The gospel is the most powerful message of human liberation that has ever been proclaimed on earth. It is a message filled with the power of God to bring about the very thing it proclaims: freedom from bondage to the compulsions of our own sinfulness, freedom from fear of death’s ultimacy, freedom from the condemnation of God’s moral law, freedom to live boldly in the assurance of God’s love for us. It is in short the announcement that the blessing for which all of us long – more, better, richer, purer life – is available to us, even now; and this availability is all bound up in the person and work of Jesus, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
From the Greek word evangelion, the “gospel” literally means “good news.” In ancient times, the evangelion (“good news”) was proclaimed from city to city to celebrate the accession of the new king to the throne upon the death of the old. And that is exactly what is being proclaimed in the gospel of Christ: the gospel is the joyful proclamation of the reign of Christ (literally, of God’s “Anointed One”), the rightful heir to the throne of David who lived and died and rose again to glory. In proclaiming the gospel, we are celebrating the reign of Christ our King, and the breaking-in of his kingdom into our midst, by the power of his Spirit, beginning a powerful work of transformation, preparing us for life in the restored cosmos of the future, whose restoration is fully underway even now, in and through us!
The gospel is a radically two-fold message. It calls us to envision a goal and direction and destiny for ourselves which is beyond anything we might reasonably have hoped. And yet at the same time it compels us to focus on the extent to which our present situation falls so far short of that purpose. The gospel directs our gaze to what ought to be, but sets that against the reality of what is. And the hope which the gospel engenders cannot abide, cannot coexist, with the deluded notions that there can be found any hope in our present conditions. The good news of the gospel is only really good to the extent we understand how really bad our situation is.
The gospel is a message of hope – but it’s of a hope that removes all hope in anything other than the power and purpose of God to bring to fruition the great work of redemption and restoration he’s already begun.
Indeed, wisdom compels us to acknowledge the enormity of the gap in human experience between the way it might and should have been, and the way in fact it is. This two-sided truth of the human condition is wonderfully expressed in the following Jewish proverb:
“Take two truths and keep them in your pocket,” it says. “Let one be: I am dust and ashes. And the other: For my sake the world was created.”
Both these statements are powerfully true. Outside of God’s purposes for humanity, we are the nearest thing to nothing, utterly insignificant and radically contingent specks in the enormity of space and time. But in God’s purposes, we have been clothed with dignity and honor, and been crowned with glory; in God’s purposes we are wrapped in the garments of his righteousness, anointed by the unction of his Spirit, and commissioned thereby to serve as his Word-bearing prophets, his Name-bearing priests, and his royal ambassadors on this planet.
The problem is utterly fundamental: we are proud where we ought to be humble, and too debased where we ought to rise to the possibilities of our humanity. And in this we see the basic problem with the world: sin, the pervasive and persistent perversity of human nature that leads us into folly, that mires all our paths in futility; the vast and inexorable falling short of what might have been, the falling short of God’s glory, which grinds down our hope and presses us finally to acknowledge the hard wisdom of experience – that disappointment is the inevitable concomitant of human life, disappointment in our hopes in structures, processes, institutions, other people, and finally ourselves….
We are innately aware of the way things “ought” to be, but wisdom teaches us the way things “are,” and the way things are is not the way things ought to be. And after a while, we become numb to this gap between “ought” and “is,” and train ourselves more and more to ignore the “ought,” even to resist and reject it as some sort of imposed artifice. But this seeming wisdom, too, is but a delusion and false comfort.
In one sense, human history is the story of people’s and societies’ swinging back and forth between two opposed paths of human life arising out of opposite (but equally wrong) premises concerning human nature.
The first of these paths is cynicism. Cynicism prevails where human capacities are deemed debased, and where the idealism of “ought” is put aside as pathetic illusion. Cynicism is life lived according to the motto that “I’am but dust and ashes,” and no more. We can think of societies that are entrenched in cynicism as being on the Path of Suicide, because as an organizing motif for human existence it offers a debased view of our nature which proves lethally toxic to human dignity and to aspirations of attaining to something better.
The second path is utopianism. Utopianism prevails in certain societies when, for brief periods characterized by reformational and revolutionary ardor, the soul-crushing reign of cynicism is cast aside and a more ennobling pattern of human life is insisted upon. The problem is that, whatever cynicism’s shortfalls as a prevailing motif for human living – and they are many – it is at least anchored in the bedrock of human depravity. Utopianism on the other hand, rejects the notion that there is some inescapable and inhering human depravity which constrains and corrupts even our best efforts. Underestimating thus the extent of human corruption, societies in the grip of the utopian impulse begin to imagine that the “ought” of life can be imposed by their own will – always failing in the process to recognize the inner corruption which had doomed the project before it had ever begun.
History is replete with utopian “solutions” gone awry, experiments begun with a sincere desire to make a better world, but which end by inflicting an enormity of human suffering. We can think of societies undergoing these spasms of utopian zeal as being on the Path of Homicide. Unfortunately, this latter category explains much of the history of religion; here is the depressing story of self-righteousness run amok, with people presuming to do God’s will in God’s name, but crushing the spirit of God’s image bearers all along the way.
Christianity’s utterly unique insight entails combining a deep pessimism in regard to human nature with a profound optimism, and normative expectation, concerning the pattern of human life. In other words, Christians don’t dispute the cynics’ take on the prevalency and persistence of human depravity; they differ sharply, however, in going on to assert that that depravity does not excuse us from higher aspirations. And while Christianity is all about the longing for and leaning into God’s promises of the life of blessing to come, it does so ever aware of the corruption in the heart of each of us.
