The Gospel According to Jesus emerged from over 7 years of verse-by-verse preaching through the Gospel of Matthew that I was privileged to hear and later help edit into book form. Pastor John MacArthur became struck by how the Gospel or Good News Jesus preached is different from what is preached from many pulpits and popular books. Acting as a good shepherd, John decided he needed to compare the two side by side so God's people can recognize what is true and reject what is false. He did so in 24 chapters under these 6 parts: Today's Gospel: Good News or Bad?, Jesus Heralds His Gospel, Jesus Illustrates His Gospel, Jesus Explains His Gospel, Jesus Fulfills His Gospel, and The Gospel According to the Apostles. Here is an illustrated summary of them all.
TODAY'S GOSPEL: GOOD NEWS OR BAD?
1. What Does Jesus Mean When He Says Follow Me"?
Jesus is Lord. That is the foundational article of Christianity. It is also the first essential confession of faith every true Christian must make: "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved" (Romans 10:9). As we survey Jesus' earthly life and ministry, we will see He never once shied away from declaring His authority. The true Gospel according to Jesus cannot be divorced from the reality of His lordship. The Greek word most often translated "Lord" in the English New Testament, kurios, speaks of someone who has power, ownership, and an unquestionable right to command. Another word translated "Lord" or "Master" is despotes. Both words are extremely powerful; wherever there is a Lord and Master, there is also a slave (doulos). That explains Jesus' incredulity at the practice of those who paid homage to Him with their lips but not with their lives: "Why do you call Me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46).
Sadly, readers of the English Bible have long been shielded from the full force of the word doulos because of an ages-old tendency among Bible translators to tone down the literal sense of the word, translating it as "servant" or "bond servant" rather than "slave." There is an important difference: a servant gives service but a slave belongs to someone. Scripture repeatedly and emphatically places Christians in the latter category: "Do you not know that...you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We have a Master who purchased us (2 Peter 2:1). To be specific, we were purchased for God with the precious blood of Christ (Revelation 5:9). Jesus' portrayal of discipleship as slavery had no more appeal to the popular tastes or felt needs of His time than it does today. Both His preaching and His private discussions were notable for their unvarnished directness. Nothing Jesus said about the cost of discipleship was ever toned down. He was not the least bit encouraging toward people who wanted to follow Him around for just food and miracles. He said the same things whether He was speaking to unconverted crowds (Luke 14:25-35) or to individual would-be followers who claimed they were ready to follow Him anywhere (Luke 9:57-62).
Notice, however, what Jesus says to those who receive His words: "You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for a slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:14-15). Christians are not mere slaves, but slaves who are Jesus' friends. Implicit obedience to His commandments is the telltale mark of authentic saving faith. A necessary inference is that someone who does not do what Jesus says is not a friend of His at all. Friendship with one's lord and master, however, does not nullify the authority inherent in the relationship. Jesus makes His slaves His friends by His love for them. The love is mutual but the status is not: Jesus remains Lord. Disciples--while friends, totally devoted to their Master in love--are still slaves, marked by their obedience. This is true in precisely the same way that Christ, beloved by the Father, became His slave and our example to follow: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men.... He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).
Understood correctly, the Gospel is an invitation to slavery. When we call people to faith in Christ, we need to stress that fact the same way Jesus did. On the one hand, the Gospel is a proclamation of freedom to sin's captives and liberty to people who are broken by the bondage of sin's power over them. On the other hand, it is a summons to a whole different kind of slavery: "Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:18). Both sides of the equation are vital. There is glorious freedom in being the slaves of Christ, because "if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). No human being is truly independent and self-governing. As we work our way through some of the most important chapters of Jesus' life, ministry, and public discourses, we will see clearly that He consistently made His lordship a prominent theme. It is the unifying idea in the story of redemption and the reason for the Gospel in the first place "that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11).
2. A Look at the Issues
Listen to the typical Gospel presentation nowadays. You will hear sinners entreated with words like, "accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior"; "ask Jesus into your heart"; invite Christ into your life"; or "make a decision for Christ." It may surprise you to learn that none of those are biblical phrases. They are the products of a diluted Gospel. It is not the Gospel according to Jesus. The Gospel Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship--a call to follow Him in submissive obedience--not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer. Jesus' message is an offer of forgiveness and eternal life for repentant sinners, but a rebuke to outwardly religious people whose lives are devoid of true righteousness. It puts sinners on notice that they must turn from sin and embrace God's righteousness through faith in Christ. Our Lord's words about eternal life were invariably accompanied by warnings to those who might be tempted to take salvation lightly. He taught that the cost of following Him is high, that the way is narrow and few find it. He said many who call Him Lord will be forbidden from entering the Kingdom of Heaven because their wicked lifestyles belie their claim (Matthew 7:13-23).
