“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
“In these days, I feel bound to go over the elementary truths of the gospel repeatedly. In peaceful times, we may feel free to make excursions into interesting districts of truth which lie far afield; but now we must stay at home, and guard the hearts and homes of the church by defending the first principles of the faith. In this age, there have risen up in the church itself men who speak perverse things. There be many that trouble us with their philosophies and novel interpretations, whereby they deny the doctrines they profess to teach, and undermine the faith they are pledged to maintain. It is well that some of us, who know what we believe, and have no secret meanings for our words, should just put our foot down and maintain our standing, holding forth the word of life, and plainly declaring the foundation truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” C.H. Spurgeon
In the preface to his Recovering The Gospel book series, Paul Washer includes this quote from the Prince of Preachers on the necessity of obediently protecting, repeatedly proclaiming, and boldly maintaining the “elementary truths of the gospel.” It will not require a stretch for the observant and faithful Christian to recognize the similarities of concern from Spurgeon’s time to our own. The gospel is, as it always has been, under attack.
Scripture tells us that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 1:15). That truth starts with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Washer writes, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest of all treasures given to the church and the individual Christian.”
There simply is no Christianity apart from the gospel. But neither is there genuine Christianity with an altered, abbreviated, or edited gospel. It was this very feature of the downgrade in his day which prompted Spurgeon to “feel bound to go over the elementary truths of the gospel repeatedly.” It is equally paramount in our own day to protect the genuine gospel from error and from disregard.
“One of the greatest crimes,” writes Washer, “committed by this present Christian generation is its neglect of the gospel, and it is from this neglect that all our other maladies spring forth.” Though the word “gospel” is frequently uttered, is often made a catchy tagline, and is conveniently given as a motivation for an evangelical agenda (think of the plethora of “gospel issues” to which Christians are incessantly summoned), the gospel itself is, sadly, evangelically obscure. And if it is obscure within the church, it cannot be clear to the lost world which so desperately needs to hear it.
As Washer notes, “The lost world is not so much gospel hardened as it is gospel ignorant because many of those who proclaim the gospel are ignorant of its most basic truths.” To prove his charge, just consider the frequency of evangelical preaching, of “Christian” books, and of so-called Bible studies that feature the themes of “the justice of God, the radical depravity of man, the blood atonement, the nature of true conversion, and the biblical basis for assurance.”
These fundamental gospel themes, says Washer, “are absent from too many pulpits.” And if they are absent from evangelical pulpits, they are also absent within evangelical pews. If they are not in those pews, we can be certain they are neither present in the world of sinners who have “no hope and are without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Instead, what the church has done is to reduce the gospel for popular consumption. “Churches reduce the gospel message to a few creedal statements, teach that conversion is a mere human decision, and pronounce assurance of salvation over anyone who prays the sinner’s prayer,” writes Washer. The “faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3) has become, in the hands of contemporary evangelicalism, much like the television broadcast warning: “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.” The faith, the gospel, has been modified. It’s been formatted to fit the self-serving desires of the culture which the church so desperately seeks to lure to its pews. But it’s a modified faith; it’s a reformatted gospel. And, it’s one that does not save.
In his series preface, Washer gives four critically helpful points that speak to the effect of this gospel reductionism. What happens when the biblical gospel is reformatted for popular consumption?
“First, it further hardens the hearts of the unconverted.”
“Untold millions walk our streets and sit in our pews unchanged by the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet they are convinced of their salvation because one time in their life they raised a hand at an evangelistic campaign or repeated a prayer. This false sense of security creates a great barrier that often insulates such individuals from ever hearing the true gospel.”
The same inoculated gospel hardening is highlighted by Steven Lawson in his book Absolutely Sure. Lawson writes:
“Untold multitudes of people within the church today …have been inoculated with the gospel but never ‘contract’ the real thing. They have walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, signed a card, made a decision, and been baptized. They have joined the church, attended Sunday School, sung in the choir, given their money, even served in church leadership. But despite all this, they have never been converted to Jesus Christ. They have facts about Christ but not faith in Him. They have believed with their head but not with their heart. They have come to church but not to Christ. They profess Christ but do not possess Him. They have turned over a new leaf but not received a new life. They have been reformed but not reborn. They wear a cross but never bear one. They know the Word of God but not the God of the Word. They give their money to God but not their life. The have practical religion but not a personal relationship with Christ … Our first mission field lies within the walls of the church itself.”
“Secondly,” continues Washer, “such a gospel deforms the church from a spiritual body of regenerated believers into a gathering of carnal men who profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him.”
