It is no secret that the Gospel is big business in North America. Clarifying what is meant by “the Gospel” might best be explained through the personal account of Ed Stetzer as he worked with church planters on their vision and strategy for their new congregations. Facilitating the discussion through a series of questions, small groups in the room buzzed with ideas as church planters turned to each other to discuss ways to reach their communities for Christ. Ed then asked them to turn to each other and answer the question, “What is the Gospel?” The room fell shockingly silent. Men who were eager to share ideas, methods and programs sat almost mute when asked to state the doctrinal content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
While the use of the word Gospel might be in vogue, the persistent danger for the church is to lose sight of the content and meaning of the Gospel so that preaching actually has the effect of emptying the cross of its power (I Cor. 1:17). The cross exposes the rebellion, pride and utter helplessness of each human being before God, all the while revealing the holy and sovereign Lord Jesus who is willingly executed in the place of sinners who rightly deserve God’s wrath. The Gospel is the declaration of both the guilt of men and the love of God (what the Puritans knew as the Law and the Gospel) as the very power of God which can rescue all who look to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. It is propositionally revealed in Holy Scripture (God, sin, Jesus, faith) and it thematically unfolds in God’s grand narrative of the ages (creation, fall, redemption, restoration).
Like those church planters in Ed’s seminar who had difficulty explaining the Gospel, the temptation is always present to study, learn and talk about everything other than the Gospel simply because applying doctrinal truths to present problems can be difficult. The difficulty arises as the church fails to connect the Gospel’s content and power to the realities of life in this fallen world. How does the Gospel both confront and comfort someone caught in pornography’s vice-grip or the darkness of depression? Does the Gospel speak to men and women in broken marriages where there seems to be no hope of change? What about the person who discovers their spouse has filed for divorce? What impact could the Gospel possibly have on these people?
How the ascension of Jesus Christ matters to someone whose home has just been foreclosed, or the impact of the atonement of Jesus for someone who is standing in the unemployment line, comprises the very heart of how a deeper understanding of these gospel truths can stabilize, comfort and help guide the future for the one who has faith in Jesus Christ.
Moreover, how does the Gospel impact the way local churches prioritize their annual budget, organize their leadership structure or deploy their mission teams? How should the Gospel organize and develop a denominational infrastructure that rightly serves the churches in their mission to impact their world with the Gospel? How exactly would that look if the Gospel were regulating the structure?
Such questions are answered not through more “advanced” principles, but through the Gospel. Martin Luther said ministers should know the Gospel well, “teach it to others and beat it into their heads continually.” Why? Because losing the Gospel to idols is the normal pattern for Christians who are not constantly rediscovering the truth and wonder of it. In the words of Tim Keller, “If you think you really understand the Gospel—you don’t. If you think you haven’t begun to truly understand the Gospel—you do.” The Gospel is not a new program or a series of steps to be implemented. It is the ongoing and deepening realization of amazing love and amazing grace.
Often, the church does not help Christians because she becomes interested in things other than the Gospel. Organizational management, process, meetings, committees and programs can all too easily crowd out the Gospel by rendering it something “everyone already knows” or has “mastered.” Once that happens, the form has trumped the substance, and the salvation procured by Jesus is but one ornament among the many man-made means for self-interest and pride. As Adrian Rogers said in his famous sermon, The Gospel Truth, “it is the bad news that makes the good news good.”
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Rom. 1:16 (ESV).