What Is Christianity?

And What Is the Gospel?

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Alone_on_the_Cross_(Jésus_seul_sur_la_Croix)_-_James_Tissot

What is Christianity? And what is the Gospel?

When I interviewed a new staff member for my church, this was my most important question.

Here’s how I asked it:

It’s important to be completely fluent in the explaining the gospel. If you had to explain the gospel to someone in five seconds, what would you say? How about in ten seconds? 30 seconds? 3 minutes? 10 minutes?

The following resource gives an answer to those questions. These are not the only right answers. But they are examples of answers that are right. Christians—and not only church staffers—need this kind of gospel fluency. I designed this resource to help you equip yourself.

If you had to explain the gospel to someone in five seconds, what would you say?

Repent and believe in Jesus. It’s the only way to be forgiven and to go to heaven and not hell.

How about in ten seconds?

God is holy. We are sinful. That’s a problem. It means you will go to hell and not heaven. Jesus is the answer. Repent and believe in him as your Savior and Lord.

Could you give me your 30-second version?

The Creator God is holy. All people are sinful, and this separates us from God. Jesus, God’s Son died on the cross to pay for your sin, and he rose from the dead to show his power over death. He can save you from death and hell. He can save you for eternal life in heaven. You need to repent of your sin and trust him as your Savior and Lord.

Your three-minute version?

I want to teach you the gospel. It’s the good news about how we can be made right with God. When you believe the gospel, God changes your heart. You become a Christian; that means a follower of Jesus.

Here is the gospel in four parts:

  • God is holy.
  • Man is sinful.
  • Jesus is the answer.
  • Repent and believe.

You know what the gospel says. Do you know what it all means?

1. Who created the world? God did. What is God like? He is perfect and he is set apart from all people because he always does the right thing. God is holy.

2. Are people holy? Sadly, no. We all break God’s law and disobey him. This is called sin. If you’ve ever told a lie or been unkind to someone even once, you’ve broken God’s law. Man is sinful.

3. Sin makes us more and more evil, and it leads to death. Before there was sin there was no death, but now death is all around. And when people die they cannot go to heaven. They have to pay for their sins. They go to hell, a place of eternal punishment. That’s a big problem.

But God doesn’t want people to die. He has a plan. He sent his Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life, to tell us about God, to heal people, and then to die on a cross for our sins. He was condemned as a criminal but he was innocent. The soldiers who killed him didn’t know it, but God had a plan. God placed our sins on Jesus, and when Jesus died he paid for our sins. What people planned for evil, God used for good.

And Jesus rose from the dead three days later. He showed that he had power over even death. Jesus can save you from death and hell. He can save you for eternal life in heaven. Jesus is the answer.

4. You need to repent of your sin and trust Jesus as your Savior and Lord. The Bible says everyone who believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth will be saved.

What does it look like when you believe in Jesus? It means you are convinced. You know that he is God’s Son and equal to God the Father. The Holy Spirit comes to you and convinces you that you are sinful and that you need Jesus because you can never save yourself. So you ask Jesus to save you.

Here is what it looks like: You pray, “Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and I need you as my Savior and as my Lord. From now on, I will obey you and I will trust you to save me.” Then you tell people. You become a part of God’s people, the church, and you show this by being baptized. It’s a sign of what has happened in your heart.

You learn what God has said in the Bible, and you live your life for God, telling other people about the gospel and making new followers, so more people can know Jesus. Repent and believe.

How about a ten minute version?

Many teens and adults understand the above presentation and affirm it. But if I had ten minutes to share the gospel with someone, I would use the above three-minute version, along with the following additional points.

First, I would judge the context of the conversation. If I’m sharing from a platform, I can go straight through the following material. If I’m having a conversation, I may end up sharing this material over the course of a much longer conversation in which I would do more listening than speaking.

As possible in the situation, I would share in this way:

I know you are familiar with the gospel. Whether or not you believe the gospel yourself, I think you could tell someone else what the gospel says. So I want to share two topics: 1) An outline for understanding how the gospel fits together, and 2) A challenge.

The challenge is this: The gospel is more than merely the “on-ramp” for Christianity. It is the whole highway.

The gospel is not something you learn once and then stop needing. The gospel is the truth about who you are and who Jesus is. It’s the truth the day you first accept it, and it’s the truth a dozen years later. To live as a Christian is to live as if the gospel is true, today. So today, what does it mean for you that the gospel is true?

Let me start with an outline for understanding how the gospel fits together. You know this, but I want to be sure you’re ready for what I’m going to say next so you have the best chance to think through it for yourself.

Here is the gospel in outline. (Note, this is exactly the same content as the above three-minute version.)

