Is the Contemporary Gospel Another Gospel?
by Michael J. Penfold
Central to every genuine spiritual revival, has always been the public preaching of the gospel. Directly through this particular means1 the Holy Spirit has been pleased to awaken multitudes to a proper sense of the dreadfulness of their sin against God. They have been stripped of all self-righteousness, broken in repentance and have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who satisfied God’s demands against their sin through Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross. Sadly, in the evangelical scene today, such true and lasting manifestations of the convicting and converting power of the Holy Spirit are rarely seen. So where did it all go wrong?
During the 20th century, there were two major retrograde developments in relation to gospel preaching. Up until World War 2 practically all evangelical churches held two preaching services every Sunday; one aimed at edifying the church, the other at converting sinners. The first move was to jettison the gospel service (with its accompanying prayer meeting), in favour of another teaching session for Christians. The indoor evangelistic service was not replaced with a ‘street meeting’. It was simply dropped. By the turn of the 21st century, even special event mass-Crusades had largely died out, replaced by ‘Festivals’ featuring ‘Christian’ pop, rock and rap music combined with beach parties, professional skateboard demonstrations and other assorted crowd-drawing activities.2
Accompanying this was a fundamental change in the content (not just the style) of the gospel message itself. Several major features of the historically tried and tested gospel sermon were abandoned. Thus, if you compare today’s typical evangelistic message with one preached by the apostles or by men like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Robert Murray McCheyne, C.H. Spurgeon and Moody (during genuine revivals throughout Church history), you will find a world of difference.
All of this has serious consequences, for the contemporary gospel produces altogether different results to the historic Biblical gospel. For example, in 1991, a major ‘evangelical’ denomination in the USA – consisting of 11,000 churches – launched a huge push in evangelism. After securing 294,000 ‘decisions for Christ in 12 months (26.73 per church), only 14,000 new members came ‘into fellowship’ (1.27 per church). Are we really to believe that within 12 months of being saved under the sound preaching of the Holy Spirit empowered Biblical gospel, 95.2% of the ‘converts’ (over a ¼ million people) had become ‘backsliders’? And what of the general membership of contemporary ‘evangelical’ churches? Why do over 80% of those who pray a prayer for salvation as young children ‘leave the church’ as soon as they reach their late teens? These are all symptoms of a root problem, namely the abandonment of public gospel preaching and the alteration of the content of the Biblical gospel message.
To revisit the true gospel, let us examine four essential elements which are missing from most of today’s evangelical sermons, gospel tracts and ‘introduction to Christianity’ courses.
First, the Biblical gospel begins and ends with God. However, the contemporary gospel begins and ends with man. Here, in abbreviated form, is how it runs: “People today are suffering from feelings of emptiness, loneliness and low self-esteem. However, the aching ‘God shaped vacuum’ within you can be filled, when you say sorry for your sins and commit your life to Jesus. God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants you to be personally fulfilled and satisfied. You matter to God – that’s why Jesus paid for your sins on the cross. He loves you and wants you to ask Him into your life today. You have tried everything else – so why not give Jesus a try too? All you have to do is ask Jesus to be your personal Saviour. Why not pray this prayer after me…”
This contemporary message has moved away from the New Testament God-centred pattern and tailored itself to appeal to the self-centred generation of secular relativists who dominate 21st Century Western society. By contrast, the Biblical gospel begins and ends with God. When Paul preached to the Gentiles in Lystra, he opened by saying, “We…preach unto you that you should turn from these vanities unto the living God, who made heaven…earth…sea and all things that are in them.“3 He began by laying a foundation of a ‘creator God’ who is sovereign, good and patient. Again, when preaching to the Gentile philosophers in Athens he stated, “…God, who made the world and everything in it…since He is Lord of heaven and earth…now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained.“4 This was always Paul’s approach when preaching to pagans. His message to Felix was the same. He told him about God’s righteousness, his own lack of self-control and judgment to come.5
Since repentance is a change of mind towards God, how can a sinner repent until he has a true concept of God? Many 21st Century Westerners imagine that there are two Gods; the God of the Old Testament – harsh and merciless – and the God of the New Testament – loving and forgiving. Such is their fatal misconception. Or again, the average Westerner thinks that God, if He exists at all, is a most unfair God. He argues; “If there’s a God why is there all the suffering in the world?” How foolish are his thoughts. Until he truly understands the good and holy nature of the God against whom he has grievously rebelled, he will never be saved. Thus, unless the ‘true God’ is clearly preached, all that will be produced is a multitude of false converts who have never caught even a glimpse of the holiness, goodness and sovereignty of their almighty creator; “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”6
Second, the Biblical Gospel makes proper use of the law of God. A sinner must understand the gospel to be saved.7 But before a sinner can understand the mercy of a loving God, he must understand the just requirements of a righteous God. True, the law is not the gospel and the gospel is not the law; but the gospel establishes the law.8 Though a written law was given only to Israel, the Gentiles have always had ‘the work of the law’ on their hearts.9 The purpose of this law is clearly stated by Paul: “by the law is the knowledge of sin.“10. Paul further states that he would never have known he was a guilty sinner without the law .11 Since no one can be saved without repentance and no one can repent unless they know they are guilty, the true Biblical gospel must make proper use of the law, the chief end of which is to convince the whole world of its guilt.12
The book of Romans contains the only systematic setting forth of the gospel in the whole Bible. Paul uses the word ‘law’ 38 times before he mentions the word ‘love’. From Romans 1:17 to 3:19 Paul sets forth the case against the sinner. It is a sorry tale of condemnation, wrath and guilt. Finally, in chapter 5:8, Paul states that God commends his love towards sinners. Why does Paul present the gospel in this order? Because the gospel will not make any real sense to a sinner until he realises he is guilty of rebellion against the law of a holy God. Tell the average Westerner “God loves you” and he will say, “Why shouldn’t He; I’m a good person?” That would be to cast pearls before swine.
