“If Jesus is real, He should matter to all of life.”
The phrase may seem like the most obvious thought in the world to you. It now does to me too (at least most days). But to my twenty-year-old self, walking across a university green between classes, it was a revelation. That phrase hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew a lot about Jesus. I was a fairly decent Bible teacher. I had actually been hired as a student pastor two years earlier (and regrettably, two years before I think I actually knew Jesus personally. Yup). I knew the basic facts of the gospel message: Jesus died for my sin and had been raised from the dead, and if I believed in Him I could avoid hell and live forever with God in perfect glory.
But like many religious and church-going people, those facts were the extent of the gospel message I’d heard. If I may intentionally over-generalize this in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the gospel message I heard was that a past event had occurred that greatly benefited my future. Jesus died for my sins and rose again, and if I believe this I get to go to heaven, hard stop.
“For our past, future, and present, the gospel changes everything.”
Does this sound familiar to a gospel presentation you’ve heard? Perhaps it is a gospel message you’ve shared with others.
Praise God, these facts are true! Indeed, Jesus’ sacrificial, substitutionary death for the sin of the world; His resurrection, which conquered death for all who believe; and His future restoration of all things including broken people’s relationship to our perfect and holy God—these things form part of the foundation of the Christian faith. They are the dividing line we believe separates human from human—or to use Jesus’ own language, sheep from goat, or brother from brother. We can praise God for the past and future realities of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But there is more to the story. It is common in today’s Christian circles to guard against a “works-based gospel” and a “prosperity gospel.” These are not biblical definitions of the gospel. But a “past-and-future-only” gospel is also not the whole gospel! The gospel is not less than Jesus’ past work for our future benefit—but it is more than that. The Bible leads us to an understanding of the gospel that is more than Jesus’ followers (including you and me!) simply declaring belief in, or confessing faith in, or saying a prayer about, Jesus’ finished work one time in our own past. It leads us to a view of the best “good news” that surpasses our mere hope for a mansion in heaven one day in the future.
When we understand this, our eyes are opened, our appreciation and need for Jesus deepens, and we discover how Jesus matters to all of life. His life, death, resurrection, and reign speak to a present reality, not just past and future realities. The gospel has current implications for every moment between when we’re saved by grace through faith and when Jesus returns or calls us home. For our past, future, and present, the gospel changes everything.
“The gospel changes everything” is the primary message of the New Testament. Interestingly, the afterlife and eternity—the most consistent theme in gospel presentations today—was not the focus of the early Christian gospel. N. T. Wright explains, “If that question [of what happens after they died] came up, their answer might be that they would be ‘with the Messiah’ . . . but they seldom spoke about it at all. They were much more connected with the ‘kingdom of God,’ which was happening and would ultimately happen completely, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’”
In his gospel, Matthew records Jesus proclaiming this “gospel of the kingdom.” Some veins of Christian thinking today see that term as a here-and-now-only message; others see it only as a future and eternal gospel message. This is a false divide, and misses the heart of the gospel, even when defining the gospel! First, “gospel” simply means “good news.” We might even say, it’s the best good news.
Second, looking at Jesus’ own life, it would be impossible to say that His “good news” was only focused on a future, afterlife reality. Many theologians see Luke 4 as defining Jesus’ life mission: teaching in a Judean synagogue,
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
. . . “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:17–19, 21)
There is certainly a spiritual sense to what Jesus is saying: in His life, death, and resurrection, He did free spiritual captives, open spiritually blind eyes, and so forth. He ushered in great future hope. But He also opened literal eyes, freed literal oppressed people, and healed so many people He ushered in a present hope!
Third, the gospel of the kingdom was the good news that propelled Jesus’ followers to live out their new identity in Christ in the midst of suffering, hatred, persecution, division, danger, and hardship. They saw themselves as citizens of a better kingdom, loyal to a better King than Caesar. This on one hand was treasonous; only Caesar was Lord in Rome. On the other hand, their faith in Jesus wasn’t merely a mental assent to some theology, or an occasional private moment that could be tucked away on some proverbial shelf while Jesus’ first-century followers engaged in an otherwise normal life. “In the modern Western world, ‘religion’ tends to mean God-related individual beliefs and practices that are supposedly separable from culture, politics, and community life. For Paul [and first-century Christians], ‘religion’ was woven in with all of life.”
The “gospel” to Jesus’ early followers was one that Jesus saved (past tense), reigns (present tense), and will return (future tense) to restore everything to something better than even the garden of Eden was supposed to be. His followers saw His reign as not just a future reality, but one that began with His ascension—after all, Jesus is seated on His throne now. And they saw their role during their present lives on earth as living in light of that future hope, by the power of Jesus’ past resurrection and promised Spirit. They didn’t have to decide whether they would proclaim “Jesus saves” or love their neighbors and enemies; they didn’t choose between pushing folks to be baptized as a declaration of their newfound belief or pursuing good works (i.e., living for the good of others, in light of that newfound belief). If Jesus lived, died, rose, and reigns as King forever, then the good news of the kingdom was both a present and forever reality: the gospel was both/and, not either/or.
The good news of Jesus’ first coming and its objective change in those whose lives were impacted by that truth fill the first pages of most of the New Testament’s letters: “I was one thing, and because of Jesus, now I’m another thing.” “I was dead; I’m now alive.” “I was in darkness; now I’m in the light.” “I was defined by some lesser story; now I’m defined by the truest story in the whole world.” And so forth. In Ephesians 1–3, for example, or Romans 1–11, 1 Peter 1–2, and others, the first portion of many letters tell us what is true of us, whether we believe it or live it or not. Jesus’ past work changes our very identity—the core of who we are.
He doesn’t only change our identity one time in our own past, that moment or day when we intentionally take a step and declare we believe His work is true. And He doesn’t only change it in some ethereal, future way. He changes us in a tangible, every-moment way that impacts every aspect of our present lives.
That same good news, along with the hope of Jesus’ second coming, fills the latter pages of each of those same letters (e.g., Eph. 4–6, Rom. 12–16, 1 Peter 3–5), and it was both the motive and power for the renewed and changed walk with God, relationships with others, and daily lifestyle. Because the gospel changed everything.
by Ben Connelly
Don’t keep asking God for forgiveness. Do judge one another. And you’re not going to heaven for all...
Sign up for resources delivered to your inbox weekly