The gospel is the good news about how we can be made right with God. When you believe the gospel, God changes your heart. You become a Christian; that means a follower of Jesus.

Here is the gospel in four parts:

  • God is holy.
  • Man is sinful.
  • Jesus is the answer.
  • Repent and believe.

You know what the gospel says. Do you know what it all means?

1. Who created the world? God did. What is God like? He is perfect and he is set apart from all people because he always does the right thing. God is holy.

2. Are people holy? Sadly, no. We all break God’s law and disobey him. This is called sin. If you’ve ever told a lie or been unkind to someone even once, you’ve broken God’s law. Man is sinful.

3. Sin makes us more and more evil, and it leads to death. Before there was sin there was no death, but now death is all around. And when people die they cannot go to heaven. They have to pay for their sins. They go to hell, a place of eternal punishment. That’s a big problem.

But God doesn’t want people to die. He has a plan. He sent his Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life, to tell us about God, to heal people, and then to die on a cross for our sins. He was condemned as a criminal but he was innocent. The soldiers who killed him didn’t know it, but God had a plan. God placed our sins on Jesus, and when Jesus died he paid for our sins. What people planned for evil, God used for good.

And Jesus rose from the dead three days later. He showed that he had power over even death. Jesus can save you from death and hell. He can save you for eternal life in heaven. Jesus is the answer.

4. You need to repent of your sin and trust Jesus as your Savior and Lord. The Bible says everyone who believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth will be saved.

What does it look like when you believe in Jesus? It means you are convinced. You know that he is God’s Son and equal to God the Father. The Holy Spirit comes to you and convinces you that you are sinful and that you need Jesus because you can never save yourself. So you ask Jesus to save you.

Here is what it looks like: You pray, “Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and I need you as my Savior and as my Lord. From now on, I will obey you and I will trust you to save me.”

Then you tell people. You become a part of God’s people, the church, and you show this by being baptized. It’s a sign of what has happened in your heart.

You learn what God has said in the Bible, and you live your life for God, telling other people about the gospel and making new followers, so more people can know Jesus. Repent and believe.

(End of the repeated section)

Here is what more I would add, if I had 10 or more minutes:

Now that we have this framework for understanding the gospel, it’s easy to see how the gospel is not the on-ramp, but the whole highway for the Christian. As Christians, we still sin. We do not live in sin, nor do we make sin a habit. But we do continue a journey to become more sanctified. We continue to fight temptation. We work to be renewed in the spirit of our minds.

If the gospel is true, then it is only the righteousness of Jesus that saves us—ever. We do not gain God’s favor, even today, by our good works, but by our faith in Jesus which leads to those good works. Yes, works are important, because faith leads to works. A faith without works is not a faith at all. But we must always remember: it is only by God’s grace that we live as Christians.

As Christians try to live out their faith, there are two major errors you should know about.

One error is to temporarily forget that you were bought with a price. You are not your own. You should not trust in your own righteousness. This is the mistake of legalism.

The other main error is lawlessness. It’s the counterpart of legalism. It’s the idea that, since we have the righteousness of Jesus, we can disregard God’s commands. The error is obvious: we only have the righteousness of Jesus because of faith in Jesus. But what kind of faith would it be if we were willing to disobey God? That’s not faith at all; if we believe God is God, then we believe he is Lord.

The twin errors of legalism and lawlessness seem like opposites, but they are really two forms of the same mistake. They are both a failure of faith. The legalist doesn’t believe it’s the Lord that saves. The lawless man doesn’t believe it’s the Lord that saves.

What is Christianity?

Misunderstandings about faith and works all boil down to a deeper question: What does it mean to be a Christian? What is Christianity?

If you know the gospel well enough to repeat it like a parrot, that doesn’t mean you know what Christianity is. Most Christians are not as clear about this as they need to be.

To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. So you could say Christianity is “the following of Christ.”

This sounds simple, but carry it through to its implications. To follow him means to do what he says and to affirm what he affirms. If he says God’s word is true and God’s commands are good, then we follow these commands. The one who claims to be a Christ-follower and doesn’t do what Christ commanded is a liar.

To believe in Christ and to obey him are the same thing. Belief is the internal aspect, and obedience is the external. Man is an integrated being with both thought and deed, and his real beliefs do show themselves in action.

The greatest error in Christianity today is the failure to understand the very question, “What is Christianity?” And we fail here because we have failed to understand God’s Lordship—his authority.

Here are some topics which much of mainstream Christianity gets wrong, all related to the concept of authority.

I’m not going to explain each error here. But I want to convince you that if the gospel is true, then these questions matter. If you’re looking to understand how the gospel applies to your life today, there is something you can do. You can look at your beliefs about the following questions and ask whether you believe God is right or wrong.

