Explaining the Gospel
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
According to the favorite text of the Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
It is this love of God that is the ground of our salvation. In Ephesians 2, after painting a dark, dismal, and hopeless picture of mankind in verses 1-3, ...
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
...the apostle Paul penned these words in verse 4:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.
This same idea is expressed by Paul in Titus.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit....
Turning to the epistle of John we read these words of hope:
1 John 4:16-18:
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear [of the judgment] in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Yet, the fact is that too many Adventists are afraid of the judgment. One reason for this fear, apart from their “mixed, confused ideas of salvation,” is because they have failed to realize that God’s love completely contradicts human love. As a result, by projecting human ideals of love onto God we pervert the good news of the gospel. It is only when we know and understand God’s love, and what that love accomplished for mankind in Christ, that the fear of the judgment will be cast out and God’s people will be set free to turn this world upside down with the matchless charms of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The New Testament word for God’s love is the noun agape. Unfortunately, there is no English word equivalent to this Greek word. In fact, unlike the verb agapao, which means something different, the noun agape can hardly be found in secular Greek, the language of the New Testament. It is as if the New Testament writers coined this word to describe God’s unique love, which completely contradicts our natural human love.
How does God’s agape love differ from natural human love? It is of utmost importance that we see the distinction between these two loves, if we are to truly understand and appreciate the gospel. The contrasts between God’s agape love and the love we humans naturally manifest are:
But it is the unconditional agape love of God that is the ground of our salvation.
And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Here the apostle Paul describes this agape love, which God has poured out into the hearts by the Holy Spirit. In reading this passage, you will notice that God’s agape love, which is the ground of our salvation, is in complete contrast to human love. It is while we were “still powerless” (i.e., incapable of saving ourselves), “ungodly” (i.e., wicked), “still sinners,” and even God’s “enemies,” that Jesus died for us and reconciled us to God. In contrast, human love can only die for a good person, and even this, says Paul, is rare.
It is only as we are rooted and grounded in this agape love...
...So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
...that our faith can be established solidly on the rock Jesus Christ, and we can confess with the apostle Paul:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”
That is why, in describing agape in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul wrote “love (agape) never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-8a
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
In contrast, natural human love is changeable and, therefore, unreliable. Out of sincere human love, Peter insisted he would rather die than deny his Saviour.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
Yet, when he was put to the test, he denied his Lord three times.
“You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.
He replied, “I am not.”
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”
He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
In contrast, this is what we read about Jesus in John 13:1:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Because God’s agape love never fails, we can have full confidence in the day of judgment. Or as Paul put it:
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all [the death of the cross] — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Faith in God’s everlasting agape love is what will give the remnant courage to stand for Christ in the last days, even though they will feel forsaken of God during the great tribulation.
For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit — a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer. “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
It was at the cross that God, in Christ, demonstrated that His love for us is stronger than His love for Himself. To the Jews of Christ’s day, hanging on a cross was equivalent to hanging on a tree, the curse of God.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
And that curse is God abandonment, which results in the experience of the second death. On the cross, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”
What did this involve?
Ellen G. White tells us that as Jesus hung on the cross,
“The Saviour could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that their separation was to be eternal.” (Desire of Ages, page 753.)
This is what He experienced for us on the cross.
In spite of this, He did not come down from the cross and save Himself, as Satan three times tempted Him to do.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
The only explanation for this is that He loved us more than Himself and, therefore, was willing to say good-bye to life forever so that we could live in His place. On the cross Jesus “tasted death (the second or eternal death) for all men.”
But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
This is what constitutes the supreme sacrifice of the cross and which demonstrated God’s unconditional and self-emptying agape love for us. Incidentally, it was this self-denying agape love of Christ, manifested on the cross, that constrained or compelled the early Christians to put self aside and live only for Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
But the fact that God loves us unconditionally is not enough to save fallen mankind. God cannot, even out pure agape love, forgive sinners by overlooking their sins. God is also a holy and just God and His saving grace cannot go against His own law which condemns sinners to death. This brings us to the second pillar of truth on which the good news of the everlasting gospel rests: the in Christ motif.