Differentiating the Gospel

I have been attempting to lay a foundation—a trustable foundation—for discerning the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel.

That foundation begins with the assertion that there is a “core” to Scripture, to the story of God and his Creation, to the ministries of Jesus and his earliest disciples. This core—with prayerful and careful sifting—is discoverable. It consists of certain essential ideas that form the heart of the gospel, ideas that are essential to the good news story and must not be left out. To embrace this core, however, we must also embrace the reality that there are other ideas, even other important ideas, that are not essential to the good news story and do not belong to the gospel core.

We’ve discussed certain “criteria” that will help us make good gospel decisions about what to include and what to exclude from this core: for example, is this idea focused on God and what God has done … is it a truth that has the power to save and sanctify?

Bear with me for one more essay as I try to sharpen the knife and look at one more way of differentiating the core gospel from other important, but secondary, matters related to it.

The Gospel and Our Response to It

I’ve already suggested that it is necessary to make a distinction between the gospel and our response to the gospel. Responding to the gospel is important. We cannot benefit personally from the blessings of the gospel story unless we respond in some way that permits us to “enter” the gospel and its promises. But our response does not belong in the gospel core because it fails several of the criteria we’ve just discussed.

It necessarily focuses on us and what we do (see Principle #5). It inevitably makes the gospel bulkier and more complicated (see Principle #7). Our response doesn’t have the power to save or sanctify us—God’s grace and Christ’s cross have the only power that counts in that regard (see Principles #8 and 9). Nor does a gospel that culminates with what we must do constitute good news in the end (see Principle #3).

Besides, once you start down the road of including our response  in God’s gospel, where do you stop? Believe what and how deeply? What must be confessed? (Faith in Jesus? Your sins? A creedal statement?) What does it mean to repent? (Does repentance involve specific actions like fasting and making atonement for particular sins? Is there a “process” of repentance that requires not only turning from sin in our hearts but rooting out sin in our lives? Entire religious movements have grown up around these very questions!)

And what is true baptism? My own denomination has placed significant emphasis on the importance of baptism (an emphasis I share). However, that emphasis has led to a pronounced concern with baptismal details: it must occur with the right motive (“to be saved”), in the right mode (immersion, not sprinkling), at the right age (not as an infant—although eight-year-olds are OK), and with the right words (“for the forgiveness of sins”). Really? Must all this be packed into the essential gospel as well?

The Apostles distinguished between the core gospel and instructions about how to accept and receive the gospel’s benefits.[1] Perhaps the simplest way to get at this distinction between gospel and response is by looking at Peter’s sermon of Acts 2—the first full pronouncement of the gospel of God, coming (as it did) on the heels of the events of Easter. Peter stands before a Pentecost crowd and announces that the promises and purposes of God have been fulfilled at last. The Spirit has been poured out (2:17-18) because God’s Messiah has come (2:22, 36). He was crucified as a part of “God’s deliberate plan” (2:23). God raised him back to life (2:24, 32—as he promised in prophecy). The resurrected Jesus, now seated with God in the heavenly realms, has poured out the Holy Spirit (2:33). A new age has dawned in which Jesus reigns as Lord (2:36) and everyone can be saved through him (2:21). All this is gospel. It is Jesus-centered, God-prompted, covenant-sealed, Spirit-powered gospel.

And this is the story that turned a mob into an audience. This is the story that cut people “to the heart” (2:37). This is the story that prompted that classic question, “What shall we do?”

Peter knows just what to tell them: “Repent and be baptized. Trust this story of what God has done for you through Jesus Christ and your sins will be forgiven. Give yourself to God and to this gospel and he will give you his Holy Spirit” (to paraphrase Acts 2:38). But notice, it was not Peter’s words about faith and penitence and baptism that cut this crowd to the heart. They weren’t moved to act by Peter’s clear and concise summary of what they must do. It was the gospel that cut them, the gospel that moved them, the gospel that provided the stimulus to their response.

