At the Together for the Gospel blog, C.J. Mahaney has challenged the other contributors (Mark Dever, Al Mohler and Ligon Duncan) with two questions. “What is the gospel? What is the most serious threat to the gospel in the evangelical church today?” I thought it would be a good challenge for me to think about this and attempt answers as well. But before I do so, I’d suggest we back up just a little bit and define evangelical before we define gospel and discuss the most serious threat it faces today.
We will begin with a brief examination of the word evangelical.
The word evangelical used to describe a well-defined theological position. What made evangelicals distinct was their commitment to the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Now “evangelicalism” is a political movement, and its representatives hold a wide variety of theological beliefsfrom Neuhaus’s Roman Catholicism to Jakes’s heretical Sabellianism, to Joyce Meyer’s radical charismaticism, to Brian McLaren’s anti-scriptural postmodernism.
So says Phil Johnson. And he is right. Evangelical has a historic meaning, but one that has largely been lost. The word has become so inclusive that it has really lost all meaning. “These days it means everything” says Phil, “and it therefore means nothing.”
So what is the historical significance of the word? An evangelical used to be a person who stood firm on two key convictions: the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. These correspond to the doctrines of sola scriptura, which was considered the formal principle of the Reformation, and sola fide, the material principle of the Reformation. Yet today most professed Christians would barely be even to articulate such simple, fundamental doctrines.
So what happened? The following is adapted from notes I took on a seminar led by Phil Johnson at the 2006 Shepherd’s Conference:
An evangelical is no longer a person defined by theology but by experience or church membership. Evangelical has been stripped of doctrinal content. Mainstream evangelicals have been assaulted by movements that seem to be motivated by removing the doctrinal distinctives: The lack of theology in the Church Growth Movement, the anti-intellectualism of the Charismatic movement; the neo-ecumenism in Promise Keepers and other movements, the new understanding of justification in the New Perspective on Paul, the denial of propositional truth in the Emerging Church, and so on. These have all worked to the detriment of evangelicalism. So now, evangelicalism which was once a movement defined by doctrine, understands doctrine to be divisive and of secondary importance. The obvious casualty in all of this is the gospel. Catholics and Protestants have long agreed that the heart of the debate is the gospel, but now people would have us believe otherwise.
When we discuss the serious threat facing churches today, I intend to focus only on evangelical churches that would qualify under the historical meaning of the word.
When we talk about the gospel, we tend to think of a particular message - a presentation aimed at convincing people to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” But in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, we can see that he used the word with a wider meaning. John MacArthur explains (in Ashamed of the Gospel):
The gospel—in the sense Paul and the apostles employed the word—includes all the revealed truth about Christ (cf Rom. 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 15:3-11). It does not stop at the point of conversion and justification by faith, but embraces every other aspect of salvation, from sanctification to glorification. The gospel’s significance therefore does not end the moment the new birth occurs; it applies to the entire Christian experience. And when Paul and the other New Testament writers spoke of “preaching the gospel,” they were not talking about preaching only to unbelievers (cf v.15).
The gospel, then, is a message that draws us to God, but which we continue to need and to love throughout the Christian life. So let us define the gospel calling.
I am particularly drawn to William Tyndale’s definition of gospel: “Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy… [This gospel is] all of Christ the right David, how that he hath fought with sin, with death, and the devil, and overcome them: whereby all men that were in bondage to sin, wounded with death, overcome of the devil are without their own merits or deservings loosed, justified, restored to life and saved, brought to liberty and reconciled unto the favor of God and set at one with him again: which tidings as many as believe laud, praise and thank God, are glad, sing and dance for joy.”
This good news made Tyndale so exceedingly glad that he could and would not reject it, even at the cost of his life. He was strangled and burned at the stake for his desire to bring this news to all men through the translation of the Scriptures.
Tyndale, like many others before and after, understands the gospel call or message as being comprised of three essential components:
- The bad news - The good news is only good when we understand the bad news. The bad news is that all men have sinned against God. All men were in bondage to sin and overcome by the devil. They are without merit and deserve nothing good.
- The penalty - The wages of sin are death. Those who transgress against God are condemned. Because we have all sinned against God, we are all living in a state of condemnation and are wounded with death.
- The Savior - Jesus Christ died to pay the just penalty for our sin. Having fought with sin, death and Satan, and having overcome them, He offers restoration of life, reconciliation with God and full justification.
This is the message. Of course, for it to be effective in a person’s life, he or she must respond to it in repentance and faith, for this message requires a personal response. With the response comes the rewards - the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
A very good and reasonably short document about the gospel is The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.
As I pondered the most serious threat the church faces, I was immediately struck by the word apathy which I quickly jotted down on a little sticky note. Not too long after that, I added discernment. I think these two words do a apt job of summarizing what I feel threatens the church. And I think they go arm-in-arm.
In our day churches are filled with people who simply do not care about the purity of the church. There are countless numbers of professed Christians who care nothing for any type of theological precision or defining characteristics of the faith. There is a shocking apathy among those who profess Christ. Coupled with this apathy is a terrible lack of discernment and a lack of appreciation for those who value and display discernment. Too often evangelicals seem not to know how to discern truth from error, and just as often do not seem to care. Apathy and a lack of discernment together make a potent force that forms a serious threat to the church—perhaps the most serious threat we face today.
So many other threats—the pernicious new doctrines that arise, the loss of confidence in the Bible, the rise of teachers and leaders who deny fundamental doctrines—these would be swept away if evangelicals simply stopped being so apathetic and displayed some godly, biblical discernment.