One of the things I am convinced of is that we don't really "get" the Gospel, and we don't often see how we don't get it.
We incorrigably miss out on the real-ness of the Gospel is by smashing it through the lens of our human systems. It is like stuffing the proverbial square block through a round hole.
First, as Gerhard Forde pointed out in his book "Where God Meets Man", the problem begins with how we view the Law. We tend to view God's Law as a "ladder" to heaven. If I can just climb the ladder, I'll be alright. I'll get to heaven. If I don't climb the ladder, I'm done for. This is the essence of all human religion -be "moral," and you'll get to heaven or get some kind of blessing.
Pretty much all Christians would agree that we can't climb the ladder to the top ourselves. We can't climb perfectly. We won't get there. And that is why, we postulate, we need a Savior. That is where the Gospel comes in and fixes our problem. Jesus came to "buy off" God and get us to the top of the ladder. It is all about how what Jesus did here, on earth, fixed something in the secret, hidden realms of heaven... "way up there." That is why, we say, He died for us. All we have to do is "believe." "Belief" or "faith" becomes the requirement.
But this is how the Gospel becomes a new law, a new legalism. The Gospel becomes a "repair job" for our current system of things, our fallen attempts to continue to climb a ladder, just with a newer and easier way to get to the top. We just have to "have faith." And like with all forms of legalism, the results split into two directions. On one side, you have people who become self-righteous about their "faith", and subsequently about their Christian-ness and morality and piety. The slope is slippery. But on the other side, you have people who never feel like they have enough "faith." They worry if their faith is good enough or strong enough. They become like Martin Luther's protege, Melanchthon, who once wrote to Luther wondering if his faith was good enough. Thus, with legalism the focus inevitably is upon *me*, upon what *I* do. That may feel good, if I think I'm pulling it off, or that may feel terrifying, if not.
What was Luther's response to Melanchthon? "...The whole Gospel is outside of you." What did Luther see that Melanchthon was still stuck about?
Luther saw that there is no "ladder" to heaven. The Law is no ladder. The "law" is essentially a voice that speaks against all of humanity in this age, hounding us in our isolation and rebellion against God, demanding that we fulfill our humanity, summarized ultimately in the commands to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It does not call us heaven-ward. It accuses. It haunts. It says "this is a dead end, and the end is only death."
The cross is the loudest proclamation of this "voice." For in the cross we see that the Son of God had to die for our sins. It is there, just like in my experience, that the scales fall off our eyes and we see that we are not "good." I saw that my "I'm a good person" idea was my own making. If Jesus had to die for me, then I'm woefully mistaken about who I am in this world and where I stand with God. In a real sense, I "died" that day... or part of me did. I died with Him.
But it is also at the cross, and then at the empty tomb, where this voice is silenced. The only thing powerful enough to silence this haunting voice is the Gospel. It does not come to repair. It comes as something entirely different, to bury the old and raise the new. At the cross, the voice kills our pride while the news of what Jesus did for us, taking that curse on Himself and then rising in victory over it, over the grave, to a new creation, ending the reign of the voice, raises us up new in faith. The new has come. The new age, where the voice is no more, has come. And so I rose, I rose anew with Him. Hope. Acceptance. Peace with God. Adoption as sons...
Inclusion into this new age, this salvation, is through the frail instrument of faith... through seeing what was done for us and, as our trust in ourselves is killed at the cross, as we embrace it with our feeble and empty hand. The Word of the cross claims us. It kills and raises up. The old in us is laid flat, shown to be a fraud -the "ladder" shown to be a delusion of our own prideful making. And the new is risen up in us -the new which comes back down to earth as a human and relies once again upon the grace and goodness of God.
Why, some ask, would God use faith as the instrument through which we are saved? It is such a weak and imperfect thing. To me it is clear that it could only be this way, for it is only through faith that we will give up trust in ourselves, in our own efforts, in the idea of the "ladder" we can climb, and thereby we depend on Him who is unseen and uncontrolled -who lived and died and rose for us.