The Bible teaches clearly that the evidence of God's work in a life is transformed behavior (1 John 3:10). Faith that does not result in righteous living is dead and cannot save (James 2:14-17). Professing Christians utterly lacking the fruit of true righteousness will find no biblical basis for assurance (1 John 2:4). Real salvation is not only justification. It cannot be isolated from regeneration, sanctification, and ultimately glorification. It is the inevitable work of God through which we are "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:29-30). Jesus is both Savior and Lord (Luke 2:11), but some are putting forth the false teaching that it is possible to reject Christ as Lord yet receive Him as Savior. They reject what they've labeled "lordship salvation" because they claim it adds works to faith, but acknowledging Christ's lordship is no more a human work than repentance (2 Timothy 2:25) or faith itself (Ephesians 2:8-9). One of the clearest statements on the way of salvation in Scripture is this: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). No promise of salvation is ever extended to those who refuse to accede to Christ's lordship.
Those who teach that obedience and submission are extraneous to saving faith are forced to make a firm but unbiblical distinction between salvation and discipleship. No distinction has done so much to undermine the authority of Jesus' message. Are we to believe that when Jesus told the multitudes to deny themselves (Luke 14:26), to take up a cross (verse 27), and to forsake all and follow Him (verse 33), His words had no meaning whatsoever for the unsaved people in the crowd? How could that be true of One who said He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 9:13)? The Gospel according to Jesus rules out easy-believism. To make all our Lord's difficult demands apply only to a higher class of Christians makes room for a cheap and meaningless faith. Salvation is solely by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), but it means nothing if we begin with a misunderstanding of grace or a faulty definition of faith.
God's grace is not a static attribute whereby He passively accepts hardened, unrepentant sinners. True grace, according to Scripture, teaches us "to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:12). Faith, like grace, is not static. Saving faith is more than just understanding the facts and mentally acquiescing--demons have that kind of "faith" (James 2:19). It is inseparable from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural longing to obey. Repentance, far from being a human work, is the inevitable result of God's work in a human heart. It always represents the end of any human attempt to earn God's favor. It is much more than a mere change of mind--it involves a complete change of heart, attitude, interest, and direction. It is a conversion in every sense of the word.
Faith and works are not incompatible. Jesus even calls the act of believing a work (John 6:29)--not merely a human work, but a gracious work of God in us. Salvation by faith does not eliminate works per se. It does away with works that are the result of human effort alone (Ephesians 2:8). It abolishes any attempt to merit God's favor by our works (verse 9). But it does not deter God's foreordained purpose that our Christian walk should be characterized by good works (verse 10). If we are truly born of God, we have a faith that cannot fail to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). We may sin (1 John 2:1)--we will sin--but the process of sanctification can never stall completely. God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13), and He will continue to perfect us until the Day of Christ (Philippians 1:6).
JESUS HERALDS HIS GOSPEL
3. Jesus Calls for a New Birth
Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus in John 3 is the earliest of His one-on-one evangelistic encounters recorded in the Gospels. His words, always tailored to individual needs, never failed to puncture an inquirer's self-righteousness, unveil wrong motives, or warn of false faith or shallow commitment. Nicodemus was one of those whom John described at the end of chapter 2: people who believed just because they saw Jesus' miracles. Their kind of belief had nothing to do with saving faith, as we see from John's testimony that "Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men" (verse 24). Nicodemus was "a ruler of the Jews" (John 3:1). He sought out Jesus privately at night, saying, "Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do the signs you do unless God is with him" (verse 2). Jesus, who "knew all men" ignored Nicodemus's profession of faith and instead answered a question Nicodemus didn't even ask: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (verse 3). Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, "You need to be spiritually purified and spiritually reborn." He explained that law and religious rituals--including baptism--cannot give eternal life. Nicodemus responded, "How can these things be?" (verse 9). He simply couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?'" (verse 10). That rebuke from the Lord completely silenced Nicodemus. He made no further response here. Nicodemus, however, seems ultimately to have become a believer because after Christ's crucifixion, it was he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly claimed the body of Christ from the Romans and prepared it for burial (John 19:38-39).