Believing that a man would not grasp a spiritual lifebelt until he was convinced he was drowning, nor submit to medical treatment until was sure he had a disease – preachers of the old school never set the remedy of the gospel before the sinner’s mind until thoroughly convincing him of his sin. But the contemporary gospel knows better. It uses the carrot of ‘benefits’ instead of the stick of conviction of sin. It says, “If you come to Jesus you will be happy, fulfilled, be part of a loving family and spend eternity in a golden mansion – if you would like to have all of this, just say sorry for your sins and ask Jesus into your heart to be your Saviour.” If only this were an unfair caricature or a straw man; but this is exactly how the gospel is presented universally today in print and in the pulpit. The net result is that sinners ‘come to Christ’ with a false motive. Then when persecution and pressure come their way, they are offended and quickly disillusioned. Sadder still, they are vaccinated against true salvation; after all, they tried Jesus and He failed.
As we seek to restore the true Biblical gospel we must remember that the issue is righteousness not happiness. Simply quoting “All have sinned,” followed by a quick “But the good news is…” will never awaken anyone. Sinners must be faced with the fact that covetousness (the love of things) is idolatry, hate is murder and lust is adultery.13 True peace and joy are the fruits of salvation, not the root. The fruits of salvation are not presented in biblical sermons as a draw card, to encourage sinners to ‘make their decision for Christ’.
Driving down the motorway, there are a number of excuses one can think of to justify going at 85 mph…until the law enters. When a Police car comes into view, drivers hits the brakes. By the law is the knowledge of sin. This is what will make a man, rushing headlong down the highway of life to hell, sit up and listen. He simply must see his precarious position or he will never truly repent. Presented with a choice of either diamonds or a glass of water, who would not choose the diamonds? But take a man who has been lost for four days in the Sahara desert with nothing to drink and present him with the same choice. He takes the water. What has changed? The inherent value of the goods on offer? No. His perception of need. And so, let a man be utterly convinced from scripture, by the Holy Spirit, that he is lost, guilty and helpless and he will cry out, “What must I do to be saved?”
The proper initial reaction to the gospel on the part of the sinner is conviction of sin.14 But what is conviction of sin? It is more than just the ordinary smiting of the conscience.15 It is more than a mere fear of hell. Simply being scared of the consequences of sin is not true Holy Spirit conviction. Nor is conviction ‘admitting you are a sinner’. Balaam, Pharoah, Judas and many others admitted “I have sinned” but nonetheless went to hell. Nor is conviction of sin a mere head knowledge of the doctrine of the fall of Adam. Conviction is a proper sense of the dreadfulness of my sin against God. Have you ever experienced this? All sinners must echo David’s realisation when he said “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight.”16 Conviction of sin is vertical, not horizontal.
We must return to the true Biblical gospel and preach that men are sinners by nature and practice; that their very best endeavours are like filthy rags and that they are utterly helpless to save themselves.17 As a sinner acknowledges that he is condemned, unclean and guilty, he draws near to salvation, for “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart; and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”18
Third, the Biblical Gospel sounds a clear note of repentance. Summarising three years of ministry in Ephesus, Paul stated that he had preached “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”19 Summarising his whole life, he stated that he had preached that men should “repent and turn to God, and do works” answering to that repentance.20 Nowhere in the Bible did any apostle or evangelist preach that, “all you need to do is accept that Jesus died and rose again, ask Him to be your Saviour and you will go to heaven.” Why? Because the Lord Jesus had commissioned them to preach three things: first, Christ died; second, He rose again; and, third, repentance for the remission of sins.21 Would we be happy with a cross-less gospel or a resurrection-less gospel? How then can we be content to preach a repentance-less gospel?
