The Gospel does this because it is first and foremost outside of us. Out of this fountain of power flows mercy, forgiveness and love-in essence transformed lives. Moreover, this fountain is not generated from within us-from our efforts, experiences or knowledge. This fountain is found outside of us in the amazing and historical work of Jesus-his life, crucifixion and resurrection. His finished work alone restores, forgives and empowers sinners in a God-directed life.
Throughout church history, however, the Gospel has been counterfeited in two main ways. These counterfeits or caricatures are as old as the church herself. Tertullian, the ancient church father, called them the “two thieves of the Gospel” between which Jesus was crucified. They are legalism and relativism. Both fumble the Gospel’s truth and rob their adherents of the Gospel’s hope.
The legalist sees himself and the world as sinful, yet insists that he can gain God’s approval by trying harder, powerful religious experiences or through knowing more. In believing this, the legalist reduces the reality of sin to certain behaviors and not as an endemic condition of the heart. Thereby his need and experience of grace is minimized. Ironically, the legalist is seen as having all the answers, yet often inwardly feels far from God, condemned and joyless.
The relativist or antinomian (against the law of God) does not try to save herself through more “effort”, but simply adjusts God’s standards for her own comfort. God’s grace and love are cheapened and a life of Christian discipleship minimized. Similarly, or like the legalist, the relativist appears to be happy and unencumbered from the law, yet inwardly feels enslaved to the endless pursuit of self and inwardly aches for some greater purpose.
Both the legalist and the relativist counterfeit the Gospel by thinking that they contribute something to their standing before God. Both ultimately minimize sin and the greatness of grace. The truth lies in embracing both the pervasive tragedy of sin and the even more powerful reality of grace summarized by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. “The Gospel is that you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, yet you can be more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope at the same time because Jesus Christ lived and died in your place. Salvation is of the Lord.”