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.

Was Your Salvation Just Empty Assent?

Some people are transformed when they come to Christ. They go on to change their world as God changes them. Others make a profession of faith and seem to drag themselves through an empty and ineffectual Christian life. This post may give a clue as to why there can be such stark difference between believers.

It’s in the Gospel

A key difference between believers is the “gospel” which they believed. Do you remember what gospel you believed?

The Apostle Paul used the term “another gospel“, thus acknowledging that there are varieties of gospel preached.

“For if he that comes preaches another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if you receive another spirit, which you have not received, or another gospel, which you have not accepted, you might well bear with him.” 2Corinthians 11:4

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6,7

Gospel is Good News

The word “gospel” means “good news“. It is the good news about Christ and His sacrifice to save us from our sins. It is the news of God’s love and God’s grace made available to us through Jesus Christ. It truly is Good news.

But the good news comes with a claim upon our life. While God is a giving God, he also asks us to respond to His offer with appropriate faith and commitment on our part. It is at the point of commitment that people’s response to the gospel can be very different. And that accounts for the difference in impact the message has on people.

The Easy Gospel

One of my sons attended a huge conference several years ago and was completely unimpressed by the “gospel” message given to the audience. It was, in effect, a call to come and try out Jesus. “Give Jesus a go in your life and see what He can do for you”.

This is what might be called the “easy gospel” because it makes no claims upon the hearer.

We all know that if people get something for nothing of if things come easy people do not value it. They treat it like something that is of no real importance.

The Lordship Issue

Built into the gospel is God’s claim of Lordship over our lives. In order to be saved we must have faith, but we must also put ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus.

“… if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9

It is this “Lordship” issue which goes to the heart of why some people do not seem to be changed by the gospel. They do not make Jesus the Lord of their life.

Repent or Assent

The very first sermon Jesus preached was to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repent means “turn around”. It demands a change of direction.

The act of repenting, turning away from your old life and living for God, is an act of accepting the Lordship of Jesus. Repentance and Lordship are complementary.

However many people simply give “assent” to Jesus. They believe that He lived, died for them and rose from the dead. That means they believe the right things. But they do not add to their faith the issue of submission to Christ’s lordship over their lives.

Assenting Gospel or Repenting Gospel

When you responded to the gospel and decided to become a Christian, were you presented with an “assenting gospel” or a “repenting gospel“? Did you simply give mental assent to the claims of Christ, or did you fully yield to those claims and make him Lord, by repenting of your old life?

People who add Christ to their life have not repented. People whose new faith has not produced a change in them and their way of life have simply assented to Christ.

Repentance is the first step of change in a person’s new life as a Christian. A person who repents will be different, because the very act of repenting involves change. It involves them turning around and going a different way.

Was Your Salvation Empty Assent?

If your salvation experience did not produce a big change in your life, then you probably accepted an “assenting gospel” and missed out on the important step of repentance. So, what was your salvation experience like? Is it nothing more than empty assent?

If you have an empty salvation then you need to de-throne self. Assent allows “you” to stay on the throne of your life. Repentance means you have stepped off the throne and placed the will of God over your life.

I call you to repent of your independent lifestyle. I call you to humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, so He can exalt you in due time. I call you to lose your life so you can find it.

And please don’t just “assent” to what I am saying. “Repent” and be different from this moment on.

Stuart Hamblen Writes Songs for the World

This is the day that Stuart Hamblen was converted at 4 o’clock in the morning. It was 1949.

Under conviction of sin, 40 year-old Hamblen, the son of a Texas minister, telephoned Billy Graham, waking him up: “Pray for me,” he begged the evangelist.

Billy Graham was preaching in his “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” crusade, which had been scheduled to last for three weeks. It was about to close, and Hamblen’s wife, Suzy, had talked him into attending.

But the conversion of Hamblen and two other well-known identities in the Los Angeles area led to an extension of the crusade for another five weeks (Billy Graham, by John Pollock, page 80). Three thousand chairs were added to accommodate the crowds; 6000 people had already been attending the “canvas cathedral” each night.

Hamblen was born October 20th, 1908, in Kellyville, Texas, the son of a travelling Methodist preacher. Hamblen’s radio and movie career began in 1926 on radio KAYO in Abilene, Texas, where he became radio broadcasting’s first singing cowboy. In 1929, he won a talent contest in Dallas, Texas and with the $100 cash prize in hand headed for Camden, New Jersey, to the Victor Talking Machine Company to seek his fortune. Recording four songs for the forerunner of RCA Victor, Stuart then set out for Hollywood, California, where he auditioned at KFI and went on the air as “Cowboy Joe”. He also became a member of the original “Beverly Hillbillies”, radio’s first spectacularly popular western singing group.

