Most people think Christianity is about behavior modification: "Don't smoke, drink or chew or run with girls who do."
But Jesus looked at the most moral and upright religious leaders of his day and said, "The prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you" (Mat. 21:31).
How in the world can a prostitute enter God's kingdom before a priest? Jesus explains in the next verse:
"For John came to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him" (Mat. 21:32).
The reason prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God before priests was that they believed John's message and the priests did not.
OK, so what was John's message?
"Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:33).
According to John, the way into God's kingdom was not through a code of ethics, but through a person.
You see, Christianity says that all of us, priests and prostitutes, have a morality problem–a sin problem (Rom. 3:10). In various ways we have all rebelled against our Creator. No one merits salvation. No one climbs the ladder. No one checks the boxes. No one passes the test. No one gets to God through moral effort.
So, since we couldn't get to God, two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, God came to us. Jesus came to solve our sin problem.
Though we deserved punishment from God for our sin, Jesus took our punishment for us, in our place, on the cross. And through his death and resurrection, salvation now comes to every person the same way: by grace, through faith, in Christ.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (Jn. 3:16-17).
Literally anybody can get in on this.
If you're a prostitute, a drug dealer, a murderer, a liar, a cheater, a whatever, you can easily get into God's kingdom before many priests, pastors, and TV preachers. How? Not through good behavior, but through faith in Jesus, the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.
This is the gospel. This is Christianity. It's not about you and all the things you should be doing for Jesus; it's about Jesus and all the things he's done for you (1 Cor. 15:1-8).
Sadly, many Christians don't grasp the power of the gospel for their lives. They believe the purpose of the gospel is “to get people saved,” and then after a person becomes a Christian, she can move on from the gospel. But none of the New Testament authors believed that. According to them, a Christian should never move on from the gospel.
"Do not move from the hope held out in the gospel" (Col. 1:23).
It is true that salvation is one incredible benefit of the gospel, but there are so many more benefits after a person becomes a Christian! The gospel works for both salvation and discipleship.
1. The Gospel Provides Balance
The gospel gives me balance between two extremes: On one hand, while my sins make me insecure and crush my spirit, when I think on the gospel, I'm reminded that I’m loved and forgiven (Rom. 5:8). On the other hand, while my "successes" and good works inflate my ego, when I think on the gospel, I'm reminded that I’m loved and accepted by grace, not my works (Eph. 2:8-9).
2. The Gospel Provides Confidence
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Notice, Paul is not presenting the gospel itself but something that is true “now” because of the gospel. He's explaining one of the gospel's benefits, and it is stunning! Because Jesus took my sin on the cross, I am totally free from the shackles of guilt and shame. Now I can stand confidently before God, knowing that even though I still sin, God fully loves and accepts me in Christ.
"In [Christ] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (Eph. 3:12).
3. The Gospel Provides Rest
Everywhere I turn I'm being told I'm not doing enough. Even the most genuine Christians and the most well-meaning pastors are (at least implicitly) saying I'm not reading my Bible enough, I'm not praying enough, I'm not giving enough, I'm not serving enough, etc. But when is "enough" enough? And whose standard of "enough" am I supposed to use? It's confusing and stressful.
But reflecting on the gospel floods my anxious soul with rest because I'm reminded that Jesus' message to me is not "Do better! Try harder!" but "It is finished."
As it turns out, Jesus is enough.
"Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mat. 11:28).