What Is the Gospel? Part 3

(See Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already.)

Through the cross we are saved from our greatest threat: God himself, in his wrath against us.  But what about the other threats mentioned: ourselves, each other, and Satan?  How does the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us save us from them as well?  I believe our deliverance in these realms flows directly out of our deliverance from the wrath of God.  In other words, the atonement as penal substitution is the center from which the manifold dimensions of our salvation extend. 

Some have argued that the cross was aimed primarily at our hostility to God.  By showing us how much he loved us in Christ, the enmity on our side is overcome and we repent and turn to God in love.  I have already critiqued this view in part 2.  However, I do believe this subjective impact of the cross can be grounded on the truth of penal substitution.  How do I know that in the cross God extends love to me?  I know it not because the event, in and of itself, communicates love.  Rather, I know it because of what the cross means in the context of my rebellion against God and need for a Savior.  I know God’s love in the cross because I see Christ bearing the punishment of sin in my place.  Through willing self-substitution, God has turned away his own wrath from me.  Far from diminishing the love of God expressed in the cross, penal substitution enhances it, sharpens it, and makes it deep and rich beyond imagination!  Now, for me, the cross is the very standard by which love is measured. 

Some have argued that the cross absorbs our hostilities and exposes the cycle of violence inherent in human society, thereby overcoming it and reconciling us to one another.  Again, I believe this achievement could only occur in the context of penal substitution.  If the cross exposes us all as sinners and places us all on level ground, no matter what our various distinctions as human beings (ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.), then the cross also provides the theological rationale by which we embrace one another.  I cannot pretend that I stand on higher ground before God than does someone else who is not like me.  Before the cross, we are all on our faces.  Jews cannot boast in the law, for it only condemns them.  Greeks cannot boast in wisdom, for the cross is foolishness by human standards.  None of us have any ground on which to boast against another.  Therefore, we who stand together under the cross have no basis on which to be enemies.  We have the power to embrace otherness precisely because that is what God has done for us in Christ. 

Finally, we face the threat of Satan and the powers of evil.  A long and venerable tradition in the church has affirmed that the atonement overcomes Satan’s power, but the trick has been explaining how.  I believe penal substitution offers the best explanation.  If defeating Satan were merely a matter of divine power, then God could have done so with minimal effort.  Before the infinite power of God, no other power even registers on the scale.  And yet Satan does appear as a formidable enemy in Scripture.  Why?  It is because it is not through the exercise of raw power that he is defeated.  Rather, God disarms him by removing from him all legal claims against us.  God’s means of doing this was very costly: the death of his own Son.  The very word “Satan” means “accuser,” and thus Satan’s power over us revolves around his power to accuse us.  But when we are justified by faith, declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience, forgiven of all sin, Satan has been stripped of his greatest weapon.  The power of evil over us depends on the power of the law against us.  The only reason we stand under the dominion of Satan in the first place is not because we are passive victims of his malice; rather, we are willing prisoners of his deception, justly held under his power because of our sin.  Only by removing our guilt can God then free us from the power of Satan. 

Therefore, the heart of the atonement is the removal of our guilt before God and the turning away of his wrath from us.  This, in turn, is the heart of the gospel, the good news of our salvation.  It is not the sum total of the gospel, for there are many dimensions to our salvation.  It is, however, the foundation of everything else that is good news for us. 


One Response to “What Is the Gospel? Part 3”

  1. Ali Says:


    I remember Tim Keller quoting one of his lecturers who said that every aspect of the cross is substitutionary. I think that is true.

    Basically, what you have written is a defense of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. I totally agree. What I would like to see more of (from people) is the application of this basic gospel into their own contexts, worded in a way that is understood in their contexts, yet still maintaining the powerful truth that Jesus died for our sins and rose again.

    I trust that people are actually getting on with that without blowing a trumpet. I’m grateful to the good examples we’ve got out there all the same.

    Thanks for the short series. I agree. In the midst of “contextualising” the basic truth of substitionary atonement must be present and central.

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