I am absolutely convinced that, whenever some audience cries out to know what to do about the gospel message, we should speak directly to the response God requires without a moment’s delay. But I am equally convinced that, too often, we don’t wait for people to ask the “What should we do?” question. We just go right from gospel to response … as if there were no distinction between them … as if the response belonged in the gospel itself. When we make that mistake, several things happen—none of them good.

First, rushing into response does not give the magisterial, astonishing, too-good-to-be-true gospel time to sink in and do its work. It takes a while for the grandness of the gospel story to come into bloom. It requires a few moments (or, with some people, a few years) to embrace the largeness of God’s grace. Tumbling to what the gospel says about the depth of God’s love and the implications of God’s purposes for one’s life may not need months or days or even hours. But we should expect the tumbling to take some amount of time. If we were wiser, we’d speak the gospel story and then allow listeners to marinate in it for a bit.

Rushing into response (to say it once again and risk the reader’s irritation) forces the focus away from what God has done to what we must do. It turns attention from the story that convicts to the details of our own acceptance. And that is a grave mistake. For it is the focus that is so crucial when listeners first meet the gospel. We need them riveted on the gospel truths that—alone—are capable of breaking their hearts and bending their knees: God’s purposes and grace … their own helplessness under sin … the greatness of God’s gift in Jesus Christ … the possibility of new life. These are the truths that move people to reconsider their lives, to contemplate replacing a narrative of self-deception and denial with God’s narrative of hope. People deserve a little time to swim in the gospel’s proclamation of God’s love, to revel for at least a few moments in his goodness, before we get down to the business of helping them stake a claim to their share.

Rushing into response suggests we don’t really trust the gospel story and it’s power to convict. Can’t let the prospect get cold feet! We need to close the deal! Don’t give them time to reconsider! Get them to sign on the baptismal line! Why? Do we fear a better deal might come along any moment? Do we expect people to be overcome by a crippling sense of buyer’s remorse if we give the gospel time to breath? Do we think that if people are left alone with the simple story for too long, they will begin to see its flaws and omissions? Trust the gospel! Trust its power. Let it stay center stage. Don’t allow the spotlight wander from it. If people hear the gospel and want to walk away, let them! What could we possible add to the gospel story that could make it more attractive and persuasive? A half-priced repentance? If, on the other hand, people hear the gospel and want to respond, you will not be able to avoid the “What must I do” question. They will demand an answer from you for the privilege of wrapping themselves in God’s blessings. If we can’t trust the gospel to convict people, why should they trust it to save and change them?

Thus, this distinction between gospel and response is both theological and pragmatic. There are good theological reasons for limiting the gospel to God’s character, God’s plan to save and sanctify us, God’s actions on our behalf. But there are good practical reasons for doing this as well. Speak the gospel and let it do its work. Don’t rush to answer a question that has not been asked. Someone will cry out (eventually) “What must we do?” Wait for the question. Give the gospel yeast time to rise. Tell motivated people what to do … don’t try to motivate people by telling them what to do!

The Gospel and Its Consequences

In similar fashion, we need to distinguish between the gospel and consequences of the gospel. There are many things the gospel does in the lives of broken people: healing and transformation … amputation of bad habits and the grafting in of good ones … the Spirit bearing his relational fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, etc. But gospel consequences must always remain just that—consequences and never conditions.

Yet it is very tempting to turn consequences into conditions and to make the results of the gospel a requirement of the gospel. “You can’t be saved until you stop drinking” … “First fix your marriage-and-divorce mess, then you can make your Christian commitment” … “I won’t baptize you unless you move out of your boyfriend’s house.” These are but a few examples of how we confuse the gospel with the effects of the gospel and manage to pack those effects into the gospel core.

Paul would remind us that we were still enemies of God when Christ died for us—ungodly, powerless, slaves to sin.[2] As he told the Corinthians:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Co 6:9-11)

It is true that people committed to sinful ways will “not inherit the kingdom of God.” But notice, when Paul preached the gospel to the Corinthians and they responded to it, that is precisely how some of them were living. Paul did not expect them to change their ways before accepting the good news of God’s love and salvation. He knew they couldn’t change their ways without the gospel’s power at work in them. Justification and sanctification only come through Jesus Christ and his Spirit.