Jesus' challenge in John 3 makes an important doctrinal point: the way of salvation revealed in the Old Testament is the same as salvation after Christ's work on the cross. Salvation is never a reward for human works; it has always been a gift of grace for repentant sinners, made possible by the work of Christ. Nicodemus should have been familiar with these words from God, recorded by Isaiah: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.... Come now, and let us reason together.... Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool" (Isaiah. 1:16-18). The central theme of the Old Testament is redemption by grace. When Nicodemus offered no further response, Jesus lovingly and graciously explained to him the new birth, starting with an Old Testament illustration of salvation by grace from Numbers 21: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). As a leader of the Jewish nation, Nicodemus identified with Moses, but Jesus was showing him instead that he must identify with the sinful, snake-bitten, repentant Israelites. The illustration of the bronze serpent pictures Jesus' death as the price for salvation.
That leads into the familiar and magnificent truth of John 3:16: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." What does it mean to believe in Christ? Real faith has at its heart a willingness to obey, as verses 20-21 illustrate: "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God." Verse 36 goes even further, equating disobedience with unbelief: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." Thus our Lord introduced His Gospel. No matter how sincere, how religious, how immersed in good works, everyone must be born again. There is no promise of life--only a guarantee of condemnation--for those who will not identify with the sinful, dying Israelites and turn from sin in obedient faith to the One who was lifted up so they would not have to perish.
4. Jesus Demands True Worship
The message of Christ rebukes both the self-righteousness of a Pharisee and the sultry lifestyle of a wanton adulterer. Christ's ministry in John 3 and 4 covered both ends of the moral spectrum. Jesus' discussion with the Samaritan woman establishes some clear guidelines for personal evangelism. He directs the conversation, taking her from a simple comment about drinking water to a revelation that He is the Messiah. Along the way, He avoids her attempts to control the conversation, change the subject, and ask irrelevant questions. The living water He held out to her was the gift of salvation, including all that is inherent in the reality of redemption: freedom from sin, the commitment to follow Jesus, the ability to obey God's law, and the power and desire to live a life that glorifies Him. Jesus, however, knew two issues needed to be addressed before the woman would be ready to receive living water: her sin and His true identity. Then He said, "An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers" (John 4:23). God's objective in salvation is to create a true worshiper (Philippians 3:3). Jesus revealed to a Samaritan woman that His objective in seeking and redeeming sinners is to fulfill God's will in making them true worshipers. Then He invited her to become one.
The woman's actions strongly indicate that she became a believer. She "left her waterpot, went into the city, and said to the men, 'Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?'" (John 4:28-29). The woman sensed her need, confessed her guilt, recognized Jesus as Messiah, and now was showing the fruit of her transformed life by bringing other people to Him. Scripture tells us that "many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, 'He told me all the things that I have done'" (verse 39). It was the news of how He had uncovered her sin but dealt mercifully with her that made such a deep impression. The final chapter of the Bible closes with this invitation, which evokes a picture of the Samaritan woman: "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes to take the water of life without cost" (Revelation 22:17). While it is free, it is not cheap; the Savior Himself paid the ultimate price so that thirsty, repentant seekers can drink as deeply as they like.
5. Jesus Receives Sinners but Refuses the Righteous
When Matthew relates his own conversion experience, the central truth that emerges is Christ's mercy to sinners. Matthew 9 describes the incident, along with the controversy that ensued. In one of the most important statements ever recorded in the Bible, the Lord says, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (verse 13). Jesus passed by "Matthew, sitting in the tax office, and said to him, 'Follow Me!' And he rose, and followed Him" (verse 9). Luke 5:28 adds this significant statement: "And he left everything behind." Matthew was a major sinner and everyone knew it. He was a willing tool of the Roman government to squeeze tax money out of his own people, so you can imagine the gasps from the crowd when Jesus told this hated man to follow Him. Matthew gratefully left his life of sin and decided to have a banquet to introduce Jesus to his friends. Matthew 11:19 tells us Jesus was known among the people as "a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners." This very banquet probably gave rise to that perception. The religious leaders criticized Jesus for associating with such people, but He replied, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: 'I desire compassion and not sacrifice'" (Matthew 9:12-13; Hosea 6:6). Christ's call is extended only to sinners who in desperation realize their need and desire transformation.
