The following is an excerpt from my book Gospel Confusion: Confessions of a Pastor. It is from chapter 7 (Gospel Glory)
The gospel cannot be told apart from the wrath-absorbing death of Jesus on the cross, and history-altering resurrection. The early disciples reported this as the Good News! This is the gospel. If you remove the cross and the empty tomb you have lost the gospel. Was I denying the gospel? No, I was simply just confusing it. I still believed in the cross. I believed in the resurrection. The gospel instead became what I did for God instead of what God has done for me. The gospel is not feeding the hungry. We feed the hungry because of what the gospel has done to us. Digging wells around the world for the one billion people who have no access to clean drinking water is not the gospel. We dig wells because of what the gospel has done to us. Taking care of the widows and orphans is not the gospel. We take care of them because of what the gospel has done to us. I saw a huge segment of believers who did not even care about these issues. So I began to question, are people living the gospel? Is the gospel fulfilled because it is lived by its people?
Here is the problem that I didn’t realize. We don’t “do the gospel.” We do gospel things because the gospel has first taken root within our hearts. I don’t live the gospel to fulfill it, I live the gospel because it has first fulfilled me. We don’t care for orphans for the gospel, we care for orphans because of the gospel. We care for orphans because people who have been changed by the gospel live the good news, because of the gospel. We don’t do good news because it’s good. The good that we do is an overflow of the gospel bearing fruit in our life.
Paul explains the gospel this way:
“Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” (Colossians 1:5b – 6).
Paul says that the gospel is “bearing fruit.” I love that. I believe that this not only refers to the multiplication of believers, but also to the multiplication of good works by believers, because of the gospel. The fruit is not the gospel. The gospel is bearing fruit! Fruit is evidence of life and of health. We can know an orange tree because oranges grow on its branches! We know an apple tree because of the apples that it produces. Our good works are not the gospel, but the fruit of the gospel that has taken root already in our hearts.
Matt Chandler also says this about this subject:
“If we confuse the gospel with response to the gospel, we will drift from what keeps the gospel on the ground, what makes it clear and personal, and the next thing you know, we will be doing a bunch of different things that actually obscure the gospel, not reveal it.”(The Explicit Gospel, 18)
It is so easy to become enamored with good works. Good works are tangible. They can be planned, executed and organized. We can even rally unbelievers to some of these causes, which raises another huge question. If what I do for God (social causes) is the gospel, then how can someone without the gospel, do the gospel? It can’t be done. The gospel is God’s work not mine. The gospel is God’s idea not mine. God is changing the world through the good works of His people. There is nothing wrong with supporting or cheering on these causes. They are good! Who wouldn’t want more people to have clean drinking water? Who wouldn’t want to see every orphan and homeless person fed, housed and loved? This mentality of “living the gospel” from a moralistic, legalistic perspective puts you in charge of the restoration of the world. That’s not what the gospel is all about.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV)
What is the gospel? It is God’s idea, work and initiative. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they are saved by grace through faith. It is not their own doing. It is not of works unless anyone should boast about doing it. Furthermore, he declares why we are saved in verse 10. We are His “workmanship” created in Christ Jesus. This Greek word “poiema,” translated “workmanship” is also where we get our English word “poem.” It is also translated in some Bible translations as “masterpiece.” We are God’s skillfully crafted poem. He crafted us on purpose specifically for the purpose of good works! Whose good works? His good works! We are saved to serve the eternal purposes of God and His gospel! We are saved by the gospel to do gospel things.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, ESV)
Our good works are not for our benefit. God has called us to do good works. Don’t confuse good works with the gospel. The gospel is not about being saved by good works. The gospel is also not about doing good works. The gospel is and will always be the redemption of the universe through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This gospel is for God’s Glory.