Once the gospel was unleashed in their lives (and in ours!), it’s power was able to cleanse from sinful ways and free from sin’s bondage. But these were (and are) consequences of the gospel at work, not conditions or prerequisites for accepting the gospel.

Failing to respect this distinction between gospel and consequence indicates that we have the cart before the horse, theologically speaking. It puts us in the position of preaching:

The gospel of God + changed lives = salvation

In fact, that is a formula not for salvation but for heresy. It is the fundamental equation of legalism in all its insidious forms. And, as amply demonstrated through Israel’s experience with the law, it leads only to frustration, futility, and “wretched” men and women, condemned to do what they hate and impotent to live like they want.[3]

The blessed news of the gospel is that, to the contrary:

The gospel of God = salvation + changed lives

Failing to respect this distinction also suggests that, at some level, we actually believe it is through self-discipline and will-power that people change—that the power of transformation lies in our own efforts. We really don’t need the power of the Spirit and the gospel to break old habits and set a new life-course. We just need to get serious about living better and then we will be worthy of relationship with God.

But the essential gospel message proclaims just the opposite. The most broken, sinful, debauched people can hear the gospel and be washed by its saving power. Attempting to adopt the gospel’s values and life-style before receiving the gospel’s power is futile and doomed. The “amazing grace” of the gospel is that God saves and sanctifies people who do not deserve his mercy, who are living counter to his ways, and who cannot free themselves of Satan’s hold. Indeed, those are the only people God saves because (in reality) there are no other sorts of people. God saves them through the good news of his gospel. And then God transforms them—as an act of his power and grace—through that same gospel.

Broken sinners receive the gospel as broken sinners. And then the gospel begins the work of making sinners into saints. The effects of the gospel start to manifest themselves in badly failed and flawed people—which only underscores the truth that “this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”[4]

Finally, failing to make this distinction between gospel and consequence demonstrates a fundamental impatience on our part with the gospel process. We don’t have the time to let the gospel do its work! We need results and we need them now! Why not front-load the consequences of the gospel, require them to receive the gospel, and then we don’t have to wait around for the Spirit to do his slow and methodical business. We can move on to the next victim candidate.

In contrast, this is what I understand Scripture to say about our interaction with the gospel:

  1. Preach the gospel and the gospel alone, trusting its power and effectiveness. Then be quiet!
  2. Wait for someone to ask how to respond, what to do with the greatness of God’s grace, and then tell them how to receive the blessings of the gospel personally: faith, confession, repentance, baptism.
  3. When the gospel is embraced, testify to one of its greatest promises and powers: that we will be changed … that the old will die and the new will be born … that the righteousness of God can be ours. And then affirm that—according to the gospel—that process happens by the grace of God, through the cross of Christ, and at the work of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Then step back and wait patiently for the Spirit to do what was promised in the gospel.

The Gospel and Chosen Practices

Last (but not least), we must distinguish between the gospel that saves and sanctifies us and the “chose practices” we have adopted as means to celebrate and live out the gospel. Faith is not a nebulous, amorphous thing. It is enacted in very specific and tangible ways. Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, Moses striking the Red Sea, David sparing Saul in the cave … circumcision, offerings, Sabbath … church, worship, tithing. Faith always takes some “form,” the practices through which we attempt to live faithfully.

That’s a good thing, of course. It is something that ought to be encouraged. It is something believers should pursue with great energy and creativity and devotion.

The problem here (once again) is not a matter of legitimacy but of timing. If you want to wear a head-covering and drive a buggy and refrain from alcohol consumption and go to church daily—all as a sign and celebration of your commitment to Jesus—more power to you! But don’t require these things of others. Don’t insist that other believers signal and celebrate their commitment to Jesus in the same way you do.

But, of course, that is precisely what we do! “You need to worship like I do … go to the church I attend … speak in tongues like us … sign our creedal statement … adopt premillennial viewpoints like mine.” We’re convinced our chosen practices are right and want other people to be as right as we are. And what better way to raise the subject of these “chosen practices” than at the moment when people embrace the gospel!

