Getting the Gospel Right

 

You have written a book entitled Getting the Gospel Right. Perhaps the best place to begin is, what is the gospel?

There is probably no term used more loosely in the church than the term “gospel.” You hear preachers say all the time that they are “ministers of the gospel” or that they “preach the gospel,” but many times they have no idea what the gospel actually is!

During my years teaching seminary, one of the D.Min. classes I taught was on justification. What I would characteristically do is put the word “gospel” on the blackboard and ask the ministers who were present to give me a definition of the gospel. They would say things like, “getting peace in your life,” “being reconciled with God,” “gaining purpose and self-esteem.” All of those things were true to a degree, but none of them qualified as a definition for the gospel. Several years ago, Michael Horton conducted a survey of one hundred people at a convention for Christian Booksellers asking the question, “What is the gospel?”. These were people who were seriously involved with Christian education. Yet when their responses were evaluated, only one adequate answer was provided.

To answer the question “What is the gospel?” is rather simple. The gospel is Jesus, the person and work of Christ—who Jesus is and what He did. The gospel also describes how the benefits of His ministry are subjectively appropriated. That’s why the doctrine of justification by faith alone was so pivotal at the time of the Reformation, because it wasn’t a secondary matter but rather had to do with the gospel. Essentially, the pressing question that the gospel answers is, “How can an unjust person become just in the sight of God?”

Another way of approaching the question is to examine the apostolic preaching, particularly the preaching in the book of Acts. Historically, when speaking of the gospel message, we have made a distinction between the kerygma and the didache. The kerygma was the proclamation the early church made to the world, and once people respond to that they receive the didache, or the teaching. When Paul went to Athens and preached, he didn’t have time to start with Abraham and go all the way through Malachi. Yet he was able to present in a nutshell the message of the truth of God and of the history of redemption, which culminates in the person and work of Christ.

If we analyze that kerygma found in the book of Acts, we will see the message that this Man was born of woman, of the seed of David, according to the Scriptures. He lived a sinless life, made a sacrificial atonement on the cross, was raised by God from the dead for our justification, and ascended into heaven to the right hand of God, where He is crowned Lord of lords and King of kings, from where He will return and judge the world. The benefits of this is reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, and justification, from which we get peace with God, which is received by faith alone. That is the gospel.

One of the biggest problems we face in the church is preaching to people who are unconverted but think they are converted. They have made a profession of faith by walking an aisle, raising their hand, or signed a prayer card, and they think because they have done those things they have been truly converted. Just because we profess to have faith doesn’t mean that we have it.

I think can of two classical sermons that address this same theme. One was from Gilbert Tennent, “The Danger of the Unconverted Clergy,” and the other was from Jonathan Edwards, “A Warning to Professors.” This was Jesus’ great warning: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt 15:8). He ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Mt 7:21–23).

For me, it is liberating to be a pastor in a single location for a long time, because that allows me to preaching verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible. I don’t have to lay awake thinking what verse I should preach; the text dictates that for me.

Preachers are accountable to preach the whole counsel of God. So, if I’m not bound to preaching through books, I can intentionally or unintentionally fall into the “hobby-horse syndrome” of preaching only the texts I like or want to preach. But when the preacher is dedicated to verse-by-verse exposition, he can’t avoid preaching the whole counsel of God.

Within expository preaching more broadly, I have found it tremendously encouraging to preach through the four Gospels. I enjoy this so much, because it is an excellent opportunity to tell people as much as you can about Jesus. Every single night, I pray for an awakening in our church. Getting the Gospels in front of people as much as possible allows their minds to be filled with Christ, that the Spirit might bring them all to a saving knowledge of Christ.

What are some of the distinguishing marks of preaching with a desire for conversions?

Sunday morning worship is primarily for the believer. I don’t establish our worship on the needs or desires of “seekers,” because no one seeks after God by his or her own initiative. Instead, I establish our worship for believers. But, at the same time, as Augustine said, the church is always a “mixed body.” This idea did not originate with Augustine but with Jesus. So, we know that on any given Sunday morning, the odds are great that there are going to be unbelievers present at our worship service.

On the one hand, if you preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday morning and focus your attention on the unbeliever exclusively, you have missed the point of corporate worship. The church is there to grow into the maturity of Christ through learning from the expounded Word of God. On the other hand, at the same time that my primary focus is on expounding the text for the benefit of the believer, I am also acutely conscious that there are unbelievers present. As a result, I almost always make an evangelistic appeal to unbelievers, letting them know that if they died tonight they would wake up in hell. There are many ways to make evangelistic appeals without spending the primary time doing so.

