The Gospel and It's Presentation
A cardinal principle in any preaching or teaching was expressed by the Lord Himself to one who stood in the position of teacher to Israel: “We speak that which we know” (John 3: 11). A man’s knowledge is the limit of what he can teach. The same is true in the preaching of the Gospel. You can never preach effectively beyond what you know. If my understanding of the Gospel is flawed, then my presentation of it in the preaching will also be flawed. God may still be pleased to use a faulty presentation for the salvation of souls but that does not excuse the preacher from accurately presenting the Word of God. Indeed, any new converts will have got off to a shaky start through having a defective foundation in their souls. With this in mind, I want to clarify what the Gospel is and outline some of the defective ways in which it is often presented. I will begin in a somewhat oblique manner by considering two fundamental truths of Scripture.
Sovereignty and Responsibility
God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are two lines of truth that thread their way through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. The sovereignty of God is His inherent right (because He is God) to exercise His will in any way He sees fit consistent with his own nature. Man’s responsibility flows from the fact that he is a moral creature and has an innate ability to know the difference between good and evil. He is responsible to do the good, and to this end he will have to give an account of himself to God.
These two truths are like the twin parallel lines of a railway. God has set them a certain distance apart. Man often emphasises one at the expense of the other, seeks to merge the two together, or puts too wide a separation between them. In every case the end result is a theological derailment!
The Lord Jesus said “Come to me” (Matt. 11: 28) but He also said “no one can come to me unless it be given to him from the Father” (John 6: 65). The former is on the line of man’s responsibility; the latter on the line of God’s sovereignty. Both are vital truths and we must hold to each, and not use one to weaken the other.
Accordingly, in regard to the salvation of the soul, there are also two distinctive parts to the work of God: the work of God for us and the work of God in us. Either way, it is God’s work and not man’s, for the Scriptures testify that “Salvation is of Jehovah” (Jonah 2: 9). If these two truths are muddled up then instability of the soul will result. The first is effected by the Lord Jesus in His death and resurrection; the second by the Holy Spirit in new birth. The first is on the line of man’s responsibility; the second on the line of God’s sovereignty. We must not cross or merge the two lines.
When I read “that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15: 3), I am responsible to accept that truth by faith. But faith is the sovereign gift of God (see Eph. 2: 8) and I will never exercise faith unless the Holy Spirit first works in my soul effecting new birth. As the Lord said “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3: 3, my emphasis), let alone enter it (see v5).
However, the presentation of the Gospel is very definitely on the line of man’s responsibility, rather than that of God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is linked to what I am; man’s responsibility to what I have done. God does not hold a man to account for who he is, but for what he has done.
When John sees the lost before the great white throne, he says “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is [that] of life. And the dead were judged out of the things written in the books according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which [were] in it, and death and hades gave up the dead which [were] in them; and they were judged each according to their works” (Rev. 20: 12, 13, my emphasis). The lost will be judged on the grounds of what they have done, not on what they were, whether small or great.
Believers also will be assessed: “For we must all be manifested before the judgment–seat of the Christ, that each may receive the things [done] in the body, according to those he has done, whether [it be] good or evil” (2 Cor. 5: 10, my emphasis). Again, it is according to what a person has done. I am not responsible for what I am.
The psalmist says “Behold, in iniquity was I brought forth, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51: 5). Birth is not on the line of man’s responsibility, but God’s sovereignty. I had no control over my birth and God does not hold me responsible for it. Only two men entered this world without sin: Adam and Christ. When Adam sinned it had a universal effect on all men: “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners” (Rom. 5: 19). Adam’s act constituted me a sinner: he caused me to be made me thus. The act was his, not mine. I was born a sinner through what Adam did. Hence I am not responsible for being a sinner. Just as a dog bites because it is a dog, so man sins because he is a sinner. The fact that an animal bites does not make it a dog, neither does sinning make me a sinner. Man sins because he is a sinner; he is not a sinner because he sins. What man does springs from what he is, but God only holds a man responsible for what he has done.
