What is the gospel? The word gospel literally means “good news.” What is this good news?
- John 3:16-17 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
- Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
On Ligonier.org R.C. Sproul wrote,
“The good news of the gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.”
As we see in the Bible, Jesus is at the heart of any gospel content. But let’s go even more deeply into what the gospel is and read 2 Tim. 2:15, in which Paul tells Timothy to rightly divide the word of God. Divide implies that Scripture has two parts: the doctrine of Law and the doctrine of Gospel (Grace). John 1:17 echoes that division. “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.”
Why It’s Important to Know the Two-Part Gospel
Let’s look at the distinctions. Simply put, the Law reminds us that we cannot be good enough for God, but the gospel gives us hope in the Savior. In his book The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, C.F.W. Walther wrote, “But it is the Gospel alone that satisfies men, makes them cheerful, revives them, and comforts their conscience” (Third Evening Lecture, 24).
The Law tells us what we must do according to God’s standards—it condemns and corrects us. The gospel tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—it assures us of God’s love and salvation. Under the Law, we think it’s our merit that saves us. But the gospel shows us that Christ’s merit alone saves us. Walther stated, “God has created us without our cooperation, and He wants to save us the same way. We are to thank Him for having created us with a hope of life everlasting. Even so, He alone wants to save us.” We need to hear both sides preached in church every Sunday.
On the contrary, the gospel reveals to us only what God has done and continues to do. The Law concerns our works; the gospel, concerning Christ’s great work on our behalf. In the Law we hear the tenfold summons, “Thou shalt.” Beyond that, the Law has nothing to say to us. The gospel, on the other hand, makes no demands whatsoever.
No One Can Keep God’s Law
The Law condemns a sinner for failing to uphold God’s Law, and sinners cannot uphold the Law because they are lawless by nature. This is the great universal conundrum. People want to keep the Law to be saved, but it is impossible to keep the Law because all people “fall short” (Romans 3:23). The Lutheran Study Bible comments, “Every human, aside from Christ, falls short. Some may seem to come closer than others, but no one can live a holy life” (1914).
Sinners design their own system of merit and feel righteous, but that house crumbles quickly when they face the truth that “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
All are doomed by law-breaking. Hearing the Law crushes sinners or enrages them “Scripture shouts everywhere that we are far away from the perfection that the Law requires…Therefore, no one does as much as Law the Law requires. Their imagination that we can do more is ridiculous” (Augsburg Confession Apology, Philip Melanchthon, XIIB, 45 Book of Concord).
The Gospel Offers Us Something We Cannot Do on Our Own
On the other hand, the preaching of the gospel imparts the joy of salvation. “The worse slave of vice admits that he ought to do what is written in the Law. Why is this? Because the Law is written in his heart. The situation is different when the Gospel is preached. The Gospel reveals and proclaims nothing but free acts of divine grace” (Walther, First Evening Lecture 8).
The sin in us causes us to loathe God’s truth; therefore, we could never fulfill the law. Yet, God freely extends grace to us knowing that we could never contribute to our own salvation. In our controlling nature, we want to earn grace, salvation and eternal life. We are all like the rich young ruler who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 18:18). His question presents a paradox—we don’t do anything to inherit it. It is only by God’s grace, freely given, that we inherit eternal life. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Law and Gospel Must Be Preached in Tandem
When God opens our eyes to the condemnation of sin that binds us under the law, we can immediately grab hold of the good news that Jesus Christ saves sinners. This is possible because of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us.
Many preachers don’t understand the distinction. Here’s what Luther says, “It is therefore a matter of utmost necessity that these two kinds of God’s Word be well and properly distinguished. Where this is not done, neither the law nor the gospel can be understood, and the consciences of men must perish with blindness and error.”
If a pastor proclaims only the gospel, sinners do not realize their need for salvation. In that case, the seed of the gospel falls on the path and the birds of skepticism, doubt and disbelief devour it (Mark 4:4).
Some people think only unbelievers need to hear the gospel. However, the saved thirst to hear what Christ has done for them. Believers languish under the weight of their sin and despair if they do not hear the Bible preached rightly divided and the sweetness of the gospel given to them. They become “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” (Isaiah 42:3) and leave the church entirely. Often, they don’t understand why themselves.
The Gospel is the Good News of What Has Already Happened
Hearing the gospel saves sinners because it gives them the good news of what Christ has already done for them. For the gospel to minister consolation to sinners, pastors must preach it with the Law. By rightly dividing God's word, pastors bring an awareness of sin through the Law and the healing from sin through the gospel, so souls can come to Jesus Christ for salvation.
The good news of the gospel is that Christ has paid the price for sinner’s transgressions against God’s Law. And through His grace, He has broken the curse of the Law, which condemns sinners. This salvation is a gift from God.
Therefore, says C.F.WWalther, “the Law, ever since the fall, cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel.” Unless people hear the Law and the gospel preached together their hearts cannot understand the good news that Jesus Christ saves sinners. Neither can believers rest in the assurance of their salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
All the work of salvation belongs to the Father, who sent His Son to reconcile sinners to God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls sinners to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
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