Friday, September 12, 2008

The Dangers of Assuming the Gospel

A number of years ago I asked a friend, also a pastor, when the pastors in our fellowship last talked to each other about the importance of proclaiming the gospel and all its implications for Christian living and local church ministry. He sadly shook his head and replied, "I've been in this [fellowship] for ten years and we've yet to have such a discussion." It was over five years ago that I asked the question, and to my knowledge it has yet to be discussed in any meaningful way. That brings us to just over fifteen years of pastors assuming the gospel.

There was a reason why I brought up the subject at the time. I had been involved in an assessment of pastoral candidates for church planting. The assessment included a session wherein candidates were asked to explain the gospel to us. At least the one pastor I asked took half an hour and shared with me his testimony. As wonderful as his story was about his own experience in submitting his life to Christ, it was not God's story, which Paul calls "the gospel of God" (Romans 1:1).

We have great good news to tell! It is the amazing story of what God has done in Christ to rescue sinners from bondage to their sin, their blind hatred of God and deliverance from the coming wrath of a holy God (Acts 26:18). But far too often, this story is assumed rather than proclaimed as the pre-eminent message of the church, at least in America.

What do I mean that the gospel is too often "assumed"? The best definition comes from David Gibson who wrote on this subject. He wrote that an assumed gospel ". . . believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, assumed evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day."
(Gibson's article available on line at:

The premise is this: whatever is assumed is soon left behind; perhaps not in our generation but the next. Sooner or later whatever is left behind will be denied. We have seen this drift in institutions, churches, denominations and theologians at one time devoted to the gospel.

If the gospel is assumed, then the contents of the gospel follow the same path: the cross will be assumed, discipleship in the local church will be assumed and unhinged from the cross, along with the integrity and authority of the Word.

Dangers to the Local Church
Assuming the gospel in the local church, rather than making it a priority for ministry, eventually clouds or obscures the proclamation of Christ. Other things become "of first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). The numbers of people involved in small groups or the attendance and giving figures take priority of concern and effort. The style of ministry takes priority over the faithfulness of ministry to the gospel. You may have heard the saying, "We don't change the message; only the method." Good! But there are times when methods obscure the gospel. See how Paul handled an argument similar to this in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. There are "styles" and expectations that come from the culture and used uncritically will obscure (at best) or distort (at worst) the message of the gospel.

Ministry structures in a local church must keep the gospel's content and aims in mind. When we say we want to make disciples (Matthew 28:19) are they the ones Jesus had in mind (v. 20)?

Dangers to the Local Church Pastor
A pastor should beware of assuming that the folks sitting in front of him on Sunday mornings or in the classrooms, can present the gospel with clarity. The gospel is not doing good works, is not stories of personal conversion or only for unbelievers. (For an excellent talk on this matter listen to Mark Dever's lecture "Exercises in Unbiblical Theology" at this year's Together for the Gospel conference: If a pastor wants to know how well his church's members know the gospel, he should ask them to explain it. In our church, one of the questions we have begun asking prospective members is this very thing. During the interview we ask them how they came to Christ and also to explain the gospel. It is true that a person can come to faith in Christ without a full or even clear presentation of the gospel. I'm proof of that. However, the pastor must be clear and able so that others learn and are saved (1 Timothy 4:16).

However, I believe the danger starts in the pastor's study. If he misses the story line of redemptive grace, he misses the power of his message and his applications may fall into moral imperativalism. By that I mean, he will come to the pulpit Sunday after Sunday with the worst kind of "gospel:" "Get out there this week and don't be like David who fell into sexual sin." Or, "Get out there this week and be like David defeating your giants!" No, I'm not for sexual sinning or against victory over sin, please don't get me wrong on this. What I am for is Christians realizing that the power to avoid sexual temptation and the power for victory over sin rests not in their moral will power but in the sin-killing power of the Holy Spirit, who applies to the heart the victory of Christ's cross to the power of their flesh.

This is why the pastor must proclaim the gospel every Sunday morning. Sinners need to hear its offer of grace and threats for disobedience. But so do Christians. Christians need to have the gospel "rubbed into their pores" so that they not only believe it but they live it out with their spouses, their children, their brothers and sisters in Christ and the God-ignoring neighbor next door.

Dangers to the Christian
Which brings us to the individual Christian. When a Christian assumes the gospel as sufficient for "getting into heaven" but not for continued sanctification, two dangers arise. Gibson points these out in his article and I was thankful for the warnings. The first danger is that the believer may fall into the "ditch of license" believing that it doesn't really matter how life is lived because "I've got my Jesus-ticket." They forget that grace "teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (Titus 2:12). Or, the believer may fall into the "ditch of legalism" adding behaviors and beliefs to grace that nullify and frustrate grace. By assuming the gospel, focus shifts toward an inclination to keep outward rules: "having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5). Either way its a denial of power; the Spirit's power to sanctify the believer in that march toward Christlikeness.

The gospel of Jesus Christ must set the pace and inform the functions of our churches, pastors and saints. Gibson says, "This also means that a vital way to evaluate our evangelicalism (in its application to our churches and preaching and disciplemaking) is to ask to what extent these issues dictate our priorities in life and our visions and strategies."

It is the gospel that God has always intended to bless. When and where we "get on the stretch" to proclaim that message, God will bless: "I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). To God the gospel is a big deal!

Be of good cheer,

PS: Take a look at Mark Dever's comments from The Gospel Coalition at:

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