For several years I’ve been reading, thinking, and praying much about the meaning of the Gospel. As a biblical counselor, I believe the gospel is the central element of change. By that I mean that the gospel is necessary in order to change the heart from its natural pursuit and slavery to sin toward the pursuit of Christ and the things pertaining to Him. The gospel is good news. But what is the good news? And what is the substance of what we are believing when by faith in that gospel we are changed?
Commonly understood, from 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s appointed means of salvation to those who believe. And this is good news. But what is the peril from which a believing person is saved? And, what is it about this salvation that really changes a person? While I do not intend to talk so much about the mechanics of change, I do want to show that the gospel has power in the human heart when accurately understood and applied. A right understanding of the gospel has powerful implications in regard to our growth in the Lord.
John Piper’s book, God is the Gospel, is very helpful here. After having discussed many facets (implicit benefits and essential components) of the gospel, presented in various texts from the New Testament, Piper’s conclusion is astounding. He writes:
If you embrace everything . . . about the facets of the gospel, but do it in a way that does not make the glory of God in Christ your supreme treasure, then you have not embraced the gospel. Until the gospel events of Good Friday and Easter and the gospel promises and justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God. You have embraced some of his gifts. You have rejoiced over some of his rewards. You have marveled at some of his miracles. But you have not yet been awakened to why the gifts, the rewards, and the miracles have come. They have come for one great reason: that you might behold forever the glory of God in Christ, and by beholding become the kind of person who delights in God above all things, and be delighting display his supreme beauty and worth with every-increasing brightness and bliss forever. (pp. 37-38)
My take away from this is that what brings about change in us is delighting in Him in whose image we are being remade. Delighting in divine grace propels us toward Christ. It is not a pursuit of a “must do” list of Christian duties that moves us toward change, but rather submitting ourselves to the one we love to serve. Application of the gospel in the process of changing the heart of the believing sinner is not simply changing beliefs (though that is involved), but rather ever-increasing changes of affection—that is, what the heart delights in.
Piper drives this point home in asking a poignant, penetrating question:
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there? (p. 15)
If we are honest, the question makes us very uncomfortable and causes us to think deeply about what we are really living for. While the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, what makes it good news is that it provides a means whereby we can get to God, whom by the very grace He freely gives changes us to delight in Him. Spiritual disciplines, in this context, become a means to a pleasurable end—that is, knowing God and enjoying Him both now and forever. For what good would the gospel be to us if it simply gave us a means to what we naturally crave? What would be so magnificent about an eternity that is filled with stuff we longed for on earth? In other words, the gospel, in freeing us from sin, delivers us from the penalty of sin (being separated from God in a state of utter misery and pain) and provides us with the greatest of all joys, namely God Himself. Furthermore, in sanctification, the gospel frees us from the enslaving desires to which we are naturally drawn, and over which we are chronically disappointed, and delivers to us new and fresh, Spirit-wrought desires for the Lord Jesus Himself.
We need to rethink what we are asking people to do when encouraging them to embrace the gospel. Consciously we are asking them to consider that God is the object of the longings of their naturally rebellious and deceitful hearts. In application to our own hearts we are acknowledging the same. Faith, not works, is the means by which we come to know God, taking Him at His word that the end of our pursuit for pleasure, safety, meaning, and life will only be found in Him. Our precious Savior died to this end, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Considering this gospel reality reorients us to a different view of heart change, one that makes Christ the center, because we love to behold His glory, rather than a duty-oriented approach that centers on self. The gospel is God—He is the good news. To live with and enjoy Him is the essence of life, both now and forever.