Neglecting the Gospel: How Did We Get Here?
The subtle departure of Christians from the gospel is so virtually unnoticeable that those who correct the wayward, in the eyes of those who have strayed, are seen as carrying out an unnecessary cause. There is an assumption made that if similar words are being used, a similar message is being proclaimed. However, it is not so much the words that matter but their definitions, and so we can easily find ourselves using the same words and preaching an entirely different message.
For example, grace is taught and believed by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, yet two very different messages are portrayed. For Roman Catholics, grace is obtained by some sort of action, be it good works or through the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, Protestants believe that grace is the disposition by which God saves sinners, not regarding their works. Even within the two religious groups, this term is explained and understood in different and contrasting ways.
It has been well said that after a generation embraces the true gospel, the next generation is apt to assume the gospel. This, in turn, leads to the following generations neglecting gospel, and concludes with the rejection of the gospel. As we step back and observe this succession of events, we see that the hinge on which every misuse and rejection of the gospel, in a Christian community, is the assumption of the gospel. The road of neglect is entered through the gate of assumption.
In all, but one, of Paul's letters to the early churches, he encourages the church by kind words and positive greetings. The one in which no word of affirmation or encouragement is found is his letter to the Galatians. All we find are words of correction and rebuke. Why? They weren't being corrupted by the world as was the case in the church at Corinth. They weren't struggling to be unified as the church in Rome was. The reason for Paul's letter was that the church in Galatia had added to the gospel.
You would think the church at Corinth deserved such a harsh letter, not the Galatians. Paul didn't. He saw an addition to the gospel as an attack on the gospel, and a worse crime than sinning. Sinners sin, it's in their nature, and so the Corinthians needed the antidote of encouragement in the gospel as well as correction. The Galatians, however, were distorting the very message that saved them from sin and had to be reproved. The distortion of the gospel was a more heinous act than the gross sin of the Corinthians.
The addition to the gospel by the Galatians was the idea of getting more grace for salvation through circumcision. So if one was to be saved, a good first step was circumcision. Circumcision didn't save you, but it did make you a little more saveable. The idea was that God would more speedily save a good person and an evil person.
Today, while we may not use the same methods of evangelism as the Galatians, we still have a problem with distorting the gospel; we still assume the gospel. We continue to think that what has been taught to us is, in fact, gospel, and we do not search for ourselves. There seem to be few noble Bereans living today (Acts 17:11). Instead, we go on as if there was something extra to the Christian life, something extra-gospel. I'll give three examples.
Experience Driven Faith
There is a tendency to rely on our experience for faith. "Sure, faith comes through hearing," we say, "but then we grow in our faith through the ins and outs of daily living." With this perspective, the test of our faith is how moved we are by the singing and music at our gatherings of worship. If we want to grow our faith faster, we go out and volunteer at a soup kitchen or serve in some other way. Jesus becomes a kind of dealer dealing out grace and love which cause us do more for Him. However, this is not the biblical definition of faith.
Faith is primarily a belief in the objective truth of Scripture. It is belief driven, not experience driven. Our works and actions do not cause faith, on the contrary, faith causes works. Moreover, faith is a belief based on what God says, not on the events which happen in life. Our experiences are not authoritative over Scripture which means we ought not to look to experience for teaching in the faith.
To be experience driven does damage to the gospel. It undermines the authority of the gospel, and from that, it eventually undermines the historicity of it. If our experiences do not agree with Scripture, we cannot agree with our experiences if we are to stay true to the gospel.
Works Based Righteousness
Although it is the case that most of us who are Christians today believe we can do nothing to earn God's favour, we still live like we do. This is the result of failing to consider in depth our union with Christ.
Martin Luther likened it to a king marrying a harlot. The lady of ill-repute became the most distinguished and honourable of all the land seemingly overnight. She did not always act as the queen, yet she still held the title. Her actions did not change her status.
How often do we remind ourselves that, in Christ, our good works do not make God more favourable towards us, nor do our sins make Him less favourable towards us? Instead, we are prone to look to our works to find out how pleased God is with us. Is it not true that we are bent towards the attempt to cancel out our sin by some good deed or think we somehow have lost our right standing before God when we sin?
To think that our actions and our works determine how pleased God is with us is anti-gospel. The one to whom we look when we want to find out how righteous we are determines which gospel we have believed. Have we believed the false gospel which says that our works tell us how righteous we are, or have we believed the true gospel in which we look to Christ's works to find out how righteous we are before God? The true gospel is the only gospel which truly comforts us, for it tells us that our works never determine how pleased God is with us because we are united to Christ – and God is eternally pleased with Christ.
Not only are we susceptible to distorting the gospel in regards to faith and righteousness, but the doctrine of regeneration has also been distorted. I will even go so far as to say that the greatest distortion of the gospel in the past century has been the progression of belief in biblical regeneration toward a belief in decisionism. Simply put, we have left the idea that one must repent and believe to be saved, and embraced the notion that salvation comes by asking Jesus into our hearts. What this does is make salvation a decision, and you will find nothing of that idea in all of Scripture. Paul Washer states this problem succinctly,
“We have taken the glorious gospel of our blessed God and reduced it down to four spiritual laws and five things God wants you to know with a little superstitious prayer at the end; and if someone repeats it after us with enough sincerity, we popishly declare them to be born again. We've traded regeneration for decisionism.”
Let me ask only one thing: since when did salvation become a decision? The only passage which would hint at it would be Revelation 3:20, but because it is clearly a message for the church and not the individual, such a passage is not convincing for an argument. In Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), there is no mention of Nicodemus having a decision to make as to whether he would be born again or not. Rather, the onus is on the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of sinners.
The first fourteen verses of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus make it clear: God is the decider in salvation. God the Father elects (v. 4-6), God the Son atones (v.7-12), and God the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us and seals us (v.13-14). There is no mention of any decisive action on our part. In fact, the next chapter, based on the premise of mankind being dead in sin declares, “But God being rich in mercy… made us alive.” Salvation is God’s work in and for us. This is regeneration, it is a new beginning, and a new life. Just as we do not decide our physical birth, we do not decide our spiritual birth.
To declare that in order to be saved, one must ask Jesus into their heart, we neglect the gospel and steal the glory away from God. There is no dance you could perform to get around the fact that if we are decisive in our salvation, God does not get all the glory. We distort the gospel when we turn it into a 5-step–pray a prayer–saved ordeal.
Instead, we proclaim that one must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and they will be saved. To put it in other terms, one must know that Christ, and Christ alone, atoned for sin, and believe that His atonement is enough to save us from our sinful condition. If we are to be gospel-centered people, we must call sinners to repent and believe, not to decide.
We must never assume we have the gospel. In every generation, we must teach the same gospel, and not distort it for the sake of being relevant. The same gospel delivered to us by the apostles is the same gospel we teach our children, our congregations, proclaim to the world, and believe in for salvation. If we assume the gospel in this generation, the next generation will be liable to neglect it. If they neglect the gospel, a generation will rise up to reject it. If we want to leave a gospel legacy, if we want to remain faithful to Christ, and if we desire to see a generation passionate for the expanse of the kingdom of God, we must never assume the gospel.