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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Resurrection, Not Human Potential | Main | The Historicity of the Resurrection »

    What is the Gospel? by C. J. Mahaney

    The following was posted today by C. J. Mahaney (left in the photograph, along with Al Mohler, Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan, and pictured in the back row, C. H. Spurgeon) on the "Together for the Gospel" blog. I believe it deserves to be widely read, and so I post it here for our mutual edification.
    - Pastor John Samson

    Recently, someone on this blog asked two excellent questions:
    (1) What is the gospel?
    (2) What is the most serious threat to the gospel?

    The following is my attempt to answer these important questions with the help of those much smarter than myself:

    1) What is the gospel?
    No question is more important, and biblical clarity in response to this question is critical. Sadly, confusion about the gospel is quite common among professing evangelicals today. I find Graeme Goldsworthy’s comment all too relevant: “The main message of the Bible about Jesus Christ can easily become mixed with all sorts of things that are related to it. We see this in the way people define or preach the gospel. But it is important to keep the gospel itself clearly distinct from our response to it or from the results of it in our lives and in the world.” So here is my attempt to heed the counsel of Dr. Goldsworthy and keep the gospel “clearly distinct.”

    The following definition of the gospel, provided by Jeff Purswell, the Dean of our Pastors College, seeks to capture the substance of the gospel: “The gospel is the good news of God’s saving activity in the person and work of Christ. This includes his incarnation in which he took to himself full (yet sinless) human nature; his sinless life which fulfilled the perfect law of God; his substitutionary death which paid the penalty for man’s sin and satisfied the righteous wrath of God; his resurrection demonstrating God’s satisfaction with his sacrifice; and his glorification and ascension to the right hand of the Father where he now reigns and intercedes for the church.

    “Such news is specific: there is a defined ‘thatness’ to the gospel which sets forth the content of both our saving faith and our proclamation. It is objective, and not to be confused with our response. It is sufficient: we can add nothing to what Christ has accomplished for us--it falls to us simply to believe this news, turning from our sins and receiving by faith all that God has done for us in Christ.”

    I find this definition of the gospel faithful to the presentation of the four Gospels—they present the person and work of Christ as the good news. In the Apostle Paul’s concise summation of the gospel, he focuses more particularly on Christ’s death and resurrection as the core of his proclamation:

    “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….” 1 Cor 15:3-4

    Focusing more specifically still, the apostle encapsulates the work of Christ by focusing on the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Cor. 2:2

    So that is the gospel: God’s saving work in and through Christ. And the cross is the pinnacle of that work. Knox Chamblin helpfully notes this emphasis in Paul’s writing and ministry: “His gospel is ‘the word of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1:17-18); nowhere is there a comparable reference to ‘the word of the resurrection.’ In I Corinthians 1:23-24 it is ‘Christ crucified’ who is identified as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God,’ not as we might have expected (especially in the case of ‘power’), Christ resurrected…. Both the cross and the resurrection are ‘of first importance’ in Paul’s gospel (I Cor. 15:3-4). Unless Christ has risen from the dead, the preaching of the cross (and of the resurrection) is a waste of time (15:14); but once the resurrection has occurred, the cross remains central.”

    And the centrality of the cross isn’t temporary. The cross remains on center stage even when we receive a glimpse of eternity in the New Testament’s final book: “One is taken aback by the emphasis upon the Cross in Revelation. Heaven does not ‘get over’ the cross, as if there are better things to think about; heaven is not only Christ-centered, but cross-centered, and quite blaring about it.” Jim Elliff

    There is nothing more important than getting the gospel right. Years ago, John Stott made the following frightening observation of the evangelical church when he wrote, “All around us we see Christians relaxing their grasp on the gospel, fumbling it, and in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether.” It is my prayer that God would use the Together for the Gospel conference to strengthen our grip upon the glorious gospel.

    2) What is the most serious threat to the gospel?
    For this question I think J.C. Ryle provides us with enduring discernment: “You may spoil the gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith--Jesus Christ--and to substitute another object in His place… and the mischief is done.

    “You may spoil the gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done.

    “You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done.

    “Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the gospel by confused and contradictory directions… Confused and disorderly statements about Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all. Religion of this sort is not evangelical."

