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Preaching: What is the gospel?

Dear Church Family,

In the first two sermons of our present preaching series on “The Church and the Means of Grace,” we sought to ask and answer the question, “What to expect from your pastor?” So, we looked at 1 Timothy 4:11-16. Specifically, we saw how the Apostle Paul admonishes his younger protégé, Timothy (as well as all pastors and preachers) to guard both himself and his teaching (1 Timothy 4:16a). When we talked about teaching, we examined how Timothy (as well as all pastors and preachers) ought to give special attention to “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”

One of the things that I emphasized in these two sermons is that this teaching is not only for pastors and preachers, but for all of God’s people. You see, understanding these things (the expectations that the people of God ought to have regarding their pastor’s self (character) and teaching (doctrine)) aids believers in praying for their spiritual leaders and also to hold them accountable to the biblical standards. For, when the pastor guards his self and his teaching, as Paul says, he will save both himself and those who hear him (1 Timothy 4:16b).

A few months ago, I was having a discussion with several other men about preaching. All of these men had been in the church for many years, but none had ever been pastors or preachers. At one point in the conversation, one of the men made this comment about preaching, “How hard can it be to stand up and talk about the Bible for thirty minutes?” Over the course of the last twenty-five years or so, I have read, thought, prayed, and spoken with others about preaching. I can tell you, preaching – true preaching – is much more than standing up and talking about the Bible for thirty minutes. At least, it ought to be.

So, I thought that I might endeavor, over the course of the next several weeks, to write about preaching. My hope is that through this series of weekly emails, we all would grow in our understanding of the gospel, the preaching of the gospel, the relationship between the law and the gospel, the means and power of sanctification, how to read the Bible, how the Mosaic covenant and the Ten Commandments are related to the covenant of grace, etc., etc., etc.

So, let’s just get started and see how this goes.

Various definitions of “the gospel”

In applying Isaiah 61 to Himself, Jesus taught that He had been anointed by the Holy Spirit to “preach the gospel” (Luke 4:17-21). In the book of Acts, we read that the Apostles traveled about continuing to “preach the gospel” (Acts 14:7). The Apostle Paul attests that Christ sent him to “preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Apparently, according to the word of God, “preaching the gospel” is important.

But what is “the gospel”? Well, if you were to ask several Christians this question, you might get some varied answers. Some would give a strictly objective and historical answer: “the gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners.” Others might give a more subjective and personal answer: “the gospel is the good news that I am saved through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His work.” I’m persuaded that both of these emphases are appropriate, as long as you don’t hold to one definition to the exclusion of the other.

In my personal experience as a pastor, however, I have found that an increasing number of people answer this question by saying, “the gospel is the good news of justification” or simply speak of “the gospel of justification.”

If you think about it, that’s actually an odd phrase. It’s odd because it takes something that is so glorious and so grand, and reduces it to just one of its parts. Granted, justification is at the heart of the gospel, but it is most certainly not the whole of the gospel. You will never find this phrase – “the gospel of justification” – in the Bible, and yet I hear it thrown around as if it were an accepted descriptor. What’s worse is that there are people who define the gospel in this way, and don’t even recognize that they’re doing it.

Toward a better understanding of “the gospel”

In actuality, one of the primary ways in which the gospel is spoken of in Scripture is with the term “kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Luke 16:16). As Michael Glodo has written, “Biblically, the good news is the good news of the Kingdom of God/heaven.”

Thus, with this understanding of the gospel as “the good news of the kingdom of God,” I’ve arrived at two, three-fold ways of talking about this question. From the historia salutis (“the history of salvation”), the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom: how Jesus brought the kingdom (inauguration), how Jesus rules the kingdom (continuation), how Jesus will bring the kingdom in its fullness (consummation).

From the ordo salutis (“the order of salvation”), the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom: how one enters into the kingdom (justification), how one lives in the kingdom (sanctification), and where one is going in the kingdom (glorification). For those who are familiar with John Murray’s book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, you will see how this fits nicely into the structure of “redemption accomplished and applied.”

The gospel is about how God objectively saves us through the coming, continuing, and consummation of His kingdom AND the gospel is about how God subjectively justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies His people. Each one of these is a part of the good news, and all are presented and taught in the Scriptures. In fact – and here comes the application for preaching (where the rubber meets the road) – every passage of Scripture will fit into one of these six categories: (1) inauguration of the kingdom of God; (2) continuation of the kingdom of God; (3) consummation of the kingdom of God; (4) justification; (5) sanctification; and (6) glorification. Of course, there is a lot of overlap and many passages of Scripture deal with several of these simultaneously. Still, it helps to see that the “good news of the gospel” is about more than the justification of the individual believer. The gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God!

Preaching “the gospel”

This is why it is inappropriate to limit “the gospel” to justification. First, it is unbiblical, and stems from a very narrow reading of the Bible. Second, in any given sermon, the preacher is to preach the good news of that passage, not necessarily the good news of justification (unless of course, justification is the good news of that particular passage).

This is the real crux of the matter and something which has continuing application for the preacher (and for the hearers of preaching, as well). If one defines the gospel as being equal to justification, the end result limits the full-orbed, milk and meat, doctrinal teachings of the Christian faith. And, when that happens, God’s people will not grow, but stubbornly cling to milk. Yet, just as children grow and mature by eating solid foods, believers must grow in faith so that they may continue to drink milk, but also eat meat.

Unfortunately, I have seen the result of those who have been fed only “the gospel of justification.” Typically, I have found that when the gospel is limited to justification and does not include the good news of God’s kingdom, believers become stunted in their growth and are easy prey for the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Conclusion

There’s more to be said on this, and the related topics, but I hope that I’ve at least given you some things to think about as we seek to be a people who know, believe, rest in, and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. And, I pray that these meditations will cause us to worship and praise Jesus Christ, the King of God’s kingdom.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch