The Gospel & Grace
Have you ever wondered why the Gospels are called the Gospels? Why do we refer to the "Gospels" of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and not, say, the "biographies of Christ" or something similar? As a student of early church history, I'd like to suggest that the early church named them "Gospels," because that is exactly what they were to the early church.
I have taken three evangelism courses in my time as a Christian. All of them followed the same basic outline: heaven is a free gift; man is a sinner and cannot save himself; Jesus died for man's sin; and, we can receive the free gift of salvation by faith. I once purchased 23 Gospel tracts from a bookstore in order to outline the Gospel proclaimed in them, and their outline was also the same. The idea that heaven is a free gift, that man is a sinner and cannot save himself, that Jesus died for our sins, and that we receive salvation by faith were included in almost every one of them.
I purchased those 23 Gospel tracts in order to compare them to the sermons that the apostles preached to the lost in the book of Acts. I did not compare those tracts to the letters of the apostles, because all the letters are written to Christians. However, in Acts I was able to find twelve different places, of varying lengths, where an apostle (always Peter or Paul) preached to the lost1. I wanted to know if they followed the same outline we did. I was genuinely surprised by the results. In fact, that little study shook me for years.
Let's start with Acts chapter 2, which is, of course, the first such proclamation. I once gave this teaching publicly at a church. When I did, I read Peter's entire sermon to them. That was verbally. You are able to put this writing down, pick up your Bible and read the whole sermon yourself, so I will simply type out the pertinent parts. All my Scripture references are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible2, which I think is a pretty good translation. It's a little loose for my tastes sometimes, but mostly I find it quite trustworthy. If you do not, you can simply pick up your own Bible and compare. The things I am about to say are true no matter what translation you are using.
Peter begins by telling the crowd that the apostles and their companions are not drunk (v. 15), as was suggested by some in the crowd that was gathered to the sound of the wind and the multiple languages the apostles were speaking by the Spirit. He then tells them that what is happening is the outpouring of the Spirit promised by God through the prophet Joel. Then he says:
Men of Israel, listen to these words: This Jesus the Nazarene was a man pointed out to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through Him, just as you yourselves know (v. 22).
This is one thing that, though rarely found in tracts and not at all in the evangelism courses I went through, is always found in apostolic sermons. They always tell them about the ministry of Christ in some way, shape, or form. This is our first clue that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might be called Gospels because that is what they are.
Though he was delivered up according to God's determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people [i.e. the Romans] to nail Him to a cross and kill Him (v. 23).
Now if this was a modern evangelist, the next words would be obvious. This is the perfect place to explain that Christ was nailed to the cross and died for the sins of man. It is carefully not left out of our Gospel tracts, and it is the center of our evangelism classes, so surely it is something the apostle would make sure to include in his sermon. But shockingly, it is absent. He goes right on to the resurrection:
God raised Him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it, for David says of Him: ...Moreover my flesh will rest in hope, because You will not leave my soul in Hades, or allow your Holy One to see decay (vv. 24, 25a, 26b-27)3.
The resurrection is something else the apostles never forgot to mention. Of course, the resurrection is almost always included in today's Gospel, too, but it is much more of a sidelight than it was with the apostles. With the apostles, it was almost the central theme, because it proved Christ's authority. Here's how Peter went on to put it:
God has resurrected this Jesus. We are all witnesses of this. Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear....Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah! (vv. 32-33, 36).
Peter has now concluded his sermon. He has forgotten everything that is important to the modern Gospel. He has not mentioned that heaven in a free gift. In fact, he has not mentioned heaven at all. He forgot to tell them that man is a sinner and cannot save himself. He even forgot the most important thing of all, that Jesus died on the cross for their sins! How can he hope for anything good to come of his sermon when he's left out absolutely everything that is crucial to the modern Gospel. After all, the Gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).
