Most presentations of the gospel preach our clothes off but leave us naked afterward. Okay, that was a rather provocative first sentence, but it gives us an image that I believe can help us explain some of the negative effects that most contemporary offers of the gospel produce. The great majority of the time when we hear the gospel preached, what is preached is forgiveness of sins. We are told that Jesus died to forgive us of the awful things that we have done and that if we just believe in this, then we will no longer be under condemnation. Little or nothing is said about righteousness - either the righteousness of Christ or the righteousness of the believer - unless the preacher also chooses to focus on the need for repentance (sadly out of vogue in many places today). What results is an appeal that seems to offer (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a sort of "get-out-of-hell-free card" - a one-time removal of the stain of sin that, when coupled with some form of 'eternal security', makes the convert "good to go" for the rest of his or her life.
Many, many converts have responded to this kind of message only to later drift out of church never to return. Now, I know that there are other factors beyond simply the way that the gospel is proclaimed that should probably come into a discussion of what went wrong with those particular converts, but I am also aware that we can't really over-stress the importance of what is communicated in a gospel appeal since that is what the convert is responding to.
So what is missing from the aforementioned gospel presentation? What's missing is the new set of clothes. We've removed the old dirty clothes (our sin), but we've not put on anything else. We're left naked by this gospel appeal.
In Zechariah 3, we can watch the process of salvation unfold in a picturesque way in the life of the High Priest - Joshua.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?" Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5)
Here we see the need for and then the process of salvation. Joshua is filthy with sin. Satan stands to accuse him of this iniquity. By the grace of God, though, the filthy clothes are removed. But Joshua is not left to stand before the King of the Universe with no clothes on! He is given "pure vestments". God does not just take away his unrighteousness. If that was all that happened, then Joshua - or any of the rest of us - would still be infinitely lacking in God's eyes because God does not just demand the absence of sin, He demands the presence of righteousness. Joshua cannot be righteous in himself, so God has these special garments of righteousness made for him.
The second part of this change of clothes is what is often neglected in most presentations of the gospel. We don't just need forgiveness, we need righteousness in addition. We need the whole package. This garment of righteousness - this pure vestment - is also a part of Christ's work. It is true that on the cross He suffered the penalty for my sin, removing the filthy garment from me, but He also lived a perfect life and was resurrected so that I could have His perfection and His resurrection. Those are the pure vestments that I need to cover my nakedness.
So how is this kind of gospel presentation better? It does not just proclaim a rescue from the horrors of hell, it proclaims the righteousness of Christ and the glory of being able to stand in His presence. It changes the focus from something that may appeal to any old worldling without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (who wouldn't want to "get-out-of-hell-free"?) to something that will only appeal to those whom the Holy Spirit is bringing to life in Christ. Only those who have truly been saved hunger and thirst for righteousness, so that's how we ought to make our appeal.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)