I should like to speak specifically on the question “What is the Gospel?” There is much confusion today among Christian people about this. It is a generalization, and subject to a great deal of qualification.

Perhaps I should begin by saying that all possible points of view relative to the Gospel, or the way of salvation, may be divided into two groups. All religions outside the Christian faith can be classified as those which teach salvation by works. Whatever else may be said about them, this one tie binds them together, whether the works be ritualistic, sacrificial, or moral.

In contrast, the Christian faith holds to salvation by grace. It believes the Gospel to be the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross, bearing substitutionally our sins and the sins of the whole world; that he was buried; and that he also rose again as proof of his triumph over the grave, finished character of his work, and his true Sonship of God. The Gospel plainly stated then, is that a person can be saved for all eternity by simply putting his trust in Jesus Christ.

When one asks, in talking to people, “What is the Gospel?” one gets a variety of answers. I had occasion years ago to examine an ordained minister who was a graduate of theological seminary. I asked him the question, “What is the Gospel?”, and I was amazed to see him fumble, stall, and finally misquote Acts 16:31. This is more typical, unfortunately, than the exception. Were one to take a hundred people at random today, there probably would not be five who could explain what the Gospel is. Even people who go to church with some regularity are confused.

In personal work it is almost invariably true that if one is discussing what it means to be a Christian, or how a person can be saved, one usually encounters some form of the gospel of works. Many will claim that they are doing the best they can, others will admit degrees of failure but believe that were they to do better, they would then be Christians. They fail completely to understand the simple elements of the gospel way of salvation.

May we consider, therefore, two things that the Gospel is not, and then two things that the Gospel is. First of all, the salvation that God has provided in Christ is a salvation not deserved. It is a fundamental teaching of the Bible that those who are Christians according to biblical definition, are not so because they deserve it. God did not see some measure of goodness in man which caused him to bring man into the knowledge of the faith. On the contrary, the Bible states that people who are out of Christ and who are brought to Christ are totally undeserving of salvation. For example, Scripture most frequently uses the term “lost.” This is an absolute term. Second Corinthians 4:3 says, “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.”

Article continues below
Unmerited Salvation

Scripture also describes unsaved people as “dead,” spiritually dead. When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, he reminded them that before they accepted Christ they were “dead in trespasses and sins.” They were not just sick, they were “dead” so far as spiritual life was concerned. Another word Scripture ascribes to unsaved people is “condemned,” or the state of living under “the wrath of God.” Man is condemned before a righteous God; and as far as merit is concerned, he stands without hope. Paul speaks of the unsaved as “without God and without hope.”

It is clear that if God has saved us, he did not save us because we deserved it. He did not save us because we were good. Everyone in heaven, Old Testament saints as well as New Testament saints, is there by grace, and through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Let us therefore reiterate: salvation cannot be deserved. There can be no appeal to innate goodness, character, culture, or education. These offer no grounds for divine salvation.

Unearned Salvation

At the same time, and this is the second negative, salvation cannot be earned. If a man’s character cannot deserve salvation, it is also true that there is nothing one can do to earn it. As I said before, the notion that salvation can be earned is a very common one. I think, with all fairness, this is the belief of the Roman Catholic church. Its whole appeal is to do something to be saved. If one does the sacrificial thing, gives his money, or even his life, he is promised salvation.

But by contrast, our Christian Gospel tells us we cannot earn salvation. I was a member of the church for many years before it dawned on me one day, through the ministry of a faithful Bible teacher, that I could not be good enough to be saved. I had assumed, in spite of all statements to the contrary in the catechism, that if I went to church and did the best I could, and was faithful in attendance, and gave my money, and prayed, and did the normal Christian things, I could thus be assured of salvation. There are many people who are similarly confused. They do not understand that, while good works have their place in the Christian faith, they cannot be the ground of salvation.

Article continues below

We cannot earn salvation; we fall far short of what God would have us be and do. There is indeed no righteousness in us that can possibly justify God’s saving us. In Ephesians 2:8–9 we read: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” This is a tremendous passage; it makes abundantly clear that works, or anything that we do, can never earn divine approbation. There are many people in the world today trying to earn salvation. The Bible puts a blight on their whole system. We can neither deserve salvation nor earn it.

Finished Work Of Christ

In contrast to these negatives, I believe there are two positive affirmations that can be made which are very clearly taught in Scripture. The first of these is that salvation is a finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, there are many things God lets us do for him, but salvation is something that God does for us. It is a work of God, made possible by the grace of God and by the work of Christ.

When Christ died on the cross he said, “It is finished.” He was declaring the fact that when he died, the full price of our redemption was paid. His death was of infinite or forensic value; it was sufficient in its provision for the sins of the whole world. He had provisionally, as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:19, reconciled the world unto himself.