    3) Personal Application
    It’s not difficult to identify distortions of the gospel. But as a pastor, one of my main concerns for genuine Christians is a more subtle one: either assuming the gospel or neglecting the gospel. I have found this to be the greatest threat to the gospel in my own life. Jerry Bridges echoes this concern when he writes, “The gospel is not only the most important message in all of history; it is the only essential message in all of history. Yet we allow thousands of professing Christians to live their entire lives without clearly understanding it and experiencing the joy of living by it.”

    So let us not only apply discernment to the church at large, but to our own hearts as well. Let us, in the words of Jerry Bridges, “Preach the gospel to ourselves daily.” Let us heed Charles Spurgeon’s exhortation: “Abide hard by the cross and search the mystery of his wounds.” Let us respond to John Stott’s invitation: “The Cross is a blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.”

    So how can we get near enough? The following are books that will position you to experience the transforming sparks of the gospel:

    The Cross of Christ by John Stott. A personal favorite. Stott says of the Savior, “It was by his death that he wished above all else to be remembered.” This book won’t let you forget.

    The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges. The man who taught me how to preach the gospel to myself will teach you to do the same.

    The Message of Salvation by Philip Ryken. This excellent book deserves a broad readership. My oldest daughter recently thanked me for recommending this book to her and told me how much she was benefiting from this book. You will benefit as well.

    The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever. My good friend reveals the storyline of the Bible in each and every book of the New Testament. A must read for pastors but highly recommended for all. My wife has really enjoyed reading Mark’s book.

    The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson. For pastors this is another must-read. I’m indebted to Dr. Carson for this book. It has defined effective pastoral ministry for me, and I pray it will do the same for you.

    That ought to get you started. Each of these books will draw you near enough to the “blazing fire of the cross so that its sparks” will fall on you and kindle fresh love for the Savior in your soul.

    Posted by John Samson on April 7, 2006 05:41 PM

    Comments

    I'd like to repeat a comment I've made before on this blog, as I think it pertains to the above post:

    "You are right - the gospel isn't what it used to be. In the modern gospel 'God is all love'. There is no fire to the gospel like there was in the day of Jonathan Edwards. Man has no need to say 'What shall I do to be saved?'

    Indeed, it makes me even more concerned for the church when I recall the verse: 'And if any man or an angel from heaven preaches to you a gospel different from the one that we have preached, let him be accursed.'

    You are right, Pastor Samson. The modern church seems to have a focus on man and not God. We are in such a great need of a new Great Awakening - or better yet, a Reformation."

    Good post, Pastor Samson.


    A. Shepherd
    Aspiring Theologian

    The Aspiring Theologian Blog: A Reformed Theology Blog

    First, thanks for posting this Pastor John. It is very good and more than merely a scholarly presentation. It is a call to make the gospel the center of our lives.

    Second, I suspect some reading this might be unaware that CJ Mahaney has written his own very recommendation-worthy books on the Cross, also. He also wrote a recent book on humility, which is a good reason he did not recommend his own books. But let me do so, The Cross Centered Life is truly a potentially life changing and powerful book. He wrote a sequel to that book, Christ Our Mediator. And recently a new book which borrows from both of the previous works, Living the Cross Centered Life.

    I read your definition of the gospel. I have wondered what Jesus was actually preaching when he preached the "gospel of the kingdom" in Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 at the beginning of His ministry.
    Matthew 4:23 (KJV)
    And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.

    Matthew 9:35 (KJV)
    And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.

    He had not died or risen yet. I did not think he told anyone about His coming death till close to the time He would die. So it does not seem He was preaching your definition of the gospel. I would appreciate your ideas on this.


    Rgarding the comment from April 12, 2006...The clearest statement Jesus himself made about the Gospel is in Mark 1:14-15. "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

    Later for clarity he used His appearance to the Emmaus Road disciples. In Luke 24:25-27 it is written, "And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

    Jesus was the Gospel and the Gospel was His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, enthronement and coming again in glory and judgement.

    To me, there doesn't appear a contradiction.

    I would encourage you to just read through your Bible, and discover what comprises the Gospel. There has only been one message of redemption since Adam and Eve. It is the "seed of the woman", the suffering servant, the one bruised for our transgressions, crushed by his Father, and rejected by men. All of Scripture speaks of Him.

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