I didn’t begin to understand the gospel until the summer before my twenty-first birthday. Although I had attended church from time to time in my childhood, I’ll admit that it never really transformed me in any significant way. I was frequently taken to Sunday school where I heard stories about Jesus. I knew, without really understanding, the importance of Christmas and Easter. I remember looking at the beautiful cranberry red and cerulean blue of a stained glass window that depicted Jesus knocking on a garden door and having a vague sense that being religious was good. But I didn’t have the foggiest about the gospel.
When adolescence came barging in, my strongest memories are those of despair and anger. I was consistently in trouble, and I hated everyone who pointed that out. There were nights when I prayed that I would be good, or more specifically, that I would get out of whatever trouble I was in and start fresh, only to be disappointed and angered by the failures of the following day.
After graduating from high school at seventeen, I got married, had a baby, and divorced all before the second decade of my life began. It was during the following months and years that I discovered the anesthetizing effects of drugs, alcohol, and illicit relationships. Although I would have been known as a girl who liked to party, I was utterly lost and joyless, and I was beginning to know it.
At one point I can remember telling a friend that I felt like I was fifty years old, which at that point in my life was the oldest I could imagine anyone being. I was exhausted and disgusted, so I decided to set about improving myself. I worked a full-time job, took a full load at a local junior college, and cared for my son. I changed my living arrangements and tried to start over. I didn’t know that the Holy Spirit was working in my heart, calling me to the Son. I just knew that something had to change. Don’t misunderstand, I was still living a shamefully wicked life, it’s just that I felt like I was beginning to wake up to something different.
Then Julie entered my life. She was my next-door neighbor, and she was a Christian. She was kind to me, and we became fast friends. She had a quality of life about her that attracted me, and she was always talking to me about her Savior, Jesus. She let me know that she was praying for me and would frequently encourage me to “get saved.” Although I’d had that Sunday school training, what she had to say was something completely different from what I’d ever remembered hearing. She told me I needed to be born again. And so, on a warm night sometime in June of 1971, I knelt down in my tiny apartment and told the Lord that I wanted to be his. I didn’t really understand much about the gospel then, but I did understand this: I knew I was desperate, and I desperately believed that the Lord would help me. That prayer on that night changed everything about me. I remember it now, thirty-five years later, as if it were yesterday. I knew I needed to be saved, and I trusted that he could save me. The Bible tells of a man who came in contact with some of Jesus’ followers asked this same question: “What must I do to be saved?” The answer was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
Very simply, what do you need to believe in order to be a Christian? You need to know that you need salvation, help, or deliverance. You must not try to reform yourself or decide that you’re going to become a moral person so that God will be impressed. Because he is completely holy, meaning perfectly moral, you have to give up any idea that you can be good enough to meet his standard. This is the good bad news. It’s bad news because it tells you that you’re in an impossible situation that you cannot change. But it’s also good news because it will free you from endless cycles of self-improvement that end in ultimate failure.
You also need to trust that what you’re unable to do—live a perfectly holy life—he’s done for you. This is the good, good news. This is the gospel. Basically the gospel is the story of how God looked down through the corridors of time and set his love on his people. At a specific point in time, he sent his Son into the world to become fully like us. This is the story you hear about at Christmas. This baby grew to be a man and after thirty years of obscurity he began to show the people who he was. He did this by performing miracles, healing the sick, and raising the dead. He also demonstrated his deity by teaching people what God required of them and continually foretold his coming death and resurrection. And he did one more thing; he claimed to be God.
Because of his claim to be God, the leading religious people, along with the political powers of the day, passed an unjust sentence of death upon him. Although he had never done anything wrong, he was beaten, mocked, and shamefully executed. He died. Even though it looked like he had failed, the truth is that this was God’s plan from the very beginning.
His body was taken down from the cross and laid hastily in a rock tomb in a garden. After three days, some of his followers went to go properly care for his remains and discovered that he had risen from the dead. They actually spoke with him, touched him, and ate with him. This is the story that we celebrate at Easter. After another forty days, he was taken back up into heaven, still in his physical form, and his followers were told that he would return to earth in just the same way.
I told you that there were two things you needed to know and believe. The first is that you need more significant help than you or any other merely human person could ever supply. The second is that you believe that Jesus, the Christ, is the person who will supply that help and that if you come to him, he will not turn his back on you. You don’t need to understand much more than that, and if you really believe these truths, your life will be transformed by his love.
Below I’ve written out some verses from the Bible for you. As you read them, you can talk to God just as though he were sitting right beside you (because his presence is everywhere!), and ask him for help to understand. Remember that his help isn’t based on your ability to perfectly understand or anything that you can do. If you trust him, he’s promised to help you and that’s all you need to know for now.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” . . .The same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9–13)
And whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
[Jesus said] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–30)
[This personal testimony of God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ is written by Elyse Fitzpatrick and was published as an appendix in You Never Stop Being a Parent. If you’d like to learn more about what it means to be born again, to be completely forgiven by God and begin a new, transformed life, please contact Elyse through her website, www.elysefitzpatrick.com. She would love to help you understand God’s love and His desire to transform your life.] You may also be interested in reading this Journey to Biblical Counseling: Interview with Elyse Fitzpatrick