral curve, but God does not; indeed, God cannot. Being God, He cannot allow one sin to go unaccounted for and still be God. His holiness and justice require perfection. God’s law is an extension of His holy character. This is why God hates sin so much; in its essence, sin is treason against God. The Psalmist declares: “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” and “holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.” (Ps. 5:4; 93:5b).
But God, in His infinite and indescribable love, sent His beloved Son into this broken and sin-torn world to redeem sinners like us. Despite all we had done (and do!) to rebel against God, He sent His only Son to make things right between us and God! My dear friend, God did this for you!
When Jesus came into the world, He was not conceived through natural generation. Consequently, He wasn’t born with the disease of sin. No, Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Misunderstanding the situation, Joseph thought he would quietly break-off his engagement to Mary. But an angel appeared to him and said, “[D]o not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21).
Jesus was not born in a palace, but in a humble stable in Bethlehem, the city of David. He was raised in Nazareth and began His public ministry at age thirty. You can read all about His life and ministry in the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In these Gospels you’ll observe that from the outset of His public ministry the religious leaders hated Jesus. They wanted to destroy Him. Why? Because He exposed their self-righteousness. He unmasked their hypocrisy. The Pharisees did not place their hope and confidence in God’s Messiah. Rather, they trusted in themselves and in their imperfect attempts to obey the law. They relied on their own flawed moral strivings. They believed that they were justified before God through their law-keeping. But as I explained earlier, our attempts to keep God’s law never reach His holy standard, nor do they remove the guilt of our sin. We fall short of God’s glory every day. That’s why we need a Savior. That’s why Jesus came, to save helpless sinners like us. We cannot change or fix ourselves. We cannot rid our own souls of sin.
Perhaps you’ve read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tale, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Or maybe you’ve seen the movie? If so, you’ll remember the moving scene where Eustace, a bratty and self-righteous boy, turned into a hideous dragon with thick scaly skin. Feeling hurt, remorseful, and no longer wanting to be a dragon, he tried to remove his thick and scaly dragon skin so that he could properly enter the healing waters and become a boy again. But as soon as he scratched his scaly skin off with his sharp talons, it would quickly reappear. Aslan, the lion—the Christ-figure in the story—told Eustace that only he could remove his scaly skin. Only he could change Eustace. When the lion tore into Eustace’s thick scales with his mighty claws, it hurt Eustace immensely. In describing the unpleasant experience, Eustace said, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.” Finally Aslan removed the dragon skin and Eustace became a boy again. After this encounter with Aslan, Eustace was a different person.
This memorable illustration reminds us that we cannot change or heal ourselves from our guilt and sin. All the scratching or scrubbing in the world cannot remove the guilty stain of sin from our hearts. Only Jesus—the Lion of the tribe of Judah—can wash us clean.
It’s important to understand Jesus did what no ordinary man could do, and He did so on our behalf. Jesus perfectly and completely satisfied the requirements of God’s holy law. In “every respect” He was “tempted as we are”, and yet was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus was the unblemished and spotless Lamb (1 Pet. 1:18–19). He never once broke God’s law, nor did He ever fail to wholly conform to it. He fulfilled all righteousness in our place. He did for us what we fail to do every day; that is, to meet God’s perfect standard of righteousness.
Then Jesus Christ, the innocent One, in an act of unprecedented love, laid down His life on the cross. He was betrayed by His friends, arrested by the temple guard, falsely accused by the religious elite, cruelly scorned by the public, unjustly sentenced by Pilate, viciously beaten and mocked by the soldiers, and then crucified. In ancient Rome the cross was an instrument of torture and death for thieves, murderers, and insurrectionists. These grisly crucifixions were meant to deter people from breaking the law. But Jesus was innocent. Even Pontus Pilate, during Jesus’s trial, said that he could find no guilt in Him (Luke 23:14). Nevertheless, Roman centurions drove long metal spikes through His wrists and feet, and nailed Him to the wooden cross. The physical pain was excruciating (literally meaning “out of the cross”). Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. However, it wasn’t the physical, but the spiritual affliction that was most agonizing to Jesus.
While hanging on the cross, Jesus bore the immeasurable weight, guilt, and shame of our sin. The Bible says that Jesus “became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21); that on Him was laid “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Not only did Jesus bear our wretched sins on the cross, He bore the full weight of God’s wrath and judgment. In other words, Jesus bore our sin on the cross, and then suffered the full consequences of our sin. He paid the full debt of our transgressions. Jesus went through hell for us as He hung between the two thieves on Calvary. The Prince of heaven became a wretched curse for us (for you!) on Calvary. He died in our place. Jesus made payment for our sins; not with silver or gold, but with His precious blood.
All the temple sacrifices presented throughout the centuries by the priests were in anticipation of this final sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (Heb. 9:12). Over seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah declared: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:5–6). Motivated by love, Jesus drank down to the very dregs the wine cup of God’s wrath that was reserved for us. It’s through His death, therefore, that we are given the gift of everlasting life.
