What is the gospel?

This is an important question to consider given the tendency in some churches which regard themselves as evangelical to tell people some of the facts around the gospel, whilst crucially never actually preaching the gospel itself.

What's the difference? Well, in such churches the message might often include many core truths, such as that Jesus Christ is Lord, he is fully God and fully man, he really did die on a cross for our sins, he rose again, he is alive forevermore, one day he will return, God loves us, we are saved, and so on. These are all wonderful truths - but only if we have first turned to Christ in repentance and faith, and the necessity of this is, in some 'evangelical' churches, often being missed out. This is a very different approach from the one taken by the New Testament Church as evidenced in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters.

If people are only ever told about the blessings of being a Christian, without being told the only way to become a Christian, then they are being dangerously mislead. What is crucially missing is that there is no clear call to repentance and faith. The gospel is not being preached. There is an assumption being made that everyone who hears the messages each week has already turned to Christ in repentance and faith, and this is a dangerous assumption for any preacher to make. Anyone who has not surrendered to Christ in repentance and faith will most likely hear the message that 'Jesus is Lord, he died for our sins, he rose again, we are forgiven, God loves us,' etc, and go away feeling reassured and comforted, mistakenly thinking that they do not need to worry about where they stand with God. The message they have heard tells them that God loves them and they are forgiven - without telling them that this is only so if we have turned to Christ in repentance and faith.

Sometimes hints of how to become a Christian are included, but in an inadequate way, such as telling people, 'a Christian is someone who has decided to follow Jesus'. Well, this is true, but on its own it is not a sufficient description. What does 'following Jesus' mean? Simply following him as some kind of moral example? That will not save anyone! We cannot afford to leave out the vital part about the need to recognise our guilt before God, and the need to turn to him in personal repentance and faith.

People preaching messages which leave out a clear call to repentance and faith in Christ are assuming that all of their hearers are already right with God. There is an assumption of inclusion of all in the blessings of belonging to Christ, without a clear call being made to personal repentance and faith, and a warning of where we stand if we do not so turn to Christ. We cannot leave that out and still think the gospel is being preached. The apostles knew this.

The apostles understood what preaching the gospel meant

Throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament letters the apostles were very, very clear about how preaching the gospel includes both telling people about the awesome mercy and love of God as demonstrated at the cross of Christ, about how Jesus died for our sins, about the blessings of belonging to him, but also about how we all stand by nature under his judgment, about how God now commands all people to repent, and about the consequences of not repenting. We cannot leave out these truths and still think we are preaching the gospel.

All of Scripture bears witness to the gospel and gives us an overview, a meta-narrative, or to put it colloquially, 'the big picture', of how God is good, he created the world good and created us good too, how we rebelled against him and fell under his judgment, about how God is holy and righteous but merciful and loving too, about how even before God made the world he had a plan to rescue a vast number of people from their sins by saving them through his Son, Jesus Christ, about how one day there will be judgment, eternal punishment of everyone still in rebellion against God, and the welcoming into a new heavens and a new earth of God's own people, saved by his grace alone, that God will be worshipped and adored for ever, that God will be 'all in all'.

God commands all people everywhere to repent

But at the heart of the gospel is the cross of Christ, why it happened, what our response must be, and what the consequences are if we do not so respond. In the words of the apostle Paul:

"... But now he [God] commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead." (Acts 17:30b-31)

On another occasion, Paul's preaching of the gospel caused one hearer to become 'terrified' (ASV), 'frightened' (NASB), 'afraid' (NCV). The KJV even says that Felix 'trembled'. Here's the account of the incident:

But after some days, Felix came with Drusilla, his wife, who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was terrified, and answered, "Go your way for this time, and when it is convenient for me, I will summon you." (Acts 24:24-25)

It's difficult to imagine anyone reacting this way to some 'evangelical' preaching today.

I am not suggesting that any pastor should preach on John 3:16 every sermon like a broken record, as Christians need to hear the entire Bible preached and taught from, it's all the word of God and, for those who already are Christians, it is all necessary for our spiritual development. And I'm not suggesting that the objective is to terrify people for the sake of it. In Acts 14 Paul and Barnabus told a crowd that:

"... [we] bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to the living God, who made the sky and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them; who in the generations gone by allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, in that he did good and gave you rains from the sky and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness." (Acts 14:15b-17)

So presenting the gospel to people can include showing them how God has been kind and gracious to them in all kinds of ways, even though they do not yet know him. But the Bible makes clear that we cannot stop there and still think we have preached the gospel. Scripture reveals that God's kindness towards those who don't acknowledge him ultimately adds to their culpability before God if, despite all of his kindnesses, people still choose to be in rebellion against him:

Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. (Romans 2:4-5)

There's something wrong with 'evangelical' preaching which never, or very rarely, makes any clear presentation of the gospel including a direct call to personal repentance and faith. And where the gospel is preached, and heard by those who do not know Christ, an initial reaction of fear is a possible indication that the message has been at least partially understood, for if we do not know Christ, then we have good reason to be afraid. We need to realise we are under God's judgement before we are then able to understand how wonderful the message of the cross is. The message of God's love and forgiveness of all who truly repent and believe is a message only appreciated by those who have understood that they were justly under God's verdict of 'guilty'.

Perhaps part of the problem is that in some 'evangelical' churches the entire Bible is often not systematically preached from. I'm not saying it isn't ever appropriate to preach in a topical or thematic way, because this can be very useful too, but I do wonder what is going on if some subject areas, or some parts of Scripture, are being deliberately and permanently avoided.

Systematically preach from the entire word of God and there is no avoiding those parts which speak of judgement as well as forgiveness, of wrath as well as grace. Behold the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:22). It's all there in the Scriptures, and we are not supposed to pick and choose which bits we are willing to believe. Scripture is God's revelation of himself to us, and God is who he is. If we only believe some parts of what Scripture says about God, and disbelieve other parts of God's own revelation to us, then the god we believe in is an idol we have created according to our own ideas of what we think God should be like.

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