“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
“What! Am I to be put into the pulpit and to be told that I am to confine myself to certain truths only, to comfort God’s saints? I will not have it so.” Charles Spurgeon
If there is one thing that broadly, though covertly, defines contemporary evangelicalism, it is that its proclamation of divine truth is driven by obscure adherence to a methodology of toxic divinity. The church’s predominate posture is to filter its proclamation about God and His attributes, the Bible and its contents, and Christ and His gospel. Those elements, those biblical truths, that it deems would be unpopular and unpalatable to pew sitters are avoided. Evangelicalism is ever, and increasingly, eager to tickle ears (2 Tim. 4:3). What Isaiah’s listeners demanded in his day, “Speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions” (Isa. 30:10), the church today promptly provides.
The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule on their own authority; And my people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it? Jeremiah 5:31
Though it would largely confess to doctrinal orthodoxy on its “What We Believe” website pages, the church today is more driven by man-pleasing optics and “pleasant word” proclamations from its often pulpitless diases than it is by “Thus saith the Lord.” It will not admit to its hermeneutic of toxic divinity. It will not tell you that it is not telling you the full biblical truth. And, because so many pew sitters’ ingestion of biblical content occurs only in the Sunday morning screen-flashed verses of a PowerPoint sermon graphic, they are necessarily ignorant that they aren’t being given “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
“Modern evangelicalism with its market-driven, church-growth strategies and diluted preaching has produced churches full of Christians who would not even recognize the biblical definition of Christianity.” Justin Peters
A Different Jesus From The Church Of Toxic Divinity
It is biblically-illicit pragmatism to which Peters speaks, and it is pragmatism that has resulted in the church’s tacit employment of toxic divinity as its guide for the content of preaching and teaching. The necessary and unavoidable result of employing this heremeneutic of toxic divinity is the fundamental revision of the person and work of Jesus and the biblical gospel. Though it would never profess it, the church today subtly (though sometimes boldly) presents Jesus as a different sort of God than the God of the rest of Scripture. In so doing, the very content of the gospel is changed.
The Jesus of modern evangelicalism is God, certainly, but He’s the God with all the good attributes you want without all the disturbing and, frankly, naturally offensive parts you don’t. The evangelical Jesus isn’t like the God who banished humanity’s first couple from Eden for one single, solitary, fruit-induced slip-up. He isn’t like the God of Sinai who thundered almighty disapproval at the idolatrous, calf-creating children of Israel. Evangelical Jesus certainly isn’t the God who allowed Satan to kill Job’s children, destroy his livestock empire, or plague him with oozing boils, all just to prove some other-worldly spiritual point. Jesus isn’t the God who, “like a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), will repay wrath to His adversaries (Is. 59:18). He isn’t the God who promised those who disregard His covenant that, “I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that will waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away” (Lev. 26:14). Jesus is surely not the God who would ever say, “My soul hates the wicked” (Ps. 11:5), nor is He the God who whets His sword against the unrepentant (Ps. 11:5).
But, of course, Jesus is precisely that God.
“The divinity of Christ is the citadel and keep of Christianity. Here lies the infinite value of the satisfaction he made upon the cross. Here lies the peculiar merit of his atoning death for sinners. That death was not the death of a mere man, like ourselves, but of one who is ‘over all, God blessed for ever’ (Rom. 9:5). We need not wonder that the sufferings of one person were a sufficient propitiation for the sin of a world, when we remember that he who suffered was ‘the Son of God.’ Let believers cling to this doctrine with jealous watchfulness.” J.C. Ryle
The church assuredly does not deny the deity of Christ, nor does it explicitly deny that the attributes of God revealed throughout all of Scripture apply equally to Him, but it does routinely edit the biblical truth about our Lord that it deems to be offensive, unappealing, and insufficiently “you” centered. Those spiritually reared on a less than milk (1 Pet. 2:2) diet of doctrinal truth may not recognize that the church has produced a “sissified, needy Jesus,” as Voddie Baucham terms it. The church has not been, as Ryle warned, jealously watchful.
Sanitizing Jesus Means Changing The Gospel
“Poor Mary said, ‘They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid Him,’ and she might say so now-a-days if she could rise from the grave.” Charles Spurgeon
By sanitizing Jesus to make Him ready for His prime-time Sunday presentation, the gospel content itself has been changed. When a different Jesus, when a diluted Jesus, is proclaimed, the gospel proclaimed is different. And one apostle was quick to condemn such maneuvers in His Scripture-writing days (Gal. 1:8-9). That same anathema applies today.