I do not believe I personally have an extraordinary anointing of God during my preaching like some men such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others experienced during their ministries. Therefore, I struggle with the inadequacy of my preaching. This struggle is exacerbated by not seeing the kind of response that I would love to see in response to the Word of God. That is why I pray all the time that God will move the people listening to the preaching of His Word.

Even though I often feel very inadequate, I am fully and completely confident in the power of the Word. The Word is not going to return void. When I preach the Scriptures, week in and week out, in an expository manner, people may not remember what I preached on several weeks ago, but there is still a cumulative effect that is building up in their lives. The power of the Word is what changes and transforms the hearts of people.

As Spurgeon ascended to his pulpit, he would repeat over and over to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” As I am walking up into the pulpit of my own church, I remind myself, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:1). God has revealed Himself in His Word, and there is no substitute for that.

I am reminded of the well-known illustration of Vince Lombardi picking up a football before his players and saying to them, “This is a football, am I going too fast for you?” Before today’s modern preachers, I would pick up a Bible and say to them, “This is a Bible, am I going too fast for you?” In other words, when we start anywhere other than with the Bible, we go every way but the right way. I am not providing a technique for success. This is the job and duty of the preacher of the Word of God. Forget your entertainment and other gimmicks, and preach the whole counsel of God!

All biblical preaching puts Christ at the center of the message. Why do we say the message we preach is an exclusive message?

I cannot imagine an affirmation that would meet with more resistance from contemporary Westerners than the one Paul makes in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” This declaration is narrow and downright un-American. We have been inundated with the viewpoint that there are many roads that lead to heaven, and that God is not so narrow that He requires a strict allegiance to one way of salvation. If anything strikes at the root of the tree of pluralism and relativism, it is a claim of exclusivity to one religion or one God. A statement such as Paul makes in his first letter to Timothy is seen as bigoted and hateful.

Paul, of course, is not expressing bigotry or hatefulness at all. He is simply expressing the truth of God, the same truth Jesus taught when He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Paul is affirming the uniqueness of Christ, specifically in His role as Mediator. A mediator is a go-between, someone who stands between two parties that are estranged or involved in some kind of dispute. Paul declares that Christ is the only Mediator between two parties at odds with one another—God and men.

Why, then, does Paul say there is only one mediator between God and man? I believe we have to understand the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation in terms of the uniqueness of His person. He is the God-man, that is, God incarnate. In order to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, the second person of the Trinity united to Himself a human nature. Thus, Jesus has the qualifications to bring about reconciliation—He represents both sides perfectly.

People ask me, “Why is God so narrow that He provided only one Savior?” I do not think that is the question we ought to ask. Instead, we should ask, “Why did God give us any way at all to be saved?” In other words, why did He not just condemn us all? Why did God, in His grace, give to us a Mediator to stand in our place, to receive the judgment we deserve, and to give to us the righteousness we desperately need? The astonishing thing is not that He did not do it in multiple ways, but that He did it in even one way.

Notice that Paul, in declaring the uniqueness of Christ, also affirms the uniqueness of God: “There is one God.” This divine uniqueness was declared throughout the Old Testament; the very first commandment was a commandment of exclusivity: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). So, Paul brings all these strands together. There is only one God, and God has only one Son, and the Son is the sole Mediator between God and mankind.

In thinking through the narrow terms of the exclusivity of Christ and of the Christian faith, let me ask you to think through the ramifications of putting leaders of other religions on the same level as Christ. In one sense, there is no greater insult to Christ than to mention Him in the same breath as Muhammad, for example. If Christ is who He claims to be, no one else can be a way to God. Furthermore, if it is true that there are many ways to God, Christ is not one of them, because there is no reason one of many ways to God would declare to the world that He is the only way to God.

There is much discussion today about the role of the law in preaching the gospel. What is the relationship between the law and the Christian?

“O how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97). What a strange statement of affection. Why would anyone direct his love toward the law of God? The law limits our choices, restricts our freedom, torments our consciences, and pushes us down with a mighty weight that cannot be overcome, and yet the psalmist declares his affection for the law in passionate terms. He calls the law sweeter than honey to his mouth (Ps 119:3).

What is it about the law of God that can provoke such affection? In the first place, the law is not an abstract set of rules and regulations. The law reflects the will of the Lawgiver, and in that regard it is intensely personal. The law reflects to the creature the perfect will of the Creator and at the same time reveals the character of that Being whose law it is.

When the psalmist speaks of his affection for the law, he makes no division between the law of God and the Word of God. Just as the Christian loves the Word of God, so we ought to love the law of God, for the Word of God is indeed the law of God.

