All the religious/political hooplah that’s been in the news so much recently has left many people with a bitter taste in their mouths when it comes to Christianity. And understandably so.
Images of shunning people and public shaming (à la John MacArthur), denying their very existence and resisting their legal rights (à la Southern Baptist Convention on transgender people), labeling them broken in need of repair because of their natural sexual orientation (à la Texas GOP platform), and the radical claims that LGBTQ people, simply by insisting on equal civil rights, are a threat to the Church and “the American Way of Life” (à la Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, and other groups about LGBT people) … all these negative portrayals of a faith that claims to have LOVE as its central principle, have left most religiously unaffiliated people with an extremely negative impression of the followers of Jesus.
Such is the inevitable result of mixing faith with the politics of domination and control.
It’s obvious to many people that this approach is completely antithetical to the teaching of the Prince of Peace who allowed himself to be crushed by civil authority rather than to impose his own power over it.
And it’s left a lot of people asking a very important question:
If this is all nonsense, then what actually is the Gospel?
Even after all these generations of being a supposedly “Christian nation,” of being the most overly-churched, overly-exposed people to the Gospel in the entire world, we still have it ALL wrong. We still have very little idea what that “Gospel” is really all about. But then again, religious people are almost always the last to grasp the simple truth.
What Good News?
When Jesus first started doing public ministry, way back 2000 years ago, the very first words he said were: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). I was rereading this a few days ago, and I was stumped by the phrase. “Believe the good news”? What good news?
Mark, the gospel writer, never explains what that is. Of course, it had to be related to the Kingdom of God arriving, but what did that really mean? Well, we have four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and each describes the same events from different perspectives. Like four people at a party, each will remember and highlight certain things that were particularly important to him, bringing out details that the others may have overlooked. So I flipped over to Luke’s account to see if he could fill in the missing details: What good news?
“Jesus went to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue … The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (Lk 4:16-22).
There It Is … Something Good
And there it was — the good news. And these religious folks, these people who had read and memorized their Bibles all their lives, were amazed at what he was teaching them. Jesus didn’t just read to them, he “began by saying to them”, so he must have spent some time elaborating, explaining, telling them familiar truths in a way they’d never heard before. He opened their eyes for the first time in their lives to the true heart of God, hidden in words they already knew so well.
And this is it…
- That religious prison you’ve been living in all your life — you’re free from it.
- That view of God you’ve had all these years, the God who counts your sins, the one whom you try so hard to please but keep failing — here’s a different view. See the Father in a new way: not through laws and rules and religious lifestyle, but in simplicity of a loving relationship. Don’t be blind anymore to the true character of God. Open your eyes and see.
- That oppression you’ve been living under, the frustration of constant failure to live up to other people’s expectations and rules and regulations, trying to force you into a mold of “holiness” — you’re released from all that.
- Oh, and by the way, the time has come, your King is here now, and that means you NOW live in a time of God’s favor. You’re accepted, you’re loved, unconditionally, just as your are, right now, independent of your ability to live up to all these legalistic standards. It’s a whole new world, a whole new age. You are completely free from all that old stuff, and you already have God’s blessings and favor. It’s yours now.
And you don’t have to do anything to have it except receive it. That’s the good news!
So why do we make things so complicated, so religious, so legalistic about our relationship with God — even after two thousand years — when it’s so simple?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim freedom …”
What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
In a single word, the heart of the good news is Freedom.
Freedom from ANY rule or protocol or standard of behavior required to enjoy the company of the Creator of the Universe in your normal, day-to-day life.
But what does look like in real life? Simplicity itself.
You know those rules people told you about, things you had to do to please God? Or those things you weren’t doing, and that’s why God wasn’t pleased with you? Throw them all out.
You know how you were told you couldn’t wear too much make-up because it would displease God? Or how your hair was too long? Or that that tattoo you had on your arm was a sin? Or your dress was too short, or your ear was pierced too many times? Or how you went clubbing last night, or had too many drinks — or that you had a drink at all? Or that the person you love is the wrong gender? It’s all garbage.
To use the language of Old Testament law, that shirt you are wearing was made from two types of fabric: you’re a sinner. You cut the hair at the corners of your head. God is displeased. The tassels on your shirt are not showing in public — you failed. You walked too far on the Sabbath. You must die. You didn’t bring your whole tithe into God’s house — you are cursed. You ate shrimp for dinner last night — you are an abomination. You had pepperoni on your pizza — you must be outcast and shunned. Or the person you love is the same gender as you. You are abhorrent to God, and your blood is on your own hands. Rubbish. It’s all garbage.
That’s why the Apostle Paul, who used to be one of the biggest legalists of his time, could say, “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. He canceled the written code that was against us and that stood opposed to us, with all its regulations. He took it away, nailing it to the cross. … Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink …” (Col 2:13-16).
The great news flash of Jesus is this:
none of these rules has ANY intrinsic spiritual value.
Not one of these rules can make you holy, and none of these has the power to make you unholy. The good news is that you are free from all these regulations and standards.
And anyone who tries to impose these on you again as a way of pleasing God is a liar, a prison-keeper, someone who wants to put you in chains — against the very Declaration of Freedom Jesus himself proclaimed.
You are FREE from the prison of religious rules and restrictions.
You are RELEASED from the oppression of other people’s expectations of your life as a way of having a relationship with the God who loves you.
The true image of your Father is RESTORED – one who accepts you, loves you, without any condition. And that blindness which kept you from seeing his true nature, which always made you think he was angry with you — it’s gone.
And on top you your total freedom, here’s the bonus. You walk in God’s FAVOR, whether you feel like it or not.
You were poor because all this freedom was kept from you. You walked alone in the misery of your life because religious people all around you told you that you had to take on the burden of all these rules and laws of “godly living” in order to have the blessings that are already yours.
This is the good news. You are FREE. You are FAVORED.
And when you walk in that simple, uncomplicated relationship with the Father who loves you, you will slowly begin fulfilling “godly standards” automatically. You won’t want to kill or steal. You won’t want to disrupt the beauty of someone’s marriage by having an affair with one of the spouses. You won’t want to gossip or bad-mouth your boss or that irritating co-worker because you know in your heart how hurtful that is. You’ll start feeling compassion for your neighbor who’s trying to deal with screaming kids. You’ll be concerned about that old woman down the street who can’t afford groceries. As you walk in the freedom of God’s love, your heart will be transformed. Any code of behavior that God is concerned about will be written on your heart, and you’ll do them naturally as you grow. No rules. No one telling you what you must do. Just natural living, loving God and loving your neighbor. Free.
And the good news is it’s already done. The time has come. Your King has arrived – and he wants an intimate relationship with you! You can have peace with God, you can have the wonders of his friendship — and it all comes without a rulebook. The good news is you can tear up that old rulebook and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.
Anything else is worthless. It’s nothing more than legalistic prison. You are free. You are released. You can see God as he is. And he is already pleased with you: you already walk in his favor. Because of Jesus, there’s nothing you need to do except believe it.
And that’s good news worth celebrating!
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado, in Nov 2011.
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.