I haven’t been in school for years, but I still have nightmares about being unprepared for a final exam—showing up only to find out that today is the day 80% of my grade is determined and that I had forgotten all about it.
Imagine with me: your professor announces that your final exam is to write an essay identifying the three different kinds of atomic isotopes and discussing the varying electromagnetic qualities distinguishing them. The thing is, you don’t have the foggiest idea what he is talking about—you vaguely remember some song about being home on the range where the deer and the isotope play…but you’re pretty sure he’s talking about something else.
Fast-forward 90 painful minutes and you take the long, lonely walk up to the professor’s desk at the front of the auditorium. You reach out to turn in your failing essay.
But then something happens.
Just as the pages of your scribbled nonsense are about to hit the professor’s inbox, a classmate that you have never met reaches out, grabs your exam, marks out your name, and prints his own name. Then he writes your name on his exam. Then he turns both in.
The grades come back. You pass. He fails. You get credit for his and he takes the blame for yours.
Now, I realize you’re not allowed to actually do this in college, but it’s a good picture of what Jesus did for us in the thirty-three years he spent on earth. He lived the life you were supposed to live and then erased his name and wrote yours on it. He died the death you were condemned to die, wiping out your name and writing his. His obedience covers what you couldn’t and didn’t do. His reward comes to you. Your punishment goes to him. This is what Christian theologians call the Great Exchange.
The gospel is not just the message that God loves you. He absolutely does, of course, and if he didn’t, there would be no gospel. But he shows you the length, breadth, and height of his love through the beauty of substitution.
Don’t miss that word. This word is vital to the gospel, for without substitution there would be no gospel.
At the Summit Church in North Carolina, where I have been privileged to be a pastor for almost twenty years, we summarize the gospel in these four words: Jesus in my place.
You might think of it this way: Jesus did not just die for you; he died instead of you. He suffered your curse so you could inherit his righteousness (Galatians 3:13). He was clothed with shame so you could sit at the seat of honor (Hebrews 12:2). He was struck down so you could be lifted up (Isaiah 53:3–4). The Father turned his face away from Jesus so that he could turn his face toward you (Matthew 27:46). He lived the life you were supposed to live and died the death you were condemned to die so that you could have the reward he deserved—eternal life in the presence of God (Colossians 3:4).
The prophet Isaiah predicted this holy substitution more than seven hundred years before it happened:
He himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains; but we in turn regarded him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all.
Jesus’ act of substitution is what separates Jesus’ gospel from every other religion of the world. I’ve heard it said that it’s possible to spell every other religion in the world “D-O.” Do this. Don’t do that. Go here. Say this. Rub this. Touch that. Pray this. Chant that. If you do these things often enough and well enough, so other religions say, God will accept you.
At least you hope.
The gospel, on the other hand, is spelled “D-O-N-E.” Jesus did everything necessary to save us. In his final moments on the cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” Not, “I got it started, now you take over.” All the doing necessary to save has already been done.
In every other religion, God sends prophets as teachers who reveal a plan to earn God’s favor; in Christianity, the greatest Prophet is not merely a teacher, but a Savior who has earned God’s favor for you and gives it to you as a gift.
Let that sink in. In Christ, you don’t have to work to please God or to appease his anger or disappointment. The doing we do is done as a grateful response to what has been done on our behalf and in our place.
Our good works flow from salvation, not in pursuit of it.
Tim Keller says it like this: “Every other religion teaches, ‘I obey; therefore I am accepted.’ The gospel declares, ‘I am accepted; therefore I obey.’”
This is the good news—the power of God in the gospel—that saves us. This good news is more important than anything else, and not just because it obtains for us eternal life. The gospel does so much more than just that. The gospel is the source of our life—here, now, and to come. It is itself the power of God.
Because of this, it should be above all.
Excerpted with permission from Above All by J.D. Greear. Copyright 2019, B&H Publishing Group.
Is gospel Christianity dead? Pundits are writing the obituary of historic, orthodox Christianity, but pastor and author J. D. Greear believes the postmortems are premature. Jesus promised to build his church. He said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The church is not going away.
Along with this promise, Jesus gave clear instructions for how the church would prevail. He promised to build it on the rock of the gospel.
The most pressing need for Christianity today is not a new strategy. It is not an updated message. It is a return to keeping the gospel Above All.