The second reason why the psalmist has such a positive view of the law is that the law, by revealing God’s character, exposes our fallenness. It is the mirror that reflects our own images—warts and all—and becomes the pedagogue, the schoolmaster that drives us to Christ. The law does not drive us out of the kingdom but rather ushers us into the kingdom by directing us to the One who alone is able to fulfill its demands.

The most wonderful function of the law, however, is that it shows us what is pleasing to God. The godly man is the one who meditates on the law day and night (Ps 1:2), and he does so because he finds his delight therein. By delighting in the precepts of God, he becomes like a tree planted by rivers of living water, bringing forth its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). Our Lord said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15), but we cannot show that love for Him unless we know what the commandments are. A knowledge of the law of God gives to us the pattern of loving obedience. If we love the Lord, we must also love His law. To love God and despise His law is a contradiction that must never be the profile of the Christian.

God gives us His law not to take away our joy, but rather that our joy may be full. His law is never given in a context of meanness, but in the context of His love. We love the law of God because God loves His law and because that law is altogether lovely.

As expositors, we are responsible for preaching and presenting the message of the gospel. Our responsibility stops there, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw the soul to Christ. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation?

The monergistic work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit is an immediate work. It is immediate with respect to time, and it is immediate in the sense that it operates without intervening means. The Holy Spirit does not use something apart from His own power to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life, and when that work is accomplished, it is accomplished instantaneously.Here we have a classic either/or situation. A person is either born again, or he is not born again. There is no nine-month gestation period with respect to this birth. No one is partly regenerate, or almost regenerate. When the Spirit changes the disposition of the human soul, He does it instantly. A person may not be aware of this internal work accomplished by God for some time after it has actually occurred. But though our awareness of it may be gradual, the action of it is instantaneous.

When the Holy Spirit regenerates a human soul, the purpose of that regeneration is to bring that person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That purpose is effected and accomplished as God purposes in the intervention. Regeneration is more than giving a person the possibility of having faith; it gives him the certainty of possessing that saving faith.

The result of our regeneration is first of all faith, which then results in justification and adoption into the family of God. Nobody is born into this world a child of the family of God. We are born as children of wrath. The only way we enter into the family of God is by adoption, and that adoption occurs when we are united to God’s only begotten Son by faith. When by faith we are united with Christ, we are then adopted into that family of whom Christ is the firstborn. Regeneration therefore involves a new genesis, a new beginning, a new birth. It is that birth by which we enter into the family of God by adoption.

The Key to Evangelistic Success

In the early years of my life as a theological student, an article appeared in a journal intended for candidates for ordination. It bore the title, “Evangelism and Election: friends or foes?” Well, to be honest, at that stage in my Christian life, if you had pressed me for an answer,  I think I might well have said “foes.” Did not the doctrine of election teach that God had already chosen a people for himself before the foundation of the world? And didn’t the wider doctrine of the sovereignty of God imply that God was in complete and final control of everything in the universe? Then what is the point of calling people to come to Jesus Christ for salvation?

Shortly afterwards, there was published a book by Dr. J. I.Packer entitled, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. It was the very book I needed, and I devoured it. The most useful thing I could say in this article is that if you have not already done so, you should devour that book also.   It clarified to me that, far from being an obstacle to evangelism, the doctrines of divine election and divine sovereignty were the key secret to driving our evangelism and saving us from becoming discouraged and daunted in it. The rest of this article will seek to justify that statement.

God’s Sovereign Redemption
Let me begin with the Apostle Paul’s experience in Acts 18. He is the evangelist par excellence,  but in Corinth he was facing blasphemous opposition to his evangelism. Paul was discouraged,  but the Lord spoke to him in a vision “Do not be afraid” He said, “but go on speaking and do not be silent.” And then God gave him the reason for this encouragement, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10).

Now the striking truth is that these people of whom God is speaking had not yet believed the Gospel. Many of them had not heard it, but God declared that they were His. They had been, as Luke puts it in Acts 13:48  “appointed to eternal life.” Now this is the doctrine of God’s sovereign initiative in salvation, but used in the way Scripture uses it. That is, not as a bullet to be fired by Calvinists, nor as a bomb to be dropped on Arminians, but as a bulwark for God’s people, to save them from discouragement, fear and a lack of confidence in God and the Gospel.   Paul heard these words and “settled there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). As John Stott puts it, “This conviction of God’s sovereignty in salvation is the greatest of all encouragements to an evangelist.”

It is important to clarify why this is so. Earlier, in the fourth chapter of Acts, in a situation of even greater crisis, the Apostles are driven into the presence of God in prayer. The word they use in addressing God is rightly translated in some versions  “Sovereign Lord,” and they go on to ascribe absolute sovereignty to God in both creation and redemption. Listen again to the way they describe what happened in the darkness of Calvary, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28).

