From time to time, the church, or a subculture within the church, to be more precise, will pick up a new buzzword, usually associated with a movement or ideology that has recently hit the scene and promises to be the next great “thing” that will revolutionize or revive the church from its slumber if it can be properly disseminated, resulting in the next spiritual revival. First, let me say that I am not immune to such musings. I often allow idealism to creep in, leading me to not so well thought out conclusions. Second, let me also suggest that I do believe that revival is possible, and it is often attached to, simply not merely dependent upon, a new cultural focus or movement. As a Wesleyan thinker, I place a high regard upon God’s prevenient grace in such situations. In short, what I mean is that I believe that God’s Spirit going out preparing the way is what must happen primarily for revival to take place. These cultural movements are merely vehicles for God’s overarching work.
What I mean to say by this is that the idea, buzzword, or new school of thought, in its self, cannot ever produce revival. We should never assume that if we disseminate this or that renewed doctrine or system of thought, spiritual revival must necessarily follow. This is to ignore the utter need of the Spirit for any Spiritual good to take place. So, when a word, a group of words, or a system of thought is touted about as being the next great thing, I am wary. This is not to say that I believe that revival will never come about largely because of a movement, but it has to be a movement God initiates. Simply because it is biblical does not mean it is going to catch the world ablaze. Biblical theology is preached everyday and it still falls on deaf ears. Being attentive to and seeking God’s prior movements and callings alone brings about revival. It is then that the message preached makes headway.
Take for example the Gospel itself. The Gospel, the Bible tells us, happened in the fullness of time, in God’s timing, so that it might have the greatest affect. Therefore, as powerful a message as the Gospel was and still is, it is itself dependent upon the work of God to make its effectiveness sure. Without the prior workings of God, as we see in the Old Testament, the Gospel would have been of much less affect. Instead, as the opening of Mark points out, there was a preparing of a way before the Gospel hit the scene of human history. I use this example mainly because it is the word “Gospel” that I have seen become the newest buzzword, and for reasons enumerated above, I am skeptical of it existence in this new form. That is to say, I see it being used as the new “cure-all” and I am concerned about what persons using the term really mean by what they say and how they think its use will be effective. (If you are a friend of mine that happens to use this word a lot, please be assured that I have no one particular person in mind, but a group. And I write this as one side of a dialogue, with the benefit of my friends in mind. In other words, I offer this in love.)
I first began to notice the trend a few years ago. A few peers of mine began, almost simultaneously, to use the word “Gospel” in just about every dialogue they had upon all things Christian. At first I was simply a bit curious, wondering if I had missed out on something. As I began to listen more, I realized that the rhetoric surrounding the new buzzword was also quite uniform between the adherents to this new way of speaking. That is when I became quite sure that this was a movement of some sort, although I have not yet myself found the genesis for this new thought (if you have any ideas let me know. I am assuming it started in Reformed circles, as I am not always aware of their dialogue). Recently, the use of this new term, and the ideas imported with it, has proven to me to be an overemphasis of one theological idea over several others. This was concluded when I heard it said that biblical messages are fine, but the Gospel is really our only real concern. While I think that there is a hierarchy of ideas within Scripture, method of baptism being of less import than views on say justification and all of soteriology for that matter, I also think that one doctrine should not be used to the exclusion of others, which I worry is happening in this case.
Many would say we need but preach the Gospel. What the sinner needs to hear is the Gospel. Evangelism begins, and in some of the most extreme minds, ends with the Gospel. And so they say, "We need to preach the Gospel!" By this many come to mean, in all our varied ways, the point of all we say needs to be about the Gospel. In the end, this philosophy of evangelism suggests that the primary concern of all messages we give should be the Gospel message. I have even heard it said that Sunday morning-meaning church services-should always be about the Gospel, and by this the person means to suggest it should be explicitly so. Some leeway might be given in suggesting that all biblical principles might be taught, as long as they then point back to the Gospel message in a clear and even explicit manner, as if for any biblical sermon to be affective a formulaic expression of the Gospel must be tagged to the end, thus ending every message with, “…and this is made possible by the Gospel.” I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing to say, but I assume that if we are doing our jobs as disciple makers, this should be implied and implicitly understood often times. Nevertheless, there are those who say, we need but preach the Gospel.
I would protest and say that while the statement, “We need to preach the Gospel” is indeed a proper thing to say, it is incomplete, and if it becomes one’s mantra, then it can lead to an over generalizing of our call to discipleship. Instead, I would simply say that all that we say and do as disciples should be about, leading to, pointing to, or dependent upon the Gospel. Certainly, without the Gospel, no other biblical principle would really matter, for without resurrection, we are without hope. But the Gospel message alone will not suffice for Christian evangelism, unless by "Gospel" one simply means whatever is contained in Scripture. I suspect this is not what many mean when they say such for why would they not simply say we need to preach biblically. The Gospel should remain within our minds as a distinct part, albeit the climatically crucial part, of the larger Scriptural text.
