In preparation for an upcoming debate about the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, my adversary asked me if it was necessary for Jesus to die before we could enter the Kingdom of God.
This is a great question!
First of all, let’s establish what the Gospel is, and then we can answer that question.
The Gospel – the “Good News” – that Jesus came to proclaim was simply this:
“Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
We find Jesus preaching this Gospel of the Kingdom of God all the time. This Gospel is found in the 4 Gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matt 9:35)
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom..” (Matt 4:23)
In fact, the only Gospel that Jesus ever talks about during his entire ministry on Earth was the Gospel of the Kingdom. There is no other Gospel.
Anyone who reads Matthew, Mark, Luke or John (the Gospels) will come away hearing all about The Gospel of the Kingdom from the mouth of Jesus.
Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was for here and now. This was the “Good News” in a nutshell: Anyone who wants to enter God’s Kingdom can do so immediately.
Jesus demonstrated what life in the Kingdom looked like.
The Beattitudes are a picture of what life in the Kingdom looks like.
Nearly every single parable of Jesus is designed to explain a particular facet of the Kingdom.
His Sermon on the Mount declares the values of this Kingdom.
His teachings are intended to show us how to live within the Kingdom.
His life was a blueprint for us to follow as we ourselves enter the Kingdom and learn from Him.
To be clear: The only Gospel ever preached by Jesus is the message of The Kingdom of God. It was the new order where God’s perfect will is always done in the lives of His followers. The Good News is: We do not need to wait until we die to enter God’s Kingdom.
Now, many of us have been taught that the Gospel is about praying a prayer so that you can go to heaven when you die. This is false. Jesus never explained the Gospel in these terms. He never had anyone bow their heads and close their eyes, or raise their hands if they didn’t want to burn in hell forever, or repeat the sinner’s prayer. None of that is found anywhere in the scriptures.
Part of the reason we’ve gotten so far off the track when it comes to an understanding of the Gospel of Jesus is because we’ve attempted to reduce the message into a quick bumper sticker slogan or a set of easy steps to salvation. Our efforts to market the Gospel have back-fired. Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals in pews across the Nation who believe that they are Christians because they said a prayer once when they were nine years old and now they can go to heaven when they die, regardless of whether or not they intend to follow Jesus or surrender their lives to Christ.
Discipleship to Jesus, then, becomes optional, not essential. But, this is not what Jesus had in mind at all.
Instead, Jesus talked about what it meant to follow him. He spoke about being a disciple. He described a way of life that was meant for today.
“If anyone would become my disciple [a Christian], he must take up his cross daily, die to himself, and follow me.” [Luke 9:23; Matt. 16:24]
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and yet do not do the things I say?” [Luke 6:46]
One huge problem is that some Christians today want you to believe that it’s impossible to follow the commands of Jesus and that, somehow, the entire point of the Sermon on the Mount was to give you a giant list of impossible things that you couldn’t accomplish in order to teach you to depend upon the Grace of Christ to save you.
This is a false, unbiblical doctrine.
What the Bible actually teaches about Grace and keeping the Law of Christ is this:
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us….He has given us His very great and precious promises so that through them you may participate in the Divine nature.” [1 Peter 1:3-4]
What’s holding you back from living like Jesus today? Is it your sin nature? Is it your addictions, or your temptations, or your brokenness?
Is this why you don’t believe that it’s possible to actually put the words of Jesus into practice? Is this why you hardly ever attempt to love your enemy, or to forgive those who have hurt you, or to turn the other cheek whenever you’re insulted?
If so, you’re denying the power of Christ in your life and refusing to live out of your new, Divine nature.
A Christianity like this loudly proclaims that the death of Christ on the cross was only capable of providing me with a ticket to heaven, but it was not nearly powerful enough to transform my life into one that resembles His own.
And the real trouble with this sort of Christianity is that it can’t be found anywhere in the New Testament.
Nope. I’ve checked. It’s not in there.
What we do read about is how God’s Amazing Grace has not only saved us, it’s gone on to do something most of us doubt could ever be true: Saved us – AND – empowered us to live a holy life like Jesus did!
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men…” [Titus 2:11]
Yep, there’s the salvation part, but look at what he says next:
“…instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age…” [Titus 2:12]
See that? Grace not only brings salvation to all men, it then goes on to “instruct us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and godly IN THE PRESENT AGE.”
But wait, that’s not all!
“This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to be in him must walk as Jesus did.” [1 John 2:5]
Are you in Christ? If we claim to be in Christ we must do one thing: “live as Jesus did”!How can we do that? Isn’t that impossible?
Alone, yes, it is impossible. We can’t even come close to obeying the words of Jesus apart from His indwelling presence in our daily lives.
That’s why Jesus said: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]
But what if we abide in Him? What if He abides in us? Then, and only then, can we “bear much fruit.” [John 15:5]
This is why Jesus can promise us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light even as he calls us to do things that seem impossible, like love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, and turn the other cheek.
How can Jesus say that? Because we’re not expected to do it alone.
Remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” [Phil. 4:13]
When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you…” [Matt 11:29] he’s saying that He will be right beside us, all the way, and that we won’t have to do everything in our own strength, but in His!
Jesus expects you to put His words into practice. He empowers you to do exactly that. He filled you with His Holy Spirit to enable you to do the things that He did.
All we have to do is to trust in Him and daily seek to allow Christ to live and breathe in us by His Spirit.
So let me encourage you today: If you are in Christ, you have everything you need to live a godly, Christ-like life right now!
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” [Galatians 2:20]
Now, back to our original question above [remember that?] – Did Jesus need to die on the cross in order for us to enter the Kingdom of God? Not at all. But, Jesus DID need to rise from the dead in order for us to know Christ, and to live a transformed life like His.
Paul the Apostle declares that, “..if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (I Cor.15:17)
So, our transformation and abiding in Christ is dependent upon the resurrection life of Christ within us.
When Paul said that he considered all things to be lost in order to know Christ, and that he only wanted to “know Christ…and the power of His resurrection”, [Phil. 3:10] he wasn’t talking about gaining more Bible knowledge.
On the contrary, he had just spent the previous six verses expounding upon all of the great Bible knowledge he once put so much stock in and then declared that he considered all of that to be “dung” or “crap” [literally].
Why so? “So that I may gain Christ and be found in Him..” [v. 8-9]
There’s almost an “if/then” wording here where Paul is suggesting that anyone who wants to gain Christ and to be found in Him – anyone who wants to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection” – must first consider everything else to be garbage in comparison.
Take the juxtaposition of “knowing Christ” and the phrase “the power of His resurrection”. You can’t have a resurrection until you first have a funeral. If no one dies, then who will be brought back to life again?
This dovetails beautifully with the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him first deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me”.
In other words, if we want to experience the “power of His resurrection” we must first die to ourselves daily. Once we die, then we can begin to receive the marvelous power of His resurrection life within.
We don’t have to wait until we die to begin experiencing this resurrection life, we can know it right here and now.
What’s even more amazing, is that Paul is talking here about an actual reality. This isn’t a metaphor. This isn’t some spiritual platitude. He is talking about being truly able to know Christ and to experience that resurrection life today. He is talking about a transcendent reality whereby he is capable of knowing Christ the way you and I know our own voices.
Think of it! You and I can experience the living, breathing, presence of Jesus right here and now.
That, my friends, is really, really Good News!
Don’t you agree?
Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in their community.
His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.
He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.
Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho.
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