How Does the Gospel Work?

“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through […]

Charis Hamiltonius / 3.27.19

“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates…” – Martin Luther

“About a quarter before nine, while [Luther’s commentary] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley

From the very beginning of Christianity, people have found themselves captivated by the message of the Gospel, their hearts “strangely warmed” with a newfound sense of freedom and an easing of the burdens they carried. This experience of release, of joy unknown, and a peace that passes understanding is what has repeatedly happened when the “good news” of Christianity has been preached. This has certainly been true for me, and perhaps it has been true for you.

But there is something odd about this whole business that I think is worth interrogating. Somehow, through the Gospel, an encounter with God in the vertical sense translates into the horizontal plane of life and one’s actions. God says, “You are forgiven,” and that encounter somehow alters how we feel and live in the world. Having been forgiven, we are given a previously unknown ability to forgive others. Far from being external to Gospel proclamation, the variety of worldly, human maladies provide the kindling for the flame of the Gospel in human hearts. Few of us walk around, as Martin Luther did, explicitly searching for a gracious God.

Yet finding a gracious God often makes us more gracious to others. Perhaps even more strikingly, the daily anxieties that encumber us feel less weighty and somewhat manageable.

But how? At first blush, the anxiety I feel in my job or relationships really has nothing to do with God. God may be loving and forgiving, but God isn’t my demanding boss, or my well-meaning but overbearing mother, or the friend-turned-enemy; yet these are the very worldly realities that an encounter with the Gospel can radically transform. It’s not that my boss, friend, or parent changes — am transformed somehow to relate to my neighbor and the world quite differently than before. The message of the Gospel is the intrusion from above, into our lives in this world, to radically change our relationship to it.

Some may suggest that it is the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit that enables such transformation. Gifted with divine power through this person of the Trinity, we are renewed to become new creations in a barren world. I’ve found this to be true, for sure, in ways altogether unknown to me. We worship a living God, of course, who does not sit back and watch the creation from afar. But appealing to the Holy Spirit as the basis of the power of the Gospel, however true, does little to account for the nature of the message itself.

There are, I think, a few key characteristics to the Gospel which together provide a coherent account of its affective power. There isn’t necessarily a magical formula to Gospel proclamation, but its intrinsic transfer from the vertical to the horizontal plane is nonetheless emotionally intelligible and intellectually plausible.

  1. The Gospel has nothing (and everything) to do with you. Nothing? This may sound like an inauspicious place to start, but it can’t be emphasized enough. The Gospel is the announcement of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent life-giving benefits entailed by that. As an event in history, whose cosmic scope reaches into the very being of God, it always stands wholly outside of us. The Gospel is entirely independent of our status, success, failures, morality, genetics, history, and all the things we believe comprise our identity. The varying milieux of our lives can neither add or subtract from the what God has done in Jesus for the world. And yet, precisely because of this independence, the grace of God is unconditional and freely given. We are mere recipients of grace and nothing more.
  1. The Gospel is not “of this world.” The event of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the hinge upon which all of human history turns, but it is an alien intrusion that mysteriously operates outside of human comprehension. The world as we know it is ruled by Death, and nothing we see now is untouched by its infectious diffusion. As Morrissey laments, “This world is full, oh so full, of crashing bores.” As such, the Gospel must not be confused with any aspect of the world in which we live and the systems we inhabit, whether that be our relationships, social movements, governments, economies, or even the church.
  1. The Gospel gives life to the dead. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the one event in human history by which all people might live — both now and on the last day. The horizon of salvation in the New Testament is ultimately the future resurrection of the dead, but the certainty of this hope, arising from Jesus’ own resurrection, caused the early Christians to also speak of life in the here and now. For the Gospel of John in particular, belief in Christ and the life he will give infuses life now with an altogether different meaning (cf. 5:24). Though we are still bound by this mortal body and world, we are simultaneously alive.
  1. Only Christ gives life. This is perhaps the hardest point to digest. Most of us are just trying to get by, desperately searching for glimmers of life wherever we can find them. But if life is to be found at Calvary, then all other possible paths to life are necessarily empty, if not deadly. Setting the Gospel alongside the world’s various promises of life creates a necessary, existential conflict for the hearer. This is the logic employed by Paul when it came to the Law: “If righteousness were through the Law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21). Paul’s argument can and should be extended to the various seculosities of our day. A little yeast leavens the whole lump.

Putting these all together creates a plausible portrait that accounts for the power of the Gospel to radically change how we relate to the world. The Gospel promises in Christ to resurrect us undeserving corpses. The only thing that matters is the life-giving pronouncement of Christ: the forgiving love of our savior, the cessation of judgment in his arms, and the assurance that all will be excellent in the end. The response of faith to such a promise undividedly binds one to this singular event, thereby dislodging us from the world and its false promises to life. To be captivated by the Gospel in this way is why love is such an apt analogy for the life of faith. We are rescued by our beloved from the cares and concerns of the world.

Our work may be unbearably demanding, but God demands nothing. Our friends may abandon us when we fall off the rails, but God’s promise remains. While the world judges us all.the.time., in Christ, there is no condemnation. The hearer of the Gospel receives it as Good News inasmuch as they have suffered (however great or small) from the deadly lies the world has preached, and it is precisely the contrast between the Gospel and the world that gives life now. The yoke of the Gospel feels easy because it displaces the oppressive yokes thrust upon us by the world, or, as that old hymn says:

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the weakest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand …”