Someone, not a part of this world, came from above and made contact with humanity. He came in peace (on a donkey) and those who expected him did not even recognize him. In fact, they killed him. The surprising thing is that he did not stay dead, but rather rose from the grave and proclaimed that his action was what would rescue us all from ourselves.
The Gospel is alien to us. The Gospel is fully and completely defined as Christ’s work for us, his sacrifice of himself in our place for our sins.
Christianity is a true alien encounter.
Alien and Domestic
Unfortunately it is a story that many find too good to believe, and many call themselves Christian. It is almost entirely impossible for us to believe that the greatest gift ever given is just that, a gift. There has to be something that I have done to deserve it, there has to be something I have to do to keep it, there has to be something I do to repay everything that was given. It is as if every gift that someone gives us obligates us to give a gift of similar value in return.
The good news is that God’s gift to us is free, completely.
We live and breathe in a world where there is no such thing as a free lunch, everything has strings attached, and no one can be fully trusted because no one has completely pure motives. Somehow, even though these are deeply set beliefs, we articulate a belief that every person is good at heart and all we have to do is call out that goodness. To put this in more Christian language: we are the gospel.
Being an Imperfect Gospel
Recently I have had a barrage of people telling me that the Gospel is not just what Jesus did, but it is what we do for others that testifies to Christ. People from members of my family, staffers at church, and even people like Frank Turk of Pyromaniacs has challenged me by saying that the Gospel is incomplete if I do nothing about it. “We need to live the Gospel,” they tell me.
Just as a fire produces smoke, the work of the Gospel in people produces good works. When the Holy Spirit fills a person’s life, it is impossible for that person to remain the same and they are in fact compelled to do good works in the name of the God who saved them. Indeed the work of the Gospel, the free gift of Christ is inert if it is not accompanied with a changed life. The trouble is that once they are equated (the gospel = good works) then something else happens.
If I am the Gospel and my faith is not contextualized, who is at fault? If the work of Christ is in me and I continue to struggle with sin, is the Gospel not effective enough? If my life is to be a testimony to the Gospel and it preaches and I need not “use words,” then what happens when I fail? Even more challenging questions surface, if we are so bold to ask: Did we get the Gospel wrong? Was Jesus’ sacrifice not good enough for someone like me? Did God lie?
If I am the Gospel, imperfect as I am, then the Gospel is really bad news, really bad news. What happens is that to prove that the Gospel is at work I have to be perfect, thus tarnishing the essential reason that the news is good in the first place. When we begin to think that the Gospel has anything to do with who we are, we take on the full weight of the Law along with its curse if it is not followed to the letter.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)
If, however, the Gospel is wholly other, if it has nothing to do with me, then it can be nothing but true. Christ, living the life that I cannot live, stood in my place, took my punishment, my sin, my shame and carried them to the cross. Christ bore the burden of death and conquered it. He fulfilled the law in that he lived it perfectly, in my place, so that I do not have to suffer under the impossible burden.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… (Galatians 3:13)
An “alien invasion” of the atoning work of Christ means that he accomplished it independently of me, and in God’s sovereignty I have been washed lean. It means that Jesus paid the debt for all my sins and that nothing I can do can separate me from the love of God.
“What about people who call themselves Christian, but do not live a Christian life?” I would ask, “Are these people even Christian at all?” When we are set aflame by the Holy Spirit we cannot be the same. Think about it: our claim is that the Almighty God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, literally comes into your physical body and lives within you. This adds a completely new nature to you, and it allows you to know and do the will of God. Can a person honestly withstand that kind of change? Who can stand before God? Let me say it another way: it is impossible to keep from doing good works when we have received and believed the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here is the way the writer of Hebrews puts it:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
It is a dreadful thing to call oneself a Christian but then deliberately go on sinning. Not doing good when good can be done is sinful according to the Bible. So it is that good works testify to the truth of the Gospel, but it is not the Gospel. Our actions show that we are disciples of Christ, but they are not the good news that Jesus saves. Christ did not save us so we could work for him, but so that we would glorify him and work for his good pleasure. As is so often said, “God does not need your good works; your neighbor does.”
Good Works Are Not Uniquely Christian
If our good works alone, not our imperfection, is to testify to Christ, then what can we say about people who are not Christian, but do good works? Do Buddhists have an equal shot at salvation because they are charitable and kind? Do atheists who watch out for others and work toward social justice automatically get into heaven because of their efforts? More importantly, do their lives testify to Christ because they have done good deeds?
The work of Christ, as an alien to my life and experience, must be preached, must be talked about, must be shared by word. God revealed himself as the eternal Word, and enfleshed that Word as his Son (John 1). We cannot go for a walk in the woods and suddenly know the good news of Christ. We cannot receive charity and instantly know that Jesus died for sins. It must be shared and must be talked about. If the story, the true story, is not told, then how will people know that we do not do our good works to reach nirvana, or to quell the anger of Zeus?
The Gospel is this: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. When we did not deserve it and could not earn it, Jesus did what we could not do. The good news of the Bible is that I do not have to live a perfect life, but rely on Jesus doing it for me.
News is a proclamation of what has happened. Just look at the evening news, the newspapers, the magazines. The Gospel is the Good News of what Christ has done, shouted, howled, roared, screamed, bellowed, barked, chirped, tweeted, yelled and cheered. It is the declaration that all our efforts, all our attempts, all our failures to measure up do not matter, because the only one who could, has. Thanks be to God!