The message of Christianity (a message that Paul insists is of first importance in 1 Corinthians 15:3) is the gospel. We noted last week that, at minimum, the gospel makes historical claims: Jesus of Nazareth died and was buried, and he arose and was seen by witnesses. Paul strongly emphasizes these historical claims; according to him, if Jesus did not actually arise from the dead, there is no point at all to being a Christian. In fact, he says that if there is no resurrection, Christians should be pitied more than anybody else, for they have utterly wasted their lives.
Now why would he write that? Surely, even if Christianity is not historically or literally true, many millions of people derive comfort from Christian churches, both from participation in the familiar rituals and from relationships with other believers. The teachings of Jesus would still give us sound moral guidance, wouldn’t they? So why would Paul insist that Christianity is worthless without the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus?
The fact that some are ready to disagree with Paul indicates that the common Christianity of our day is not the same message that Paul proclaimed. And the chief difference is one of doctrine.
You see, Paul did not merely say that Jesus died, but that Jesus died for our sins. In addition, he twice notes that Jesus’s death and resurrection were according to the Scriptures. This is to say, then, that it is not sufficient to believe merely that Jesus died and rose again; the reason that Jesus died and the meaning of his resurrection are also vital to the gospel.
Jesus’s death, according to Paul, has something to do with our sins. Now, sin is an unpopular word in our day, but it is central to the Bible’s message. One confession of faith puts it this way: we are all “sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.” This is certainly no flattering description, but it is one supported by Scripture (to choose only two of many passages: Romans 1:20 and Ephesians 2:1–3).
So we are sinners. And to connect our discussion back to the gospel, here is the key biblical idea: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that, if we are sinners, we have merited eternal condemnation. This death is rightfully ours.
If you understand this, you are now in position to see why the gospel is good news; you can see the value in Paul’s proclamation that Jesus died for our sins. And in next week’s essay, we’ll see why that truth is the very core of the Christian message.