Scripture calls it “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1, 1 Thes. 2:2,9). It is the “gospel about Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1, Rom. 15:19). It is “the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). It is the “gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13) and the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). And, it is “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). This is the gospel that was preached by Christ Himself (Matt. 4:23, Matt. 11:5). It was the gospel proclaimed by His chosen apostles (Acts 16:10, Rom. 1:15). The evangelists of the New Testament church preached this gospel (Acts 8:25). This gospel wasn’t formulated by a sandal-clad committee of influential religionists, devised by ingenious men of spiritual renown, or compiled by a pre-buffet church committee. It is the gospel which is divinely revealed by Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12, 1 Cor. 15:3).
But this isn’t the gospel often heard in scores of churches which claim the name of Christ, but alter the message of Christ. We can bemoan alongside Spurgeon the lament of Mary. Our complaint is that, by changing the Jesus who is the content of the gospel, they have changed the gospel that alone can lead us through the narrow gate (Matt. 7:14). As John MacArthur has written, “I agree that we have a hard time finding it, especially today. You could go to church after church after church and never find it. It’s a very narrow gate.”
In the biblical gospel, the dominant themes of sin, grace, and repentance are evident. Of necessity, the doctrines of God and Christology, along with pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit), inform the understanding of the biblical gospel. The doctrine of soteriology (how one is saved), and harmartiology (doctrine of sin) erupt from the gospel. The doctrine of man, the doctrine of the fall and man’s depravity, provide essential context to the biblical gospel. The whole biblical gospel is the gospel of the whole Bible.
The biblical labels themselves point to the proper content of the gospel as the person and work of Jesus the Son of God. It speaks to His submission to the will of God on Calvary. It reveals truths of faith, judgment, resurrection, and His imminent return in glory. It’s effect among the redeemed is conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). And the overriding end goal of the biblical gospel is the glory of God, not the glory of man.
“God did not purchase us because we are so great. He purchased us because He is so great.” Justin Peters
“The gospel is not about how special you are. The gospel is about how sovereign God is. The gospel is not about how much God needs or wants you. The gospel is about how much you need God.” Voddie Baucham
What The Gospel Is Not
But much of modern evangelicalism is oblivious to the content, the details, and the effect of the biblical gospel. What does the bulk of pop Christianity consider to be the gospel? Certainly “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for you life” may be the most popularly erroneous view. But Voddie Baucham notes three other aberrant gospels.
“Number one, the gospel is not just how we get saved. You talk to the average Christian and you ask them what the gospel is and, more than likely, they are going to give you a plan of salvation. The gospel is not just a plan for salvation. The gospel is not four spiritual laws. The gospel is not just how we get saved.”
“Secondly, the gospel is not just the two great commandments. And that is popular in our day. You just boil it down to ‘love God and love people’ … In fact, here is the irony. That phrase, ‘love God, love people,’ is actually a summary of the law. It is the opposite of the gospel.”
“Three, the gospel is not the moral teachings of Jesus … If we say that the gospel is the moral teachings of Jesus … then here is what we have said … God in the Old Testament gave us a law, but that law either wasn’t righteous enough, wasn’t clear enough, or wasn’t effective enough. So Jesus came and gave us another law so that that one could be kept … because our problem wasn’t us. It was God. [God] made a mistake the first time [and] had to come correct it … Folks, that is not the gospel.”
Not only has the content of the gospel, Jesus, been sanitized for public viewing. Not only have many in the church, by ignorance, misidentified the gospel, but the very presentation of the gospel has been anesthetized for inoffensive worldly appeal. In Scripture, man’s response to the gospel is never “accept Jesus into your heart,” or “receive Jesus as your personal Savior,” or “invite Jesus to be Lord of your life.” Rather the Scriptural response is a command, an imperative. All men are to respond to the gospel in this way.
The command of the gospel is the same one with which Jesus inaugurated His public ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Jesus’ gospel command is pithy, pointed, and decidedly focused on Him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
The biblical “repent and believe” imperative from Scripture is absent from much of contemporary preaching and evangelism. Commands aren’t given; invitations are offered. Sinner’s prayers are offered as mystical mantras that, when repeated, force God to save you. And self-denial isn’t necessary, since self-fulfillment is the featured value-added bonus of pop Christianity’s gospel offer. MacArthur notes, “People are breezing through those wide, comfortable, inviting gates with all their baggage, their self-needs, their self-esteem, and their desire for fulfillment and self-satisfaction. And the most horrible thing about it is they think they’re going to heaven. And somebody thinks he’s done them a big favor by coming up with a consumer-friendly gospel about which everybody feels good.”
You're Not Jesus, So the Gospel Isn't About You
Consider the evangelistic approach described by one pastor. He summarizes a missions trip on which the latest evangelism “tool” was taught and employed.