Contrary to contemporary thinking, salvation is neither giving ‘mental assent’ nor a mere ‘nodding of the head to the death and resurrection of Christ. There is no saving faith without repentance. Strangers to conviction are strangers to repentance and therefore strangers to salvation, for no one ever truly believed without repenting and vice versa. The first sentence the Lord Jesus uttered in His public ministry was, “Repent and believe the gospel,” and He continued to repeatedly warn that unless sinners repent they would perish.22 Jesus said “believe or perish” and “repent or perish”’23 All that will matter a million years from today is, did one repent and believe the gospel?
Only one sentence in the Bible states that God loves the world. A handful of other verses speak of God’s love for undeserving sinners. Yet this precious and sublime truth is cheapened today by its overemphasis at the expense of repentance, a subject mentioned 58 times in the New Testament alone. That is the reason why there is little or no true convicting power and blessing in the preaching of the gospel today. The Holy Spirit will not endue with power a message He has not authorised. A gospel without a clear note of repentance is another (false) gospel that brings God’s curse on those who preach it.24 Why would God curse a ‘preacher of the gospel’ (one who adds or takes away from the essence of the true message)? Because his repentance-less message is damning souls, corrupting local churches and hindering revival.
But what is repentance? It is not penance or restitution (Judas paid the money back — he regretted, but never repented).25 It is not merely tears, fear of judgment (Felix trembled) or sorrow for sin (godly sorrow may lead to repentance, but is not the same as repentance).26 It is not mere confession or admission of sin. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia (from meta, ‘after’, and nous, ‘mind’). It means a complete change of the mind – involving turning from sin to God, resulting in a change of life. It is illustrated by David’s heart repudiation of sin in Psalm 51 and the Prodigal Son’s complete turnaround in Luke 15. It is defined in the following text: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him.”27 Preachers must be sure to sound a clear note of repentance every time the gospel is preached.
Fourth, and finally, the Biblical Gospel presents the Lord Jesus Christ as the object of faith, not simply the ‘fact of the atonement’. Paul did not tell the jailor to just believe the ‘facts about Calvary’, but to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” – Master, Saviour and promised Messiah.28 But belief is never simply mental assent. It is trust, reliance on and commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour. This is not the ‘Jesus’ of the contemporary gospel, who says “Come as you are and stay as you are.” How solemn to see a large number who call Jesus Lord, shut out of the kingdom, despite their many religious works.29 In the words of A.W. Pink, “Multitudes desire to be saved from hell (the natural instinct of self-preservation) who are quite unwilling to be saved from sin. Yea, there are tens of thousands who have been deluded into thinking that they have ‘accepted Christ as their Saviour’ whose lives plainly show that they have rejected Him as their Lord.”
‘Evangelical’ churches are full of people who do not exhibit the fruits of salvation, but who are not embarrassed to say they are Christians. But if a man says he has faith and has not works, can that faith save him?30 God saves people so that they will do good works and live as His bond slaves.31 Therefore, any salvation experience that does not turn a rebel sinner into a basically obedient servant is spurious. “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance…every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”32
After a lifetime of preaching and writing, the Puritan John Owen stated what he felt were the two most frequent mistakes made in regard to salvation. The first, he said, is to think one is going to heaven without being born again. The second is to think one is born again without a holy life to prove it. To this the scriptures agree: “Whoever is born of God does not practice sin.”33
In an era when it is easy to confess Christ but hard to live for Christ, liberal theologians have filled church pews by preaching a blood-less gospel and a deity-less Christ. Now evangelicals have filled churches with a gospel that lacks a call to repentance. But which is worse, when the net result is the same? To avoid perpetuating this tragedy, be careful to ensure that one’s sermons, gospel tracts and the missionary endeavours one supports present every aspect of the true Biblical gospel.
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. Titus 1:3
2. Plugged In Magazine, March 2003, Colorado Springs. CO, pg. 1
3. Acts 14:15
4. Acts 17:22-31
5. Acts 24:25
6. Rom 11:36
7. Matt 13:15, 19, 23, Acts 8:30-31, Rom 3:11
8. Rom 3:31
9. Rom 2:15
10. Rom 3:20
11. Rom 7:7
12. Luke 13:5, Rom 3:19
13. Col 3:5, 1 John 3:15, Matt 5:28
14. John 16:8, Acts 2:37
15. Rom 2:15
16. Psa 51:4
17. Eph 2:1-2, Isa 64:6, Eph 2:8
18. Psa 34:18
19. Acts 20:21
20. Acts 26:20
21. Luke 24:46-47
22. Mark 1:15
23. John 3:16, Luke 13:3 (see also 2 Pet 3:9)
24. Gal 1:6-10
25. Matt 27:3
26. 2 Cor 7:10
27. Isa 55:7
28. Acts 16:31
29. Matt 7:21
30. Jas 2:15
31. Acts 26:20, 1 Thess 1:9
32. Matt 3:8
33. 1 John 3:9