By Doug Smith
Four hundred ninety years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Today, we celebrate Reformation Day to commemorate what took place through men such as Luther and John Calvin. Their study of the Scriptures brought them to a clear understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel had been obscured through ignorance, false teaching, and unholy living, but the Reformers helped to recover the Bible's clear teaching about the good news of Christ.
The Gospel is the good news that God sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and raised Him from the dead. The holy God created man in His own image, to reflect His glory and worship Him. Man chose to go his own way and rebel against God, thus imaging a lie about God instead of accurately representing Him. Man therefore deserved eternal punishment for offending this great God. Yet, God in His mercy sent a Savior. Jesus was God in the flesh, who lived a perfect life as a man. He was a sinless substitute, bearing the wrath of God for all who would turn from their sin and trust Him alone for their salvation. God will forgive the sins of everyone who repents and believes in Christ. He will count Jesus' righteousness to their account, and give them eternal life and a guarantee that they will share in Christ's resurrection and enjoy God forever. The Reformers understood these things and knew that the salvation revealed in the Scripture alone is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.
It has been said that the Gospel is embraced by one generation, assumed by the next, and then forgotten or rejected. Although the Reformation helped recover the truth of the Bible concerning the Gospel, we are in danger today of losing it again. Far too many among those who call themselves Christians (and even "evangelicals," ironically, since that word comes from the Greek for gospel) assume or reject the Gospel. We are threatened with the loss of the true Gospel and the substitution of a false one.
Even in the early days of the Christian church, there were those who were in danger of embracing another Gospel. The apostle Paul addresses this matter in his epistle to the Galatians. He writes in Galatians 1:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (verses 6-9, ESV)
The Galatians were moving away from the Gospel Paul had proclaimed clearly to them. They were beginning to look like traitors. They were yet in the process of moving away, but they were moving. False teachers were agitating them so much that they were deserting the only hope and truly good news there was.
People are moving away from the Gospel in our day as well. People who know better are moving away from the Gospel. Churches and denominations blessed with a history of a clear Gospel witness are deserting the truth. False teachers are leading many astray. Why?
While ignorance, false teaching, and a love for popularity surely contribute to widespread defection, I think there is another malady much closer to home than many of us would like to admit. I believe boredom with the Gospel can plant the seeds for deserting the truth.
A friend recently attended a conference for ministers and overheard this response to a sermon: "It was very good, even if it was a simple gospel message." It would appear that some think that a simple gospel message is simply pedestrian and ordinary. No big deal; it's just the gospel, right? But when we begin to lose the wonder and awe we should have at the fact that the righteous God has lavished His mercy and grace through Jesus Christ on sinners who deserve His punishment, we should never be bored. We should forever be in shock that He would do such a thing! We should overflow in praise and thanksgiving upon hearing the Gospel, no matter how many times we have heard it.
Some say that the people of God need edifying messages, not another evangelistic message. But is the assumption that the Gospel is not necessary for edification, or that once you've "got" it, you can move on? Saints should never tire of hearing this good news that secured their salvation. And even if a text does not have an explicit summary of the Gospel in it, it surely touches on an element of the Gospel, such as God's character, how we deserve judgment for our sin, the person and work of Christ, and the need to turn to Him in repentance and faith. As Christ is the focal point of Scripture, so biblical expository preaching should always include a natural presentation of the Gospel, as each book and passage is part of God's big story. Paul never tired of preaching Christ and Him crucified, and neither should we. In this spirit, Spurgeon labored to make a bee-line to the cross from his text, and so should preachers today. Apart from the Gospel-context, sermons can easily tend toward moralism and a distortion of the purpose of the Bible.
Speaking of things people say, does the Gospel interest us enough that we actually tell other people about it? Yes, fear of man can squelch our evangelism, as can being overly busy, and failing to love others as we ought. But could it also be that we're not sufficiently interested in the Gospel? Could it be that we'd rather talk about our hobbies and aspirations and problems than the best news in the world? If it's true that we feel the deepest about the things we think about the most, should we not spend more time reading and meditating on God's Word, so that that Gospel will cause a spontaneous combustion in our lives that affects those we come into contact with? If we are interested in the Gospel, will it not result in us sharing the message of the Gospel?
What do our lives reveal about our interest in the Gospel? A holy life says that we take the Gospel seriously. A flippant, indifferent, careless attitude toward sin says that we never understood it in the first place or that it's really not that important.
Getting bored with the Gospel leaves us wide open to false teaching. We may even unwittingly distort the Gospel ourselves. It may mean that we eventually come to think that since the Mormons talk about Jesus and Christians talk about Jesus, that we're pretty much on the same page. However, this is a different Jesus and a different Gospel. Paul wrote of his fear that the Corinthians would falter in this area: "For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough" (2 Cor. 11:4).
We may be tempted to embrace heretical elements of the New Perspective on Paul that deny the Scripture's clear teaching on the Gospel (which the Reformers correctly apprehended). We too might end up calling imputed righteousness "nonsense," as Bishop N. T. Wright has done, if we are not sufficiently impressed with the biblical Gospel.
Penal substitutionary atonement might also fall by the wayside if we're bored with the Gospel. It's not too popular; it's been called "divine child abuse"; would God really require this? Yet, if there is no substitution of a sinless sacrifice in the place of sinners, there is no Gospel and no salvation.
Getting bored with the Gospel has many other ramifications. Boredom with the Gospel may mean that we turn to the business world for ministry models instead of viewing the Scriptures as sufficient. It may mean preaching gets squeezed out by entertainment and other things we think will better "reach" people. It may mean that we neglect private and family worship. It may mean that we seek our hope in politics and spend our time endorsing political candidates out of a misguided understanding of how we are to impact our culture, instead of proclaiming and living the Gospel. It may mean that we actually do begin to think and live as though "our best life" really is now, and pander to those who would rather hear that God wants them to find a good parking space rather than that God is so concerned that His name be honored and that His people have joy in Him that the Father punished the Son for our sins on the cross. Boredom with the Gospel will surely fail to prepare us for opposition and persecution for the sake of Christ.
Finally, and quite seriously, boredom with the Gospel that leads to its distortion also results in destruction. Paul could not have used stronger words for anyone who preaches a different Gospel: let him be accursed that is, cut off from all blessing. Those who embrace and teach another Gospel have no hope, but only damnation in the life to come.
Reformation Day is something to celebrate, because of the recovery of the Gospel. But this day also reminds us that there is something we must guard. We must guard the purity and clarity of the message of the Gospel. But we must also guard our own hearts so that we never become immune, inoculated, or bored concerning the wonderful news that Jesus Christ really does save sinners. We must never assume that it is known, understood, and embraced. We must make sure that we know, understand, and embrace the Gospel ourselves and that we faithfully share it with others. Let us have the fires of our heart continually stoked with this good news, so that we may be faithful witnesses who speak and live in light of what God has done by His grace and for His glory.
In celebrating the Reformation all this month, I have posted several other articles:
· A Review of Reformation Resources
· Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Luther's Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (by Dr. Rob Plummer of SBTS, published here with permission)
· Book Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steve Lawson
· "The Call to Witness" a sermon by Calvin on evangelism, election, and suffering for the Gospel