Christianity is optimism concerning the prospects for human life anchored in an uncompromising realism concerning human nature. Christianity is about life lived in the gap between what we ought to be and what we are, where there are no illusions harbored as to our own self-righteousness, but where our failing is not then allowed to become an excuse for cynicism.
We are not righteous, but righteous we must strive to be.
All of us know the temptation to divide up the world into “us” and “them.” If only “us” good people could round up “them” bad guys and get rid of them, the world would be a better place, we imagine. But the central insight of Christianity, the central revelation of the Bible with regard to the human condition, is that there is no “us” and “them.” There’s only the infinitely and unutterably holy God, and all of us. And in God’s eyes, we’re all “them.”
Listen to these remarkable words from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which perfectly capture our predicament. He writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
This points with great power to the central tenet of Christian anthropology, which is that despite our delusions of grandeur and pretentious airs, despite our presumption to sit in judgment over others as failing to measure up to what we imagine to be God’s standards, in the final analysis, there are none righteous, no, not even one. All have fallen short of the glory of God. This is the human predicament. And this particular aspect of the Christian message – its teaching about the human condition – is the one absolutely and empirically verifiable assertion we can make, upheld in every age and every society as wisdom.
Why then do we deny this reality? Because in one sense, the human spirit can’t abide in such despair. We seek solutions. And the problem is that instead of accepting the solution which God has provided to us – in the gift of his Christ – we reject that as foolishness and set about proudly concocting our own solutions. But we end up paying the price for these idolatries as well.
Almost all religious and philosophical systems, being basically educational methods of transformation, underestimate the power and extent of human depravity. And that’s why most end up being abusive. Utopianism disconnected from wisdom concerning the reality of human nature is folly – dangerous folly. Very often, religions which start by offering grand solutions to humanity’s woes end up being the major, and most homicidal, part of the problem. Why? Because they feed the delusion of human self-righteousness. Because they feed the delusion that the solution can be had by the “us” teaming together against “them,” and either forcing them to join “us” or killing them. But, unsurprisingly, this method of human improvement has never worked.
(It is interesting in this context to consider that, alone among major religions (besides the revealed religion of the Bible), only Buddhism truly understands, truly grasps, the enormity and unbreachable extent of human sin and misery. Where it differs from the Bible, however, is its prescription for what to do in light of the human condition. Whereas the Bible shows us Christ as our example, leaping in love right into the utter heart of the predicament, into the heart of suffering, the Buddhist solution is to go exactly the opposite way – to flee from love and from any attachment, and in effect to leap into the presumed bliss of annihilation, of extinguishment, of Nirvana. But note how this is but a variation of the Path of Suicide!)
Christianity alone – biblical religion – holds to and insists upon both extremes at the same time. It affirms the overwhelming testimony of our experience, that human beings in every variety and every society are depraved and given to all manner of stupidity and cruelty and folly. This is on account of the chronic, deep, pervasive sinfulness of our species, our deep-rooted rebellion against God, and against the role and status he’d first created us to enjoy.
And yet for all this, the fact of human depravity is not an excuse for its commission. Our fallen nature is no excuse! We are not to conform ourselves to what fallen nature would make of us, distorted and deformed humans, in whom the image of God is marred and tainted and obscured by sin and rebellion. We mustn’t let what we are keep us from being what God would have us be. Indeed, we are accountable to become what we were created to be.
The cynics are right, then: we’re all basically louts. But that’s not all we are. Rather, we were “designed for dignity,” created to bear God’s image in his creation. “I am dust and ashes.” But “for my sake the world was created.” Conversely, “for my sake the world was created.” But “I am dust and ashes.”
Christian life is lived in the full-throttle acknowledgment of both these extremes at once. We are fallen, but we are accountable. We are sinners, and sinners by definition sin! But we mustn’t sin. Left to our own devices we are but dust and ashes, but in God’s purposes we are his children, shining forth the reflected glory of his image to a creation which groans for the liberty of the sons of God.
Confronted by the reality of this gap, we would shrink from it terrified, aware that the chasm between the “is” of what we are and the “ought” of we could and should have been are totally unbridgable by our own efforts. Wisdom delivers us to this precipice of bad news.
But it is exactly here that the good news comes pouring down like waters on the parched ground, engendering hope in us, and the boldness to live lifward in spite of our failings.
The hope the gospel brings is this: our sin may be bigger than we are, but Christ is bigger than the sin. God sent his Son to stand in the gap for us – the gap we could never cross. And by recieving and resting in him, we are lifted up in the redeeming salvation he brings, and are conveyed across that great gulf from brokenness to glory.
That is the good news! To paraphrase Jack Miller, the gospel is the message that we are more sinful and flawed than we had ever dared imagine, yet we can be more loved and accepted than we had ever dared hope, because Jesus Christ, in our place and on our behalf, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, to save us.
And this one gospel, this one overwhelming message of God’s grace to fallen humanity, is to be proclaimed to Christians and non-Christians alike – to non-Christians who imagine that they are free when in fact they are in bondage to the proclivities and compulsions of their own sinfulness, and to Christians who continually forget that it is for freedom that Christ set him free. In short, the non-Christian must know and the Christian must remember exactly the same thing: which is that our salvation is from God, and is built upon a righteousness not our own, but Christ’s – that by grace, through faith, though we still be sinners meriting the just punishment of a holy God, yet in Christ we can stand reconciled before God and unafraid of the wrath to come, because it is his – Christ’s – righteousness, his blessing, and his reward which have been made ours by God’s great love.