What results did Peter get? Let's look:
When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: "Brothers, what must we do?" "Repent," Peter said to them, "and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit..." And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, "Be saved from this corrupt generation!" So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And the devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers (vv.37-38, 40-42).
Pretty impressive results for someone who forgot all the major points of our Gospel, isn't it? He did at least include faith in Christ, which was as central to the apostles' message as it is to ours.
Here, however, on the issue of faith in Christ, lies the crucial difference between the apostles' Gospel and our modern day gospel (I have switched to a small g because if our gospel is different from the apostles it is not the Gospel). This issue, that of faith in Christ, explains both what the apostles chose to include, and what we did.
Today, our version of faith in Christ, as found in our tracts and evangelism programs, is not really faith in Christ, but faith in some facts about Christ. Jesus died for our sins. This is a fact. It is true, and it is Scriptural. Faith is what will get a person to heaven. This is true. But these are just facts about Christ. Anyone can believe these things intellectually without it changing their life at all. Salvation in the modern world is as easy as passing an elementary school course. Learn a few facts, check them off as true, and you are in. In real life, it doesn't work like that. God, it turns out, is not impressed; which is why Christianity is so ineffective in America and has taken to having to mimic the world in order to get converts. The devil himself believes those facts, and it has not done him any good at all.
The apostles taught faith in Christ, not in facts about Christ. Therefore, they left a lot of facts out, to be explained later—even the fact that Jesus died for our sins. This is because it is not faith in Jesus' death that saves us, but faith in Jesus. Because of this, the apostles were always careful to tell the lost about Christ himself.He was from Israel, a prophet who went about doing good and delivering all who were oppressed of the devil. He was put to death. Never mind that it was for your sins, you can learn that later; they never mention to the lost that his death was for their sins. For the apostles, mentioning that Jesus died was simply a way to tell the lost that God raised Jesus from the dead, thus proving that he was the Son of God with power, the one who would judge the living and the dead. Hearing these things provoked the lost to believe in this incredibly powerful and loving person, the Son of God, who had power over death and authority with God and who could deliver them from their sins and raise them up on the last day.
But don't take my word for it. Let's go on in Acts:
Now as [Peter and John] were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in the person of Jesus the resurrection from the dead (4:1,2).
Note the "in the person of Jesus" here. It is not facts about Christ, but Christ that saves.
The Sanhedrin then asked Peter and John about the preaching they had done. Peter replies with an explanation of what they are preaching:
If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man...let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. This Jesus is "the stone despised by you builders, who has become the cornerstone." There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved (4:9-12).
Notice: there is salvation in "no one" else. Again, it is not facts. The apostles did not tell the Sanhedrin about the free gift of heaven, man's sinfulness, or Jesus paying for their sins. Instead, they told them again that this Jesus was raised from the dead and thus has become the cornerstone and the lone source of salvation.
In fact, let's go back to chapter three, to the preaching that got Peter and John in trouble in the first place. There are some important things in what they say there.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked to have a murderer given to you.And you killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this (3:14,15).
Note here that Jesus is the source of life. His death is not the source of life. He is.They killed the Source of Life, and the wording establishes that he was already the source of life when they killed him. He didn't have to die to be the source of life. He was the source of life from the beginning when he created everything. Of course, Peter has more to say on all this:
And now brothers, I know that you did it in ignorance, just as your leaders also did. But what God predicted through the mouth of all the prophets—that His Messiah would suffer—He has fulfilled in this way. Therefore repent and turn back that your sins may be wiped out so that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and He may send Jesus, who has been appointed Messiah for you (3:17-20).
Again, Peter has neglected to speak of the free gift of heaven, the sinfulness of man, and Jesus' death for sin. Instead, he has told them that Jesus is the Messiah, and if they want the benefits of this, they should repent and turn back. It is this that will wipe their sins out. This is because it is not belief in the cross or what was done on it that forgives sin; it is Christ who forgives sin, and he wants you to repent and turn to him.
