The Gospel Examined

Power of the Gospel

The notion of ‘gospel’ is central to Christian faith, yet it’s meaning and significance has become somewhat muddy over the past few centuries, possibly because of the rise of evangelicalism.

Let me explain.

In modern evangelical usage the term ‘gospel’ most commonly signifies either that body of truth which is life changing (the good news message) or the preached message which is meant to lead people to a prescribed evangelical response, such as ‘making a decision’, going to the altar or otherwise signifying in a measurable way that they have stepped over the line from sinner to saint.

It is this second meaning which is popularised in evangelical parlance and which undermines a truer concept of the Gospel.

We refer to the four historical accounts of Christ’s life on earth as the ‘Gospels’, yet they don’t end in an altar call or a prescription of the approved response by which a person is transformed by that message.

On the other hand it is expected in evangelical circles that if a series of ‘gospel’ messages is preached it is to result in people making a public response that can be tabulated. So at the end of the series of meetings, or the ‘revival’ or the outreach, it can be said that a certain number responded, and that can be compared with last event or with the impact of a different evangelist.

This preoccupation with public record of conversions has subtly transferred the concept of the Gospel as the message good news about who Christ is and what He has done, which message is to be received and believed with life-changing effect, to the concept of the gospel as a style of message that presses people’s buttons and gets them out of their chair to join the Christian band.

Please don’t think I am cynical about getting people to respond to the gospel message. I am not denigrating the work of evangelistic preaching, but simply relating it back to our concept of ‘gospel’.

For the past six decades I have had the privilege of hearing hundreds of evangelistic messages and preaching a few of them myself. I have heard some clear and lucid expositions of the life and sacrifice of Jesus as our Saviour among those messages. I have also heard an array of messages embodying soppy sentiment, scientific mind boggling, heart tugging emotion, end of the world scaremongering and a range of other causes for action.

In those wide ranging messages, labeled as ‘gospel’ the simple message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection may be incidental or even irrelevant to the impassioned appeal for the sinner to respond.

And so the ‘gospel’ becomes in our consciousness a muddy mix of messages designed to motivate sinners to accept Christianity.

A cursory review of the New Testament message should help us clarify what the ‘gospel’ actually is and that might inform us on how best to employ it in Christian ministry. So let me throw a few observations at you and see how they prompt your own investigation of the gospel.

Apostle Paul frequently links the notion of ‘gospel’ with change in the hearer, calling it “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16) and saying that those who engage with his message will be “saved” (Romans 10:9).

So the true ‘gospel’ is more than just ‘news’, but a good news message that has life-changing effect in the hearer, should they respond with faith (believe). Do we see messages in the New Testament that speak of such change and such news?

The first public preaching message in the New Testament was that of John the Baptist telling his hearers “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus first began preaching this was his message too (Matthew 4:17). So we could say that the first ‘gospel’ preaching involved a call to action from the hearer, responding in the fear of God.

Another view of the gospel and its call on hearers comes from the mouth of Jesus in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Here it is Christ, Himself, focusing he gospel on his own life and on the response of ‘belief’ in the hearer.

The Apostle John, in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, uses another term than ‘believe’ in discussing the appropriate response to Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12)

John links ‘receiving’ and ‘believing’ as our response to the gospel, showing, as Christ did in John 3, that people can choose to receive and believe, or not.

With that background, let’s now look specifically at the ‘gospel’ as explained by Paul. We could say that the four historical gospels present the ‘gospel’ in a non-prescriptive manner, as truth to be received and believed, while Paul, address the churches, was more prescriptive about what was to be expected from believers.

So, what do we see in Paul’s approach to the gospel?

We see a determined focus on the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1Corinthians 2:2

Paul’s gospel was not about how he could manipulate hearers to embrace Christianity, but was anchored on the core truth of the good news message, the work of Christ.

That was the message Peter employed at Pentecost, with great impact.

The crucifixion of Christ was a core component of Paul’s gospel narrative. “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Corinthians 1:23)

But the crucifixion message was always joined with the message of the resurrection, as Paul notes in his famous evangelism prescription in Romans 10:9 “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

So, when Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel we know that he was speaking of the message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and man’s response to that message of faith in Christ resulting in the believer establishing righteousness with God.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16,17

What then is the gospel?

While evangelists are ever creative about their means of prompting sinners to respond to God, the true ‘gospel’ is the wonderful message of Christ dying for us and rising to new life, as proof that sin and death are defeated, to which message man is to respond with faith, believing that Christ truly did rise from the dead, and by that act of believing receiving divine impact that saves and transforms the believer.

A ‘gospel’ message that does not bring the power of God through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection may be nothing more than mere manipulation, and may leave the ‘convert’ without the life-changing impact of the ‘Gospel’.

Footnote:

The gospel of Christ, including the account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, involves Christ’s reality in two broad dimensions: his earthly life (after the flesh); and his resurrected and eternal character.

The Gospel writers knew from first hand sources the account of Christ’s earthly life, divinity made flesh. The Apostle John also encountered Christ in his resurrected glory, in vision form on the Island of Patmos (refer Revelation). That infusion of the divine perspective is reflected in the Gospel of John (see John 1:1-5, 9-14).