You see, the essence of the apostolic conviction is that the Sovereign Lord was the ultimate moving power behind everything in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.   When human wickedness seemed to have reached its nadir, the sovereign, controlling hand was God’s.  Jesus put the same truth to Pilate in this way in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.” So in history’s darkest hour, the fact of God’s sovereign rule encouraged and enabled the Apostles in two vital areas: prayer and  preaching.

Prayer
Most of us have been involved in conferences focussing on the most effective evangelistic methods for our generation. What I miss is an emphasis on the primary evangelistic method,  which of course is prayer. Do you know these words of E. M. Bounds? I will never forget the day I first read them:

“We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organisations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and effficiency for the Gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man, or sink the man in the plan or organisation. God’s plan is to make much of the man. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget, and the forgetting of it is as baneful in the work of God  as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through men.  He does not anoint plans but men––men of prayer.

The searching question we need to ask in the light of that is, why then is it that in so many evangelical churches and ministries, prayer is supplemental rather than fundamental? Could it be that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation is not as fundamental and supreme as it should be? Or could it be that we do not really believe that God, and only God, can save the lost and raise them into new life in Christ? Of course there are so many things we can  do. We can persuade people intellectually, we can move them emotionally, and much else. But only God can regenerate them spiritually, and it is a work of regeneration for which we are seeking, is it not?    

Preaching
As the Sovereign Lord, this is the other area in which God empowers us. The first implication of that is that when God takes a man up and uses him in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, the result should not be that people come out from the occasion saying “What a man!”. Rather, the most natural thing to escape their lips would be the words “What a God!”,  “What a Saviour!”,  “What a Gospel!”.   It is for this reason that Paul says  “We do not preach ourselves,  but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). Significantly,  the doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not ever inflate the human ego, or make a man self-important and proud. By contrast, it humbles us from two sources. One is the nature of the biblical gospel which insists, as Archbishop Temple once said, that “the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.” The other is the teaching of Jesus about fruitful Christian service in John chapter 15: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself . . . neither can you unless you abide in me . . . apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Of course, growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ is growing in genuine selflessness and humility, as John the Baptist saw so clearly when he said  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

I will bring this article to a conclusion by setting out five principles which I believe should guide our ministry of pulpit evangelism:

The Word of God in Holy Scripture is our only infallible authority for the substance of the gospel message. One implication of that is that all our preaching should in some sense be an exposition of Scripture. In pulpit evangelism, we shall of course be careful to expound relevantly  in relation to the people who are present.

The gospel’s theme is Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners (cf. Peter’s preaching in Acts 2).

The Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed to us in the whole of Scripture. That means that we should find the Holy Spirit convicting and saving sinners through the message of the whole Bible and not just from a few “Gospel texts.” This is the example Jesus gives us in Luke 24:27 on the road to Emmaus, “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.”

4. We must be clear that it is not the Bible which saves us. It is Christ who saves us. But the only Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed in the Bible.

2 Corinthians 5:14–21 is a significant passage in connection with evangelistic preaching. It makes clear that there are two elements in the preaching of the message of the Gospel. The first is proclamation, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The other is appeal, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Don’t miss the remarkable truth here: as Christ is the agent through whom God achieves the reconciliation of sinners, so we are the agents through whom He appeals to them, or “begs” them. We are nothing less than God’s ambassadors. As John Stott puts it with typical neatness, “There must be no proclamation without appeal,  and there must be no appeal without  proclamation.”

My own impression is that while most of us would be confident that we know what the proclamation involves, we are less certain about the appeal. This is partly because the word appeal is associated with a procedure seen at evangelistic occasions in many parts of the world. Whatever we think of that kind of public “going forward,”  it is certainly not what Paul is referring to. What he is speaking about is an appeal to the heart and conscience of his hearers to receive by repentance and faith the riches of God’s grace in Christ. Now while Scripture makes it clear that both repentance and faith are gifts from God, it is equally clear that God does not repent or believe for us.

But that must never diminish the idea that it is God Himself who implores sinners through our preaching to lay aside all forms of resistance, and come gladly and eagerly to Jesus Christ to receive the salvation He has gained for us at the cross. We must never get used to the mystery that the Sovereign Lord of the universe should stoop so low as to make redeemed sinners His  ambassadors.

What differences should resting on this doctrine make to the man in the pulpit? I think there are chiefly two: 1. It should make him an intercessor even more than an expositor, and 2. It should make him quietly confident, but not self-confident.