The fundamental question facing Baptist Christians today is this: What is the gospel? The church of every age must wrestle with this question in relation to the particular age in which it finds itself. The continuous challenge of the church is to proclaim in its historical context the historic gospel.
Accordingly, the church must have double vision, one eye focusing on the gospel, the other on contemporary culture. A 1963 Time magazine article on theologian Karl Barth references his famous statement: “[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”
That last sentence is of critical importance. The church must assume that within the biblical witness we are given timeless truths with universal implications that are relevant for any given age. The church which begins with the newspaper and then moves to the Bible to find a corresponding message will inevitably end up distorting the biblical witness in order to ‘enable it to speak’ to the cultural context in which the church finds itself.
First, a distinction must be made between the gospel and the Bible. God did not see fit to give us a doctrinal statement clearly specifying the meaning of the gospel. Rather, we were given God’s Son. This may sound overly simplistic but it is of utmost importance to remember that the early church believed the gospel before it was ever written down. The writings came, not as dictated words, but as words inspired from the writers’ personal experiences of God’s forgiveness through the preaching of the gospel.
The early church, therefore, was composed of those who at a fundamental level believed the gospel message. Although the sayings of Jesus existed to some degree in oral form, the Gospels were not written until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. These early Christians were not followers of Jesus’ teachings but rather Jesus believers. The Acts accounts of the life and miracles of Jesus were not prescriptive examples for prospective followers, but descriptive validations for prospective believers.
“The gospel preached today, like the early gospel, must be one that finds its way to the conscience, where the knowledge of sin lies hidden.”
The early kerygma of the church was a message of forgiveness and salvation through Christ that was meant to be believed – believed because it was true, because it was good news and because in and through that belief (faith) one experienced the good news. In the early response to the preaching of the gospel, faith was an existential experience of God’s grace in the context of the coming kingdom of God in which sin had no place. The early reports in Acts of people being saved are not descriptive of the results brought by an appeal to rational thought, but rather the results of the gospel proclamation.
The early gospel was moral in nature because the kingdom of God was a righteous kingdom. The preaching of the gospel engendered a response of repentance, not as a rational step on a roadmap to heaven, but as the existential response of a guilty conscience to the sudden appearance of a new burning bush. God was present in a new way. The gospel was good news, not simply because it came from a loving God, but because it came with effect from a saving God. The kingdom of God had come, and with it, salvation. Sins were forgiven and therefore must be repented of.
The gospel preached is still the means by which God brings us to repentance and faith. The church’s task is not to qualify, quantify, seek to affect or specify the particular sins of which persons might need to repent of. But it is the task of the church to faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ. British theologian P.T. Forsyth wrote, “The preacher’s task is not to secure decisions but to secure the gospel.” In securing the gospel, the preacher becomes an instrument whereby God secures the soul of believers.
My fear today is that the gospel being preached from Baptist pulpits is all too often an appeal made to one’s self-interests rather than to one’s conscience. Everyone wants to go to heaven; everyone wants to be accepted; everyone wants to be loved either by God or others; everyone wants to live an abundant life, to make wise choices in life. But responding to these desires is to respond to self-interest.
When the gospel of God’s grace comes home to the human heart, it does not appeal to our self-interests but rather to our sense of sin. In coming to Christ we are not making a decision because of a desire to be loved, or accepted, or because we don’t want to go to hell, or because we like being a part of a loving congregation, or we believe it’s the good thing to do or the right thing to do or because Jesus is such a warm and loving person who taught us wonderful things. We are not deciding to follow Jesus as one might follow Gandhi. In fact, we are not deciding at all. Nor are we choosing. Rather, we are receiving.
The gospel preached today, like the early gospel, must be one that finds its way to the conscience, where the knowledge of sin lies hidden. The stricken conscience is the surest sign of a converted heart. The true Christian carries about for a lifetime a sense of personal chastisement, the awareness of having come home to oneself, the humility of the sinner in the temple of which Jesus spoke, all this in the midst of the joyful experience of salvation.
A gospel which does not address humans at their deepest core of existence, where the self rules, cannot save. It might produce fine folks, kind folks, folks who want to restore justice to the world order, excellent church members and followers of Jesus’ teachings or folks who find in Jesus’ teachings a noble cause worth taking up. It might produce folks who have great sympathy with the Jesus of the cross, great pity for his suffering, an appreciation for all that God has done through Christ to show us just how much God loves us.
“I fear that the gospel being preached today is producing congregations of folks who are more in love with the love of God than the grace of God.”
But these folks who have been moved to sympathy and appreciation and who may have taken up a noble cause have not been broken in the crucible of the cross which they have an appreciation for. They may have an aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of the gospel story, a romantic appreciation for such a story of suffering, redemption and resurrection. But they remain “the master of their fate, the captain of their soul.” Their sense of self remains intact. God, of course, does not seek our sympathy, our appreciation or our admiration. He seeks to bring us to the life that has come to us in Christ, in which we come to denounce the value to God of our sympathy, appreciation or admiration.
Forsyth was educated in 19th-century German liberalism which he embraced in his own pastoral ministry until he came to realize that such a theology was inadequate to address the reality of human evil. He experienced a conversion, of which he later said, “I was changed from a lover of love to an object of grace.”
Perhaps Baptists need to question whether we have abandoned one of our core doctrines, that of baptizing believers. I fear that the gospel being preached today is producing congregations of folks who are more in love with the love of God than the grace of God. We are very uncomfortable with the notion of ‘conversion,’ perhaps because we consider it too individualistic, or perhaps we have seen all the abuses that have occurred under the banner of evangelism. Or perhaps we no longer really believe that people need to be converted.
If so, then our gospel is no longer that of the early church. If we no longer believe that people need to be ‘made alive in Christ,’ then our gospel preaching will follow suit, reflecting a naïve and optimistic view of humanity which doesn’t find within human hearts the need for repentance and conversion but rather a life in need only of acceptance and love and perhaps direction and inspiration.
But this gospel won’t produce Christians. Christ only reigns in hearts which he has brought to life. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).