Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dude, Where's My Gospel?

Once upon a time, my family made the very difficult and emotional decision of breaking fellowship with a church for several reasons, but the most important one, and the one that would have done it by itself, was the persistent neglect of gospel-centered teaching. Since I've begun publicly urging the evangelical church to reclaim the centrality of the gospel and re-form its discipleship culture around the gospel, I have heard from many others in the same boat.

Gospel deficiency is the biggest crisis of the American church. It has been replaced by many things, most commonly a therapeutic, self-help approach to biblical application. Bible verses are extracted to enhance calls to self-improvement and Jesus is preached as moral exemplar (which of course, he is, but then again, so is Mother Theresa). The result is a Church that, ironically enough, preaches works, not grace, and a growing number of Christians who neither understand the gospel nor revel in its scandal.

There are lots of good reasons to reclaim the centrality of the good news of Jesus in our preaching and teaching and writing and blogging, and I've come up with four basic arguments for (what I'm calling) The Gospel Imperative, but perhaps defining our terms is in order. It's no good going on about making the gospel the center of our worship and discipleship if we are not on the same page for what the gospel actually is.

Like many others, I affirm that the gospel is big. I favor a robust gospel, a good news proclamation with many facets and ramifications. It is everywhere in the shadows and in the light of the Old Testament Israelites' desert wandering, and it encompasses the brilliant kingdom landscape of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It is in God's gracious covering of the freshly fallen Adam and Eve (and in the cursing of the serpent) in Genesis, and it is in the awesome return of the tattooed, sword-wielding Jesus 65 books later in Revelation. I agree with Tim Keller, who argues that the gospel is "both one and more than that." It is certainly "more than that." But it is also "one," which is why I, along with many others, hold that Jesus' substitutionary atonement is the sharp edge of the gospel. I nutshell this sharp edge with the simple compound "sin/grace." This is my way of signaling that the central point and sharp edge of all that the gospel holds is the basic transformative truth that "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
So while acknowledging that the gospel is about the kingdom setting a fallen world back to rights, the gospel I am speaking about here, then, is the essential gospel, which is that Jesus has died and risen bodily and has thereby murdered sin and conquered death.

Pretty powerful stuff, ain't it? And yet many of our churches will barely touch on it even in an Easter service!
Here are four basic reasons for evangelicalism's reclamation of the gospel:

1. Because We Are Forgetful

Forgetting God's goodness is part of our fallen DNA. The Bible demonstrates this vividly. Studying the Gospel of John with some friends recently, we puzzled initially over the way the disciples believed in Jesus after his turning water to wine. Now, of course that would be cause for belief, but John's Gospel tells us just one chapter earlier that Jesus' self-attestation and his ability to know them (he reads Nathanel like a book) cause them to believe in him. Which was it?
Well, it's both. Certainly Jesus gives us endless reasons to worship him as Lord, but I am convinced that he does this graciously as we endlessly "forget" his Lordship. In the Old Testament, God sets the enslaved Israelites free in a mighty act of deliverance (that whole Red Sea parting thing) and one day later they're complaining about not having anything to eat. And that's just the beginning. God keeps providing; the Israelites keep grumbling.

Friends, we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. We are fickle, self-righteous, forgetful people. Yet we serve a steadfast, gracious, faithful God. Many preachers are fearful of highlighting the gospel every time they speak for fear of it appearing stale. But gospel redundancy is a good thing! We need it. We need the gospel every day (His mercies are new every morning) because we forget it and we sin every day.
Do not aid your community in its forgetfulness by relegating the gospel to the periphery of your proclamation. We need to be reminded of it constantly.

2. Because It is the Power to Save

We all want to grow the kingdom, right? We all want to seek and save the lost, right? We all want to lead as many people as possible to salvation, right?
Then, why, for the love of God, do we preach all manner of behavior modification, none of which could save a single one of us, when only the gospel saves?
Paul writes in Romans 1:16, " I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes."
Yet if we could label our churches with the Nutrition Facts found on your can of soup, I reckon many would say in the fine print, "Not a significant source of gospel." Are we ashamed?
If the gospel is the power to save, shouldn't it be the meat of the message, not saved for the add-on invitation or for a special service every few weeks?

3. Because It is of First Importance

If holding the gospel as the power to save doesn't push us toward greater gospel-centeredness, certainly Paul's claim that is of "first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3) should do the trick. But, again, we hold off on the gospel. We make it occasional or half-hearted, thereby ascribing it lesser worth than our very important and self-devised Six Steps for Successful Living.
In a recent White Horse Inn podcast, the fellows warned listeners to beware the preacher who says, "Well, of course the gospel." The point here is that they are highlighting so much of what they do that is not the gospel and then when asked about the gospel's absence, they say, "Well, of course the gospel." In such churches the gospel is implied. Which means it is an afterthought.

The gospel should not be implied. It is of first importance. It should be the clearest, most prevalent message and theme of all a community's worship and focus.

4. Because It Glorifies God

The gospel is not advice. It is news.
It is not "Do more, be more, try more." It is the message that the work is done.
The gospel does not say "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps." It says "It is finished!"

Our flesh hates this contrast. We hate it because the gospel says to us "You can't do it; you are unable; you are deficient." And we don't like to hear that. Nobody wants to hear that we are incapable of saving ourselves, that in our insidest insides we are broken and cannot repair ourselves.
But this is what the gospel forces us to admit. And because it forces us to admit we are sinners deserving punishment with no inherent means of rescue, it forces us to admit that only God can save us, which forces us to reckon with the gospel truth that salvation is God's work, not ours. God gets the credit. Grace means getting what we didn't deserve, and the gospel of grace announces that "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

When we insist on preaching about our efforts and making the gospel an afterthought, we have begun glorifying our works, glorifying ourselves. But when we center on the gospel and revel in its proclamation, we are glorifying God, because we are holding Christ's finished good work more important than our insufficient good works.

The gospel is the hope of the world. It is my hope and it is yours. It should be our prayer and our humble insistence, then, that the people named for the gospel -- "evangelical" is built on the word "evangelion," Greek for "gospel" -- live and preach true to their name once again.


Ken Stoll said...

...never disappointed when I stop by. Right on. Amen. Keep reminding us Jared.

Do you think maybe Paul was hinting at the problem when he wrote, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."... we have become like those who are perishing when it comes to our theology if anything.

Is it because we want something to impress ourselves and others?... when the gospel feeds no such appetite. We weren't drowning in some river needing a life jacket thrown to us so we could muster up the energy needed to reach out and grab it as Sproul argues, no, we were dead in our sins.

Your post points out the heart of our problem. If there were only more voices like yours.

Bob said...

Well said, Jared. Relevant to all this is something someone told me today (you're gonna love this): "Bob, respect where you're coming from with your focus on the gospel and the cross and all that, but our church is just in a different season right now."

Oh yeah. A different season. Can't argue with that.

Jared said...

Ken, the implications of that logic are staggering, aren't they?
That many in our churches, self-identifying as evangelicals, are not saved in the least. The cross is foolishness to them because they don't know its power or its importance. That's dangerous thinking, but it's not far-fetched.

Seen Stetzer's recent take at USA Today on the new Pew Forum and LifeWay data on evangelicals and universalism? More than half of self-identified evangelicals believe all religions can lead to eternal life. Barna is showing huge % of evangelicals denying the existence of both Satan AND the Holy Spirit.

These are not evangelicals any more than I'm Ronald McDonald because I like hamburgers.

Bob: Wow.
Did you say, "Yeah, the winter season when everything dies"?

The Seeking Disciple said...

Simply a great post. I am struggling with such a church now. The people are great. The pastor is a shepherd but the preaching of the gospel is lacking. We have dynamic music but little gospel preaching that seeks to exalt Christ and His Word. And the worst is that the church leaders see no problem with this as they see it as "breaking free from traditions of men." I am praying now and asking God to direct me and my family.

Anonymous said...

Good God Almighty.... I feel it... !!!


Bottle it up and let's get this out there to those dying of thirst but oblivious to the desert they are wandering in...

It kills me to know that this actually has to be said.... (your post)...

It would seem that this understanding would be part of our heart DNA from the moment our lives are changed forever by the gospel of the good news...

Perhaps it is... and it is a viable litmus test... which we can use to separate the wheat from the chaff... and then plant buckets of seeds and pray for holy rain... and do our best to help re-cultivate the chaff!

All 4 one, Jared... and one 4 all... : - )

Jesus (and you) rock my world... I am so thankful to have made your acquaintance... and have the ability to be tethered to you through this blog...

May God richly bless you... my prayer for you, always...

My kindest regards to you and your ministry...

C. Evan Leonard

Jared said...

Thanks, Chuck!
Hope you're doing well, buddy.

dle said...


An honest question:

Where do the commands of Jesus (and the apostolic "do's and do not's") come into play within a full Gospel presentation? I have seen plenty of churches that claim to be Gospel-centered, yet they seem to leave out (to their detriment and the detriment of their people) any kind of emphasis on actually doing the work we are commanded to do. There's plenty of emphasis on resting in the finished work, but then the church ends up becoming self-serving, with little outside impact on the lost or the world at large.

I mean, how do we find satisfaction in moving beyond the elemental teachings of do not touch, taste, or handle, while also avoiding the tendency to get lazy about the work? I mean, for every church that preaches nothing but works, there's a "gospel-preaching" church that rests on its laurels and becomes irrelevant.

It seems to me that the error is neglecting one aspect of the bigger picture, no matter which aspect that might be.

Jared said...

Where do the commands of Jesus (and the apostolic "do's and do not's") come into play within a full Gospel presentation?My conviction is that Spiritual fruit is the result of genuine gospel wakefulness. People truly transformed tend to act that way.

I agree with the epistle James, fwiw.

I have written elsewhere about why I downplay application in my teaching. But I don't neglect it.
The Scripture commands and instructs, clearly.

If you're saying there are all kinds of errors of all kinds of extremes in all kinds of churches, you'll get no argument from me.

Churches that claim to be gospel-centered, as you put it, but don't love their neighbors, aren't really gospel-centered.
But I do not think that is always the result of not doing enough application in the sermon or what-have-you.

dle said...


Why do you think it is so hard to find "Gospel-centered" churches that actually do the work? My experience on that has not been good; the churches that do tend to do the work are those that are more compelled by do's and dont's.

I attend a Pentecostal church. While the Gospel is most definitely preached there, it does come down slightly more on the "doing" side of things. ("You've gotta have your quiet time, prayer, Bible study, evangelistic times, and outreach to the needy, but with a large load of grace for failure.") What has surprised me about this is that the Pentecostals just seem more serious about doing the work, especially evangelizing the lost. Whereas the churches I was in that would be considered more in line with "Gospel-centric" often had a country club feel, like "I'm in the club and that's all that matters because I'm not saved by anything I do." People just got lazy.

There's got to be a way to move people to a healthy "dwell in grace while doing the work" mode, but it sure seems to me that churches that pull that off well are few and far between, especially here in the States.

It bugs me that we tend to be either/or and not both/and.

Anyway, thanks for the post.

Jared said...

dle, I don't know if I can answer your question(s).

My experience probably differs.

I know churches that "do the work" but don't talk about Jesus or the gospel all that much (if at all), so their "work," which is good, isn't all that different from Angelina Jolie's.

I know churches that are big on "do's and dont's" and application and making Christianity practical -- these are HUGE here in Nashville and the Bible Belt surrounding -- but they aren't doing jack squat to build for the kingdom. That's a great irony I've seen, and where my exp. may differ from yours. The churches all around me are application/practical heavy churches and they are busiest on Sunday mornings during the service.

I know there are so-called gospel-centered churches that don't love their neighbors. I don't know where they are. The very few gospel-centered churches in this area do love their neighbors. But there's not many of them, so perhaps they aren't a representative sample nationwide.

And of course there are some lifeless churches that specialize in doctrine, both Reformed and non.

I still hold to the conviction that if the gospel is truly waking people, works follow. I think that's Scripture's testimony and that has been my experience.

But the gospel is of first importance.
Saying "YES BUT we have to do works" is trying to counter an argument I'm not even making.

If anything, I am all for the switching up of making gospel forefront and "do's and don'ts" latent. As some are saying "Well, of course the gospel" (and see a few posts up for an example from Bob Spencer's church experience), I'm all for saying "Well, of course good works." :-)

Jared said...

At the risk of pride, I should point out that my church, where I preach heavy on Christ's finished work and the proclamational gospel, gives 60% of its money away to those in need and that 1/3 of our simple church structure is a non-negotiable regular community service project.

So we're at least one example of a church that preaches Christ, not works, without that resulting in not working.

dle said... church, where I preach heavy on Christ's finished work and the proclamational gospel, gives 60% of its money away to those in need and that 1/3 of our simple church structure is a non-negotiable regular community service project.Excellent!