CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Just What is the Gospel?

Nov 5, 2017

Theology matters. Having wrong theology can result in people heading to a lost eternity. That is why we must get what we believe right. That is why we must get the gospel right. And that is why we must regularly affirm and reaffirm just what the gospel message is.

I have written often on this topic, and there are various ways to approach it. One can simply offer a number of biblical passages. Or one could restate some of the major biblical themes. Or one might quote from a number of top notch Christian leaders.

All that I have done before, and in part I will do more of the same here. And a number of books have appeared recently which help bring our attention back to understanding just what the gospel is. Here are just a few of these helpful volumes:

D. A. Carson, ed., Entrusted with the Gospel. Crossway, 2010.
D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, eds., The Gospel as Center. Crossway, 2012.
Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel. IVP, 2012.
George Gilbert, What is the Gospel? Crossway, 2010.
Jonathan Leeman, The Underestimated Gospel. Broadman & Holman, 2014.
Jonathan Leeman, ed., Unashamed of the Gospel. Broadman & Holman, 2016.
Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels. Moody, 2011.
Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps. Crossway, 2012.
Jared Wilson, Gospel Wakefulness. Crossway, 2011.

But in this piece I want to let the discussion revolve around a very helpful series of books that have appeared over the past decade. The “Together for the Gospel” set of books thus far features three volumes, and all three are excellent in terms of this discussion. They are:

Mark Dever, et. al., Preaching the Cross. Crossway, 2007.
Mark Dever, et. al., Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology. Crossway, 2009.
Mark Dever, et. al., The (Unadjusted) Gospel. Crossway, 2014.

The three books are collections of talks given at various Together for the Gospel conferences. They feature plenty of gospel heavyweights, such as Dever, Al Mohler, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, John MacArthur and J. Ligon Duncan III. Together the various talks provide a very good overview indeed of just what the biblical gospel is.

So let me quote from a number of these speakers/writers, dealing with a few key themes. Obviously getting God right is essential here. The holiness of God is one long-forgotten element of who God is. Mark Dever compellingly speaks to this:

Is the awesomeness of God reflected in our public gatherings? Is God presented in our individual lives and church gatherings as one who is unique, holy, set apart and distinct? In our day, we treat casualness as the height of intimacy with God. But it was not so in the Bible. Consider the responses that people in the Bible have to God. Job repents in dust and ashes (Job 42). Isaiah confesses his sinfulness (Isa. 6:5). Ezekiel falls face down (Ezek. 1:28). As Jeremiah put it, “No one is like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is mighty in power” (Jer. 10:6). Our God is majestic and holy and awesome. And we show something of God’s holiness in the reverence of our public assemblies and in our personal obedience.

The sinful, fallen nature of mankind is another vital element in the gospel message. John MacArthur says this about this fundamental biblical truth:

We must recognize that the fallen sinner hates the true God and fatally loves himself. Of course he wants a god who will give him what he wants! The Gospel, however, assaults the sinner’s self-worship, self-assurance, self-esteem, and smugness, shattering his confidence in his religion and his spirituality. It crushes him under the full weight of God’s Law with a verdict of guilty. The only way he can be set free is if he comes to loathe himself and all his ambitions, repent of his sins, and love the one true God, whom Holy Scripture reveals to be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the message under which God awakens the sinner and leads him to repentance and faith….
Soft preaching makes hard people. If you preach a soft gospel, you’ll have hard, selfish people. If you preach hard truth, it will break hard hearts, like when the Apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost to the very people who crucified Christ and “they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).