6. He Opens Blind Eyes
In John 9 Jesus heals a man born blind, and in a second encounter with the same man, opens his spiritual eyes. The miracle stirred up an extraordinary furor that led to an inquisition by the religious leaders who hated Jesus. The man born blind stood up for Christ before the Pharisees even though he did not yet know who Christ was. Jesus sought him out and asked, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" (John 9:35). The man was willing and responsive, saying, "Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in him?" (verse 36). Contrast his attitude with that of the Pharisees, who thought they knew it all and weren't about to take direction from Jesus. The Lord Jesus said to the man, "'You have both seen Him, and he is the one who is talking with you.' And he said, 'Lord, I believe.' And he worshiped Him" (verses 37-38). It was not a question of "making" Christ his lord; when the scales fell off his spiritual eyes, he saw Christ for who He was, and the only possible response was to sink to his knees. John 9 closes with these words: "Jesus said, 'For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind.' Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, 'We are not blind too, are we?' Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains'" (verses 39-41). The result of spiritual sight is a surrendered, worshiping heart. The result of spiritual blindness is more blindness, more sin, and ultimately certain doom.
7. He Challenges an Eager Seeker
In Matthew 19 we read of a rich young ruler who asks in the clearest possible terms how he can lay hold of eternal life. If there was ever a place to look for a straightforward presentation of the Gospel according to Jesus, we would expect it here. What we find is a startling discourse: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments," said Jesus. The rich man asked which ones and Jesus listed some of the Ten Commandments. The man said, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" Jesus said, "If you wish to be complete, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." Verse 22 tells us that "when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property." Our Lord gave this young man a test. He had to choose between his possessions and Jesus Christ. He failed the test. No matter what points of doctrine he might affirm, because he was unwilling to turn from what he loved most, he could not be a disciple of Christ. Salvation is only for those who are willing to give Christ first place in their lives. Self-righteous religion is deceiving. Salvation is not for people who want an emotional lift, but for sinners who come to God for forgiveness. A message that offers mere psychological relief but does not require a turning from sin and an affirmation of the lordship of Christ is a false gospel that will not save.
8. He Seeks and Saves the Lost
The nature of God is to seek and to save sinners. From the opening pages of human history, it was God who sought the fallen couple in the Garden. Jesus' very name means "He who will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). The Gospel is good news only for those who perceive themselves as sinners. Jesus said, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:14). Humble repentance is the only acceptable response to the Gospel according to Jesus. That's just the response we see in Luke 19 when Jesus stopped in the middle of a crowd, looked up, and said to a notorious little tax collector perched in a tree, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house" (verse 5). Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus, but had no idea Jesus wanted to see him. "He hurried and came down, and received Him gladly" (verse 6). We might suppose that such a man would be distressed to hear the perfect, sinless Son of God say, "I'm coming to your house," but he was glad. His heart was prepared. We are not told what happened at Zaccheus's house, but we do hear the end of their conversation: "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." Jesus responded, "Today salvation has come to this house. I have come to seek and to save the lost" (verses 8-10). Here is a radically changed man. The taker had become a giver. There is something in the heart of every newborn believer that wants to obey. It is a heart of eager, generous obedience, a changed mind, and changed behavior.
9. He Condemns a Hardened Heart
True believers will persevere. Professing Christians who turn against the Lord prove they were never truly saved. As the Apostle John wrote, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out that it might be shown they are not of us" (1 John 2:19). Judas is a prime example of a professing believer who fell into apostasy. Whatever his character seemed to be at the beginning, his faith was not real (John 13:10-11). His heart gradually hardened so that he became the treacherous man who sold the Savior for a fistful of coins. We learn from his story that it is not enough to be close to Jesus Christ. One may "accept" Him and still fall short. The mark of a true disciple is not that he never sins, but that when he does sin he inevitably returns to the Lord to receive cleansing and forgiveness. When Christ confronts him, he will return to a life of service for the Savior.
10. He Offers a Yoke of Rest
The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels is altogether different from the picture contemporary evangelicals typically imagine. Rather than a would-be redeemer who merely stands outside anxiously awaiting an invitation to come into unregenerate lives, the Savior described in the New Testament is God in the flesh, who invades the world of sinful humanity, challenging sinners to turn from their iniquity. Rather than waiting for an invitation, He issues His own in the form of a command to repent and take on a yoke of submission: "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matthew 11:27-30). Though the Gospel according to Jesus may offend, its message must not be made more palatable by watering down the content or softening the hard demands. In God's plan, the elect will believe despite the negative response of the multitudes. Jesus' offer of rest for the weary is a call to conversion, a synopsis of the Gospel according to Jesus via humility, divine revelation, repentance, faith, and submission.