Who is a Christian and who is not? Are unbelievers going to hell? What is hell? Will more people go to heaven or hell? How should the church respond when a member is found in sin? Do you trust Jesus and the Word of God on these questions?

Does the Bible contain mythical elements? In its account of history? Creation? Miracles? The resurrection of Jesus? Do Jesus and the other divinely inspired authors of the Bible speak as if any of their words were myth? What is their claim? And do you believe it?

Do the Bible’s moral teachings apply to us today? Its teaching about the sanctity of life? The definition of marriage? The definition of sexual sin? The use of recreational drugs? The use of astrology? Gossip? Male leadership in church and the family? Do you trust Jesus and the Word of God on these questions?

The answers to the above questions make a tremendous difference for our own faith and for the legacy of faith we leave to others.

These questions mark the difference between each church denomination and between the many factions within each of them. God tells us we must belong to a church. To belong to a church is to take a stand on these issues. To belong to a church with false teachings is to support those wrong teachings.

Depending on what church community is available to you in a given town or city, you may not be able to find a church that upholds Scripture on every one of the above questions. But the church that most closely upholds them is the church where you belong.

What can we say about churches and pastors who do not uphold scriptural views on the above? To the extent that they reject God’s authority, they are in error, because they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. Different levels of error bring different consequences, none of them good.

A believer’s responsibility to the gospel is this:

  • To proclaim and support the truth.
  • To denounce the error.

God knows whose faith is real.

As you engage with people it’s important to plant seeds and not demand a change too quickly. It’s better to state a factual disagreement than a personal condemnation. Nevertheless, the spiritual man does judge all things. We must be willing to name a moral error when necessary.

In a misguided church, the pastor and staff bear more guilt, and the ordinary member, less. Those who teach are held to a higher standard. It may be appropriate to publicly call them what they are: “False teachers.”

Is it important to identify false teachers? It’s as important as our identification of the true gospel.

The following is a list by which you may easily identify a false teacher.

He is someone who not only errs, but errs in such a way that he will eventually turn people away from understanding God’s authority—actually damaging their relationship with God. It’s hard to say whether such a person is saved himself, for he, the one whose bears the responsibility of teaching “What is the gospel?” and “What is Christianity?” has not even managed to understand either question. We know that the Holy Spirit guides us in all truth; it is doubtful whether such a person has the Holy Spirit.

With these that blatantly mishandle the Word of God, there can be no fruitful ministry collaboration. It’s unlikely even to find a fruitful discussion with such a person, for if his own conscience will not convict him, he has likely rejected the very concept of God’s authority. He is not open to correction.

Scholars engaged in study can, of course, interact with the opinions of others professed Bible experts, regardless of their views. But personal fellowship with a false teacher is unwise. And a one-on-one engagement or discussion may also be unwise, as it would overly dignify the other person’s position and help him continue his pretense to honesty.

The same cannot be said when the person is merely a misguided believer. The sheep is not the wolf. Here we see a direct application of the principle that the one who aspires to teach must be judged more harshly. I have good personal friendships with people who are misled. But not with the ones doing the misleading.

Any of the following indicates a false teacher:

He thinks it’s possible to be a Christian without being part of a local church.
He thinks it’s possible to be a Christian and to live in sin.
He thinks everyone will be saved.
He thinks hell is a myth.
He thinks church discipline is not needed.
He thinks the Bible is not historically accurate.

He thinks Genesis is mythological.
He thinks miracles did not happen.
He rejects the Bible’s divine inspiration and inerrancy.
He thinks the Bible “contains” (instead of “is”) the Word of God.
He thinks the narratives of the life of Jesus are myths.
He thinks the Father would not send his Son to die for sinners.
He thinks Jesus is not divine.
He thinks the Bible’s moral teachings do not apply to us today.
He thinks abortion is acceptable.
He thinks a person can live a homosexual lifestyle and be a Christian.
He thinks a person can live in adultery or promiscuity and be a Christian.
He thinks a person can spread lies about others and be a Christian.
He thinks a woman can be a pastor.
He thinks manhood and womanhood are social constructs and roles are interchangeable.
He thinks the Old Testament is no longer important.
He thinks a pastor’s job is to share his own advice rather than to teach the Bible.
He thinks our mission should focus on physical needs rather than the gospel.
He thinks it is unimportant to take a public stand about any of the above issues.

When churches reject these errors and when pastors denounce them, and when the opposites are taught and upheld, there will be a revolution. Christians will know that Christianity means the following of Christ. It means his lordship; his authority.

Many lives will be saved. This is our task: that the world will know, “What is Christianity.”