Do you remember how you reacted to the last big news story you heard? Do you remember your reaction to the news of the capture of Saddam Hussein? Do you remember your reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden? Do you remember how you reacted to the news of the attacks on 9/11?
Many people change their lives in reaction to news of a major event. For example, after 9/11, many of us became more patriotic. Others joined the military. But, what happened on 9/11 actually occurred whether it made a person more patriotic or not. It happened whether a person joined the military or not. It is the truth.
We react to news, and that causes confusion. Very often, we mentally and emotionally combine facts with our reaction to them. The fact and the reaction may be so intertwined that they become inseparable.
Over time, the confluence of news and response has crept into Christian thinking. Indeed, some Christians, if not most, seem to have a confusion between the gospel and our response to the gospel.
Jesus said to “repent and believe in the gospel” (in Mark 1:15) but some of us tend to act like Jesus said “repent and believe IS the gospel.” The gospel is the thing we repent because of and the thing we must believe. “Repent” and “believe” are verbs. The “gospel” is a noun. Just seeing it that way might make the distinction clearer.
Our response to the gospel is to repent and believe, but “repent and believe” is NOT the gospel. We must be careful not to confuse the gospel with the response we are called to make to it.
The gospel is the good news that Christ died and saved sinners (see 1 Timothy 1:15). It is not about us in any way, except as the objects of the salvation He purchased by His death on the cross and His taking upon Himself the wrath due to sinners.
In the Apostle Peter’s words, in Acts 2:22-24, 32-36 (ESV) this is the gospel:
Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Then, after delivering the news, Peter tells his listeners what they need to do to respond to the news, in Acts 2:38-39:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (ESV)
Repentance and faith are reactions to the gospel of what God did in Christ. We must not combine the response that sinners make to the gospel with the gospel itself.
Because then the gospel becomes relative. It becomes about a sinner’s response rather than God’s salvation for sinners. If we mix up the truth of the good news with the reaction of people to it, we are likely to be focused on the reaction that we are hoping to see. We tell the story of what Christ did as if the only thing that matters is the hearer’s reaction. We bury the lead. We lose the truth in attempts to evoke a reaction, and may even find ourselves adding bells and whistles and chrome plating and free prizes in an effort to “close the deal,” rather than “speaking the truth in love.”
Like Christ, like Peter, like Paul, we are to call people everywhere to respond to the truth with repentance and faith, but we must be clear that the news is separate from what we call people to do with it. If we don’t recognize the distinction, we water down the truth and end up preaching a different gospel, one that pleases men rather than God.
If we are careful to stick to the gospel truth, then we can be sure that any reaction that comes is a genuine reaction to the gospel. The repentance and faith that come will not spring up because of our lofty words of wisdom or our own craftiness. They will be the work of the Spirit of Truth. Those who respond will be able to say with James:
“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” -James 1:18 (ESV)