In this post-modern age in which your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth, and it really doesn’t matter as long as you are happy. This world-view has even found its way into the church. Because of this world-view this is a crucial question, a question that affects your eternal destiny. The one place where the truth is to be proclaimed is the one place where there is enormous confusion about the gospel. The church is the one place where one should find the clear preaching of the gospel. Now more than ever, the church is the one place where the preaching of the gospel is minimized, and issues like social justice, human trafficking, and health and prosperity are emphasized.
The church should be the place where the gospel is heard weekly. Sadly, this is not the case. Why is it that the gospel is minimized at best and ignored at worst? I believe that it is because there are pastors who have bought into the idea of American Pragmatism. Pragmatism is the lone American contribution to the world of philosophy. It is a way of determining truth based on whether it works. This is why; when pastors speak to one another, the second question they ask is, “So tell me, how big is your church?” The pastor is fixated on growth. The fixation on numbers is rooted in sin. That sin is pride! Pride, because numbers give them a way to compare themselves with other pastors. Pride, because numbers are a gauge of success. Pride, because a church with many attendees can do more than a church with a small number of members. So because a leader wants people in the pews and money in the offering plates, the leader becomes comfortable with his pride.
When the leader of a particular local church is comfortable in his sin of pride, the gospel is minimized at best, or utterly ignored at worst. The passion of the pastor becomes the focus, rather than the gospel, for that local church. The reason is simple, the gospel is offensive! The gospel says in unequivocal terms that the work of God is the only way to salvation. Humanity, due to their fallen nature, finds this truth repugnant, and therefore rejects the gospel. Because of this fact, and the desire of many pastors to have a church with a large number of attendees, the gospel is minimized or ignored. This should not surprise those of us who are thoughtful and biblically-oriented followers of Christ. The Apostle Paul foretold to his number one student, that there would be a time when people would flock to teachers who will tell them what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).
What the Gospel Is Not
Before we can understand what the gospel is, we must understand what the gospel is not. You may ask, “Why is this guy going negative? Why is he always going after what’s wrong, and not what’s right?” The answer is because so many churches get the gospel wrong. Because they get the gospel wrong they are manufacturing an entire generation of people who will go to hell because they believe in a false gospel that has no power to save! Paul, in his magnum opus on salvation, the book of Romans, states clearly that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:19, ESV). Therefore, we must get the gospel right in order to assure the salvation of those who will hear our preaching.
Further, I do not believe that this nation, or any other western nation, is hardened to the gospel. I believe that the people in these nations are gospel ignorant. They have never been confronted with the true gospel of Jesus Christ. As a result they think that the gospel is one thing when it is something entirely different. Many of these people have embraced a false gospel. They have invested their faith in that false gospel, and are sons of hell twice over because of it (scripture citation needed). This is why it is so important to understand what the gospel is by looking at its current deviations.
The Gospel is not the Plan of Salvation
This is a big one. More often than not, when you ask someone what the gospel is, they give you the “four spiritual laws” or the “Romans Road”. These are excellent tools, and in the case of the “Romans Road” biblical truth. However, they are not the gospel. They are the steps to follow in order to be saved.
The problem with presenting the plan of salvation as the gospel is that it is only half the story. Salvation is not just or justification, but also our sanctification. The gospel affects how we live our lives. The problem is that too many times we ask people if they are saved. We present the plan of salvation, and then we go for the close. The close is having them repeat the sinner’s prayer. Once they do that, we declare them to be saved, when in actuality they are no more saved than dogs.
In this false view God does the initial work of salvation, but it is up to the person to do the sanctification. This is usually done by heaping Law on the “new convert” by telling her to read her bible, to pray, to fast, and to attend a church in order to “stay saved.” I do not wish to diminish these elements of the Christian life, but these are not things to check off in order to “stay saved.” Rather they are appropriate fruits that demonstrate a person is saved. This is why the plan of salvation is not the gospel.
The Gospel is not the Great Commandment
I heard a sermon in which the preacher went through a list of church websites in which these churches listed as their mission, “To love God, and love people.” This is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words as found in Matthew 22:37-39. The problem is that these two summaries are not a summary of the gospel, but are a summary of the Law! The Law, according to Paul, has no power to save.
I love how John Bunyan, in The Pilgrim’s Progress depicts the Law. In that great work, Christian meets up with Faithful. Faithful tells Christian of his pilgrimage, and how he was deceived into following the road up to Mt. Sinai. There he finds Moses who beats him mercilessly with the Ten Commandments. This is what happens when we follow the Law. It beats us mercilessly because God’s Law is perfect and we are utter failures in keeping the Law 100% of the time in deeds, words and thoughts. The Law cannot save therefore it is not the gospel.
Following these two commandments without an understanding of the gospel will lead to legalistic bondage! It is only the gospel that empowers the believer to be able to obey these two legal summaries.
The Gospel is not the Great Commission
The gospel is not something we do, but it was something that was done. Therefore if we believe that the Great Commission is the gospel, then it becomes Law that we have to do in order to propitiate the angry God. The problem arises when the church views the Great Commission as a call to “disciple the nations.” When that happens the Great Commission becomes law, and binds the believer in another layer of legalism.
Further the gospel is not about instructing others in the moral teachings of Jesus. Again this leads to legalism and bondage. What happens if one is not quite an effective disciple maker? What about the guilt heaped up on a person for failing to be a disciple-maker? As you can see this is Law. Contrast that with the gospel and legalism comes up wanting.
