I took a class on evangelism in Seminary in which the Professor—Dr. Doug Cecil—used a helpful analogy to describe the gospel that we are to preach. He likened the gospel to a hamburger, which, he said, has 3 essential elements. According to the analogy, the bottom bun of the gospel is sin, because unless people come to know their problem of sin, they cannot know their need for the Savior. Says Dr. Cecil, you cannot preach the gospel without the bottom bun of sin. The top bun is faith, because that is what justifies. The gospel brings people to repentant believing, or else it does not save. If we do not call for faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, our preaching is missing the top bun. Now, there are many other condiments and toppings that rightly belong in the gospel, but one more thing is necessary to actually have a hamburger. You have to have the meat. The meat of the gospel, according to Dr. Doug Cecil (and I agree with him) is substitutionary atonement.
Substitutionary atonement includes the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, but focuses especially on the meaning of His death. To be sure, we must declare that Jesus is the Son of God, and by that mean that He is God in flesh. We must declare the facts of His having been crucified and buried, and that He rose from the dead. But unless we declare the meaning of His death, our gospel is missing the meat, or the substance, that makes it what it is.
Substitutionary atonement is a theological term that simply means that Christ died as a substitute for believers, taking the penalty that we deserve upon His shoulders. He bears the wrath of God against our sin, not against His own, for He, in fact, had none. He substitutes for us—the Bridegroom for His bride, the Shepherd for His sheep, the King for His subjects, the God-man for the fallen children of Adam who are made by this one sacrifice to be the children of God.
The Scriptures clearly teach that substitutionary atonement is the core of the gospel.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, emphasis mine)”
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, emphasis mine)
“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, emphasis mine)
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 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 53:4-6)
Substitutionary atonement is the core of the gospel and has been regarded as such throughout the ages by the true Church, but we live in a day of rampant apostasy. Even supposedly evangelical churches, like the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, are hosting conferences and purveying teachings that present the God who substitutes His Son to propitiate His own wrath against sinners as a “Monster God” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdYMO2ZBboc). False teachers (like Brian Zahnd in this “Monster God debate”) decry the very meat of the gospel under the cover of supposedly evangelical leaders like Mike Bickle (pastor of IHOP). Although, in the debate, Dr. Michael Brown was also given a voice to herald the truth, the witnesses to the spectacle were divided in their assessment of who spoke the truth. And so it goes with deception. It tickles the ears and appears right to undiscerning minds who think according to the flesh rather than according to the Spirit.
The problem of apostasy in the church and unbelief among the peoples of earth is something that we cannot fix. Only God can change a heart of stone to a heart of flesh that is able to receive the teaching of the gospel. Nevertheless, God has ordained that the gospel would go forward and convert sinners by means of preaching. And it is our job to communicate the meat of gospel with clarity.
So then, armed with a clear understanding of the gospel—sin, substitutionary atonement, faith—let us go forth preaching this message to the ends of the earth. With Paul, let’s “pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should” (Colossians 4:4). With Dr. Doug Cecil, let’s go out preaching with a hamburger on our brains. The top bun is sin. The bottom bun is faith. And the meat is substitutionary atonement. Our thinking about the gospel sharpened by this analogy, let us call sinners to faith in the loving God (Romans 8:32) who did not spare His one and only Son, but gave Him up for us all.