Paul’s contribution to scripture is unique in that Paul did not know Christ in His earthly ministry (after the flesh) but only met Christ in His heavenly, resurrected glory. Paul saw a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7), but also visited heaven in vision form (2Corinthians 12:1-7). In his heavenly visits Paul met the resurrected Christ, as indicated by Paul’s claim that Christ personally talked with him about Christ’s earthly life.

See 1Corinthians 11:23 “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread”

Paul, having his own encounters with the resurrected Christ and meeting others who had been with the flesh and blood Christ, made commentary about the difference.

2Corinthians 5:16 “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”

Paul’s gospel, then, did not focus on humanity. It was not about a good man who did good for us by dying selflessly for us. Paul’s gospel celebrated a divine being who experienced glory and divine authority and brought that to bear on those who believed in Him.

Philippians 2:9-11 “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul and the Apostle John stand special in their encounters of the risen and glorified Christ and we find that the encounters infused their gospel message with reflections of that divine nature.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews clearly understood the divine character of Christ.

Hebrews 2:9 “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

Some believe that Paul authored Hebrews and the emphasis on divine elements of Christ’s existence (such as reference to Melchizedek) suggests that Paul’s divine perspective is indicated in Hebrews.

George Williams Births the YMCA

This is the day that … George Williams was born in Somerset, England, in 1821.

He was the youngest of the eight sons of Amos & Elisabeth Williams, of Ashway Farm.

His farming days came to an end when he drove a horse and cart laden with hay into a ditch, overturning the lot, himself included. Father and brothers decided young George should move to the city and earn a living there.

In doing so he was part of the massive 19th century shift from rural life to the dominance of the burgeoning English cities.

“I entered Bridgewater,” wrote George at a later date, “a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow.” But his employer, Mr Holmes, a draper, was a Christian. And it was expected that all his employees attend the non-conformist chapel each Sunday morning.

Thus it was, at the age of 16, he was saved. “I cannot describe to you,” he writes, “the joy and peace that flowed into my soul when I first saw that the Lord Jesus had died for my sins and that they were all forgiven.”

From that moment on, Williams’ motto became: ‘It is not how little but how much we can do for others’. This led him to both evangelical and social enterprises.

Concerned with the many young fellows similarly employed, but with no interest in the things of Christ, George gathered 10 believers around him in his bedroom – 6 June, 1844 – and formed an association “for the promotion of the spiritual welfare of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.”

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was brought to birth. In its early days the evangelical witness was foremost. Regular activities included Bible classes, Gospel meetings, street meetings and devotions before most activity programs.

He also became active in improving conditions for the 150,000 London shop assistants in 1841 whose lives were still little removed from that of a slave. They were kept in the unhealthy atmosphere of the shop from six or seven o’clock in the morning until ten or eleven o’clock at night. The early-closing movement owes much of its success to the support Williams gave and also to the example he later set as an employer.

As a successful businessman he gave away the greater portion of his income to assist those in need. “What is my duty in business?” he asked. Then answered, “To be righteous. To do right things between man and man. To buy honestly. Not to deceive or falsely represent or colour.”

Sir George Williams (he was knighted in 1894) never ceased to preach the gospel. His very last words, which he spoke while at the 1905 World YMCA Jubilee, were: “…if you wish to have a happy, useful, and profitable life, give your hearts to God while you are young.” He was then carried to his room and died.

George Williams was 84 when he died and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Lord Shaftesbury Stands Up for the Abused

This is the day that …Anthony Ashley-Cooper died in 1885 at the age of 84.

Better known as Lord Shaftesbury, he has been described as “the outstanding Christian layman of the 19th century.”

He was born on 28 April 1801 at 24 Grosvenor Square, London, the oldest son of the sixth earl of Shaftesbury. With strong family connections and good academics at Oxford he was well set for a political career. He became Lord of the Admiralty in 1834, but he chose not to run for prominence in any party, in order to more effectively help people in need.

A committed Christian he was active in support of organizations which took the gospel and the Bible to ordinary people, such as the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, YMCA and the London City Mission.

His first social cause was the plight of lunatics who were treated most inhumanely. He stuck with that cause and changed the relevant legislation through his life.

His next cause was to limit the working day in mills to 10 hours per day. This was vehemently opposed but he eventually won out. He was a man of action and he strengthened his case on many issues by first-hand investigation of the conditions. He visited hospitals and met many who were maimed and deformed through their working conditions.

He then campaigned against women and children being used in mines. Children as young as four spent 12 hours a day on all fours, pulling carts in the dark. He freed women and any child under 13 years from working in mines.

Then he took on the cause of boys apprenticed to chimney sweeps. Then came education of the neglected poor, leading to the setting up of “ragged schools” through which 10,000 children were assisted in his lifetime.

Then he turned his attention to providing quality housing for underprivileged, creating model villages and establishing thousands of well-equipped homes that were affordable to the working class.

Always the aristocrat he was keen to promote evangelical endeavour where he found it. However he objected to the Salvation Army due to its equal treatment of women in leadership, to which he disagreed. He labelled William Booth as the “antichrist”.