In 1931, and for 21 years thereafter, Stuart stayed on top of the popularity charts on the West Coast with his radio programs. During that time, his motion picture credits included: “In Old Monterey” with Gene Autry; “The Arizona Kid” and “King of the Cowboys” with Roy Rogers; “The Plainsman and the Lady” and “The Savage Hord” with Wild Bill Elliott; “Carson City Cyclone” and “The Sombrero Kid” with Don ‘Red’ Barry; “King of the Forest Rangers” with Larry Thompson; and “Flame of the Barbary Coast” with John Wayne.

Stuart Hamblen achieved fame as a rodeo champion, a country/western singer and songwriter, a dance-band leader, a gambler, and a heavy drinker. His 1934 Decca recording, ‘Out on the Texas Plains’, was one of the year’s top selling discs.

But when he was converted, he told his radio audience: “I’ve quit smoking and drinking”. And he was going to sell all his racehorses, except one, “which would never race again”.

Shortly afterwards “he bumped into his friend, movie star John Wayne. ‘What’s this I hear about you, Stuart?’ Wayne asked. ‘Well, John,’ came the answer, ‘I guess it’s no secret what God can do!’ ‘Sounds like a song’, the tall movie star replied, and that remark started the musical notes ringing in Stuart’s mind …” (New Life in Country Music, page 64). As a result Stuart Hamblen wrote …
It is no secret what God can do;
What He’s done for others He can do for you…

Recorded by George Beverly Shea in 1951, this song soon became a firm favourite for thousands of Christians and has been translated into over 50 languages around the world. It was the first song to ‘cross-over’, becoming #1 in Gospel/Country/and Pop categories and starting the trend for ballad style gospel songs

He also penned ‘This Ole House’ which was awarded 1954 Song of the Year, and was number one song hit in seven countries at the same time. His 230 song titles also include ‘Open up your Heart and let the Sun (Son) Shine in’, ‘This Book’ and ‘Known only to Him’.

By 1952 he was a candidate for the office of President of the United States – on a Prohibition ticket! He came in fourth in an election won by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Married to his wife, Suzy, for over 55 years, Stuart lived with her on their horse ranch in Canyon Country (Los Angeles), California, where he produced his weekly nationally syndicated “Cowboy Church of the Air” program. They also bred Peruvian Paso Horses. Stuart Hamblen died on March 8, 1989.

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.

George Cadbury the Chocolate Philanthropist

This is the day that … George Cadbury was born in 1839, in Birmingham, England.

George’s father, John Cadbury, was a tea and coffee dealer. George’s mother, Candia, died when he was in his mid-teens and John’s health was poor. So George’s education was cut short by his need to work in the business.

At the age of 22, he, along with his older brother Richard, took over his father’s business. Five years later Cadburys became the first company in Britain to sell cocoa. The beans were roasted and ground to form a powder which customers made into chocolate drinks.

In this Quaker family, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs had been standard ‘Sabbath reading’, along with the Bible.

Thus it was that working conditions were improved, even a half-holiday was granted on Saturdays … in an age when such things were unheard of.

Eventually, as their cocoa refining experiments revolutionised the business, George even began a daily worship service in the factory. Attended by a few at first, there came the day when “visiting ministers spoke of the impressive sight of a great crowd of worshippers led in praise by 3000 women’s voices, the girls dressed in pure white overalls ready for the day’s work” (Yarns on Christian Torchbearers, page 45).

To improve living conditions for his workers George Cadbury built three villages on the outskirts of Birmingham. From an initial cluster of 24 houses for key workers, a total of 300 houses formed the Bournville Village. His factory, on the River Bourn, was called the “Bournville Works”.

A pension scheme was introduced for his employees long before parliament thought of such an idea.

Here was a Christian businessman and philanthropist who loved people … for, as his biographer says: “He had caught the secret of love from Christ, his Lord and Saviour” (Life of George Cadbury, page 277).

George taught school every Sunday morning for fifty years, instructing some 4,000 students over that time. He also ran evangelistic meetings for the derelict of the city. It was at one of those meetings that his daughter, Helen, made her commitment to Christ at the age of 12. She was so excited about sharing her faith that she organized a group of girls who sewed pockets onto their dresses to carry the small New Testaments her father provided. The girls called their group “The Pocket Testament League“. Using small membership cards, they pledged to read a portion of the Bible every day, pray, and to share their faith as God provided opportunity. Helen later married RA Torrey’s popular gospel singer Charles Alexander.

George Cadbury believed that society would be better if people owned and worked their own land, so he opposed the land monopoly. He was also a pacifist who objected to the Boer War in South Africa.

He is remembered as a philanthropist. “I have for many years given practically the whole of my income for charitable purposes, except what is spent upon my family. Nearly all my money is invested in businesses in which I believe I can truly say the first thought of the welfare of the work people employed.”

George Cadbury died at Northfield Manor on 24th October, 1922.

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.