The Essence of the Gospel

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The Gospel is the heart of the Bible. Everything in Scripture is either preparation for the Gospel, presentation of the Gospel, or participation in the Gospel.

Many believers “know” God intellectually. I did, initially. Actually, in many ways, I still do. I seem to know of Him more than I know Him. But head knowledge doesn’t cut it. It won’t change our lives. It might tell us how our lives can change. It may provide countless biblical examples of what this so-called changed life looks like; what we can and should do once we’ve become a new creation. But it will not imbue us with godliness or allow us to become Christ-like. The only way we can accomplish this is to get God from our head into our heart. Trust me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The most important doctrine in the Christian church is the Gospel. Pastors often encourage believers to begin with the Bible, but this approach challenges contemporary telling of the Gospel. For example, some think the Gospel is about social justice, others see it as salvation, and still others might see the Gospel as theological doctrine (kingdom, justification, sanctification). Just referring people to the Bible risks us losing them in the quagmire of confusion. We need to (i) promote the Gospel through how we live; and (ii) break the Gospel message down to the most basic.

We need God in our heart; not just in our head. This, however, is a life-long process.

As Christians, we often want to believe God in our head yet hang on to who we want to be in our heart. The heart is the seat of our soul: our emotions, desires, and will. To hold onto God intellectually while giving in to our every whim and desire of the flesh is precisely what is meant by trying to serve two masters. To dumb it down, this is also referred to as having our cake and eating it too. Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 6:24, “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other” (MSG). Well, that’s pretty plain, isn’t it? Okay, I’ll admit that from a sociological or legal perspective it is actually possible to serve two masters. But psychologically, or spiritually, if pressured to choose, our devotion for one will always drown out the other.

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As humans, whether we choose to believe it or not, we are servants. Yes, all of us! The bosses. The billionaires. The entrepreneurs. The retirees. Even when we’re not actively serving another human being, we are servants to our wants and desires. Paul understood the broad application of this passage. In Romans 8:5-6, he says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (NIV). He says we can either be in the flesh (Romans 7:5) or in the Spirit (Romans 8:9). The litmus test for flesh versus Spirit is simple: How do you live your life? What do you give in to on a daily basis?

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE GOSPEL

What is the “essence” of the Gospel? The word Essence refers to the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character. Some relevant synonyms include soul, spirit, ethos, intrinsic nature, reality. That last one is rather on point, isn’t it? As if we’re asking the question, “What is the reality of the Gospel?” Philosophers who teach on worldview talk of discovering the “really real.”

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Unconditional love and unwavering grace is the very essence of the Gospel. Jesus came to Earth to live among us, teach and inspire us, serving as Messiah and Exemplar. Man was created in the image of God. Jesus showed us what it looks like when we mirror that image. His entire life was a legacy of unconditional love, sacrifice, and servitude. We need to show love in all our day-to-day interactions with others. We must fine-tune our ability to recognize someone’s need, and then responding to that need. We are presented daily with opportunities to show love and kindness to those around us. There are many attributes which are manifestations of love, such as kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, grace, and forgiveness. In all our associations, whenever we can, if we display these attributes it will be outward proof of the love and grace we have in our hearts as a result of becoming one with Christ.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! — Charles Spurgeon

But what does it mean to preach the entire Gospel? Unfortunately, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are denominations and sects within the Body of Christ. To truly preach the Gospel is to clearly and unabashedly state every doctrine contained in God’s Word. It includes giving the Word the prominence it deserves. I’ve been to a number of church services in my lifetime. Some of the experiences were, to be as polite as possible, very interesting. Some were, well, just a bit of a downer. All the doom and gloom—how bad we are, nothing but sinners, deserving of eternal pain and separation from God—yet with no mention of the “Good News.” I left more than one sermon feeling as lost and confused as I did when I walked in. Thankfully, I have come full-circle and returned to the church of my youth where I accepted Christ at an alter call at age thirteen and was baptized as an outward display of my new-found faith.

