Most people assume Christianity is about behavior modification: "Don't 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. The person, Jesus Christ, agreed, saying: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn. 14:6).
You see, Christianity says that all of us, priests and prostitutes, have a morality problem; a sin problem (Rom. 3:10). 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. Every person deserves punishment in hell for their rebellion against their Creator. And when you think about it, since God is perfect (and we're not), we could never get to God through moral effort anyway.
So, since we couldn't get to God, two thousand years ago in a lowly stable in Bethlehem, God came to us. Jesus came to solve our sin problem (Mk. 10:45).
Though we deserved punishment for our rebellion against God, Jesus took our punishment for us, in our place, on the cross. Through Jesus' 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 the kingdom before some 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; it's about Jesus and all the things he's done for you (1 Cor. 15:1-8).
Now, because we're saved by grace, does that mean we can go sin like crazy? Uh, no. Christianity just has a different order of things.
All other religions say belief + good works = salvation. Christianity says belief + salvation = good works. Our faith in the gospel produces Christ-like behavior. Christians work FROM grace, not FOR grace. This is the power of the gospel for the Christian's life.
Sadly, many Christians don't grasp this power. They only equate the gospel with salvation, thinking that the purpose of the gospel is “to get people saved.” They wrongly believe that after a person is saved they can move on from the gospel. But none of the New Testament authors believed that. According to them, a Christian doesn't move on from the gospel, but continues going deeper into it.
“Just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him” (Col. 2:6).
"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 balance between two extremes. On one hand, while my sins make me insecure and crush my spirit, when I think on the gospel, my sins don’t crush me because 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, my good works don’t make me self-righteous because I'm reminded that I’m loved and accepted by grace, not my works (Eph. 2:8-9).
2. The Gospel Provides Power
The gospel empowers me to serve my neighbors. How? The gospel implies two truths: (1) I’m so sinful that Jesus had to die for me; (2) I’m so loved that Jesus wanted to die for me.
Reflecting on (1) humbles me by reminding me I'm no better than my neighbors. I need grace just like they do. Reflecting on (2) inspires me to love my neighbors the way Jesus loves me. He gave his life for me; therefore, I want to give my life in service to him and the world he died for (1 Jn. 3:16).
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. Etc. But when is "enough" enough? And whose standard of "enough" am I supposed to use? It's confusing and it's stressful.
But reflecting on the gospel floods my soul with rest and peace, 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).