During the last century, there have been two major developments in relation to gospel preaching. Firstly, the ‘gospel meeting’ (indoor and/or ‘open air’) has been largely abandoned in favour of another teaching session for Christians, or no meeting at all. Secondly, there has been a fundamental change in the content (not just the style) of the gospel message itself. Thus, if you compare the message preached today with the sermons of the apostles or by men like Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, McCheyne, Spurgeon, Moody and Rea, during genuine revivals throughout church history, you will find a vast difference.
This second development has, in particular, had most serious consequences. The following example illustrates the point I am making. In 1991, a major ‘evangelical’ denomination in the USA, consisting of 11,000 churches, launched a huge push in evangelism. After securing 294,000 ‘decisions for Christ’ in twelve months (26.73 per church), only 14,000 new members came ‘into fellowship’ (1.27 per church). Are we to believe that within twelve months of being saved, under the sound of the Holy Spirit empowered biblical gospel, 95.2% of the ‘converts’ (over a quarter million people) had become ‘backsliders’? Or what shall we say for the countless souls who ‘pray a prayer for salvation’ as young children, only to ‘leave the church’ as soon as they reach their teen years? The root problem behind these dreadful symptoms can be nothing other than the severe curtailing of the content of the biblical gospel message.
This message has four essential elements.
FIRSTLY the biblical gospel begins and ends with God
The ‘contemporary message’, is mancentered and is designed to ‘appeal’ to the lost in a ‘non-threatening’ way. In abbreviated form, this is how the modern gospel sounds. ‘Are you suffering from feelings of emptiness, loneliness and low self-esteem? The good news is that the aching God-shaped vacuum within you can be filled, when you say sorry for your sins and commit your life to Jesus. God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants you to be personally fulfilled and satisfied. Jesus has paid for your sins on the cross. He loves you and wants you to ask Him into your life today. All you have to do is ask Jesus to be your personal Saviour. Why not pray this prayer after me … ?’
By contrast, when Paul preached to the people in Lystra, he opened by saying, ‘We … preach unto you that you should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven … earth … sea, and all things that are therein’, Acts 14. 15. He began by laying the foundation of a ‘Creator God’ who is sovereign, good and patient. Again, when preaching to the philosophers in Athens he stated, ‘God that made the world and all things therein seeing he is Lord of heaven and earth … now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained’, Acts 17. 24-31. This was always Paul’s approach when preaching to pagans. Felix was challenged about God’s righteousness, his own lack of self-control and judgement to come, Acts 24. 25.
Since repentance is a change of mind towards God, how can a sinner repent until he has a true concept of the God against whom he has grievously rebelled? Thus, unless a God-centered gospel is clearly preached, all that will be produced is a multitude of converts who have never so much as caught one glimpse of the holiness, goodness and sovereignty of their almighty Creator, ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen’, Rom. 11. 36.
SECONDLY the biblical gospel makes proper use of the law of God
A sinner must understand the gospel to be saved, Matt 13. 15, 19, 23; Acts 8. 30-31; Rom. 3. 11. But before a sinner can understand the mercy of a loving God, he must understand the just requirements of a righteous God. Now, the law is not the gospel and the gospel is not the law; but the gospel establishes the law, Rom. 3. 31. That law which all men have in their hearts by nature, Rom 2. 15, Israel also had written on stone, the purpose of which is clearly stated by Paul as, ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin’, Rom. 3. 20. Paul further states that he would never have known he was a guilty sinner without the law, Rom. 7. 7, so the chief end of it is to convince the whole world of its guilt before the holiness of God, Rom. 3. 19.
The book of Romans contains the only systematic setting out of the truth of the gospel in scripture. Paul uses the word ‘law’ thirty-eight times before he mentions the word ‘love’. From Romans chapter 1 verse 17 to chapter 3 verse 19, Paul sets before us the case against the sinner. It is a sorry tale of condemnation, wrath and guilt. Finally, in chapter 5 verse 8, he states that God commends His love towards sinners.
Begin by telling the average Westerner ‘God loves you ’ and he may say, ‘Why shouldn’t He; I'm a good person?’ However, preachers of the old school never set the remedy of the gospel before the sinner’s mind until thoroughly convincing him of his sin. The contemporary gospel uses promises of ‘happiness’ as a draw card to encourage sinners to ‘make their decision for Christ’. The net result is that sinners respond with a false motive and quickly fall away, and are usually thereafter inoculated against the true gospel.
Gospel preachers must understand that simply quoting ‘All have sinned’, followed by a quick ‘but the good news is’, will never awaken anyone. A sinner must be faced with the fact that covetousness (the love of things) is idolatry, Col. 3. 5, hate is murder, 1 John 3. 15 and lust is adultery, Matt. 5. 28, the aim being utterly to convince him from scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that he is an enemy of God, unclean, lost, guilty, helpless and deserving the eternal wrath of almighty God.
The proper initial reaction to the gospel on the part of the sinner is conviction of sin, John 16. 8; Acts 2. 37. But what is conviction of sin? It is surely more than just the ordinary smiting of the conscience, Rom. 2. 15, or the fear of hell. Neither is it mere head knowledge of the doctrine of the fall of Adam. Conviction is ‘a proper sense of the dreadfulness of my sin against God’. This was David’s realization in Psalm 51. 4, ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’. Let us therefore preach with this end in view.
THIRDLY the biblical gospel sounds a clear note of repentance
Summarizing three years of ministry in Ephesus, Paul stated that he had preached ‘repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ', Acts 20. 21. Summarizing his whole life, he stated that he had preached that men should ‘repent and turn to God, and do works’, Acts 26. 20. Nowhere in the Bible did anyone preach that, ‘All you need to do is accept that Jesus died and rose again, ask Him to be your Saviour and you will go to heaven’. What they did preach was that firstly, Christ died; secondly, He rose again; and, thirdly, they needed to repent in order to receive the forgiveness of sins, Luke 24. 45. Would we be happy with a cross-less gospel or a resurrection-less gospel? How then can we be content to preach a repentance-less gospel?
Contrary to contemporary thinking, salvation is not just giving mental assent to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is no mere ‘click of logic’. There is no saving faith without repentance. If one is a stranger to conviction, one is a stranger to repentance and therefore a stranger to salvation, No one ever truly believed without repenting and vice versa. The first sentence the Lord Jesus uttered in His public ministry was, ‘Repent ye, and believe the gospel’, Mark 1. 15; and He continued to warn repeatedly that unless sinners repent they would perish, Luke 13. 3, see also 2 Pet. 3. 9.
Only one sentence in the Bible states that God loves the world, John 3. 16. A handful of other verses speak of God’s love for undeserving sinners. Yet this precious and sublime truth is cheapened today, by overemphasis at the expense of repentance. That is a major reason why there is little or no true convicting power and blessing in the preaching of the gospel today. The Holy Spirit will not endue with power ‘another gospel’. He has not authorized a false gospel that is damning souls, corrupting local churches and hindering revival.
But what is repentance? It is not penance or restitution (Judas paid the money back, he regretted, but never repented, Matt. 27. 3). It is not merely tears, fear of judgement (Felix trembled), or sorrow for sin (godly sorrow may lead to repentance, but is not the same as repentance), 2 Cor. 7. 10. Many a man is filled with regret and remorse over a misspent life, yet has no poignant sorrow of heart for his ingratitude and rebellion against God. Nor is conviction merely ‘admitting or confessing you are a sinner’. Balaam, Pharaoh, Judas and many others admitted ‘I have sinned’, but never repented of their sins.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia (from meta, ‘after’, and nous, ‘mind’). It means a complete change of mind involving turning from sin to God, which results in a change of life. It happens when God supernaturally reveals to the sinner a deep consciousness of what he is in His sight, causing him to take sides with God against himself. It involves the heart repudiation of sin that is so beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is defined in Isaiah chapter 55 verse 7, ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him’.
FOURTHLY and finally, the biblical gospel presents the Lord Jesus Christ as the object of faith
It is not simply the ‘fact of the atonement’ that needs to be grasped. Paul did not tell the repentant jailor just to believe the ‘facts about Calvary’, but to ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’, that is as Master, Saviour and promised Messiah, Acts 16. 31. This is not the ‘cool Jesus’ of the contemporary gospel, who says ‘Come as you are and stay as you are’. As the Lord Jesus is revealed to the repentant sinner and saving faith is placed alone in Him, the new birth becomes a personal reality.
Tragically today, many ‘evangelical’ churches are frequented by people who do not exhibit the fruits of salvation, but who are not embarrassed to say they are Christians. But if a man says he has faith and has not works, can that faith save him? Jas. 2. 14. When God saves He expects good works, Acts 26. 20, and the dedication of a bond slave, 1 Thess. 1. 9. Therefore, any salvation experience that does not turn a rebel sinner into an obedient servant is spurious. ‘Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance … every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire’, Matt. 3. 8. How solemn to see a large number who call Jesus Lord, shut out of the kingdom, despite their many religious works, Matt. 7. 21.
We rightly mourn the fact that liberal theologians preach a blood-less gospel and a deity-less Christ. But should we not rather mourn that in our own evangelical circles we too often tolerate a gospel that lacks a call to repentance. Which is worse? The net result is the same. May we be most diligent to ensure that our sermons, our gospel tracts and the missionary endeavors we support, present every aspect of the true biblical gospel.
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