It was he who led the fight against child labour … five year-olds ankle deep in water working pumps in rat-infested mines … children forced to climb and clean chimneys by unscrupulous masters … and the cruelty often inflicted upon small children who worked 12 or 14 hours a day in the mills.

He was chairman of the Ragged Schools Union for 39 years … he supported the newly formed British and Foreign Bible Society … and the Protestant Alliance … and the Church Missionary Society … and the Young Men’s Christian Association (which was Christian in those days!) And more!

On his deathbed he asked for Psalm 23 to be read to him each morning, and “frequently those present heard him murmur his favourite prayer, ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’.”

Don Prout recommends: If you can get hold of a copy of John Pollock’s biography of this great man called Shaftesbury, the Poor Man’s Earl, read it! Or Grace Irwin’s The Seventh Earl is equally fascinating. Or, I Stand Alone by Jenny Robertson.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Torial Joss Whitfield’s Associate Preacher

This is the day that … Torial Joss was born in Scotland, in 1731.

After his father’s death, young Joss ran away to sea and was captured, and imprisoned, by the French.

Back in Scotland – aged 15! – he was press-ganged on to a man-of-war – escaped, and at a place called “Robin Hood’s Bay” (on the north-east coast of England) he read Bunyan – and was converted.

John Wesley met and encouraged him in his preaching.

Again he went to sea and rose to the position of Captain of the “Hartley Trader”. Whitefield contacted him on his arrival in London and Joss was told that he would be preaching at (Whitefield’s) Tabernacle. He was then 34 years of age.

So impressed is the great revivalist that he made Joss one of his assistants “and great crowds waited upon his ministry full of converting power and ripe with chequered and tragic experience” (Whitefield – the Awakener, by Rev. A. Belden, page 195).

The records of the Tabernacle include: One of the several people who ministered to the Church was an evangelical sea-captain named Torial Joss. Captain Joss was not ordained but he administered Communion. The Methodist Synod of 1790 objected to this. However, the Church refused to dismiss Joss. One of its members bought up the mortgage and locked the doors of the building. It was then re-opened as a Congregational Church.

His itinerate ministry saw multitudes converted. He usually spent four or five months of each year itinerating in England and Wales. The Welsh delighted in his simple eloquence. Many came twenty miles on foot to hear him.

And because of his pulpit ministry at Tottenham Chapel he was dubbed “Whitfield’s Archdeacon of Tottenham”. And there he was buried, in 1797.

After preaching the Gospel more than thirty years he was smitten down by sudden disease. “Oh the preciousness of faith!” he exclaimed to the groups around his deathbed. “I have finished my course. My pilgrimage is ended. Oh, thou Friend of sinners take thy poor old friend home.”

As if rapt in visions of the celestial world he at last uttered the word, “Archangels!” and expired.

His biographer describes him as a good man, mighty in the Scriptures and faithful to the end.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Charles Simeon The Rejected Preacher Who Prevailed

This is the day that … Charles Simeon was born in 1759.

The place was Reading, England, and the aristocratic home in which young Charles was reared was one of ‘affluence’.

It was during his education at Kings College, Cambridge that he was wonderfully converted through the reading of a sermon on the subject of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16).

As he read about propitiatory sacrifice in the Old Testament, he thought, “What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an offering for me, that I may lie my sins on his head?” He immediately laid his sins “upon the sacred head of Jesus.”

Despite the fact that “he found no Christian fellowship at the university” young Simeon’s Bible became his constant companion. Three years later, in 1782, he was ordained as a Church of England deacon and appointed minister of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge the following year.

And there it was he ministered over the next 50 years.

“Highly unpopular at first on account of his message and manner, scorned and abused for many years, he carried on regardless of men’s opinions, until in the end he became perhaps the best known and best respected name in Cambridge” (C. Simeon, by H.E. Hopkins).

Opposition there certainly was!

“The pew holders locked the doors of their pews to prevent visitors from using them. So Simeon placed benches in the aisles, but the church officers threw the benches into the church yard. Simeon started a Sunday evening service to reach needy sinners, but the officers locked the church doors!” (Victorious Christians, by W. Wiersbe, page 62).

“When I was an object of much contempt and derision in the university,” he later wrote, “I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted, with my little Testament in my hand … The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.'”

He invited students to his home on Sundays and Friday evenings for “conversation parties” to teach them how to preach. By the time he died, it is estimated that one-third of all the Anglican ministers in the country had sat under his teaching at one time or another.

One Anglican historian writes that Charles Simeon introduced the singing of hymns into Anglican services … for which the Prayer Book makes no provision (apart from Psalms, Canticles and Veni Creator). “In singing hymns evangelicals (like Simeon) were no doubt acting illegally, as, it would seem, we all are today” (Through the Ages, by F.E. Barker, page 277).

Before his death on 13 November, 1836, he also played a major role in establishing the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the London Jews Society. He has been described as “the most famous evangelical clergyman” the Church of England ever produced (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 625).

He remained a bachelor his whole life, and his entire ministry was at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge—even today a focal point of evangelicalism in England.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.