But Peter's not done yet:
Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to Him in everything that He will say to you. And it will be that everyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from the people."...God raised up his Servant and sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways 3:22-23,26).
Look at what Peter is telling the people. "Everyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from the people.""God sent Him to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways." This is not faith in his death. This is coming to Christ as to one who has been raised up from God as Lord, Messiah, and Judge of all. And that is exactly what the apostles not only preached, but it is what they were specifically commanded to preach by God. Let's look at Acts 10 as our next examination of the apostles' message.
Then Peter began to speak: "In truth I understand that God doesn't show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to him" (10:34,35).
Whoa! Hold it right there! Before we can even go on in this passage and look at what the apostles were commanded to preach, we have to stop and look at this. Is this what we believe? Does God really accept any person in any nation who fears Him and does righteousness? What is wrong with Peter? Why is he saying such a thing?
The fact is, in general Christians do not believe this. Peter apparently believed it, because he said it. But we don't believe it, and we have excuses for why Peter said it. Never mind that Paul said that the consciences of the Gentiles could excuse them (Rom 2:15) or that he said that God will repay eternal life to those who seek immortality by patiently continuing to do good (Rom 2:6,7). Never mind that these things are stated repeatedly in the Scriptures.Never mind that Jesus said himself that he would raise up those who have done good to a resurrection of life (Jn 5:29). We do not believe that God, without favoritism, accepts those who fear him and do righteousness.
The question is, is there something wrong with the things the Bible says? Or is there rather something wrong with the things we believe?
Let's go on:
He sent the message to the sons of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all (10:36).
Here he states plainly that the message is supposed to be exactly what we saw the message to be earlier in Acts.
You know the events that took place throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and curing all who were under the tyranny of the Devil, because God was with Him (vv.37,38).
Again, though this is absent from our modern tracts and evangelism programs, the description of Christ's life is included in all the apostles' sermons, because they were talking about Christ, not a few facts about Christ.
We ourselves are witnesses of everything He did in both the Judean country and in Jerusalem; yet they killed Him by hanging Him on a tree.God raised up this man on the third day and permitted Him to be seen, not by all the people, but by us, witnesses appointed beforehand by God, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead (vv 39-41).
Again, Jesus' death is mentioned, but not in connection with the forgiveness of sins (despite the fact that it is true that Christ died for the forgiveness of sins). His death is mentioned only in connection with his resurrection that established who he was, both Lord and Messiah.
He commanded us to preach to the people, and to solemnly testify...(v. 42a)
This ought to be important.What did Christ command them to preach and testify?
He commanded us to preach to the people, and to solemnly testify that He is the One appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about Him that through His name everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins (v. 42-43).
It is clear here. The apostles were commanded to preach about Christ and to solemnly testify to who he is, the One appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.
Our modern gospel requires nothing of those who believe it. It is a few facts. You can believe those facts, write them down, pass a test on them, and tell others about them without doing anything that Christ commanded. The apostles' Gospel was not so. They preached Christ, who is Lord and Judge of all, who has come to bless us by turning us from our evil ways and to save us from this perverse generation.They called us to repent and turn back, so that times of refreshing may come to us from his presence.
Our modern gospel so easily allows us to ignore the commands of Christ that it is regularly taught that they don't apply! The Sermon on the Mount, for example, was preached before Jesus died for us on the cross, so it can be safely ignored, say many, because it was preached to those who were under the Law. The apostles knew of no such gospel. To them, "The one who says, �I have come to know Him,' without keeping His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 Jn 2:4).
The apostle John, the apostle of love and beloved disciple, said that if someone claims to know Christ, but doesn't keep his commands, then that person is a liar. Most Christians today do not believe this. They simply disagree with the apostle John. Why?
You and I both know that the reason they disagree is because they believe that salvation is by faith alone, and they have interpreted this to mean that salvation has nothing to do with keeping the commands of Christ.
