Summary: The gospel is presented in this text in its simplest terms - the life and work of Jesus Christ.
We are nearing the end of 1 Corinthians. Just two chapters to go. And best of all, this chapter, which is the longest, contains some of the most inspiring, joyful passages in the Bible. And we get to start off with the very gospel itself.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul is about to recall the gospel that he preached to the Corinthians. Before he goes on, he impresses upon them the role they play. First, they received the gospel, i.e. when they heard it preached, they believed it. Second, they make their stand on the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is not a mere matter of belief like also believing Caesar Augustus was a Roman emperor. They stake their way of life on the gospel. They live and die by it. Third, they stake their salvation on it. They believe that it means their salvation. The gospel involves their past (receiving it), their present (making their stand), and their future (salvation). It cannot take a stronger position in their lives.
But then he adds, “if.” They will obtain salvation if they hold fast to the word which Paul preached to them. They are in danger of not holding fast to that word. We’ve seen how they have questioned his teachings and authority, and the bad results – sexual immorality, divisiveness in the church, and disrespect towards one another. But in this chapter Paul touches on a false teaching so bad that it strikes at the heart of the gospel and endangers their very salvation. Their grip on the gospel that he preached to them is starting to slip, and thus their initial reception and belief in the gospel will be in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
Two quick notes to make. What Paul is about to convey is of the utmost importance. Second, it is not what he has deduced, but instead is the faithful messenger of both vision (from Christ’s direct teaching) and church teaching. What, then, is this all-important divine message?
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
Jesus Christ died; he was buried; he was raised from the dead on the third day. Let’s look at these events which make up the gospel.
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. Paul wrote earlier in the letter that he determined to know nothing (i.e. to teach only) Jesus Christ and him crucified. He explains the significance of Christ’s death – it was for our sins. By dying on the cross, Jesus made a sacrifice to God the Father that did two things. One, it provided forgiveness for our sins. Because of our sin, we stood under the judgment of God. Under his justice we stood condemned. But instead of receiving God’s just punishment, Christ received it in our place.
Consider this Bible passage:
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).
The punishment that should have been visited on us was instead transferred to Christ as the sacrifice on the cross. This is taken straight from the Jewish sacrificial system. When a person sinned, he could take an animal to the temple and have it sacrificed for his sins. He would lay his hand upon the animal’s head symbolizing that he was transferring his guilt to the animal. This is called the substitutionary atonement. Just as the animal served as a substitute for the sinner, so Christ served as our substitute on the cross.
Look at another passage:
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).
All individuals share the same problem no matter who they are. We are all sinners in the sight of God. He cannot simply forgive us, because that would make him an unjust God. Justice demands punishment for breaking the law. We, on the other hand, can neither take the punishment due us and live, nor can we make ourselves innocent. Jesus propitiated God’s just wrath – i.e. he satisfied the requirement that sin be punished. Once that satisfaction was made, forgiveness is provided to all who exercise faith in Jesus.