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No man can claim to preach the whole Gospel if he knowingly and routinely leaves out even one single truth about Jesus Christ, God the Father, or the Holy Spirit. I’m a real fanatic when it comes to pastors sticking to the true Gospel message. Many church leaders today “tone it down,” perhaps hoping to avoid offending the congregation. People love hearing “it’s not your fault,” and “Jesus loves you anyway.” They don’t want to be confronted about their wrongdoing. I know I don’t! But I’ve come to accept who I am and realize there is work to be done if I ever hope to fulfill God’s plan for me.

Pastors who are afraid to speak doctrinal truth because they might scare people away are not being shepherds. Such an approach to ministry can actually serve to detract others from the Good News. The apostle Paul summarized the Gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe. He wrote, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB). If it sounds like a difficult undertaking, it is. I’ve found it requires singleness of purpose even if we have to wear blinders to the distractions of the flesh.

WHAT’S GOING ON IN OUR CHURCHES?

We’re told in Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (NIV). The early church grew exponentially. New believers were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory. I asked a member of my church, “If you had a choice, would you rather be living in the twenty-first century or back in the first century where you’d have a chance to meet Jesus and sit at His feet and hang on His every word? Walk with Him throughout Judea as He tells you about God’s love and grace?” Hands down, he’d rather be living during the time of Christ. Imagine the power and charisma that must have radiated from Jesus! I imagine His empathy and love were palpable. He judged no one. He hated no one. When put to the test by the Pharisees, Jesus always responded with the entire Gospel in mind, typically saying, “It is written.”

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A friend of mine who has served as a youth pastor and associate pastor said, “I am upset and discouraged by the dwindling number true Bible-believing churches that teach the Gospel in America today.” His biggest pet peeve is churches who have “professional” concerts, coffee clatches before or between services, movie night, dozens of support groups, countless missions they support, and yet near-silence on the wages of sin, the answer to breaking free from the bondage of the flesh, and an obligation to preach the entire Gospel. He said, “Church isn’t about entertainment.” Personally, I love worshiping Jesus in song. My church has a full-time (paid) worship leader, and we’ve invested a fairly large of money in sound equipment, in-ear wireless monitors for the team members, lights, and a computer-controlled projection of lyrics and related images.

WATERED-DOWN CHRISTIANITY LEADS TO LUKEWARM CHRISTIANS

Frankly, however, I see my friend’s point. The Christian church of today has been leaning toward “watering down” the Gospel at a critical time in history where we should be screaming from the rooftops the entire truth about sin and death, Christ and grace, the cross and forgiveness. Pastors who preach a less-than message risk lulling their congregations into a state of lukewarmness the Book of Revelation warns us about. Revelation 3:15-16 says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (NIV)[italics mine].

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Lukewarm Christians clearly risk being rejected by Christ. It would seem critical, therefore, that we recognize the signs. First, do you seek God before making decisions? One of the major aspects of the Christian life is trusting God to lead. It’s a desire to see His will in our lives over our own. This requires having faith that God’s way is the best way. The lukewarm Christian doesn’t really believe this; they will always make their own decisions without consulting God. Second, people do not take your “Christian walk” seriously. A lukewarm Christian displays an inconsistent witness at best. Friends are able to tell you’re not “all in” for Jesus. If your friends don’t believe what you confess about your commitment to Jesus, is it because your words don’t match your actions? Third, lukewarm Christians  tend to make a habit of testing the limits of God by trying to serve Him and the flesh. A compromised Christian walk is more dangerous than no walk at all.