The Gospel is not Your Personal Testimony
This is the view that requires you share “your story” with others. The problem is that the gospel is not our story; it is Jesus’ story only. The problem with this view is that it tells people that Jesus’ story really isn’t powerful to save. It needs my story in order to be complete.
Often I have heard the following statement, “The only gospel that most people will read is your life.” This is a modern spin on the quote attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the word at all times, and if necessary use words.” This statement was heretical when Francis said it, and it is heretical today. The reason is simple. The gospel is to be preached not lived. Why? Because the gospel is something that happened at a certain point in time, not the effect it has had on my life.
I don’t want people to read my life. The reason is simple, my life is not exemplary. I fail miserably in thought, word and deed. It is only through the grace and mercy displayed in the gospel that I can even live a holy life. I want to point people to the life of the One who can truly save, Jesus of Nazareth! His life is the only life worth telling others about. Why? Because only He lived a perfect life, and due to His death on the cross and resurrection three days later every good thing Jesus ever did is applied to my account.
Is your personal testimony even a part of evangelism? Just look at the evangelical messages recorded by Dr. Luke in Acts. How many times did Peter talk about his personal testimony while preaching to the masses? Did Paul reference his personal testimony when preaching to the Areopagus? No, they preached Christ and Him crucified. The only testimony that matters is Jesus’ because only He can save!
The Gospel is Not the Vision
The latest way in which the gospel is misrepresented is by the innovation called “vision”. This idea is found in “seeker sensitive” churches. The idea is that the founder of a particular church is given a “vision” from God that is used to direct the focus and direction of that church. The problem is that more often than not, this “vision” replaces the gospel and the founder replaces the Savior.
The “vision” of the founder is cast out to the church in order to keep the people focused on that “vision”. Anyone who sees an issue with the pastor’s “vision” is considered a problem, and is asked to leave the church. In my case, being a part of a “vision” driven church for much on my Christian life, I was blackballed from being a part of leadership. Note, it was not that I spoke against the “vision” of the pastor, but that I had an idea of ministry that was contrary to the accepted method of ministry. Mainly, that I wanted people to become more Protestant in their understanding of salvation and sanctification as opposed to Roman Catholic. This was an odd thing considering the fact that this church is rooted in Pentecostal theology, but that is for another post.
The Gospel is not Health and Prosperity
This is a huge problem in modern evangelicalism, and was made worse by the acceptance of the Prosperity teacher and heretical Modalist T.D. Jakes by James MacDonald & Mark Driscoll at the recent Elephant Room 2 conference. This false gospel teaches that the mark of a true Christian is a life marked by good health and financial prosperity. The problem is that one must do certain things in order to receive this blessing from God. More often than not the Prosperity false gospel requires a sizable financial donation, whether it be a “seed” or tithe (10% of your gross income), to the particular teacher in order for God to bless you. The problem with this is that this is not gospel. It is law!
Law is something that you do in order to propitiate an angry God. In the case of the Prosperity false gospel, your finances are the sacrifice that plies the blessing from an angry God. Why is He angry? Not because you are a sinner, but because you have sinned in not giving Him his 10% cut. In this false gospel, God is not really a loving Father reconciling His wayward children back to Him. Rather he is more like a Mafia don that demands his 10% cut as protection from the “devourer”. The Prosperity gospel is not the biblical gospel, it is law, and it will lead you to the eternal damnation of your soul just like any other false gospel.
What the Gospel Is
There are two main ideas taught by these false gospels. The first is that, the gospel is something you do, rather than something that was done. Second, that the gospel is something that happens to or in you, rather than something that happened. The gospel is clearly defined by the Apostle Paul:
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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ESV)
So based on what the Apostle Paul said here, the gospel are the historical facts that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised three days later. Anything other than this is a false gospel. The preaching of a false gospel is not some minor infraction. Again I quote what the Apostle Paul wrote, this time to the Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
(Galatians 1:6-9 ESV)
The gospel is not something that is done to you, or that happens inside of you. It is three events that happened in time and space: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These three events happened for one reason and one reason only: that God would be able to redeem those He elected, from humanity, from the penalty, power and presence of sin. Any pastor that teaches anything other than this as the gospel is leading you down the road to eternal damnation! Even though the pastor who teaches another gospel is under direct condemnation by Paul, the adherent to the false gospel is just as cursed. Again, this is not my opinion, but the very words of the Apostle Paul written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The issue at stake in whether or not you believe the true gospel or a false gospel is your eternal destiny. Believe in a false gospel and you are basing your salvation on whether or not you have fulfilled the law 100%, 100% of the time. Jesus said that it was not enough to merely lead a holy life, but that your very words and thoughts were also subject to just condemnation by God (Matthew 5:21-30).
God does not grade holiness on a curve, either we are perfect or we are not. Everyone, when we sit alone with our thoughts, realizes that we are guilty before a holy God (Romans 1:18-32). Because we are sinners, God is just in condemning us to an eternity separated from Him. C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell chose it.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Where the difference between false gospels and the true gospel becomes crystal clear is in how your sins are paid. False gospels say that it is by your works that your sins are paid. The true gospel says that the work has been done for you; that work was the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). The way to have your sins paid for, according to the true gospel, is by placing your trust in that work. So today, you have heard the true gospel. The truth that you, like me, are a sinner; that you, like me, are under right and just condemnation by a holy God. The only difference between you and I is that I have placed my trust in the work of Jesus on the cross, and as a result my sins are paid for. I invite you to have that same relationship with God. Repent (literally agree with God’s view of your sins) of your sins, believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.