Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks, as my recent experience in Port St. Lucie, Florida demonstrates. I was attending the More and Better Conference, offered through the Church Renewal Lab program of Calvin Seminary that was held this past February.
Host church Sunlight CRC’s Pastor, Scott Vander Ploeg, shared with us his burden that every message preached from the pulpit should be a gospel message. I resisted his idea at first because I thought he was urging us to preach simple, seeker-oriented Sunday sermons. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was calling for sermons that are deeper and more life-giving because they tap down into the gospel message for their power.
I came away convinced that he has identified something that each of us, and each of our congregations, desperately needs. He was, in effect, offering a cure for spiritual anemia. Just as a person can suffer physical anemia due to lack of iron or essential vitamins in their diet, Christians can suffer from spiritual anemia for lack of hearing and meditating on the gospel.
So I have recommitted myself to preaching the gospel message every week, convinced that I, and the members of my congregation, cannot thrive without it. The old, old story has given me new joy.
This Easter season is a great time for all of us to rediscover the gospel’s power for our lives. I have no doubt that meditating deeply on the gospel message this Easter and receiving regular doses of the gospel in the future will bring fresh encouragement to your life, as it has to mine.
A declaration of accomplishment
The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” When the Bible was written, the word “gospel” described the announcement that a significant event had taken place, like: “Our troops have won the battle,” or “A new emperor has taken the throne.” It was not advice or speculation but the declaration of an accomplished fact. The New Testament uses the word “gospel” to describe the Good News that Jesus died and rose again, once for all, so that everyone who believes in him can be saved.
This message about Jesus’ death and resurrection was what the early disciples proclaimed tirelessly throughout the Roman Empire. They would not have expended themselves in this way merely to share helpful advice or to impart a new philosophical insight. They were convinced that God had won the decisive battle over sin, death and hell through Christ, and they were heralds announcing this Good News.
It is correctly pointed out that where religion says “do,” the gospel says, “done.” Religion tires us out and hardens our hearts. The gospel humbles us by telling us that we cannot save ourselves, then refreshes us by telling us that Jesus has achieved all that is needed for our salvation. Jesus invites all who are weak and weary because of self-effort to come and take upon themselves his easy, gospel yoke which restores the soul.
The apostle Paul declared that the gospel message is God’s “power for salvation” (Rom.1:16). He never tired of retelling it. So convinced was he of our need for this message that he proclaimed, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).
Only the life-giving, joy-producing gospel, so celebrated by the early church, has the power to spur us on to spiritual growth today. It is this message that we need to meditate on daily and hear each week from our pulpits.
What the gospel is NOT
Many who are reading this article may react as I did when I first heard Pastor Scott encourage regular gospel-telling from the pulpit. That is because we tend to think of the gospel as a simple, salvation message targeted at seekers, or as a brief sermon “add on” for the uninitiated.
While the gospel can be stated in simple terms, neither of these things is what Pastor Scott was encouraging. Rather, his point was that every passage of the Bible, properly understood, is an expression of the gospel. Every text, correctly interpreted, will take us through the cross and resurrection – though, of course, the gospel message will wear the unique clothing each particular passage gives it.
We never get over our need for the gospel. It is fatal for our spiritual health to think of the gospel as the ABCs of the faith. The ABCs are something we learn and then go beyond. We largely forget what we learned about the ABCs as we move beyond them to greater things like reading books, blog posts and Christian Courier(!).
But this is not how the gospel works. God will never take us beyond the gospel. He will only take us more deeply into it. “All the wisdom of believers,” wrote John Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “is comprehended in the cross of Christ.” The gospel gives us the only vantage point from which we can see each text of Scripture clearly.
Rather than comparing the gospel to the ABCs, we might say that our relation to the gospel is something like our relationship to our humanity. We never get beyond our humanity. Instead we grow up into it. It is always with us, but we need to figure it out and express it more and more fully. Maturity in Christ comes only through continually going deeper into the gospel’s riches.
If we interpret a text or preach a sermon without the gospel as our reference point, we will find we have entered the waters of moralism or legalism. Texts understood apart from the gospel will not nourish our souls but will mire us in the morass of self-effort. We will end up trying to accomplish in our own strength what can only be accomplished through God’s supernatural power.
Moralism eventually leads us to be “ho hum” about the gospel message. “Oh yes,” says the moralist, “Jesus bore death and hell in my place and rose on the third day to deliver me from God’s wrath and from sin’s enslaving power . . . now tell me something I haven’t heard before.” Only a loss of connection with the gospel’s power could explain this anemic state of mind. Only a hardened heart could find the gospel’s compelling message unattractive.
Falling in love with the gospel again
Pastor Scott stunned many of us when he described a sermon on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, just as many preachers might deliver it. He gave many good insights into the text along with practical guidelines for applying it. I did not detect the problem with his presentation, so I was stunned when he said, “What I’ve just described to you was not a great sermon. It was not even a good sermon. In fact, what I have just told you is the ‘anti-gospel’.”
When I got over my sense of shock, I came to recognize that he had, indeed, failed to preach the Word of God correctly. He had told us to do something God requires – resist temptation, but ultimately he had failed to turn us away from ourselves to Christ, his death and the resurrection, as the only source of power for resisting temptation.
Far more than being a source of moral encouragement, Jesus’ desert experience points us to Christ as the unique God-man who alone was able to live victoriously over temptation. The account should bring us to a deep sense of gratitude that Christ would die for our sins, so that through his power we also can have success in the fight against sin.
Sunlight Church has seen over 590 people come to faith in Christ in the last 10 years. This has resulted from Pastor Scott’s preaching the gospel each week, and his raising up other gospel-tellers who in turn have discipled others to love and tell the gospel. Sunlight Church is proof that the gospel has the power to save the lost while energizing the found week after week.
I am committed to regularly telling my congregation the gospel, feeding them the only food that can truly nourish. I believe that as we fall in love with the gospel again we will see our lives and churches moving in life-giving power, people regularly coming to faith and life-long Christians being transformed in new and refreshing ways.
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