Now, lest you panic more than you might already be panicking, let me tell you that I believe in salvation by faith alone, though I hope that in a few moments you'll be wondering why I do. I believe in salvation by faith alone, but I do not believe in our modern interpretations of that doctrine. Our modern interpretations of that doctrine cause us to disagree with John; to flat out disbelieve what he said. I'm not willing to do that. I'm quite convinced there's something wrong with what we say and nothing wrong with what John said.
So let's look at what the Bible means when it talks about salvation by faith alone. Let's start with the verses that mention faith alone directly. Can you think of what they are? What verses come to mind that mention "faith alone," "faith only," or "only by faith"?
When I gave this message publicly, I asked those in attendance to turn to the passages that directly mention faith alone. Surely there's many of them, because that is the central doctrine of our modern faith.It has to be all over the Bible.They stared at me blankly, and then some of them smiled. They knew.They couldn't think of any.
There is one, however.You might want to go there and not rely on my translation. It's in James 2:24. You might want to read it in your Bible before reading it here on this page from the Holman Christian Standard Bible® so that you can be sure I'm not just tricking you.
You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
My friends, this is the only verse in the entire Bible that uses the words "faith alone," "faith only," or "only by faith."
Frightening, isn't it?
If the only occurrence of "faith alone" in the Bible is a denial of it, then why do we believe it?In fact, why do I believe it?What do we do with this verse?
What Martin Luther did with that verse was to deny it. In his introduction to the New Testament, he called James an epistle of straw and said that it had nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. Simply put, he decided he understood the Gospel better than James, the Lord's brother, did and that James was wrong.
I don't think that's an option for us, but even I have to admit that it's understandable that Martin Luther was thrown by this verse. Let's look at another just like it:
For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (Rom 3:28).
It is not surprising that Luther offered his doctor's hat to anyone who could reconcile James 2:24 with Romans 3:28 and scoffed at the attempts of his friend, Philip Melancthon, to do so. Let's look at those together:
James 2:24: You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Romans 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.
On the surface, these verses absolutely contradict. They use the same wording. How is it possible to reconcile these? In fact, in this internet age, it is common for skeptics to simply list these two verses on their web site, as is, as an example of contradictions in the Bible.
There must be a reconciliation between these two verses, however. For several hundred years the early churches did not struggle with these verses at all. In fact, they used the same seeming dichotomy of speech. Polycarp, for example, a bishop (roughly the equivalent of "head pastor") of the church in Smyrna in the early to mid 2nd century, who, according to tradition, was appointed by the apostle John, wrote the following:
...by grace are ye saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ (Letter to the Philippians, ch. 1).4
But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments (ibid., ch. 2).
This sort of thing was common. The balance between faith and works, so confusing to us, was no problem to them.They didn't wrestle with it at all.In fact, they participated in it fully. What did they know that we do not?It took me nearly two years of reading their writings every day to figure out what it was. Once I did, it was very easy to find in Scripture.
Let's begin in Romans 5:2:
Also through Him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.
It is my hope that at the end of this little treatise this verse will be your favorite verse in the whole Bible. If not, I am confident that it will at least be in your top ten.
What is grace?Commonly, grace is confused with mercy.People think of it as God overlooking your sin. When someone is struggling with some weakness, they might be encouraged with "it's by grace, brother," implying that grace is God looking past and forgiving their weakness. But that is not grace, that is mercy.
Let's look at what grace is:
For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:14).
First and foremost, grace is that power from God that breaks sin's power over you.
For the grace of God has appeared, with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a special people, eager to do good works (Tit 2:11).
Grace is an incredible thing. Under grace, sin will not rule over you. When it appears, bringing salvation, it will instruct you to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly. If it has its way in the church, it will create a special and unique people, zealous to do good works.
Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time (Heb 4:16).
