Jesus Lived For Your Sins
What is the gospel?
You would think that a room full of pastors would be able to offer a pretty concise and comprehensive answer to so basic a query, but when the question was posed at a gathering I was a part of yesterday, the silence was deafening. Maybe we thought it was a kind of trick question, that it was too easy. Maybe we were afraid that we would omit some important detail and look foolish in front of respected peers. Maybe we were mentally sifting and sorting between all the competing answers out there. Maybe we just didn’t want to be the first to speak. Or, maybe it was a genuine struggle to articulate something so basic to our identity. I don’t know.
At an earlier stage of my life, the answer would have been obvious to me. It had been reinforced in countless ways in the myriad churchy contexts of my upbringing. The gospel is that Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that you could go to heaven when you die. Full stop. Jesus died for your sins. This is the gospel that is still preached and taught in all kinds of contexts around the world. But is it true? Is this the gospel? Is this good news?
As a kid, I remember quite clearly thinking, “well, if the point of the whole show was for some kind of a God-man hybrid to come and die to kick into motion whatever divine mechanism it might be that allowed God to be able to forgive human beings, then why didn’t God just send Jesus immediately after the fall?!” What’s the point of Genesis 4 → Golgotha? It struck me as a long and meandering—tortuous, even!—story that was, at best, a weird and unnecessary sideshow to the main event which was, of course, God on the cross, paying the gruesome price that my sins rendered necessary.
Of course, looking back this story seems very small and inadequate. It renders human history superfluous and makes God look, well, wasteful and downright inefficient (not to mention more than a little morbid!). Surely there would have been easier ways to achieve the end result, ways that didn’t involve millennia of human sin and misery and suffering. Why not bypass all the mess? The word “gospel” means “good news,” but it’s not immediately clear what’s so good about the news that God allowed human beings to wreak unrestrained havoc on themselves and the planet for countless millennia before, at some point in the story, coming to die on the cross in their place so that they could be welcomed into heaven.
Aside from being a very small and confusing story, this “gospel” has a very difficult time making sense of the career of Jesus. Does it matter that Jesus represents the fulfillment of Israel’s story? Does it matter that he lived and taught in certain ways? Is his humanity significant beyond the idea that the death on the cross had to involve the aforementioned God-man hybrid to pay for human sin? If Jesus came to die (and only to die), what’s the point of the three decades between cradle and cross? And what about the resurrection? Is that just kind of an added bonus that proves that the saving business on the cross did its job?
Jesus died for your sins. Well, yes he did. But he did a lot more than that, too.
It seems to me that whatever else we might want to say about the gospel, at its most basic level it is the story death sandwiched by life. Incarnation and resurrection bracket crucifixion, and not just as incidental details but as vital parts of the story without which the death is, quite literally, useless. The incarnation says that human life matters to God, that God was and is willing to identify with his broken image-bearers, that the God of heaven and earth was willing to empty himself, to give himself away for the sake of love and life. The resurrection tells us that Jesus’ destiny and the destiny of the world is life. Without it, we’re still in our sins, Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:17). Jesus’ death means nothing unless it is followed by life. And the three decades between cradle and cross show us what a truly human life looks and sounds like. Yes, death is part of this story. Jesus died for our sins—this we gladly and humbly confess. The cross must never be downplayed or minimized. But the death of Jesus must never be wrenched out of its proper place in a story that is, finally, a story of life.
So, maybe rather than saying that the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins, we ought to say that Jesus lived for our sins.
John 3:16 is probably among the most familiar verses in all of Scripture:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Ironically enough, this verse was often quoted to reinforce some version of the inadequate death-obsessed gospel sketched above. But the verse takes on so much more significance, if we allow more of the Jesus-story into our understanding gospel.
God gave his son who lived and died and lived again. All of him for all of us. For life.
This is the gospel. Life is better news than death.