Sunday, March 11, 2012

What ever happened to the Gospel?

Some years ago, Christian author Dave Hunt wrote a book entitled “Whatever Happened to Heaven?” The book was written in response to the disillusionment experienced by many in the Christian community after predictions of an imminent rapture failed to materialize. As the 40th anniversary of the reestablishment of an Israeli state came and went, doubt crept into the church. "Maybe we had it wrong," many thought. "Maybe the Gospel isn't about the afterlife, but about the now life." Dave sought to answer these doubts in 1988 with a book that is still very relevant some 24 years later as we watch the slow and painful demise of faith in “pie in the sky, bye and bye” in favor of a call to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now – on earth and in our time.

Some two decades after Dave Hunt first published his book, I find myself asking a very similar question. The question I have recently found myself asking almost every day is “Whatever happened to the Gospel?” Week after week, as I read Christian books and study materials, visit Christian blogs and web sites, and listen to Christian music and programs, I find myself subjected to a seemingly unending barrage of exhortations to find my spiritual gift, to find my place in ministry, to get “plugged in,” to find God’s purpose for my life. I go to Christian concerts and retreats where I am entreated to donate to ministries whose primary purpose appears to be easing the suffering of people in the here and now – hopefully with at least some notion attracting people to the Kingdom by meeting their physical needs. Sometimes these events are accompanied by a clear presentation of the Gospel; other times the speakers may refer to the Gospel only in a vague sort of way, or sometimes not at all.

Ask a professional or lay-minister what the biggest problem facing the Church is today, and, chances are, you will get some response about the lack of volunteerism or commitment on the part of the laity. You may hear about how more people than ever attend church, while fewer people than ever can be found to fill teaching roles, or about how attendance has gone up while giving has gone down. I wonder, though, how often you would hear a minister say that we just aren’t getting the truth of the Gospel out often enough or to enough people? I would contend that if we looked back to the times when the Church was at its healthiest and growing at its fastest, we would find that these weren’t the times when were exhorting each other to find our gift, or to be generous with our time and resources, or to get “plugged in,” or to find God’s purpose for our lives. No; I would be willing to bet that if we were to look at those times, we would find a church membership that knew the Gospel backward and forward, that had honed its presentation to razor sharpness, and that had as its refrain, not some vague promise of finding peace and fulfillment in this life, but in the words of Charles Spurgeon:

“If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”

Do you want to know what God’s purpose for your life is? I can tell you what it is right now. If you are a Christian, God’s purpose for your life is summed up in Matthew 28, verses 19-20:

Matthew 28:19-20 (English Standard Version)

19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Now, you may have other specific tasks or places to which God has called you, but if you are reading this as a born-again Christian, I can tell you that your primary purpose in life is to honor Christ in worship, and by making other Christians. That’s it.

If you are sitting here and you are not a Christian, and you are wondering what God’s will is for you, His desire for you is summed up in 1 Timothy 2:

1 Timothy 2:3-6 (English Standard Version)

3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Now I want to pause here for a moment to pass on a startling fact I read not long ago on the Francis Schaeffer Institute web site: According to the site, a startling 57% of professed evangelical Christians believe that there is more than one way to heaven! The number is even higher for non-evangelical protestants at 82%. If these figures are accurate, that means that at least one out of every two professed Christians has not correctly understood the Gospel. And if they have not understood the Gospel, well, that begs the question of whether they could possibly have received the Gospel. And if they haven’t received the Gospel, then they are still dead in their sins, and will be one of those unfortunate shocked and dismayed people who have dedicated their lives to service and to purpose-driven Christian living, and of whom Christ says in Matthew 7: “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” So take a good look at the person to your left and to your right the next time you are sitting in that pew. Statistically speaking, there is a good chance that at least one of those people is bound for hell.

So, if you are not saved, God’s desire for you is to know the truth, that you might become saved. In the words of Christ Himself, when asked what to do in order to be doing God’s work, He said "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:29). So again the answer is very simple: If you are not a Christian, God’s will for you is to become a Christian.

So, God’s will for non-Christians is to become Christian, and God’s will for Christians is to make non-Christians Christian (try saying that three times fast). Got it? Good. Now you might ask: how can I make anyone a Christian? The answer is: you can’t. That is where the Gospel comes in. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul, concerning the Gospel:

Romans 1:16-17 (English Standard Version)

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

So, though we have no power of our own to save anybody, God gives us the power to make Christians, and the power He gives us is in the Gospel. It isn’t in programs or buildings. It isn’t in service or in donations to charity. It isn’t in 12-step or 7-habits courses. It isn’t in music (unless that music somehow involves a presentation of the truth of the Gospel). It isn’t in effective or purpose-driven living. The power of God for salvation is in the Gospel.

The writer of Hebrews says much the same thing in different words:

Hebrews 4:12 (English Standard Version)

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

So the power is in the Word. The Word reflects our true nature for all to see, it convicts us of our sin, and it offers us redemption in the person of the Living Word, who is Christ.

So what is the Gospel? After all, we cannot offer the Gospel; we cannot take advantage of its power to save; we cannot share the Gospel, if we do not know the Gospel, or if we have forgotten it. Paul comes to our rescue again on this point, summarizing in a few sentences that which we need to know and to hold fast to in order to be saved and to obtain eternal life:

1 Corinthians 15

The Resurrection of Christ

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

So the Gospel in a few words is simply this:

  • That I am a wretched sinner, wicked to the core, and doomed to eternal punishment, as Paul was before me.
  • That Christ came down from above, lived the perfect life I could never live, died in my place in payment for my sins, and rose again to the right hand of the Father, proving He has power over life and death and that He has conquered death for all time.
  • That if I repent and turn to Christ as my Lord and Savior, placing my faith in the work He has completed and in His mercy I will be saved and obtain eternal life, because:
  • In placing my faith in Christ, I get credit for the life He lived, in exchange for the punishment He took for the life I’ve lived, and like Abraham, I am counted righteous because I believed. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21)

If you are hearing or reading this and you have never understood or received the Gospel, I have laid it out for you as simply as I know how. Won’t you take a few moments to reflect on it and understand it, that you might receive it and be saved? If you are a Christian and have been seeking God’s will for your walk, won’t you consider making the sharing of the Gospel the goal of your purpose-driven life?