A reformatted gospel is the result of a reimagined agenda driven by a pragmatism that is vividly absent from Scripture. When the church believes that it must build itself, rather than exhibiting obedient faith in the Lord who claimed for Himself the construction of His church (Matt. 16:18), that church will necessarily accommodate the gospel and biblical teaching to the preferences of the presumed “seekers” it desires to attract. Cultural relevance becomes more critical than biblical faithfulness. As a result, what we see today are legions of Jesus-professing pew sitters who can point to a hand raised, an aisle walked, or a prayer repeated as grounds for their salvation, but whose lives look much like the pew-avoiding worldling next door.
Though this “carnal Christianity” isn’t so boldly professed, or perhaps even defended, in many corners of evangelicalism, it is the necessary by-product of a diminished and incomplete gospel. The predominant gospel to which Washer speaks is the message of easy-believism which can only produce carnal Christianity, a gospel and a Christianity which does not save. As Jeffrey D. Johnson has written in The Church: Why Bother?, “Since salvation does not demand self-denial and submission to Christ as Lord, all who have repeated the sinner’s prayer must be saved no matter how they live their lives. Under this delusion, drunkards, adulterers and idolators are preached into heaven at their funeral because they said a prayer when they were a child.” But this is because, as Washer points out, the church “lays aside the great truths of Scripture and orthodox Christianity, and pragmatism (i.e., whatever keeps the church going and growing) becomes the rule of the day.”
Washer’s third point is that “such a gospel reduces evangelism and missions to little more than a humanistic endeavor driven by clever marketing strategies based upon a careful study of the latest trends in culture.”
Because the church is, after so many decades of seeker-sensitive, church-growth hooplah, now filled with professing, but carnal, men and women who have never been discipled from the Word by the pulpit or the teachers of the church, the commission of the church has been radically altered. Evangelism becomes little more than inviting someone to church so they can hear the wonderful plan God has for their life, not to mention to promote to them the seemingly endless programs and activities they can enjoy with the church “family.” The innate need for worship, combined with the natural legalist lurking in the heart of every human, produces generally favorable responses to such “evangelistic” efforts. But when evangelism is absent the biblical evangel, the church becomes guilty of an eternal crime against lost souls and is in violation of Christ’s clear command to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19).
Likewise, missions becomes short-term vacations and works of social aid that are often void even of the very compromised gospel of the church itself, but are certainly void of the biblical gospel which is equally absent in the “missional” church. When the church is effectively comprised of legalistic, moralistic, Jesus-professing attenders, but not of genuinely regenerate disciples, evangelism and missions become less about glorifying God through the proclamation of His gospel so that through it He might exert His power to save, and more about appealing to and redeeming the culture. But as Johnson writes, “The mission of the church is not to redeem the culture; it is to preach the Redeemer – Jesus Christ.”
As Washer puts it, “There is now more emphasis on understanding our fallen culture and its fads than on understanding and proclaiming the only message that has the power to save it. As a result, the gospel is constantly being repackaged to fit what contemporary culture deems most relevant. We have forgotten,” continues Washer, “that the true gospel is always relevant to every culture because it is God’s eternal word to every man.”
The most woeful effect of the gospel-reductionism to which Washer speaks is his final point.
“Fourthly, such a gospel brings reproach to the name of God.”
“Through the proclamation of a lesser gospel, the carnal and unconverted come into the fellowship of the church, and through the almost total neglect of biblical church discipline, they are allowed to stay without correction or reproof. This soils the purity and reputation of the church and blasphemes the name of God among the unbelieving. In the end, God is not glorified, the church is not edified, the unconverted church member is not saved, and the church has little or no witness to the unbelieving world.”
That the gospel has been sacrificed on the contemporary altar of social appeal and cultural relevance is evident. But genuinely redeemed believers understand that a far greater gospel sacrifice compels us, that of the spotless Lamb of God who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8) so that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). As our Lord said, He came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Those who are among the ransomed know by their union with Christ the infinite sacrifice by which they have been purchased. Compromise of the gospel of their salvation is unthinkable. Indeed, the command of the gospel demands of us our lives before the compromise of His eternal truth.
When we come to worship, let us exalt the Savior who is the sacrifice of the gospel. Let us stand with Spurgeon in “plainly declaring the foundation truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Let us know with Washer that we have nothing of greater worth than the glorious gospel of our Lord. With Paul we must defend and deliver what is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-11). This is the very gospel call for self-sacrifice by Christ on our lives: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
As J.C. Ryle said, “We have the truth and we need not be afraid to say so.” May we then worship our sacrificed and risen Savior and may we never sacrifice His gospel of grace, but rather be bold to stand for its truth in all its fullness. It is, for the redeemed, a matter of the eternal glory of God.
The Recovering The Gospel series by Paul Washer includes the following:
The Gospel’s Power & Message, copyright 2012, Reformation Heritage Books
The Gospel Call & True Conversion, copyright 2013, Reformation Heritage Books
Gospel Assurance & Warnings, copyright 2014, Reformation Heritage Books
All are available directly from Reformation Heritage Books HERE.