JESUS ILLUSTRATES HIS GOSPEL
11. The Soils
A parable is a routine life story that illustrates spiritual reality. The parables that begin in Matthew 13 describe "the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven" (verse 11). Our Lord was revealing a dimension of His Kingdom heretofore undisclosed. Those who hungered to understand found Him eager to explain every detail while those who hated the truth didn't bother to ask. As always, Jesus' preoccupation was with seeking and saving the lost, so it is no surprise that the first parable He told focused on preaching the Gospel: A farmer "went out to sow and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and devoured them. Others fell upon rocky places, where they did not have much soil; immediately they sprang up because they had not depth of soil, but when the sun had risen, they were scorched and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, but the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear" (verses 3-9). Fruit-bearing is the whole point of agriculture. It is also the ultimate test of salvation. The good soil pictures the believer. The weedy soil and the shallow soil are pretenders. The soil on the path represents those who reject the Gospel. Christians will bear varying degrees fruit, but all will bear some.
12. The Wheat and Tares
Jesus presented another parable, saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But...his enemy came and sowed tares also among the wheat.... When the wheat sprang up and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. And the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!' And the slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn'" (Matthew 13:24-30). This parable contains instructions for the church in the world, not a free pass for the world in the church. Christians are not to condemn the world or force external reform upon it, though we must preach against its sins. We are commanded to teach the Gospel and live as examples of righteousness; we are not God's executioners. In the end, real wheat will inevitably be defined by the crop it produces.
13. The Treasure of the Kingdom
Two brief parables in Matthew 13:44-46 illustrate the incomparable worth of the Kingdom of Heaven and the commitment required of everyone who would enter: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it." Both parables make the same point: a sinner who understands the priceless riches of the Kingdom will gladly yield everything else he cherishes to obtain it. The corresponding truth is that those who cling to their earthly treasures forfeit the far greater wealth of the Kingdom. Wise investors do not usually put all their money into a single investment, but both men in the parables did because they counted the cost and knew what they were buying was worthy of the ultimate investment. That is the kind of response the Lord Jesus calls for: wholehearted commitment. A desire for Him at any cost. Unconditional surrender. A full exchange of self for the Savior.
14. The First and Last
No one who comes to Christ is either preferred or slighted because of past experience. The same eternal life is offered to all. We do not buy salvation by surrendering our lives, nor is eternal life given in proportion to the quality of the length of the life we yield. Everyone who surrenders to Christ gets all Christ has to give in return. Jesus gave a parable in Matthew 20:1-16 to illustrate that truth: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and...the sixth and the ninth hour...and...the eleventh hour.... When evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius.... They grumbled at the landowner...but he said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' Thus the last shall be first, and the first last." Everyone who comes into the Kingdom inherits eternal life, whether he labors for God for years or comes to salvation in the final hour of earthly life. The length of service is not an issue, nor does it matter how hard or easy one's circumstances are. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a merit system. Eternal life is a sheer gift of God's grace and is more than any of us deserves.
15. The Lost and Found
Redemption is not just a matter of divine accounting. God does more than keep books on who is in and who is out. He weeps over the lost and celebrates whenever one is saved. His pain is profoundly deep over humanity's lostness, and His joy is full when a sinner repents. Three parables in Luke 15 make a special point of that. The first has a pastoral theme: "What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine...and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'" Jesus' point is spelled out in verse 7: "I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents rather than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
The second parable tells of a valuable lost coin that was found, and the third is surely the most familiar of all Jesus' parables: the parable of the prodigal son. Notice what the father of that son says upon the son's humble return: "Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found" (verses 22-24). But here the story takes an ugly turn because it highlights the jealousy of the prodigal son's brother. The first son saw his sin, felt his father's sorrow, repented, humbled himself, received forgiveness, and entered into his father's joy. The second son was bitter and unrepentant, with no sense of the cold deadness of his own heart. God is seeking the lost. Those who acknowledge their sin and turn from it will find Him running to them with open arms. Those who think they are good enough to deserve His favor will find themselves unable to share the eternal joy of a loving Father.
16. The Vine and the Branches
Some of the most powerful affirmations of Jesus' deity are a chain of expressions in John's Gospel known as the "I am" statements. Each phrase employs the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush--"I AM" (Exodus 3:14). Jesus applied that sacred name to Himself in a series of prominent declarations: "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35), "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12), "I am the door" (John 10:7), "I am the good shepherd" (10:11), "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am" (John 8:58), and "I am the true vine" (John 15:1). Those who refuse to acknowledge Him for who He is cannot be saved: "Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins," said Jesus (John 8:24).
