The fact that an article has to be written to remind us of the place of the gospel in the church should serve as a vivid wake-up call to believers. We would think that, of all things, the gospel could never be lost by the church.
But, increasingly, this is what we see around us as churches focus more and more on programs instead of preaching, teaching is formed by what the people want to hear instead of "The Lord says…," and fewer church-goers have a clear understanding of THE gospel.
So – what place does the gospel have in the church, how did we lose it, and what do we do to get it back?
First, what place does the gospel have in the church? We must understand at the outset that the gospel is not flexible; we cannot make it bend to accommodate an ever-changing culture, say what we think it should say, or make it hip and trendy. The gospel is what God says it is. It does not change to suit us; on the contrary, we are called to change (repent) to line up with the gospel.
This unchanging gospel is from God through Jesus, and was entrusted to the church (God’s people, called out from the world, redeemed by Christ and brought to life by the Spirit…through the gospel). One of the descriptions of the church in Scripture is, "the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15, ESV). The church is called to be the guardian of the gospel. God’s people are to believe the gospel, live the gospel, proclaim the gospel, and protect the gospel from those who would subtly change its meaning, its implications and its demands upon man. For this reason believers are commanded to "contend (fight!) for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3, ESV). If the church loses the true gospel, we lose everything, for it is the Holy Spirit–empowered GOSPEL itself that is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16, ESV).
If the gospel is so revolutionary, and if preserving it in its pure, undiluted form is of top priority for the church, how did we come to lose it?
The gospel’s true message has been under attack from the start. In fact, in the early church many tried to twist the gospel’s meaning. The Apostle Paul fought with his entire being to preserve the gospel in the churches, using the strongest language possible: "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" (Galatians 1:-8, ESV). He warned the Corinthian church against accepting "a different gospel" (2 Corinthians 11:4, ESV), warning them about "false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (11:13).
In our day the gospel as given by Christ and taught in Scripture is rare; hearing it clearly taught on Christian radio, television, popular books and the local pulpit is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. And many don’t even realize this.
The reason the gospel is attacked, twisted, and changed by man is that it is offensive to man. Before it gloriously saves, it first confronts. The gospel says we are not good enough – worse! – it says we are not even good. It was none other than Jesus who said, "No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18, ESV). Paul quoted extensively from God’s word in the Old Testament as he rendered the most complete teaching of the gospel – his letter to the Romans. He labors to show that we are all "under sin," (3:9) before declaring, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (3:10-12, ESV). Are you beginning to see why this message is hated by man in his pride and self-righteousness? Before God rebuilds, he levels man at the foot of the cross. Now, this certainly is not ALL the gospel teaches. Praise God, he not only shows us the extent of our sinfulness apart from him, he shows us THE CURE he has provided; the gospel tells how God punished his Son, Jesus, in the place of sinners, to redeem us from our sins by his blood and make us acceptable in the sight of a holy God. Jesus, having paid our fine with his death, gloriously rose from the dead and ascended to the Father. Now salvation and forgiveness of sins is declared in his name for all who will repent and believe this gospel. The gospel is a glorious thing!! But it offends all who will not humble themselves before God.
Because of the offensive nature of the gospel, many churches and preachers attempt to improve the biblical gospel by rounding off the offensive edges, sweeping all the talk about sin, wrath, judgment and repentance under the rug (this is NOT being loving; I want my doctor to tell me the TRUTH about my condition, no matter how alarming). What is left is a powerless gospel that builds sinful man up instead of calling him to repent. A fluffy gospel that amounts to "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" is all that remains. Before you react in indignation, see if you can find this gospel in any of the recorded sermons in the Bible. Search the book of Acts as the early church preached the gospel to unbelievers. It is hard to find one example of a preacher in Acts who even MENTIONS God’s love, much less uses it as the main appeal to sinners. Instead, what we find is bold messages confronting people with their sin, proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection, and calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel, showing this by baptism. This is the preaching of the Bible, but it is hard to find today. Certainly we do not seek to hide God’s love; in love God sent his Son to save sinners (John 3:16). But the church cannot help God out by cutting his gospel in half. This is what has been done.
What gospel are you hearing in your church and reading in your Christian books? Are you mainly hearing a steady does of self-help, home-improvement, and self-esteem builders? 3 steps to a successful life, 7 principles for a happy marriage, 9 pointers to financial prosperity? Or are you hearing the gospel?
How does the church get the gospel back? Preachers must understand that our primary calling is to preach Christ and make clear the gospel in all its biblical purity. We must see that we cannot improve on God’s method, and we must be faithful. A church’s success cannot be measured by money, numbers, or influence. A church’s success is measured by its faithfulness to Christ’s gospel.
Church members also have a responsibility. Pray for your pastors to be faithful to the gospel. Come to them in love if you are not hearing the gospel. If the biblical gospel is not embraced and faithfully proclaimed, find a church where it is. Read books that glorify Christ and give the gospel as the solution to every problem you face, rather than books on self-improvement and success by endless principles and steps. And, if your pastor IS faithfully preaching the biblical gospel, thank and encourage him.
May God be pleased to revive his church and make us faithful to his glorious gospel.
(Partnership in the Gospel is a group of young Conway pastors from differing traditions, who share a common passion for the Gospel and its implications in all of life. These articles are meant to remind and influence Christians concerning the all sufficient power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)