“… we had the chance to train and demonstrate the 3 Circles method of sharing the Gospel. It’s an effective, simple path to guide a conversation about Jesus. But that’s what it is: a track. It isn’t the conversation. The conversation is all about your personal experience with Jesus; 3 Circles is just a path to follow as you discuss your personal experience with someone else. It is the personal experience other people want to hear, not a presentation.” (Emphasis added)
While we can be thankful that this pastor has an evangelistic impulse, what must be lamented is that his instruction reflects the evangelically ubiquitous and biblically aberrant view that the gospel is all about you. What people may want to hear is, if the biblical gospel is properly apprehended, not what they need to hear. In no place does Scripture remotely suggest that “your personal experience with Jesus” is the power of God for salvation. That is the exclusive attribute of the exclusive biblical gospel (Rom. 1:16). Consider what Baucham says of such “gospel conversations:
“The gospel is news from, about, for, and through God. The gospel is not just news. It is God centered news. If you are at the center of your discussion about the gospel, it is not a discussion about the gospel. If it is a discussion about the gospel, God will be at the center of it, not you.”
There are currently some 7.7 billion souls on earth. Population statisticians estimate that, in all of human history, some 107 billion people have lived on the planet. But the gospel is not about a single one of those past or present souls … save One. It is only about the Lord Jesus Christ. Your testimony may be wonderful, dramatic, and make for great conversation, but your testimony is not the gospel. While you might persuade someone to repeat a (biblically absent) prayer, if you’re not giving them the biblical gospel, what you’ve said doesn’t save. What God has said does save, and what He has said is written in words in His Word.
“No more soul-destroying doctrine could well be devised than the doctrine that sinners can regenerate themselves, and repent and believe just when they please.” Charles Hodge
“If you have responded to a painless gospel, you have responded to a false gospel. And a false gospel does not save.” Justin Peters
“The gospel doesn’t being with ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ The gospel is not about you. The gospel is about God. The gospel is about creation, fall, redemption, and consummation; creation by God, fall from God, redemption to God, and consummation through God.” Voddie Baucham
Editing The Gospel Exposes Faithlessness, Trying To Live It Exhibits Foolishness
To get the gospel wrong in content, focus, and presentation is to get wrong the single most important truth revealed by God in His Word to man. It is to create another gospel altogether or to fail in faithfulness to the power of the biblically revealed gospel. As Mike Riccardi, in a recent blog for The Master’s Seminary, has noted, “When we believe we should change our presentation of the message based on the characteristics of our audience, we are demonstrating that we believe something about the message itself – and something about the work of the Triune God in salvation – that is out of accord with biblical principles. To be specific, it betrays a lack of faith in the sufficiency of the gospel alone to save sinners (cf. Rom. 1:16-17).”
There is one other result from the church of toxic divinity that is prevalent related to the gospel. There is the tendency of many believers to disregard the actual proclamation of the content of the biblical gospel and instead opt for a sort of drive-by gospel by observation. It is presumed that just “living the gospel” is sufficient for evangelism. But that is both a biblical absent and logically inept perspective.
“The gospel is news … We do not live the news. We cannot live the gospel … That is foolishness. You don’t live news. For me to say I am going to live out the gospel is like me saying I am going to live out the front page story in the newspaper yesterday … Saint Francis said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words” … nobody who knows what the gospel is would say such foolishness.”
The biblical gospel is information. It is historical and inviolable information. It is divinely revealed propositional truth. It is the content of a providentially delivered, divinely inspired, and absolutely inerrant, infallible Book that uses words to convey the message from God to man. As Baucham says, “For me to think I can live the gospel is to put myself in the place of Jesus. That is blasphemy.” It is to say, effectively, that “you don’t need the news about Jesus; just watch me.”
“Faith comes not from so-called missional living; it comes ‘from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ’ (Rom. 10:17).” Mike Riccardi
Charles Spurgeon has rightly said, “To preach the gospel is to proclaim with trumpet tongue and flaming zeal the unsearchable riches of Christ, so that men may hear, and understanding, may turn to God with full purpose of heart. This is to preach the gospel.” Such preaching, such evangelism, is sorely missing from evangelical churches in our day. Jesus, who is the content of the gospel, has been altered by the church and so the gospel has been also been altered. The gospel focus on Christ has been subverted to a false gospel focus on man. The presentation of the gospel has been eviscerated of biblical words and content and instead become self-focused spiritual conversations. But as Steven Lawson has said, “You cannot be wrong about the gospel and be right with God. To be right about the gospel is to be right about everything that truly matters.”
As we worship, may those redeemed by “the gospel of the glory of Christ” praise Him for the inspired biblical truth that constitutes His gospel. Let us thank Him for bestowing His grace upon us that we should be the beneficiaries of so great a salvation. Let us endeavor not to foolishly attempt to live the gospel, but rather to live in light of it, proclaiming its truth to those trapped in darkness. May we never confuse the essence of the gospel with the effects of the gospel. And may we remember that the greatest effect of the gospel in the genuinely redeemed soul is the humility it brings to self, and the exaltation it affords only to Christ, “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)