On the night before His death, alone with His disciples after Judas left, Jesus declared, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit.... Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me.... If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.... By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples" (John 15:1-8). This is not a parable but a metaphor since a metaphor contains its own interpretive elements. Here Jesus explicitly says that He is the Vine and the Father is the Vinedresser. The 11 disciples are the fruitful branches and Judas (as well as all false disciples) represents the barren branches. Tragically, multitudes fit this category. Paul wrote, "Many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction" (Philippians 3:18-19). Yet the corresponding truth is that those who are abiding in the True Vine are in the hands of a loving and gracious Vinedresser.
JESUS EXPLAINS HIS GOSPEL
17. The Call to Repentance
Having seen how Jesus dealt with individuals and having surveyed the parables and figures He used to illuminate truth for His disciples, we now focus on the rich doctrinal content of the Gospel He proclaimed to the multitudes. Here we will weigh the popularized gospel of today against the Savior's own teaching. We begin where Jesus began. Matthew 4:17 tells us "Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'" He said His objective was "to call...sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31). He stood boldly before the multitudes and proclaimed, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3, 5). When was the last time you heard the Gospel presented in those terms? It is not fashionable in the twenty-first century to preach a Gospel that demands repentance. The Gospel according to Jesus is as much a call to forsake sin as it is a summons to faith. The message the risen Christ commands us to preach is the same: "repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 24:47). Repentance is a change of mind that necessarily results in a change of behavior. Notice how Paul described the repentance of the Thessalonian believers: "You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The early church, observing such repentance at work, concluded, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18). Since God grants repentance, it cannot be viewed as a human work.
|Which of the two did the will of his father?|
Jesus used a parable to illustrate the hypocrisy of a profession of faith without repentance: "A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.' And he answered and said, 'I will, sir' but he did not go. The man came to the second and said the same thing, but that son said, 'I will not' yet he afterward regretted it and went. Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Matthew 21:28-31). There are many today who hear the truth of Christ and immediately respond as did the son who said he would obey but did not. Their positive response to Jesus will not save them. The lack of fruit in their lives shows they never truly repented. On the other hand, there are many who turn their backs on sin, unbelief, and disobedience, and embrace Christ with a faith that obeys. Theirs is true repentance, manifested by the righteousness it produces. That is the ultimate aim of the Gospel according to Jesus.
18. The Nature of True Faith
Not all faith is redemptive. James 2:14-16 says faith without works is dead and cannot save. James describes spurious faith as pure hypocrisy (verse 16), mere cognitive assent (verse 19), devoid of any verifying works (verses 17-18)--no different from the belief of demons (verse 19). Faith without works is useless, yet some in contemporary evangelicalism refuse to allow for any kind of relationship between faith and works. The Bible, however, describes faith as a gift from God that leads to good works: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as 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 so that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12) reveal the character of true faith. Its foundational characteristic is humility--a poverty of spirit, a brokenness that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. Genuine believers see themselves as sinners who have nothing to offer God that will buy His favor. That is why they mourn with the sorrow that accompanies true repentance. It crushes the believer into meekness. He hungers and thirsts for righteousness. As the Lord satisfies that hunger, He makes the believer merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker, which in our fallen world leads to persecution for righteousness' sake.
When Jesus wanted to illustrate the character of saving faith, He took a child, stood him before the disciples, and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:3). Jesus used this illustration to teach that if we insist on retaining the privileges of adulthood--if we want to be our own boss, do our own thing, govern our own lives--we cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. But if we receive salvation with the humility of a child, with a willingness to surrender to Christ's authority, then we are coming with the right attitude.
