I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to apply the good news of Jesus Christ—a.k.a., the gospel—to one's life. A number of people have been writing and talking about this over the last decade, and they declare its value as high as anyone could. For example, Timothy Keller writes in an unpublished essay that "all our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel."
That's quite a claim. "All our problems" are solved by the gospel? What does that mean? How can it be?
As I've been wrestling with this—because I still need the gospel to take deeper root in my own life after almost four decades of believing it—I've concluded that there are two equally important answers to that question. Each way that the gospel solves our problems is distinct from the other, but the gospel has to work in both ways for it to make a significant difference in a person's life.
(Also, by the way, people who talk and write in the vein reflected by Keller, above, tend strongly to emphasize one of these ways over the other. I hope what I write here restores balance.)
Statement and substance
Let's start by pretending. Forget everything you know about the gospel. Let's pretend that I tell you that the gospel is that Steve is standing outside the window holding a pumpkin.
Now I ask you, "What is the gospel?" However, you are not allowed to speak the answer; you have to communicate it to me some other way.
You might take a piece of paper and write on it the words, "Steve is standing outside the window holding a pumpkin," and hold up the paper for me to see.
Alternatively, you might point out the window at Steve and his pumpkin.
Both of these are right answers. The first way of answering treats the gospel as a statement; it is a verbal proposition. The second way of answering treats the gospel as substance; it is the concrete reality that the words describe.
Now let's swing out of the world of pretend and consider the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. What is the gospel? It is a statement, and it is substance. How does the gospel solve all our problems? It solves them as a statement that changes our minds, attitudes, and feelings, and it solves them as substance that replaces our concrete reality with a better one.
A practical example
To illustrate, let's use the practical example of chronic illness. This one is near to my heart, because in my immediate, one-degree family relationships, I have one loved one who suffers from chronic illness in the generation above me, one in the generation beside me, and one in the generation below me.
A person with a chronic illness can find significant solace by believing the gospel as a statement deep in his or her belief structure. When you're sick all the time, it is easy to feel abandoned and cast off. The gospel tells you that you have a heavenly Father who never leaves you or forsakes you. It is easy to feel angry at the injustice of it all. The gospel tells you that the worst injustice was endured by Christ, who suffered the consequences of your unjust behavior on the cross for your forgiveness and justification, and it tells you that justice is coming in which all the unfairness you have experienced will be done away with. It is easy to feel like the unlucky victim of blind, meaningless chance. The gospel tells you that a loving Father works it all with utmost intentionality to produce in you "an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:18).
So the gospel is essential as a statement to correct the off-centered beliefs that drive our feelings into the pit. The more deeply we truly believe the gospel we confess, the less we hate life, the more we have joy and satisfaction despite the pain.
Now let's imagine that a chronically ill person believes the gospel perfectly; their attitude in their circumstances is completely transformed by the gospel; they have perfectly applied the gospel to address their problem; they could not possibly do a better job of it. Is their problem solved?
I should say not! No matter how perfect your perspective is on your chronic illness, being sick sucks. There's no getting around it; your problem and suffering are still acute even if the emotional concomitants of your sickness have been relieved. Human beings are not disembodied minds, and if the salvation in the gospel is essentially mental, then it isn't much good.
Compare it to Christ himself. I am confident that if anyone ever had a perfect grasp of the gospel, it was he. And the New Testament depicts how it got him through his crucifixion with superhuman dignity ("for the joy set out for him he endured the cross . . . ," Heb. 12:2). Does that mean that he had no problems while he was hanging on the cross? Of course not.
That's where the gospel as substance comes in. For the chronically ill person, the gospel is that by Christ's wounds, we are healed. The substance of the gospel solves their problem when God miraculously removes or at least relieves their physical ailment through the release of the power of Jesus' name by the authoritative declaration of the church.
This is a real thing we can expect today, though it does not work out that way every single time in every single way for every single person. What does work for everyone is the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body to be like his. That is the ultimate application of the gospel to a person's physical problem.
(By the way, we also believe that God's providential, "common grace" may work through scientific medicine to bring about healing. While not a manifestation of the gospel per se, we still attribute such healing to our Creator.)
Which is primary?
So, between the gospel as statement and the gospel as substance, which is primary?
I am tempted to say that the gospel as substance is foundational. After all, what ultimate good does it do to have imaginary hope? What use is it to have a good attitude that something is going to get better when it never does? Or to try—usually unsuccessfully—to psych yourself into believing that what hurts doesn't really matter?
But on the other hand, the Bible teaches that you can't get the gospel as substance unless you deeply believe the gospel as statement. A father of a chronically ill boy asked Jesus, "If you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus answered, "'If you are able'? All things are possible to the one who believes."
The man replied, "I believe; help my unbelief!" and Jesus healed his son (Mark 9:17-27). People like this man, who seek to go beyond their surface-level belief in the statement of the gospel so that it might transform their thinking, are most likely to experience the substance of the gospel replacing their concrete reality now or in the age to come.
So all our problems do persist because the gospel is not adequately applied to our lives. But it isn't just that our minds haven't been adequately transformed by the gospel as statement. It is also that our bodies and our world haven't been adequately transformed by the gospel as substance—yet!