New Birth and Free Will
Naturally I became a child by birth; spiritually I become one of the children of God by being born anew (see John 1: 12, 13). Just as I had nothing to do with my natural birth, so my being born anew was the sovereign act of God. Unconverted man has a will but new birth is entirely independent of that will (again, see John 1: 12, 13). The unconverted are “bondmen of sin”; the converted are “bondmen to righteousness” (Rom. 6: 17, 18). The word used in Greek for a bondman is doulos and means slave. The universally accepted concept of a slave in the Roman world was one who had no will but that of his master. He could do nothing other than his master’s bidding. His will was very definitely not free! On conversion, there is a change of master. Those who take it upon themselves to explain to the unconverted ‘How to be born again’ are giving themselves an impossible task. The expression is theological nonsense.
Lost and Dead
Those embracing the mistaken concept of free–will do not appreciate the awful state of man’s lost condition. Man is not just lost but dead: “for this my son was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found” (Luke 15: 24). A lost man can be found, but a dead man, if found, is still dead. A lost man needs salvation and “the Son of man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18: 11), but a dead man needs life. What will can a dead man exercise, free or otherwise? None! There is absolutely no response Godward. The unregenerate are described as “being dead in your offences and sins” (Eph. 2: 1). New birth is the only way in which that condition can be changed. Hence the error of free–will is diametrically opposed to the Scriptural truth of new birth. New birth and the will of man, free or otherwise, are mutually exclusive.
Now while new birth is a vital necessity for the blessing of man, it is not in itself part of the Gospel. Why? Because new birth is on the line of God’s sovereignty, not on the line of man’s responsibility.
The word Gospel means glad tidings or, in today’s parlance, good news. It is God’s Gospel (see Rom. 1: 1) and hence His good news. It is about the work of His Son, what the Lord Jesus Christ has done. It is not about man at all. Man’s lost and sinful condition is not part of the Gospel although it is the background against which it shines (see 2 Cor. 4: 3, 4). Where is the good news in telling a man that he is eternally lost?
The Gospel is presented for faith and, as another has said, ‘God never asks me to believe anything about myself’.
But surely, you say, I must believe that I am a sinner? If by that word believe you mean have faith, then the answer is, No! If, however, you mean that I must accept that I am a sinner, then the answer is, Yes—but that acceptance is not on the line of faith. Man is not the subject or the object of faith. Faith is in God, in Christ or in His Word—God’s testimony. (Incidentally, the Holy Spirit, because He is so directly involved with the subjective work of God in the soul, is never presented as an object of faith.) If you find difficulty with all this, then it merely proves that you do not understand the true nature of faith.
Faith is belief in that which cannot be verified by any means other than the testimony of God. Thus Paul in Hebrews 11 begins his treatise on faith with the creation. No man was there to testify. The evolutionist acknowledges the existence of creatures, but refuses the existence of the Creator who created instantly by His word. The believer believes that God spoke and it was done. For this belief he has nothing else to go on but the Word of God. He cannot verify it by any other means. Hence faith is needed.
Again, many a man has said “I have sinned” (for example Ex. 9: 27), admitting he was a sinner, without any exercise of faith. Yes, God tells me that all men have sinned (see Rom. 3: 23), but I also have the witness of experience and of my own conscience as knowing right from wrong. Hence as it can be verified by other means, the fact that I am a sinner is not presented as an article for faith.
This is also even true of the death of Christ. In itself, Christ’s death was the most awful event that has ever taken place. There is no good news in that. Jew and Gentile witnessed the death of Christ and it is a simple fact of history that can be attested to from secular writings. History testifies that Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross. In itself it is not an issue for faith. However, when these two facts, that all have sinned and that Christ died, are put together, then you have the essence of the Gospel. In the words of Scripture: “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15: 3). This is something neither conscience nor history has anything to say to, for only God tells me it is so. Thus it can only be accepted in faith on the sole grounds that God says so.
Where does the sovereignty of God come into the presentation of the Gospel? The simple answer is that it doesn’t. To attempt to bring it in is a blunder. Previously, I have used the illustration of railway lines, now let me use the illustration of the coin. A coin has two sides. Consider one side to be the sovereignty of God; the other side to be the responsibility of man. We can only look at one face of the coin at a time. We cannot view both sides together. This is true of our view of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. To attempt to inject God’s sovereignty into the presentation of the Gospel shows ignorance of the Gospel on the part of the preacher and presents an impossible situation for the hearers.