To say we need to preach the Gospel is to say something very true, but incomplete. Think of it this way: We need to breathe, without this action, we cannot sustain life, but we also need to eat to be sustained. We should not say, “We need to breathe,” only to then conclude, “Breathing is so primary that all else can fall to the wayside.” Likewise we need to preach the Gospel to maintain a sustained ministry, but we also need to preach other Scriptural truths, complementary to the Gospel message. The reality that much needs to be said before and after the Gospel message is, as I pointed out earlier, indicative of why Messiah did not come immediately after the fall. Yes the Gospel is the good news of God's great solution to our problem, but he had to do much to prepare the way.
Just as humanity had to learn over time, thus the redemptive story happens throughout real history, so too does the individual learn of the truth over time. First he gave the law to convict. The Gospel largely is not meant to convict, that is it assumes we know the problem. The problem of our perversion, as pointed out by the law, was already established in the OT. Likewise, before we tell persons about the good news, we often must present the problem before they are ever ready to hear the solution. As it needs a foundation, we are not warranted in suggesting that all we need to do is present the Gospel. The Old Testament provides such a basis for the Gospel message, that the Gospel would be nonsensical without it. Moreover, the Gospel is not the end of the story. The Gospels, properly speaking, end after the ascension, but the story goes on. Pentecost is really the result of the Gospel. We need to not only present the Gospel, but what the Gospel makes possible as well.
The Gospel, in the life of a Christian is merely the beginning of the journey. If all one hears Sunday in and Sunday out is the Gospel, then he or she might think that after justification, that is, after acceptance, he or she is through. What else could be determined from church service if the Gospel is all we ever give. Some might rebut by suggesting that we have to present this message in church, for there might be some there that particular Sunday that only have this one opportunity left. This places the responsibility of salvation squarely on our own shoulders and out of the much more trusting hands of God., and it effectively disables us to preach the full revelation of God. Is the Gospel to be so stifling a thing? Not by any means. If this was one’s philosophy, then he or she should never waist a breath with anyone at any time unless it concerns the Gospel in an explicit way. Sunday should be no special occasion for such.
The whole of Scripture is to be taught, and not the ever part of it is the Gospel message in an explicit sense. This is my bottom line. We need to stop belittling the messages of others, revealed to their heart by God, by saying, he or she did not present the Gospel! If it is biblical, I bet God wants it to be heard at some point or another, and we need not conclude every reading of Scripture by turning then to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John for the “real” story.
But, do I think these people, or better yet, this school of thought, has something to offer. Of course I do. We can take from this that the Gospel should be of primary concern. It should be considered in all we say and do. We are dependent upon it for our very existence, and sermons day in and day out that simply use the bible to instruct us on moral matters, never mentioning the Gospel, are of little use, sense without the Gospel, we are without hope. We should preach the Gospel and preach it often, but we also must take time, assuming the Gospel has been heard by the majority of our congregation, to preach the fuller message. We must remind persons of God’s will for our lives by presenting messages like those derived from the law, which is an explicit representation of God’s good will and perfect way for humanity. The law can convict a person and lead them to the Gospel. Moreover, the law can teach us, as Christians, what we should expect from the Christian walk if we follow the Spirit to lead. If we are living a life antithetical to the moral law of God, we are probably not walking in the Spirit, and this points to the need for God’s Gospel, for on our own, we cannot walk in righteousness. We must also preach messages that speak to what the Gospel provides for us, like messages of Sanctification-that is the message of God’s Spirit living in us and actually changing us from the inside out.
Let me not discourage any one that reads this from robustly proclaiming our need to study and preach the Gospel. Let me not temper your words. But, if you will, allow me to have you consider a fuller thought upon the matter. Do not reduce God’s Word to one part. Allow it to operate in its fullness. Preach with the Gospel at the heart of all you say and do. That is, preach with the intention of leading persons to Christ, but allow all portions of the Bible to teach us about God, never assuming that they are weak left to themselves. They will still accomplish much, even if the Gospel is only assumed to be foundational and not the center of the particular message at hand.
To conclude, allow me to return to the doctrine of Prevenient Grace: It is not this or that message that will cause revival. If He prepares the way, makes soft the hearts of those who need Him, then He knows the message that needs to be given. Therefore, we need not make any absolute statement (ex: We can only present the gospel) about what needs to be said, except this: We need to preach what God lays upon our heart to preach. That alone is the answer. Once again, there is much more to the Bible than the Gospel proper. The Gospel then should not be a constraining message that eclipses God's fuller revelation.
Think on these things.