What is the gospel? My first semester at seminary I showed up feeling called by God to become a pastor and I couldn't say what the gospel was. Sure I had an idea. Isn't the gospel that we're "saved by faith" or that "Jesus rose again"? The word gospel comes from the Greek word that means "good news." Mark 1:1 tells us the gospel is "the good news about Jesus the Messiah." So what about Jesus' life and ministry is good news for us? Just about every Christian I know has trouble answering this question. Usually someone will bring up Jesus' life, death, and resurrection (something I like to call the three days gospel) and how through them God gives us eternal life. That is absolutely true and so beautiful. But what about the other thirty-three years of Jesus' estimated lifespan? Do those years matter for us too? This is why I break down the gospel into three days and thirty-three years.
The Three Days Gospel
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
Day 1 - Friday: "Christ died for our sins"
This is a great starting point for defining what the gospel is. Jesus died for our sins. That's a huge statement and is summed up in the fancy theological term "atonement." The Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16 was the day the High Priest of Israel slaughtered a goat and sprinkled its blood in the Most Holy Place of the temple before God. This sacrifice atoned for the sins of the people for another year. On Good Friday, Jesus atoned for our sins when he became the final sacrifice. He died an innocent victim in the place of guilty sinners.
Day 2 - Saturday: "He was buried"
True, Jesus was buried in the tomb on Friday, but he stayed dead on Saturday. Friday and Sunday of Easter weekend get all the credit, but Saturday played an important part too. Saturday proved Jesus was really dead. He wasn't just passed out or dying. He was locked away in a tomb with no breath in him. Hebrews 2:9 tells us Jesus "suffered" or "tasted" death. He went through all the pain of Friday so he could be dead on Saturday. This is the same death you and I face for all eternity if Sunday's miracle never comes.
Day 3 - Sunday: "He was raised"
Jesus rose from the grave conquering sin and death on Sunday morning. Resurrection! He returned to the living in his old yet newly glorified body. This is what we who trust in Jesus will experience at the final resurrection when Jesus returns. Christ will call us forth from our graves to spend eternity with him in a whole new creation. We who trust in Jesus die spiritually with him on Friday. One day our bodies will really be dead, like Saturday. But our hope is in what Jesus did on Sunday so we too will rise again. The resurrection is good news!
The last three days of Jesus' life matter for you and for me. Those three days are what most people think of when they think of the gospel. We turn to them first because they're what drive us to put our faith in Christ. Jesus offers forgiveness for our sins through his sacrifice on the cross on Friday, through our fear of death on Saturday, and through the hope we have for eternity on Sunday. We turn to them because they matter for us when we die. Even in our last days, we still have hope.
The Thirty-Three Years Gospel
So what about the rest of Jesus' life? How are they the gospel? How does how he lived matter for our lives right now? Usually when I ask this question, everyone goes quiet. It's because we don't usually think about the gospel from this angle. We love our hope in eternal life, but haven't considered what Jesus may have done for our present life.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Jesus lived a perfect life: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,"
Jesus was born, and then he lived. But he didn't live like you and I live. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God, his Father. He "knew no sin.” That means he never lied to his parents, stole from his employer, cheated on a test, lusted in his heart, drank too much alcohol, or got angry for the wrong reasons. He lived without sin through all life's stages. Jesus was a toddler, but he wasn't terrible. He was a teenager, but he wasn't angsty. He was a man, but he wasn't prideful. He was on his deathbed made of wood, and he died with grace.
Not only did Jesus never sin, he also lived a holy life. This means he always did the right thing. He prayed enough, fasted enough, read the Scriptures enough, and gave enough to the poor. He did all those right things and more. Luke 2:52 gives us a glimpse of Jesus' godly character. "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man." Jesus was a person like us in his experience, yet unique from us in his perfection. Don't you wish your everyday was more like Jesus' everyday? Don't you wish that you weren't the sinner you are? Don't you wish you are as holy and good as Jesus? Here's the good news . . . you already are!
We get credit for Jesus' perfect life: "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Jesus trades his righteousness for our sin. This is the great exchange. Through Jesus’ perfect life and substitutionary death, God has taken your sinful life and placed it on Jesus and taken his holy life and placed it on you. That's what grace does. When God looks at you, he sees the life of his Son! God has permanently credited the righteousness of Jesus to your account. This truth is as old as Abraham trusting Yahweh in Genesis 15:6 and as fresh as Paul writing to the early church in Romans 3:21-26. The gospel is for every believer every day.
This means that when you wake up and blow it sometime this morning, afternoon, or evening—you are holy. This means that when you cuss out the driver in front of you for driving too slow and the driver behind you for driving too fast—you are holy. This means you don't have to regret your teen years, or your college years—you are holy. This means when you forget to be polite and you don't help your neighbor because it's inconvenient—you are holy. This means that the hidden sin you don't want anyone to know about are forgiven in God's eyes,—you are holy. This means your worst offense is completely forgiven at Christ's expense.
Not only does the gospel forgive our outward acts of sin, it cleanses our inward rebellion. Ezekiel 36:26-27 tells us the gospel has changed our very hearts. God takes your old hard heart and gives you a new soft one filled with the Holy Spirit. Where your life was empty, now your life is full. You are awash in righteousness where you once were lost in unrighteousness. When you sin today, remember that God sees you as he sees his son, forgiven and holy. One day your sin will be completely gone, and God's righteousness will become intrinsic to who you are, but until then God has credited us with a spotless record that you may enjoy today. Thank you, Jesus.
Jesus has traded his thirty-three years of perfection for your whole life of disobedience and sin. This means you no longer have to wallow in despair, guilt, and doubt, because you are seen through the lens of Christ. One day soon our sin nature will go away, but until then we hope in Jesus and enjoy his righteousness. As one friend said when he finally understood the gospel, "That's so unfair!" My dirty record is gone. Jesus' fresh record is mine.
So What is the Gospel?
The gospel is the good news that Jesus lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, rose again so that we may spend eternity with him, and now credits us with his holy record so that we may enjoy a guilt-free life today. We make disciples by helping the lost believe the three days gospel and we mature those disciples by helping them live every day in appreciation for the thirty-three years gospel. We need the full gospel message to truly make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.
Jonathan M. Romig (M.Div., Gordon-Conwell) is the associate pastor at Immanuel Church in Chelmsford Massachusetts (CCCC). He blogs at PastorRomig.blogspot.com and recently finished teaching New City Catechism to his adult Sunday school class and self-published his first ebook How To Give A Christian Wedding Toast.