And the Word of God is foundational here. “This means,” says Al Mohler, “that we are to present the text in the way the apostles would have presented it.” He continues:

We are to present it in its enduring and eternal truthfulness, understanding that the truth of that text is unchanged and unchanging even as its authority also is unchanged and unchanging….
Even in the face of cultural diversity, Christians must assert the transcultural authority of the Bible, because they are the only people on the entire planet with a message that is addressed to persons within every culture. Moreover, we have the only message that does not have to be transformed and redefined in every cultural circumstance, because we are talking about constants like sin, the character of God, and the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But is the gospel just about the cross and getting individuals saved, or is it a broader message about the Kingdom of God, and renewing all things in Christ? It is both, says George Gilbert, but the latter can only come through the former:

As I read it, the Bible seems to use the word gospel in two different, but highly related, ways. Sometimes it uses gospel in a very broad way, that is, to describe all the promises that God intends to fulfill in Christ, including not only forgiveness of sin, but also everything else that flows from it—the establishment of the kingdom, the new heavens and new earth, etc. There are other times, though, where it uses gospel in a very narrow way, that is, to describe specifically the forgiveness of sins through the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ. In those places, the broader promises don’t seem to be so much in view….
Because the broad blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of the narrow (atonement, forgiveness, faith and repentance), and because those blessings are attained infallibly by means of the narrow, it’s entirely appropriate for the New Testament writers to call that gateway/seed/fountainhead promise “the gospel.”

R. C. Sproul offers this summary:

What is the gospel? The gospel is about Jesus – who he is and what he does. If we look at the apostolic sermons in the book of Acts, we see a theme over and over again. It is the declaration of this one whose coming had been predicted by the Old Testament prophets, who was born from the seed of David, who lived a life of perfect obedience, who died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, who was raised for our justification, who ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and who will come back at the end of the age. These are the nonnegotiable elements of the gospel.
But the gospel also includes a subjective element, as the apostle Paul develops particularly in Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians, where he asks how the good news of what Jesus did becomes ours. The answer that the apostle gives is that it is received by faith alone. We must not tamper with that. If we say that it is by faith plus, by grace plus, or by Jesus plus, we are preaching another gospel.

Much more could be said about all this. But part of my purpose in writing this is to introduce you to these three volumes in particular, as well as the other books mentioned in general. At a time when truth is under attack, the Bible is challenged or ignored, and the church is confused and compromised, we need to get back to basics.

And that must start with getting the gospel right.

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7 Responses to Just What is the Gospel?

  • Yes without the truth of the gospel we lose our witness. Jesus is the cornerstone of the gospel message.

  • Good for you, Bill!

    I have, unfortunately, been in various places where church leaders felt that they needed to “disguise” the gospel or “get around to it later” (after wooing people with not-the-gospel). Not-the-gospel is not satisfying, and neither is it life giving.

  • In Sproul’s last para he makes it seem as if we save ourselves by our faith – something we provide. As you know neither our good works nor our faith (whatever its strength) justify us. God alone does by grace in Christ. Faith is not a work to save us but our acknowledgement that God has saved us – it is a gift of God.

  • Thanks Travis. But I don’t think anyone who is even remotely familiar with the work of Sproul could ever accuse him of saying men contribute to their own salvation! He is simply stating biblical truth here, for example as found in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

  • Hi Bill
    I like how the Apostle Paul talks about faith in Galatians

    Gal 5:5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
    Gal 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

  • I take it to mean the irreducible elements of faith in the person of Jesus Christ . Before we can repent we have to believe who Jesus is; who we are; what He had done for us and what happens when we do not accept His free gift of salvation and eternal life. Much that goes for preaching the gospel, such as homilies on how to live the Christian life, could equally be underwritten by Islam, Hinduism and other idolatry .
    I believe Thomas Watson’s ” A Body of Divinity” is a book every Christian should have on their book shelf.
    David Skinner UK

  • John MacArthur had it right when they asked Peter “What must we do?” But he didn’t say what Peter told them TO DO. Peter said “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus and your sin will be washed away and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. We have to look at the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples (Apostles later)” in Matthew 28:18-20 to see where Peter learned what to tell them from the Lord. Obedience is doing exactly what you’re told from God’s word. Obedience to the gospel is hearing and obeying the “whole truth of God”.

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