1) What is the gospel?
No question is more important, and biblical clarity in response to this question is critical. Sadly, confusion about the gospel is quite common among professing evangelicals today. I find Graeme Goldsworthy’s comment all too relevant: “The main message of the Bible about Jesus Christ can easily become mixed with all sorts of things that are related to it. We see this in the way people define or preach the gospel. But it is important to keep the gospel itself clearly distinct from our response to it or from the results of it in our lives and in the world.” So here is my attempt to heed the counsel of Dr. Goldsworthy and keep the gospel “clearly distinct.”
The following definition of the gospel, provided by Jeff Purswell, the Dean of our Pastors College, seeks to capture the substance of the gospel: “The gospel is the good news of God’s saving activity in the person and work of Christ. This includes his incarnation in which he took to himself full (yet sinless) human nature; his sinless life which fulfilled the perfect law of God; his substitutionary death which paid the penalty for man’s sin and satisfied the righteous wrath of God; his resurrection demonstrating God’s satisfaction with his sacrifice; and his glorification and ascension to the right hand of the Father where he now reigns and intercedes for the church.
“Such news is specific: there is a defined ‘thatness’ to the gospel which sets forth the content of both our saving faith and our proclamation. It is objective, and not to be confused with our response. It is sufficient: we can add nothing to what Christ has accomplished for us–it falls to us simply to believe this news, turning from our sins and receiving by faith all that God has done for us in Christ.”
I find this definition of the gospel faithful to the presentation of the four Gospels—they present the person and work of Christ as the good news. In the Apostle Paul’s concise summation of the gospel, he focuses more particularly on Christ’s death and resurrection as the core of his proclamation:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….” 1 Cor 15:3-4
Focusing more specifically still, the apostle encapsulates the work of Christ by focusing on the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Cor. 2:2
So that is the gospel: God’s saving work in and through Christ. And the cross is the pinnacle of that work. Knox Chamblin helpfully notes this emphasis in Paul’s writing and ministry: “His gospel is ‘the word of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1:17-18); nowhere is there a comparable reference to ‘the word of the resurrection.’ In I Corinthians 1:23-24 it is ‘Christ crucified’ who is identified as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God,’ not as we might have expected (especially in the case of ‘power’), Christ resurrected…. Both the cross and the resurrection are ‘of first importance’ in Paul’s gospel (I Cor. 15:3-4). Unless Christ has risen from the dead, the preaching of the cross (and of the resurrection) is a waste of time (15:14); but once the resurrection has occurred, the cross remains central.”
And the centrality of the cross isn’t temporary. The cross remains on center stage even when we receive a glimpse of eternity in the New Testament’s final book: “One is taken aback by the emphasis upon the Cross in Revelation. Heaven does not ‘get over’ the cross, as if there are better things to think about; heaven is not only Christ-centered, but cross-centered, and quite blaring about it.” Jim Elliff
There is nothing more important than getting the gospel right. Years ago, John Stott made the following frightening observation of the evangelical church when he wrote, “All around us we see Christians relaxing their grasp on the gospel, fumbling it, and in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether.” It is my prayer that God would use the Together for the Gospel conference to strengthen our grip upon the glorious gospel.
2) What is the most serious threat to the gospel?
For this question I think J.C. Ryle provides us with enduring discernment: “You may spoil the gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith–Jesus Christ–and to substitute another object in His place… and the mischief is done.
“You may spoil the gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done.
“You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done.
“Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the gospel by confused and contradictory directions… Confused and disorderly statements about Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all. Religion of this sort is not evangelical.”
3) Personal Application
It’s not difficult to identify distortions of the gospel. But as a pastor, one of my main concerns for genuine Christians is a more subtle one: either assuming the gospel or neglecting the gospel. I have found this to be the greatest threat to the gospel in my own life. Jerry Bridges echoes this concern when he writes, “The gospel is not only the most important message in all of history; it is the only essential message in all of history. Yet we allow thousands of professing Christians to live their entire lives without clearly understanding it and experiencing the joy of living by it.”
So let us not only apply discernment to the church at large, but to our own hearts as well. Let us, in the words of Jerry Bridges, “Preach the gospel to ourselves daily.” Let us heed Charles Spurgeon’s exhortation: “Abide hard by the cross and search the mystery of his wounds.” Let us respond to John Stott’s invitation: “The Cross is a blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.”
So how can we get near enough? The following are books that will position you to experience the transforming sparks of the gospel:
The Cross of Christ by John Stott. A personal favorite. Stott says of the Savior, “It was by his death that he wished above all else to be remembered.” This book won’t let you forget.
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges. The man who taught me how to preach the gospel to myself will teach you to do the same.
The Message of Salvation by Philip Ryken. This excellent book deserves a broad readership. My oldest daughter recently thanked me for recommending this book to her and told me how much she was benefiting from this book. You will benefit as well.
The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever. My good friend reveals the storyline of the Bible in each and every book of the New Testament. A must read for pastors but highly recommended for all. My wife has really enjoyed reading Mark’s book.
The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson. For pastors this is another must-read. I’m indebted to Dr. Carson for this book. It has defined effective pastoral ministry for me, and I pray it will do the same for you.
That ought to get you started. Each of these books will draw you near enough to the “blazing fire of the cross so that its sparks” will fall on you and kindle fresh love for the Savior in your soul.