This is precisely what we see happening in Acts 15.

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question…. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1-6

The believers in Antioch were novices in faith. Having heard the gospel, they trusted the simple story and turned to the Lord, trusting in him for salvation.[5]

The problem was that these believers were Gentiles. They did not think and act like Jews. They had not been conditioned for generations by exposure to Moses and the prophets. They did not worship like the Christian-Jews in Jerusalem. They had distinctly different “chosen practices.”[6]

A group of Jews from the Jerusalem church (Luke identifies them as belonging “to the party of the Pharisees”) determined to close this practice-gap. “You have to be circumcised to be saved. You have to keep the law of Moses to be saved. You have to observe the customs of Israel to be saved. You have to think, act, and worship like us to be saved.”

Whether they realized or not, these mistaken brothers were undermining the very basis of the gospel and asserting that the gospel alone was not sufficient to save and sanctify the Gentiles. It wasn’t enough to preach the simple gospel of what God had done for humanity. The Gentiles had to adopt Jewish practices as well … Jewish customs and sensibilities … the Jewish law. Otherwise (please note) they could not be saved.

Paul and Barnabas immediately raised objections to this slight to the gospel. Peter agreed with them when the controversy moved to Jerusalem. (“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”[7]) Jewish Christians were not permitted to bind Jewish ways on Gentile Christians as a condition of salvation. Either the gospel and the gospel alone was sufficient to save and sanctify—apart from Moses—or there was no gospel.


There is a core gospel that saves and sanctifies us. It can be distinguished from other matters that—while important—are not integral to the gospel itself. When the gospel is preached and trusted, it unleashes a godly and God-powered equation in people’s lives:

The gospel of God = salvation + changed lives

But we keep messing with that equation, trying to insert ourselves and attain some measure of control (and credit?) for our own salvation. When we insert our response into the equation, it looks like this:

The gospel of God + correct response = salvation + changed lives

When we try to insert consequences of the gospel into the core gospel, the equation looks like this:

The gospel of God + changed lives = salvation

And when we attempt to insert chosen practices by making them matters of salvation, the equation (ugly indeed!) looks like this:

The gospel of God + [(keeping the law) (adopting particular worship styles) (embracing particular theological positions) (speaking in tongues) (insert infinite loop here)] = salvation

Let’s keep the gospel equation clean and simple and original. Leave out anything that would distract us from the glory of God’s grace and the wonder of his plan to save and sanctify us. Refuse to include anything that shifts the focus to ourselves: how we must respond … what changes we must make … how we must put our faith into practice. Preach the core gospel. Trust the core gospel. And have confidence that the gospel itself will prompt every response, provoke every transformation, and promote every belief and behavior necessary to please the God of the gospel.

[This series of posts on “the Gospel” is rooted in a prolonged dialogue about faith I’ve been having with myself and others and is based on a series of sermons I’ve preached. If the series captures your imagination and you would like to know more about sermons, small group studies, adult education curriculum, etc., please contact me directly.]

[Click to view the previous post in this series]

[Click to view the next post in this series]

[1] We can see this distinction between the gospel message and human response clearly in Scripture. It is there in passages such as Paul’s bald statement that Christ did not send him “to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (that is, Paul’s task when preaching the gospel was to emphasize what God had done rather than what his hearers must do) in 1Co 1:17. It is present in the very structure of Paul’s letters, beginning (as they so often do) with a proclamation of the gospel kerygma and, only after this announcement of good news, ending with paraenesus (the “so what” sections of the letters—Romans and Ephesians being the best examples). It is evidenced in the use of words like “righteousness” and “obedience” which could refer to personal attributes and attainments (what we do to be saved) but that, in the context of the gospel, invariably refer to attributes of God and his Son that have accomplished our salvation (see such passages as Php 3:9 and Rom 5:18-19).

[2] Rom 5:1-11

[3] Rom 7:24

[4] 2Co 4:7

[5] Acts 11:20-21

[6] See my book A Church that Flies.

[7] Acts 15:11

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.