19. The Promise of Justification
Without a doubt, the most unsettling aspect of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is this shocking statement: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). When Martin Luther meditated on the perfect righteousness of God, he thought of it as an unrelenting, unforgiving wrath and believed he was hopeless. When he learned from the Book of Romans that the righteousness of God, revealed in the Gospel, is reckoned in full to the account of everyone who turns to Christ in repentant faith, he felt like a remedy was offered to him in his affliction. The remedy Luther found was the doctrine of justification by faith. His discovery launched the Reformation and put an end to the Dark Ages. This doctrine of justification is most fully expounded by the Apostle Paul, who demonstrates that as far back as Genesis, God graciously saved people by reckoning His righteousness to them because of their faith. No one has ever been saved through a merit system. Abraham is the prime example: "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3).
|They Inevitably Go Together|
Justification may be defined as an act of God whereby He imputes to a believing sinner the full and perfect righteousness of Christ, forgiving the sinner of all unrighteousness, declaring him or her perfectly righteous in God's sight, thus delivering the believer from all condemnation. It is an instantaneous change of one's standing before God, not a gradual transformation that takes place within the one who is justified. There are two serious errors to avoid in the matter of justification. First, do not confuse justification with sanctification, which is the gradual change of increasing holiness in every true believer's life. Second, do not separate justification and sanctification so radically that you allow for one without the other. This is the error of antinomianism (lawlessness). Election, regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, and glorification all go together: "Whom God foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son [sanctification]...and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). Justification cannot be isolated and made to represent the sum of God's saving work. Yet that is exactly the error that is rampant in contemporary theology. Thankfully, the Gospel according to Jesus does not abandon believers to their own energies. Justification is only the beginning of the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10).
20. The Way of Salvation
No passage of Scripture attacks modern-day easy-believism with more force than Jesus' conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount on the way of salvation: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14). "Enter by the narrow gate," Christ says, using an imperative verb that conveys a demand for action now. It is also important to go through the right gate. There is only one gate that opens to the narrow way. Jesus said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved" (John 10:9). "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among me, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Many who approach the gate turn away when they discover how narrow it is. The rich young ruler searched until he found the gate, but when he saw that entering meant he had to leave his baggage behind, he turned away. The gate for the religion of the masses is wide open, through which anyone can pass without jettisoning self-righteousness, pride, material possessions, or even sin. But there is no salvation for those who choose this gate. Salvation is a total transformation: "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
21. The Certainty of Judgment
After urging His hearers to enter the narrow gate of salvation, Jesus concludes His Sermon on the Mount by warning against saying without doing and hearing without obeying. Look at the talkers: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father.... Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name...?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21-23). These are religious people, but because they lived lives of disobedience to God's revealed will, their words meant nothing. Jesus' conclusion? "Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts on them may be compared to a wise man who built his house upon the rock. The rain descended, the floods came, the winds blew, and burst against that house, yet it did not fall since it had been founded upon the rock. Everyone who hears these word of Mine and does not act upon them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The rain descended, the floods came, the winds blew, and burst against that house, so it fell--and great was its fall" (verses 24-27). Much of modern evangelism is building on the sand. It allows no time for conviction of sin, no opportunity for deep repentance, no coming to grips with the reality of our lostness apart from Christ, and no occasion for the Holy Spirit to work. The Day of Judgment is coming. That is what the wind, rain, and flood speak of. Those who stand are true believers; the test of true faith is whether or not it produces obedience.
22. The Cost of Discipleship
Reminiscent of the awesome judgment scene in Matthew 7 is what Jesus says a few chapters later: "Everyone who shall confess Me before men, I also will confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 10:32-33). A characteristic of every genuine believer is that he or she will profess faith in Christ unreservedly. Paul wrote, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). The heart of real discipleship is a commitment to be like Jesus Christ. That means both acting as He did and being willing to accept the same treatment He did in a hostile world. It means confessing before others that Jesus is Lord and being confident that He will also speak on our behalf before the Father. A second hallmark of a true disciple is loving Christ even more than one's own family (Matthew 10:34-37). Unless He is the number-one priority, He has not been given His rightful place. In Luke 9:23 Jesus says, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." The idea of daily self-denial does not jibe with the contemporary supposition that believing in Jesus is a momentary decision. A true believer is one who signs up for life. Faith in Christ is not an experiment, but a lifelong commitment.
23. The Lordship of Christ
Scripture never speaks of anyone "making" Christ Lord, except God Himself, who "has made Him both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). He is Lord of all (Romans 14:9; Philippians 2:11). Those who reject His lordship or give mere lip service to His sovereignty are not saved (Matthew 7:22; Luke 6:46-49). To say that Jesus is Lord is first of all to acknowledge that He is almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:16-17). As God, Jesus is "the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Timothy 6:15). Exalted as He is, He willingly "humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8) to be the Savior of those who believe in Him. The signature of saving faith is surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Gospel according to Jesus demands that those who would receive Him take Him for who He is.
