That was the question I asked the nine- and ten-year-old Sunday school class I was teaching. I wondered if they knew the answer. When I was ten, I thought I knew. After all, I was a pastor’s daughter and went to a Christian school. But I didn’t. I had learned a gospel, but not the true gospel.
What Was My Gospel?
It started out right: You are a sinner whose only hope is to trust in Jesus, ask him for forgiveness for your sins, and he gives you the free gift of eternal life. But then my gospel took a wrong turn. According to my gospel, you also had to work hard, be the best at what you do, and keep the ten commandments.
It turned out my gospel closely resembled the values of my parents’ upbringing with a dash of Oregonian frontier independence thrown in. It was the gospel-according-to-the-Millers.
Following the Rules—and Failing
When I was ten, I remember my Sunday School teacher saying to our class, “You kids think being a Christian is just following a bunch of rules.” Her words caught my attention. Did she mean there was more than rule-following involved in being a Christian? But what could that be? If being a Christian didn’t mean being a good person and following rules, what did it mean?
I tried to be good (when convenient). When it wasn’t convenient, I hid my sins (as best I could). Once I wore my older sister’s blouse without asking. I’m pretty sure she said something like, “Don’t touch my things!”
After I wore it, I washed and ironed it to make sure she didn’t notice anything wrong. But the iron was too hot and burned the blouse. I hid it deep in my closet. Whenever I thought about being a Christian, I remembered the hidden blouse—the stealing, the cover-up, my inability to come clean—and realized Christianity couldn’t be for me.
I wasn’t a good person. Soon that became obvious. I stopped trying to be good and left my home and religion.
The Deadly Gospel
The gospel-according-to-the-Millers led me far away from the real gospel. It wasn’t about the grace and truth of Jesus Christ; it was what Paul calls “no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:7). This “no gospel,” characterized by trying hard to be good through our own efforts, led my father to quit his job as a pastor and a seminary professor and my mother to announce that she didn’t even know if God existed. It was a deadly gospel. It brought death because it was based on our efforts instead of Jesus’s sacrifice. It brought death because deep down we all knew our efforts weren’t enough to save us. It turns out it wasn’t just me who wasn’t a good person.
We all had a hidden blouse that spoke of our sins. For my dad, it was a failing church and the inability to see an impact as he taught young men to be pastors. For my mom, it was her failures as a mother that kept her up at night. She had tried so hard. Why was her daughter not trying too?
The True Gospel
Paul sums up the true gospel like this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Jesus came to save sinners. That’s the good news that brings lasting faith, hope, and love into the lives of those who trust Jesus.
But the good news is only for those who know the bad news: I am a sinner who needs saving. That is just as true now as it was when I was a little girl hiding my sister’s blouse. As my dad famously said, “Cheer up! You are worse than you think. Cheer up! God loves you more than you know!”
That bad news/good news combination is not only for becoming a Christian. It’s the power of God for living as a Christian.
We Need Jesus Every Day
My dad and mom, good people that they were, had to learn the hard way that they were worse than they thought. It turns out that pride and self-righteousness are deadly sins that need to be repented from. And I, bad girl that I was, also needed to know Jesus came to this world to save sinners.
When my parents learned the true gospel – that they needed daily forgiveness and help from Jesus for their daily sins and struggles – they shared that with me. Not by sitting me down and explaining it, but by living it in front of me.
By then the Miller gospel of self-effort and hard work had kicked in for me, and I had pulled my life together. I was in a stable relationship and going to graduate school at Stanford. My mom and dad had just returned from mission work in war-torn Uganda. My mom told me that she had walked the streets sobbing because she couldn’t love the people there.
My dad pointed her to the forgiveness and love that was hers in Christ from her heavenly Father. He reminded her that in Christ she now had the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of sonship by which she could call out to her Father in heaven. She did just that and was forgiven and helped.
After listening to her struggle and how God met her, for the first time I thought maybe someone like me could be a Christian. For the first time, my mom sounded like a real person in real trouble who simply turned to God for help.
Dragged from Darkness into Light
A few weeks later I was walking to class feeling guilty about something I had done. It was a small thing, but I felt the weight of another failure. This time, instead of stuffing my guilt deep down, I remembered that Jesus Christ came to the world to save sinners.
I remembered the forgiveness of sins was mine for the asking. So I asked Jesus to forgive me for that sin and many more. I stepped (was dragged) from darkness and death into the light of God’s love.
That’s the true gospel—the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The true gospel was not just for that day. It’s how the power of God flows into my life every day. Every day I am still the worst sinner, and every day I need to turn to Jesus and ask for mercy and help in my time of need.
Comfort in the Cross
The needs of this day look different today, then they did many years ago, but deep down they are still the same. The overwhelming need of this day is for faith in God’s goodness and love as we grieve the death of our son Gabe from cancer eight months ago. Will I turn to God with my sorrow and grief? Or will I turn away and look to other things to comfort and fulfill me?
We are wounded by death. But we turn toward the One who was wounded for our transgressions, who died that we might live. We look to Jesus – the author and finisher of our faith – who for the joy set before him endured the cross. We remember the resurrection and that Jesus defeated death. We trust our son into his hands.
We ask for the Spirit to comfort, help, and remind us of the Father’s great love this day. And for his help to endure again another day. I need Jesus today as desperately as I needed him that day long ago when I first asked for forgiveness for my many sins. I feel that need more deeply today than ever before. And he is still forgiving and helping. Because Jesus rose from the dead, I know for sure that there will come a day when he will welcome me to our true home where there is no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. That’s the gospel.