The death of Christ, however, does not in itself save anyone. It is God’s abundant provision, which must be applied. So we are told that we are “not redeemed … with silver and gold (that which represents human attainment and value) … but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). How clear this should be in our own thinking, and in our preaching. If we are saved at all, we are saved by the blood of Christ. And it is Christ’s sacrifice that is the basis of our salvation.

We are told that this one offering of Christ is sufficient in contrast to the Old Testament, where they brought their thousands of lambs and sacrifices, and were never through. Hebrews 10:14 tells us: “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” In other words, if we are saved it is because God has done something for us, and does give us this wonderful salvation the moment we trust him.

In speaking of faith, I want to emphasize that I do not mean merely a professing faith, or coming forward in a meeting, or joining a church, or submitting to the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We recognize that there are people who have gone through that whole route and are still lost.

Article continues below

A friend of mine who preaches on the radio said to me that the superintendent of the Sunday School in a large evangelical church came to him and asked, “I heard you explain the way of salvation; would you tell me how I can be saved?” This is what is going on these days. We have to recognize the fact that sometimes the Gospel does not find root in people even though it is faithfully preached, and many with all outward appearance of Christianity are without the inner reality of truly being born again. What they need is Christ as their Lord, and the appropriation of the work he did for them on the Cross.

Salvation is a finished work. When Christ died on the cross he did all that was necessary to save you and me. There is not a single good work we can offer in addition to God’s. After we are saved, then is our chance to do good works; but those works are not our guarantee of salvation, they are the fruits of it. They do not substantiate salvation; they are the testimony. The ground of redemption is wholly the finished work of Christ.

Gift Of God

The second affirmation I should like to mention is, salvation is a gift. We see how these four facts, the negative and the positive, fit together:

Salvation cannot be deserved;

Salvation cannot be earned;

Salvation is a finished work of Christ for us;

Salvation is a gift.

Many people cannot grasp that salvation is a gift, but there are few facts more obvious. Man could not possibly pay for an infinite salvation. He was morally bankrupt, dead in trespasses and sins, under the wrath of God; what resources had he? Could he lift himself by his own bootstraps? If God saves anybody at all, he does it out of his own mercy, and gives salvation as a gift. Scripture testifies specifically to this point: “Being justified freely (literally, without cost) by his grace through the redemption (i.e., the price paid) that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).

This redemption cost God his Son; it cost Jesus Christ the agony of dying on the cross; it was an act of infinite worth, infinite merit, a total gift of God. If we are not saved today, there is only one reason. It is not because we’ve done bad things, because all of us are bad. There is just one reason why a person is lost, and that is he has not received God’s gift of salvation.

Romans 6:23 testifies, “… the wages of sin is death.” Sin has its wages, its inevitable judgment, “but the gift of God is eternal life.” Again Christ said of his disciples, “I give unto them eternal life” (John 10:28). In 1 John 5:11 it is written: “And this is the record, that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”

Article continues below

Who could imagine anybody giving away anything of value without getting something in return. It is a hard thing to persuade a lost soul that God wants to do something for him, that God is a God of grace, who has paid for his salvation, and now offers it to him, needy as he is, as a gift.

The greatest question in all the world is simply, have we received the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Saviour? One can never sit on the fence. If one is not saved, he is lost. If one is saved, then he is not lost. There is no one in the middle.

The story was once related how Dr. William M. Anderson came to know the Lord. Dr. Anderson for many years was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas and was largely responsible for the location of Dallas Theological Seminary. His father had been the pastor of this church, and as a young lad he had grown up there. One Sunday evening his father was preaching the Gospel and inviting people to trust Christ. The young son went home that night, wondering, “Now I am the preacher’s son, but am I saved?” He just did not know. Like many others, he had never understood clearly just what the Gospel meant. He was confused between doing something for God, and letting God do something for him. Young Anderson went to bed, but he could not sleep. After all it is a good idea not to sleep if one is unsure he is saved or lost.

Finally he slipped out of bed, and on his knees he prayed: “Lord, if I have never accepted you before, I do so now.” That may or may not have been the night of his conversion, but the important thing was not when; rather, was he now a child of God?

If there is one who is aware of any uncertainty, any failure to come to grips with this greatest of all decisions, the challenge is to accept the gospel invitation and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour. Then rest on the authority of the Word of God. The Word says that if anyone believes on the Lord Jesus Christ he is saved, saved for all eternity. The divine program is to hear the Gospel, believe the Gospel, then preach the Gospel.


This gospel message was presented by Dr. John F. Walvoord at a luncheon meeting of the CBMC of Washington, D. C. Dr. Walvoord is President of Dallas Theological Seminary.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.