In one sense, the gospel message is very simple to understand: Jesus died and rose again so that we can be saved. The basic facts of the gospel are easy enough to grasp. But in another sense the gospel message is one of the deepest of divine truths ever revealed to mankind: Jesus died and rose again so that we can be saved. The implications of those facts and the underlying theology of God are profound enough to keep even the most astute theologians pondering for a lifetime. When it comes to salvation, how thorough of an understanding is required before faith can truly be called “faith”?
It is undeniable that saving faith involves a certain level of understanding. That understanding is made possible through the preaching of the gospel (Matthew 28:18–20) accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart (Acts 16:14). Paul delineates the process that leads to a proper understand of the gospel: preaching, which leads to hearing, which leads to believing, which leads to calling on the Lord for salvation (Romans 10:14). The “hearing” implies understanding; if the preaching is not understood, then it is not truly “heard.”
The content of the preaching that must be understood is the gospel. From the very beginning, the apostles’ message stressed the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:23–24). This message is “of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). This passage contains the basic elements of the gospel, which centers on the Person and work of Christ: Jesus died for our sins, and He rose again from the dead. No one is saved without an understanding of this truth—and a reliance on it.
Each facet of the gospel message is important. Obscure the understanding of any element of the gospel, and faith dissolves: if we don’t understand that Jesus is the perfect Son of God, then His death is of no account, insofar as our salvation is concerned. If we don’t understand that Jesus died, then we logically won’t understand the resurrection. If we don’t understand the reason He died (for our sins), then we might view ourselves as guiltless and therefore not needing a Savior. If we don’t understand that Jesus rose again, then we miss the fact of a living Savior, and our faith is dead (1 Corinthians 15:17).
The Bible gives examples of those who had attained a certain amount of spiritual knowledge but were still unsaved. It was after they understood the essentials of the gospel that these individuals trusted Christ and were born again. The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39), Cornelius (Acts 10), Apollos (Acts 18:24–28), and the twelve men in Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7) all had religious backgrounds, but the moment of salvation only came when they put their faith in Christ—and they had to hear and understand the content of the gospel first.
However, in order to be saved, it is not necessary to understand everything the gospel entails. In fact, understanding the fullness of all the gospel entails is impossible, this side of glory. We strive, paradoxically, “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). But we will never fully understand the riches of God’s grace: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! / How unsearchable his judgments, / and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
For example, we don’t need to understand the hypostatic union in order to be saved. Quoting the definition of propitiation is not needed for salvation. Neither is a working knowledge of justification, redemption, or progressive sanctification required for entrance into heaven. Knowledge of these things comes with time and study of the Word, but they are not necessary to be grasped at the moment one is saved. It is doubtful that the thief on the cross understood much about soteriology when he turned to the Lord and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
The gospel message is simple enough for a child to understand. Jesus made a point of declaring that salvation is available to the little ones: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14). Praise the Lord, the gospel of Jesus Christ can be understood by children. Also, to those who are mentally incapable of understanding the gospel, we believe God extends His grace.
So, to go to heaven, we must “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31). That is, we trust in the sacrifice of the Holy One of God who died in our place and rose again the third day. To those who believe in Jesus’ name, God gives “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). The gospel is as simple—and as profound—as that.