Supposing I present the truth of new birth in the preaching of the Gospel: “Ye must be born again” (John 3: 7)—AV). What is wrong with that? It is certainly true, but it is not the Gospel. There is no good news in telling people to be born again. Yes, it is a vital necessity but it does not form part of the Gospel. It is making man the subject of the Gospel and telling him to do something he cannot do. New birth is God’s sovereign work, not the preacher’s or the hearer’s responsibility. But, you say, that is just what the Lord told Nicodemus in John 3: 7. Yes, but the Lord was not presenting the Gospel to him. What about John 3: 16? Surely this is the Gospel? No one would deny that that John 3: 16 is the kernel of the Gospel, but it was not spoken to Nicodemus. Careful consideration of the words used in that verse show beyond doubt that it is a comment by John the writer, not the words of the Lord Jesus.
Sometimes you hear preachers tell their hearers to ‘Decide for Christ’ or to ‘Choose Christ’. There is nothing new in this presentation, but neither is there anything Scriptural! Preachers who make such appeals do not really appreciate the totally lost condition of man, have an imperfect grasp of the intrinsic character of faith, and do not fully understand the Gospel. That is not to say that souls are not saved through their labours—they most certainly are—but the blessing does not rest on the accuracy of the preaching, but on God’s sovereign mercy. There is also a hymn, used in some circles, whose first line begins ‘Decide for Christ today’. Souls may have been moved on hearing this hymn sung—but that does not make it an accurate composition!
What is wrong with telling people to decide for Christ? You are putting the spotlight on them by telling them what to do, indeed to do what they cannot do. Why? If I ask someone to decide (‘Decide for Christ’) or to choose (‘Choose Christ’), then there is the implicit assumption in the appeal that they have the ability to do so, and that they have a will that is free to do so. However, the Gospel is about what God in Christ has done, not what man should do. Man, being unconverted, has only the will of the flesh, a nature which can never exercise faith and which can never change for “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3: 6). If the will of man can be exercised to have faith in God, then new birth is redundant. However, He who “knew what was in man” “did not trust himself” to those who “believed” after this fashion. Against the background of this spurious ‘faith’ he declared “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” (see John 2: 23–25; 3: 3).
But some one will almost certainly say, ‘What about Deut. 30 and Josh. 24 when Moses, and later Joshua, called upon the people to chose? Did not Moses say “I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you: life and death have I set before you, blessing and cursing: choose then life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed” Deut. 30: 19)? Did not Joshua say to the people “choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Josh. 24: 15)? Certainly, but in both cases those addressed were viewed as already the people of God, and in that presentation as being capable of making a positive response to Joshua’s command. Not only that, but in neither case was the Gospel preached for Christ had not as yet died. Now that man has rejected and crucified God’s beloved Son, thus proving himself to be completely lost the word is different: “God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent....”. (Acts 17: 30). God does not ask man to decide, He enjoins, that is commands, him to repent.
If you go through the Acts and the Epistles, you will find that the record of preachings never includes any such thoughts as deciding for Christ, choosing Christ or even of coming to Jesus. It is all about what God in Christ has done.
Here are a few examples from the Acts: “preaching by Jesus the resurrection from among [the] dead”; “preached the Christ to them”; “preached Jesus that he is the Son of God”; “preaching peace by Jesus Christ” (Acts: 4: 2; 8: 5; 9: 20; 10: 36). From the Epistles we have “preached the glad tidings of the Christ”; “the preaching of Jesus Christ”; “Christ is preached”; “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus Lord”; “preached the glad tidings of peace”; “we have preached to you the glad tidings of God” (Rom. 15: 19; 16: 25; 1 Cor. 15: 12; 2 Cor. 4: 5; Eph. 2: 17; 1 Thess. 2: 9). My list is far from complete but sufficient to show that the Gospel is not about man, nor what man should do, but about what Christ has done.
I mentioned earlier that although a defective preaching may be used of God for the blessing of the soul, it will put material in the foundation that subsequently will have to be removed if there is to be real spiritual growth. I will look back on the day of my conversion as the day that I decided for Christ, the day that I chose Christ or that I came to Jesus. It is all I. None of this is faith, although faith may actually be there. The totally depraved and lost condition of man has still to be learnt, the absolute necessity for new birth entirely accepted, and the greatness of divine mercy and grace yet to be fully appreciated.