Have we Lost Hold of the Gospel?

illustration: David Brainerd

Have we Lost Hold of the Gospel?

‘How Scotland lost its hold of the Bible’ is the title of an excellent address by the Rev Iain Murray, published in the Banner of Truth magazine (Issue 623-4, Aug/Sept 2015). It is not surprising that a nation and church that has lost the Bible should also lose the gospel. The two are intertwined. We still have a Bible but it is truncated and fallible and the gospel is around but it is largely mutilated and inoffensive. The popular gospel, with its roots going back to the end of the 19th century, took hold in the UK around the 1950s. It is decidedly man-centred. It is focussed on the problem caused by sin in the world and in the human heart. It is aware of the emptiness of life and the danger that sinners are in outside of Christ and the need to rescue them and give them a better quality of life.

Separating Christ and his benefits

As we live in a consumer society it is not surprising that this has affected the church. We have the concept of presenting the gospel today as if it were a commodity that meets man’s need. On the modern gospel stall there is the offering of forgiveness of sins, justification by faith, happiness and heaven. The invitation goes along the lines of, “Come and add something to your life” or, “Have some grace”. It is grace detached from the Person of Christ. Because of this the message has to be well-packaged and attractive. It must be stripped of anything that gives offence to the natural man. The call is to make it simple.

But the true gospel is not a commodity. It is nonsense to think of the gospel of Jesus Christ as one religious stall offering free forgiveness or heaven. What is the point of being forgiven and justified and to have heaven as a reward if it does not prepare the person for what heaven is truly like? Is it just a heaven of pleasure and ease at the end of it all?

One is continually thankful for the way in which our Puritan forebears began their manual of instruction, the Shorter Catechism, with the question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer became a classic: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.” It begins as it should with God, not as other manuals which begin with “What is your name?” or “What is your hope?” The Biblical gospel begins and ends with God. That is what distinguishes the true gospel from every other so-called gospel. It is the gospel of the glory of the blessed God (1 Tim. 1:11).

The glory revealed in creation

God created the world for the shining forth of his own excellencies, for the flowing forth of his happiness. We are placed on this earth to be recipients of God’s self-communication. Jonathan Edwards reminds us that rational creatures are made that God may have in them occasions to fulfil his pleasure in manifesting and communicating Himself. “We have cognitive capacities, not to celebrate the competence of our own reason, but in order to witness to and participate in God’s communication of His excellencies as displayed in creation and redemption.”

That original relationship between God and man was disrupted through the Fall. In order for there to be the possibility of the relationship being restored there had to be a work of redemption, through which man would be enabled to return to God. That work is summed up by Peter when he says: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). When a sinner comes to be confronted with the glory and majesty of God and comes to the realisation that the God in whose hand his breath is, he has not glorified (Dan. 5:23), what does he do? He cannot rest satisfied with the gifts of forgiveness and peace. He must come back to this God.

The only way back to God is through Christ. He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6) God’s self-communication is now in his Son Jesus Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God”. Therefore the chief end of the gospel is that man will be restored to beholding the glory of God, to rejoicing in the glory of God and to reflecting the glory of God. But what prevents the natural man from seeing this?  It is none other than the work of Satan: “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God should shine unto them’ (2 Cor. 4:4). But God has the remedy for this blindness: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)

The vision of the greater glory in the Gospel

It is by ‘a divine and supernatural light’, as was there at the first creation, that the glory is seen. The glory has broken into the world but as Calvin said in amazement, ‘They do not see the midday sun’. But when a sinner is enlightened in this way, “he sees an excellency in God; he sees a sweet loveliness in Christ; he sees an amiableness in holiness and God’s commandments...he sees the wonderfulness of God’s designs and a harmony in all his ways.” He rests by faith on the finished work of Christ. He has heart satisfaction with the way of salvation by a crucified Redeemer. God has all the glory and the believer has all the blessedness. Only with divine intervention can the believer participate in these glories. 

It is all this that gives the true believer a love to Christ for his own sake and prepares him for the heaven which consists in being “with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:23). Edwards puts it plainly: ‘Love or affection to God that has no other ground than only some benefit received or hoped from God, is not true love. If it be without any sense of a delight in the absolute excellency of the divine nature, it has nothing divine in it’ (Treatise on Grace, p. 50). True religious affections are rooted in the divine excellencies, not in the benefits which we receive. Edwards taught that the love and pursuit of holiness is the enduring mark of the true Christian.

Proclaiming the vision

How is this Gospel to be proclaimed? By using the God-appointed means. Gospel preachers are the very ‘voice of the great God’. They must stick to the pure Word of God that tells the excellency and glory of the Saviour and how great His love is in what He has done and suffered for poor sinners. Their task is to make what is true become real in the perception of hearers. This is what accounted for the success achieved among the American Indians with David Brainerd and Edwards. Contextualisation did not come into it. The Holy Scripture was proclaimed, Christ was magnified and divine and supernatural light was imparted by the Spirit.

Gospel preachers are to promote an encounter with God. The sermon provides a platform where the preacher can nurture and cultivate a sense of God’s glory, inviting his hearers to be enthralled by this vision. This fits in with Edwards’ claim: “The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by the impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.”