After Jesus died on the cross He was placed in a tomb. At the request of Jesus’s enemies, the tomb was heavily guarded. Three days later, however, on Sunday morning, Jesus rose victoriously from the dead. The angels declared that Jesus is no longer dead. He is risen. Jesus truly is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The grave could not hold Him. Death could not keep Him. Jesus proved that He was (and is) the blessed Son of God and Savior of sinners. Death and hell do not have the last word!
Christ lived, died, and rose again for our salvation. As our Mediator, He came to restore us to fellowship with God. Through faith in Christ, therefore, we are no longer condemned and alienated from God’s holy presence. In Christ we are no longer God’s enemies. No, through faith in Christ we are reconciled to God, fully pardoned for our sin, and restored to fellowship with Him. The apostle Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Through faith we are justified (i.e., reckoned righteous) in God’s sight. United to Christ through faith, we now have objective peace with God.
This restored relationship is not due to anything that we’ve done or possibly could do. No, this restored relationship with God is based solely on the sinless life, sacrificial death, and death-defying resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do not partnerwith Jesus for our salvation. Our works do not earn us a place in heaven. Christ has done it all. So we put our faith in Jesus and in His saving work alone. Salvation is by grace, not by our works. This distinguishes biblical Christianity from all other religions of the world. We do not earn a place in heaven by working our way up to Him. No, God comes down to us in the person of His Son.
My dear friend, what I’ve explained above is the good news that changed my life almost thirty years ago. Perhaps you find yourself drawn to Jesus, and believe the gospel, but aren’t sure how to become a Christian. Thankfully, becoming a follower of Jesus is straightforward.
In the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, Mark reports that “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15). Notice the exhortations to repent and believe. Repentance simply means to express sincere remorse for former sins, and to turn away from those sins to God. Repentance is a gift from God—a Spirit-enabled “about face” from sin, and a transferring of allegiance from soul-corrupting idols to the Lord. The apostle Paul describes new believers in Macedonia as those who had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9b). Repentance is at the very core of the Christian experience; not only at the outset, but for the rest of one’s life. As described above, repentance is not just a turning away from something; it’s also a turning towards something. It’s a turning away from a life of sin and unbelief, and a turning towards a life of faith in Jesus.
Becoming a Christian is to lay hold of Jesus Christ by faith, knowing that He has laid hold of us. As explained above, it’s to trust in His blood and righteousness alone for salvation. It’s also to renounce our old unbelieving ways, and to devote ourselves to following Jesus. The sincere Christian humbly declares “It’s no longer I, but Christ, who lives on the throne of my heart.” Jesus is both Savior and Lord of the Christian believer. Jesus said to the crowds, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Should Jesus demand anything less from His disciples? Unsurprisingly the exalted King of kings entertains no rivals in the lives of His disciples.
Being a Christian also means living in thankful obedience to God’s commands. Again, Jesus taught His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In other words, the Christian is devoted to grateful, loving, and growing obedience to God’s Word.
Our obedience, however, in no way whatsoever adds to the grounds of our salvation. Nothing we do adds to, or improves upon, what Christ has already done to grant us peace with God. In Christ we are forgiven of our sins, adopted into God’s family, and guaranteed eternal life. It’s this new standing with God—our justification—that motivates Christians to live according to His holy standard, revealed in the Bible. It’s not guilt, but love for Christ, and gratitude for all that He’s accomplished on our behalf, that compels us to serve and obey Him, albeit imperfectly.
Christians do not serve God in an attempt to win His love. Christians serve God because they are already objects of His love, and because that amazing love will never be taken from them. Indeed, nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39b). We love God because He first loved us! That’s the way Christian obedience works. It’s an obedience that grows from the soil of gratitude and love to God for all that He’s done for us. It’s the fruit of union with Christ.
Finally, it’s important to know that being a Christian means joining with a good church—a body of believers that are committed to biblical worship, sound teaching, loving community, and serious discipleship. Believers were never meant to live the Christian life in isolation. The life of faith is designed to be lived in community with fellow believers and godly leaders. The early Christians understood this, and thus were devoted to biblical teaching, fellowship, sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer in the context of the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:42). Christians need each other, and we all need the shepherding care and sound instruction of faithful leaders. The resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus shepherds His flock through the ministry of the church. Christians are a part of the body of Christ, and joining a local church through baptism is the visible expression of that spiritual unity (1 Cor. 12:12–26). Of course, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to recommend some faithful churches in your area.
Dear friend, in writing this letter, I’ve tried to make the gospel as plain and as clear as possible, with the sincere hope that you too would believe in Jesus Christ, that you too would become a Christian believer by grace through faith. My humble prayer is that God would gloriously invade your life as He has mine, and raise you by His Spirit from spiritual death to spiritual life. My earnest prayer is that you would become a follower of Christ as I did thirty years ago. What is holding you back from receiving God’s abundant mercy in Christ? Why perish forever in your sin when Jesus offers you such a great and undeserved salvation? Why not be reconciled to the God who made you; and who, in His amazing love, delivered over His beloved Son to die on the cross for you?
I would love to discuss these things further. Let’s be sure to talk again soon. I’m praying for your dear wife. Please let us know if there is anything we can do.
May God open your eyes to behold the riches and glory of His amazing grace.
Your old friend,