Once upon a time, my family made the very difficult and emotional decision of breaking fellowship with a church for several reasons, but the most important one, and the one that would have done it by itself, was the persistent neglect of gospel-centered teaching. Since I’ve begun publicly urging the evangelical church to reclaim the centrality of the gospel and re-form its discipleship culture around the gospel, I have heard from many others in the same boat.
Gospel deficiency is the biggest crisis of the American church. It has been replaced by many things, most commonly a therapeutic, self-help approach to biblical application. Bible verses are extracted to enhance calls to self-improvement and Jesus is preached as moral exemplar (which of course, he is, but then again, so is Mother Theresa). The result is a Church that, ironically enough, preaches works, not grace, and a growing number of Christians who neither understand the gospel nor revel in its scandal.
There are lots of good reasons to reclaim the centrality of the good news of Jesus in our preaching and teaching and writing and blogging, and I’ve come up with four basic arguments for (what I’m calling) The Gospel Imperative, but perhaps defining our terms is in order. It’s no good going on about making the gospel the center of our worship and discipleship if we are not on the same page for what the gospel actually is.
Like many others, I affirm that the gospel is big. I favor a robust gospel, a good news proclamation with many facets and ramifications. It is everywhere in the shadows and in the light of the Old Testament Israelites’ desert wandering, and it encompasses the brilliant kingdom landscape of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is in God’s gracious covering of the freshly fallen Adam and Eve (and in the cursing of the serpent) in Genesis, and it is in the awesome return of the tattooed, sword-wielding Jesus 65 books later in Revelation. I agree with Tim Keller, who argues that the gospel is “both one and more than that.” It is certainly “more than that.” But it is also “one,” which is why I, along with many others, hold that Jesus’ substitutionary atonement is the sharp edge of the gospel. I nutshell this sharp edge with the simple compound “sin/grace.” This is my way of signaling that the central point and sharp edge of all that the gospel holds is the basic transformative truth that “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
So while acknowledging that the gospel is about the kingdom setting a fallen world back to rights, the gospel I am speaking about here, then, is the essential gospel, which is that Jesus has died and risen bodily and has thereby murdered sin and conquered death.
Pretty powerful stuff, ain’t it? And yet many of our churches will barely touch on it even in an Easter service!
Here are four basic reasons for evangelicalism’s reclamation of the gospel:
1. Because We Are Forgetful
Forgetting God’s goodness is part of our fallen DNA. The Bible demonstrates this vividly. Studying the Gospel of John with some friends recently, we puzzled initially over the way the disciples believed in Jesus after his turning water to wine. Now, of course that would be cause for belief, but John’s Gospel tells us just one chapter earlier that Jesus’ self-attestation and his ability to know them (he reads Nathanel like a book) cause them to believe in him. Which was it?
Well, it’s both. Certainly Jesus gives us endless reasons to worship him as Lord, but I am convinced that he does this graciously as we endlessly “forget” his Lordship. In the Old Testament, God sets the enslaved Israelites free in a mighty act of deliverance (that whole Red Sea parting thing) and one day later they’re complaining about not having anything to eat. And that’s just the beginning. God keeps providing; the Israelites keep grumbling.
Friends, we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. We are fickle, self-righteous, forgetful people. Yet we serve a steadfast, gracious, faithful God. Many preachers are fearful of highlighting the gospel every time they speak for fear of it appearing stale. But gospel redundancy is a good thing! We need it. We need the gospel every day (His mercies are new every morning) because we forget it and we sin every day.
Do not aid your community in its forgetfulness by relegating the gospel to the periphery of your proclamation. We need to be reminded of it constantly.
2. Because It is the Power to Save
We all want to grow the kingdom, right? We all want to seek and save the lost, right? We all want to lead as many people as possible to salvation, right?
Then, why, for the love of God, do we preach all manner of behavior modification, none of which could save a single one of us, when only the gospel saves?
Paul writes in Romans 1:16, ” I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
Yet if we could label our churches with the Nutrition Facts found on your can of soup, I reckon many would say in the fine print, “Not a significant source of gospel.” Are we ashamed?
If the gospel is the power to save, shouldn’t it be the meat of the message, not saved for the add-on invitation or for a special service every few weeks?
3. Because It is of First Importance
If holding the gospel as the power to save doesn’t push us toward greater gospel-centeredness, certainly Paul’s claim that is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) should do the trick. But, again, we hold off on the gospel. We make it occasional or half-hearted, thereby ascribing it lesser worth than our very important and self-devised Six Steps for Successful Living.
In a recent White Horse Inn podcast, the fellows warned listeners to beware the preacher who says, “Well, of course the gospel.” The point here is that they are highlighting so much of what they do that is not the gospel and then when asked about the gospel’s absence, they say, “Well, of course the gospel.” In such churches the gospel is implied. Which means it is an afterthought.
The gospel should not be implied. It is of first importance. It should be the clearest, most prevalent message and theme of all a community’s worship and focus.
4. Because It Glorifies God
The gospel is not advice. It is news.
It is not “Do more, be more, try more.” It is the message that the work is done.
The gospel does not say “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It says “It is finished!”
Our flesh hates this contrast. We hate it because the gospel says to us “You can’t do it; you are unable; you are deficient.” And we don’t like to hear that. Nobody wants to hear that we are incapable of saving ourselves, that in our insidest insides we are broken and cannot repair ourselves.
But this is what the gospel forces us to admit. And because it forces us to admit we are sinners deserving punishment with no inherent means of rescue, it forces us to admit that only God can save us, which forces us to reckon with the gospel truth that salvation is God’s work, not ours. God gets the credit. Grace means getting what we didn’t deserve, and the gospel of grace announces that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
When we insist on preaching about our efforts and making the gospel an afterthought, we have begun glorifying our works, glorifying ourselves. But when we center on the gospel and revel in its proclamation, we are glorifying God, because we are holding Christ’s finished good work more important than our insufficient good works.
The gospel is the hope of the world. It is my hope and it is yours. It should be our prayer and our humble insistence, then, that the people named for the gospel — “evangelical” is built on the word “evangelion,” Greek for “gospel” — live and preach true to their name once again.