We have not preached the gospel if we tell people only about God’s holiness and fury against sin. Technically, that’s not the gospel at all. That’s the law by which no human being will be justified … since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). The law exposes our many crimes against God. It can never save us.
Even those who think they’ve kept God’s commandments to a reasonable degree are condemned. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (Jas 2:10). Maybe you’ve never murdered anyone, but you will still be liable to judgment if you have ever been angry with your brother (Mt 5:22). Maybe you’ve never committed adultery, but everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28).
Furthermore, the human race is brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did our mothers conceive us (Ps 51:5). Even if we somehow manage to accomplish the impossible, that is, a life which never violates a single demand of God’s law, we are born into this world with a deficit. Sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin, and that death has spread to all men because all have sinned (Ro 5:12). His trespass led to condemnation for every last one of us (Ro 5:18).
We shouldn’t confuse the law and gospel, but the gospel doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t first understand the law. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 9:10). Until we have known our guilt before God and the divine wrath we deserve, how can the gospel be good news? Why would we need the gospel at all?
During his three-year ministry on this earth, Jesus often practiced a strange form of evangelism, an almost anti-evangelism. Just when potential converts seemed primed and ready to follow him, he would say or do something to discourage them. At one point, thousands of would-be disciples turned back and no longer walked with him, though one day before they were ready to make him king (Jn 6:66; 15). Today, we would label him a failure and question his calling as a missionary, but he knew what he was doing.
For example, a man once ran up and knelt before Christ and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mk 10:17). Some of us would tell him to recite a prayer or ask Jesus into his heart. Others might say, “Repent of your sins and be saved.” Perhaps a few in Calvinistic circles would cleverly suggest, “There is nothing you can do. God saves whom he will.” The Son of God took a different approach.
”You know the commandments,” he replied, ”Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mk 10:19). To our surprise, he seems to imply the man could essentially save himself by keeping the law. I suppose he could if he could keep the law without failing in even one point of it (Jas 2:10).
”Teacher,” the man proudly announces, ”all these I have kept from my youth” (Mk 10:20). Now is the time a Calvinist would beat him over the head with the doctrine of total depravity. Others may prefer to avoid the topic of original sin and simply suggest he accept Jesus as his Savior. Savior from what? You’ll have to ask them.
With an understanding beyond measure, infinite in scope, the Savior himself chooses to prick the man where he is most sensitive: his wealth (Ps 147:5). ”You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him, ”go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and then and only then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).
In a way only he could, Christ saw a fundamental problem standing between this man and the hope of eternal life. There was no admission of guilt. There was no sense of shame to be found. While the man did walk away disheartened and sorrowful, he wasn’t mourning his sin (Mk 10:22). He hated the thought of sacrificing his great possessions even for an eternity with God. He wasn’t ready to ask himself, ”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).
When John writes the first chapter of his epistle, he has our guilt before the God of light in mind (1Jn 1:5). He implores us to confess our sins and repent of them (1Jn 1:9). “Do not walk in darkness”, he says (1Jn 1:6). “And do not be so ignorant as to claim we have no sin (1Jn 1:8). If we say we have not sinned, as the rich man implied about himself, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:10).
But that is the law of God, and leaving the matter there would send us to our graves as hopeless, utterly forsaken sinners bound for an eternity of hell.
John may seem brash with his uncompromising style of writing, but he knows the love of God as well as anyone. It begins to pour out of him as he refers to his readers as “my little children” (1Jn 2:1). In an effort to give his brothers and sisters, who believe in the name of the Son of God, confidence that they certainly have eternal life, he wants them to be aware, painfully if necessary, that unrepentant sin is a capital offense against God (1Jn 5:13). “I am writing these things to you,” he says in what I imagine to be an earnest yet tender tone, “so that you may not sin.”
The pastor who avoids addressing the sins of either believers or unbelievers is performing a terrible disservice to say the least. He can preach the grace of God all he wants, but it means very little until it’s framed by the reality of our guilt.
Yet the man who stops short at declaring our culpability and demanding our obedience to God’s moral law has utterly failed his calling as an ambassador for Christ (2Co 5:20). He has told only half of the story. He leaves his audience of criminals trembling before the judgment seat of God with shackles on their hands and feet waiting for the inevitable verdict and its subsequent punishment.
What happens next in that divine courtroom is both surprising and spectacular.