Here grace is contrasted with mercy. Mercy is the forgiveness we need from God, but grace is the power we need from God.It saves us and transforms us, and, when we have need, it helps us. It supplies our need in everything we do. In fact, all our Christian service is based on the supply of grace that empowers us to serve. Paul credited grace for the power of his apostleship:
I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God's grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them [i.e., the other apostles], yet not I, but God's grace that was with me (1 Cor 15:9,10; brackets mine).
All of us owe our ability to serve others or to walk in the gifts of God to the same source: grace.
Based on the gift they have received, everyone should use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God (1 Pet 4:10).
Spiritual gifts and service have their source in the grace of God. In fact, the Greek word for spiritual gift, charisma, is based on the Greek word for grace, charis. Spiritual gifts are gifts of grace.
Grace is one of my favorite words, and it is one of the most awesome concepts in the New Covenant. It is the very difference between the New Covenant and the Old.
What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin's domain, and as a sine offering, in order that the law's requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3,4).
Under the Old Covenant, fleshly Israel was simply commanded to obey the Law.Under the New Covenant, the power of God comes in the form of grace to break the power of sin, renew the heart, teach us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts, instruct us in sensible, righteous, and godly living, and empower us to serve God with various offices and gifts according to whatever grace we have received.
With a new understanding of grace, let us go back to Romans 5:2.
We have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.
What an awesome concept.Faith is what gives us access to the grace in which we stand. Faith gives us access to the incredible power of God that breaks sin's hold on us, instructs in how to live, and gives us the ability to serve with miraculous power.
Works will not give us access to this power. Only faith will admit us to the grace of God. You can work and work and work and strive and strive and strive, but the pass to the grace by which the saints stand is faith. As Paul puts it:
This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace (Rom 4:16).
The very point of faith is so that salvation might be by grace. The point of faith is not so that we won't have good works. In fact, the point of faith is specifically so that we will have good works! Faith is so that salvation might be by that incredible, transforming grace of God that makes us far more than the mere, sinful mortals that we once were. Under grace, we become new creations, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph. 2:10), partakers of his divine nature, and children of God Almighty with power.This is grace, and it is nothing less.
The most famous faith only passage of all states all this very clearly:
For by grace are you saved through faith...(Eph. 2:10)
First, let's notice that this says that it is by grace that we are saved, not faith. Remember, faith gives us access to the grace that saves us.Paul knew this, so he tells us that it is by grace that we are saved, through faith, not by faith5.
For by grace are you saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God's gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation—created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
Here we have faith and grace fully explained. By faith, and not by works, we enter into grace, so that we might be God's creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works. As we've been told in Titus 2 already, God's grace will produce a people that are eager for good works.Home
1 1.) 2:14-40; 2.) 3:12-26; 3.) 4:8-12; 4.) 5:29-32; 6.) 7:2-53; 7.) 10:34-43; 8.) 13:16-41; 10.) 17:22-31; 11.) 22:1-21; 12.) 26:2-23; This list does not include verses that sum up Paul's Gospel, like Acts 17:3, 19:4 & 24:25, nor does it include testimonies Paul gave that do not include a call to follow Christ. Return to text
2 That statement is true for this page only. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations on this page are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by Permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers. Return to text
4 All quotations from early church fathers in this work are from the 10-volume set titled The Ante-Nicene Fathers, which is not under copyright and is published by both Eerdmans and Hendricksons Publishing. They are available on the internet at http://www.ccel.org. Polycarp's letter, as well as other individual works, can be "googled" and found on many web sites. Return to text
5 This distinction between "through" and "by," is not capricious. The difference between the Greek words dia and hupo is touched on in 1st year Greek classes and is especially emphasized concerning God creating the world "through" (Gr. dia) Christ (e.g.; Jn. 1:1; Col. 1:16; Eph. 3:9), rather than the world being created "by" (Gr. hupo) him, helping to express the idea of the Trinity. Though the KJV typically uses the word "by" to translate dia, the distinction holds. Return to text