Thom S. Rainer, in his blog post “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” provided the following table listing those reasons:

  1. Christians have lost their sense of urgency to reach lost people.
  2. Many Christians and church members do not befriend and spend time with those who are lost and in need of the Good News.
  3. Many Christians and church members have become apathetic.
  4. We are more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.
  5. Churches have an ineffective evangelistic strategy of “you come” rather than “we go” (see Matthew 28:16-20).
  6. Many church members think that evangelism is the role of the pastor and paid staff.
  7. Church membership today is more about getting “my needs met” rather than reaching the lost and the worse off.
  8. Church members are in a retreat mode as culture become more worldly and unbiblical. Culture has begun to tie the hands of Christianity.
  9. Many church members don’t really believe that Christ is the only way to salvation.
  10. Our churches are no longer houses of prayer.
  11. Churches have lost their focus on making disciples who will be motivated and equipped to reach the lost.
  12. Christians to not wish to share the truth of the Gospel for fear they will offend others. Political correctness is too commonplace, even among Christians.
  13. Most churches have unregenerate members who have not received Christ themselves.
  14. Some churches have theological systems that do not encourage evangelism.
  15. Our churches have too many activities; they are too busy to do the things that really matter.

THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM

The synoptic gospels unite in opening the ministry of Jesus with a summary statement of His message. Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark tells us that Jesus preached “…the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (ESV). The Gospel of Luke is specifically addressed to Theophilus and is focused on the complete story and history of Jesus Christ from His birth and ministry to His crucifixion and ressurection. Luke focuses on the teachings of Christ about salvation and Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. It includes the beautiful birth story of the baby Jesus and the miracle conception by God. The first five verses of the Gospel of John show us the divine participation of Jesus as the Word who was present at the moment of Creation. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made.

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Ed Stetzer (2012) wrote in Christianity Today, “The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.” Of course, evangelism is about speaking Christ to others; it’s also about living Christ in front of others. Virtually any activity provides Christians with the opportunity share their faith in Christ. This involves sharing the good word and doing the good deed. Frankly, this is a huge responsibility. My pastor recently said, “The number one attraction to the Gospel is other Christians.” Makes sense, right? He wasn’t done. He added, “But unfortunately the number one detractor to the Gospel is other Christians.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Christian ministers have always sought new ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings. The more non-believers you have, the greater likelihood that at least some of them will come to faith in Jesus. The great British pastor, Charles Spurgeon, observed that when hunting ducks, if you are shooting at a large group of them flying overhead, you have a much greater chance of hitting one or two than if you are shooting at a solitary fowl. However, it is imperative that believers refrain from going to church just to sit in the pew and wait for unbelievers to show up. Clearly, Jesus commanded that we “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV)[emphasis mine].

Some of the means ministers use to attract people are innovative and effective; others are downright silly and accomplish nothing. Non-Christians may be devoid of the Holy Spirit, but they are usually smart enough to smell nonsense when they see it. Other church leaders, considering themselves too spiritual to ever use any means whatsoever to attract unbelievers, are content to simply pray and preach the gospel, and hope that somehow people will just show up in their meetings. Sometimes it happens; often it does not. However, too many churches have “competitive” and rather manipulative ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings.

This is one situation in which “keep it simple” is the perfect attitude. A successful evangelical message serves to convict people of their sins, explaining the Good News in a contextual manner, while keeping the core message explicit and clear. The message should be delivered from a position of compassion for the lost sheep. This is especially true when reaching out to those whom we believe are living a lifestyle that is in direct contrast to biblical principles. For example, we will never reach same-sex couples, alcoholics, drug addicts, or those experiencing gender confusion if we convict or (worse yet) condemn them. Never forget that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:1). We simply cannot reach those whom we despise as we won’t want to spend any time with them. Of course, lastly, the message must be Christ-centered and include reference to what occurred because of the cross.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

References

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Rainer, T. (Feb. 23, 2015). “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” [Web Log Comment]. Retrieved from: https://thomrainer.com/2015/02/fifteen-reasons-churches-less-evangelistic-today/

Stetzer, E. (June 25, 2012). “Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/june/preach-gospel-and-since-its-necessary-use-words.html

 

 

 

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