JESUS FULFILLS HIS GOSPEL
24. Tetelestai!: The Triumph Is Complete
Jesus' greatest display of spiritual authority was when He died on a cross. That is hard to comprehend but nonetheless true. Jesus did not fall victim to anyone or anything. He had come for the specific purpose of dying to atone for sin (Luke 19:10; John 1:29). His crucifixion was a vivid display of His authority over circumstances, men, and even death. That is because He was "delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). Jesus said long before the cross, "I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.... This commandment I received from My Father" (John 10:17-18). When Pontius Pilate boasted of his power to put Jesus to death, Jesus replied, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11). As Jesus hung on the cross, when He knew that "all things had already been accomplished" He declared, 'It is finished'" (John 19:28, 30). The Greek expression is only one word: tetelestai. It was not the groan or curse of a victim; it was the proclamation of a victor: "IT IS FINISHED!" The work of redemption was done. All that the Law of God required, full atonement for sins--the work that the Father had given Him to do--was done. This, then, is the Gospel our Lord sends us forth to proclaim: That Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate, humbled Himself to die on our behalf. Thus He became the sinless sacrifice to pay the penalty of our guilt. He rose from the dead to declare with power that He is Lord over all, and He offers eternal life freely to sinners who will surrender to Him in humble, repentant faith. This Gospel promises nothing to the haughty rebel, but for broken, penitent sinners, it graciously offers everything that pertains to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE APOSTLES
The Apostles underscored and amplified the truth of the Gospel according to Jesus in their writings.
Paul: The Apostle Paul was a great champion of the doctrine of justification by faith. It has often been imagined that Paul's view of justification differed from that of the Apostle James because Paul wrote, "A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law" (Romans 3:28); while James wrote, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). But there is no contradiction. Paul was saying that human works cannot earn favor with God, and James was saying that true faith must always result in good works. Paul was denouncing the notion that anyone can buy merit with God through works. James was condemning the idea that the true believer might fail to produce good works. After his main discourse on justification by faith in Romans chapters 3-5, Paul commented, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1-2). "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12). "Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither fornicators, idolators, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers, nor swindlers shall inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Paul preached the Gospel according to Jesus, In fact, his defense of his apostleship was based on receiving his Gospel directly from Jesus (Galatians 1:11-12). He summarized his entire ministry with these words: "I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to [Jews and Gentiles--everyone] that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance" (Acts 26:19-20).
Jude: The Apostle Jude likewise warned those who professed to know Christ but failed to live accordingly. Having set out to write on the subject of salvation, he was constrained instead to warn about the danger of apostasy (Jude 3-4). He portrayed apostates as those who claim to live under grace but live in immorality, rejecting Christ's lordship: "Ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (verse 4). Their end, Jude said, will be destruction by eternal fire (verse 7). His point is that all who deny the lordship of Christ will be damned.
Peter: Notice how the Apostle Peter concluded his great sermon on the Day of Pentecost: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36). "He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel and the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31). Peter wrote, "Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you" (2 Peter 1:10-11). The standard of righteousness Peter held up was the same he heard from Jesus: "Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior because it is written, 'You shall be holy for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:14-15; Matthew 5:48).
James: We have already seen that James denounced faith without works as dead and useless. His entire letter consists of tests of true faith, all of which are the practical fruits of righteousness in the believer's life: perseverance in trials, obedience to God's Word, pure and undefiled religion, impartiality in treating one another, control of the tongue, true wisdom, hatred of pride and worldliness, and humble submission to God. One of the most comprehensive invitations to salvation in all the New Testament letters is James 4:6-10: "'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you."
John: The apostle John also wrote an entire letter about the marks of a true believer. His counsel to those struggling with assurance is not that they should pin their hopes on a past incident or a moment of faith, but that they should test their doctrine and morals. The moral test requires obedience: "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 John 1:6). "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments" (1 John 2:3). "Since you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him" (1 John 2:29). The doctrinal test relates to Jesus' deity and lordship: "Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?" (1 John 2:22). "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God" (1 John 5:5). John was so confident of the ultimate triumph of faith over sin that he had a special name for the believer that he used multiple times: "the one who overcomes" (1 John 5:5; Revelation 2:7, 11, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7).
One thing is clear: the Gospel according to Jesus is the Gospel according to His apostles. It is a small gate and a narrow road. It is free but it costs everything. And though it is appropriated by faith, it cannot fail to produce the fruit of true righteousness in the life and behavior of the believer.
|Read the Whole Book for Yourself|