The standard for everything in the Christian life is the gospel. If we move away from the gospel in our teaching, preaching, or even our personal spiritual confidence to something else, we cease to be New Testament believers. This is no small thing. The Reformation was necessary because of ecclesiastics in high places losing the centrality of the gospel. In more modern times, movements such as Classical Liberalism, Liberation Theology, Universalism, and the proliferation of cults have left a theological landscape strewn with the wrecked faith of multitudes of believers and little hope for a significant witness to many who have never come to faith. There are, however, other ways to lose the gospel as the centerpiece of spiritual life.
Consider how the Lord has ordained to have His truths presented. “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10). It is like a mosaic, where small pieces are put together by master craftsman creating a whole that is a beautiful work of art. For the spiritual life to be as God has ordained, the little bits that are arranged are each to have an element of the gospel. When the gospel element is missing, the end result will be a distorted replacement of the message and life that is divinely ordained. Following are several ways that the gospel can be lost and against which we must be on guard.
First, we must guard against taking the gospel for granted. From our revivalist past we may fall into the mindset that if the presentation of truth is straight enough and conviction is strong enough then people will know what to do. But people often do not know what to do. There is an incident from the life of Charles Finney that illustrates this. He had preached a message so powerfully that many in the congregation were literally on the floor crying out in the agony of personal conviction. The noise in the room was so loud that conversation was almost impossible. Finney abandoned trying to speak to the whole group, and went to one distressed seeker. He drew his mouth close to the man’s ear and said, “Look to Christ, He will save you.” Finney and an associate went to the seekers one by one and gave the same message. We cannot assume that people know that it is by faith in the work of Christ on the cross that they may receive the grace of God. We must proclaim the gospel that Christ died for our sins, was buried, but rose again with power to give us all the grace that we need. We cannot afford to take the gospel for granted.
Another way to lose the gospel is to neglect it as the power to change us and to form us into the image of Christ. The Galatians were in danger of lapsing into a spirituality that was based on human effort, perseverance, and diligence but neglecting the true source of power. Paul expressed amazement. “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 2:3).
John Wesley, after “beating the air” in Georgia by focusing his sermons on man’s efforts and responsibility, was personally unsatisfied. “I came to save the Indians,” he lamented, “But Oh who will save me!?”
Wesley found the way of faith, preached Christ and His gospel, and became an effective preacher of the new covenant. How did he make an appeal after even a strong sermon on the devastation of sin and evil condition of the sinner?
Whosoever thou art, O man, who hast the sentence of death in thyself, who feelest thyself a condemned sinner, and hast the wrath of God abiding on thee: unto thee saith the Lord:
Not: “Do this: Perfectly obey all my commands and live.”
But: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved!!”
The Word of faith is nigh unto thee – Now: in the present moment, and in thy present state—sinner, as thou art, just as thou art: Believe the gospel; and “I will be merciful unto thy unrighteousness, and thy iniquities will I remember no more!”
We must never forget the way of grace: it is in Christ and comes through faith. Wesley’s juxtaposition of the two ways of making an appeal to listeners is instructive. What is often used is something like “promise God you’ll do all He asks you to and you’ll find victory” or “Say ‘yes, Lord, yes’” or some other variation of “Perfectly obey all my commands and live” which is not Wesley’s plea. Instead, he calls them to look beyond themselves. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This takes away the stumbling block of “I can’t live it” or “I’ve been too wicked” or “I’ve failed too many times” or many other ways people see their own weakness of heart as too great a barrier to the grace of Christ. “Look and live!” is the message of Christ.
Despite one’s willingness to say yes or to make any sacrifice asked, God’s grace comes only in response to faith. Is it any wonder that people often struggle to make enough of a commitment to God to be able to obtain God’s grace? Can anyone be more committed to saying yes to God, to self-flagellation, to doing away with the flesh, than one like Luther, who did the confessions, listened to his superior’s advice, prayed the prescribed prayers, and did the assigned penance? Yet he still came up short. God’s grace is not bartered for by a person’s commitment. It is received by empty hands of faith. Martin Luther found this truth when he crawled on the chapel stairs: “The just shall live by faith.” It liberated him from his own works and turned his focus to the power of the resurrected Christ.
A third diversion from the gospel may come as a surprise. Preaching can actually be an enemy of the gospel if its focus elevates anything but the gospel of Christ. It is of great importance that preaching the word, whether using scripture from the Old Testament or the New Testament, must be a proclamation of the grace and the better covenant found in the doctrine of Christ. It is a better covenant with a better sacrifice, better promises, a better hope, promise of a better city, in short, promises of better things for us than were provided for in the old covenant. With this consideration, it may be of value to evaluate how a message based on Old Testament scriptures is used. If one preaches a message from the OT, finds the main points, applies them using illustrations and makes sure they are in context, but leaves out a significant and clear application of grace and faith in Christ, is that message faithful to the new covenant? It is possible to preach a very strong message that emphasizes personal responsibility, personal diligence, careful living, and the importance of holiness, and calls people to the altar to seek God, but leave out the main point of new covenant preaching. A convicting message that leaves people to commitment, to carefulness, to diligence in doing right, but omits the message of the grace of Christ’s forgiveness and empowerment of the indwelling Spirit of Christ enabling us to live as we should falls short of proclamation of the better covenant. If what is preached is no different than what a good orthodox rabbi would preach from his scripture, then that message fails to proclaim the doctrine of Christ.
Philip “preached Christ.” Peter was “preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” Men from Jerusalem, on hearing that the gospel was open to the Gentiles, went to the Grecians “preaching the Lord Jesus.” Paul’s final years were spent “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ.” His inspired letters indicate the centrality of his appeal to the better covenant. Believers, he said, are established “according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” Furthermore, “preaching of the cross” is “the power of God.” The Macedonian vision was a call to “preach the gospel.” Paul’s theme in his letter to the Romans was the centrality of “the gospel of Christ” which is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”
Our hope is in nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else falls short of the standard of New Testament Christianity.