Few, if any, biblical subjects have more rivals than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The nature of its message has incurred legions of adversaries. By virtue of its exclusivity alone, not a few men have an aversion to its message. The most eminent battles in world history have come to an end shortly following the apex of their most severe conflict, but not the holy war that revolves around the message of Christ and Him crucified. It sets the carnal mind on edge and rouses the most intense and bitter hostility.
But the gospel has and will ultimately trump every opponent, either in its infinite power to subdue sinners or sentence them to eternal perdition. As Romans 2:16 forewarns, “In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” Matthew Henry put it, “The success of the gospel exasperates its enemies.”
Rather than beginning with why men despise the atonement, perhaps it would be best to start with a biblical definition of the gospel. Succinctly defined from Scripture, the gospel is “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I Timothy 1:15. Although the Spirit inspired platitude may be a bit too simplistic for the scholar, it embodies the divine dynamic that has conquered the curse of sin and completely satisfied the wrath of God for ruined sinners. To delineate the gospel more fully, the One True God became the Son of Man to die in the place of His people.
The following narrative is a fitting illustration of the message of spiritual redemption. The son of a Persian monarch was making his first voyage with the fleet of his father. During the voyage an unfortunate occurrence happened on board the boat on which the prince was traveling. One of the servants of the captain fell overboard and was about to drown. The captain made no attempt to rescue the man, nor did he appear to be concerned. The prince, who observed all of this, turned anxiously to the captain and inquired, “Aren’t you going to try to save the man?” To which the captain smiled and quietly answered, “We do not hold up the fleet of the king for a mere servant.” Then the prince hurriedly removed his royal tunic and climbed onto the rail, but before he leaped into the water he retorted, “You may not hold up the fleet of the king for a servant, but you will for his son!” And that is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ did for sinners. He leaped into the sea of humanity that He might rescue us from the treacherous waters of sin.
The sinner who has been made a beneficiary of the redemptive work of Christ will possess a new love and appreciation for the gospel. His understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ is keener, and he is able to more amply discern what the gospel is and is not. As a true believer, having been transformed by its life-giving power, his loyalty to gospel accuracy increases. Consequently, he feels an ever-increasing contempt for gospel counterfeits, which inclines him to earnestly contend for the faith.
In his New Testament letters, Paul may be identified as a man who courageously safeguarded the accuracy of the gospel. He demonstrated both in his life and ministry a devotedness to the message of redeeming love. This is evinced in his undeterred resolve to expose false gospels, refute heretical teaching and live a gospel governed life.
Likewise, it is incumbent on the Church to exercise watchfulness for the protection of the gospel’s authenticity. We must warn against and expose any heretical teaching that is introduced and propagated in the name of the good news. In his epistle of warning against false teachers, Jude exhorted those he loved to take on the role of a watchman to conscientiously guard the mutual faith. The passage says, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
In pondering Jude’s exhortation, you feel the weight of the words he uses, “…. I gave all diligence ….. it was needful …. exhort …. earnestly contend … Every word in his warning conveys a sense of urgency. In anticipation of false teaching, Jude was compelled to charge them to undertake the daunting task of contending for the faith.
Contending for the faith may be done in two ways. One is by being faithful in presenting clear biblical teaching on the atonement of the Savior, while the other is to so live under the influence of the gospel so as to confirm its authenticity.
In consideration of the first defense of the gospel, the Church must understand that teaching redemptive truth is indispensable for the preservation of the gospel. As shepherds of God’s saints, ministers must never assume that their own people have an accurate biblical understanding of its content. While travelling in itinerant work over the past forty years, my wife and I found that even in some of the most theologically astute churches, there were distorted conceptions of the message and manifestations of the gospel. When we would request from what we thought to be theologically well-grounded members of the church to share their conversion testimony, some related the most bizarre accounts of their experience. What was most disconcerting about these strange sounding explanations of their supposed experiences of the new birth was an absence of biblical content. Their testimonies included inherent goodness from childhood, encounters with angels, reliance on baptism and feel-good sentimentality. Rarely, did anyone concede that they were trusting in the finished work of Christ alone.
With the plethora of false gospels in our present generation even the best of local churches need a steady intake of biblical truth to heighten awareness toward erroneous teaching that poses as the gospel. This duty is paramount in this hour of unprecedented deception.
Galatians 1:9 is a sober reminder of the judgment upon all who perpetrate heresy in the name of the gospel. Paul warns, “…. if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” The following are only a few of the “other gospels” that have infected the minds of those whom the god of this world has blinded. They include moralism (reliance upon inherent goodness or works), baptismal regeneration, pragmatism, relativism (the teaching that gospel truth is not absolute), decisional regeneration, and syncretism (the blending of faiths). Alarmingly, almost all counterfeit gospels have been conceived and propagated by professing Christians in the context of the evangelical church.
If there is any theological theme that present day evangelical pulpits need to faithfully preach it’s the atonement. Overseers of the flock of God can ill afford to neglect the soul preserving aspects of the gospel if they expect to see biblical soundness in the witness and lifestyle of their people. To neglect the exposition of such redemptive themes as imputed righteousness, effectual grace, propitiation, expiation, the love of God, and substitutionary atonement, is to put believers at a significant disadvantage in detecting unbiblical philosophies that masquerade as redemptive truth. A familiarity with the gospel and all its glorious content is the very best way to recognize and refute error.
By faithfully unveiling the beauties of Christ and Him crucified, the gospel will be more clearly understood and its power more visible in the salvation of sinners. J.C. Ryle said, “A Church is only useful as far as she exalts free forgiveness through Christ. This is the doctrine which, of all others, is the mightiest engine for pulling down the stronghold of Satan. Preach salvation by the sacraments, exalt the Church above Christ, and keep back the doctrine of the atonement, and the devil cares little – his goods are at peace. But preach a full Christ, and a free pardon by faith in Him, and then Satan will have great wrath, for he knows he has but a short time.
A second responsibility that the Church must assume in guarding the gospel is to learn to live under its influence and motivation. While the modern maxim gospel driven may invoke skepticism in some ministers, the concept is biblically set forth. To experimentally know the force and flow of gospel power is to strengthen the credibility of the message we preach. But it all begins with spiritual conversion. For on the new birth does all gospel experience rest.
Tragically, many churches have divorced sanctification from justification. This has served to strengthen one of the most infamous teachings in the modern church referred to as carnal Christianity. The unbiblical view of the carnal Christian has led to grave self-deception and false assurance by inadvertently encouraging men to look to themselves for the spiritual fruit that only regeneration can produce. The carnal Christian advocate teaches that a man may have faith, but his spiritual barrenness lies in his unwillingness to submit to the Lordship of Christ. Therefore, the absence of the spiritual birthmarks of I John is the result of his failure to “make Jesus Lord”, not his unregenerate condition.
On the other hand, there are those who have been made new creatures in Christ, but have never been governed by the gospel. While they have encountered the gospel in saving power they know very little of its dynamic for daily living. They assumed that its saving work was all they should expect. But while availing themselves to other methods to sustain their spiritual life, they have overlooked a great resource in the gospel. The believer who will discipline himself to take the time to contemplate the atonement in all its wonders of redemptive beauty will benefit immensely. He will gain greater gospel understanding to refute error, conformity to Christ and sustained motivation in life.
When we savor gospel indicatives (what Jesus has done) we are afforded gospel incentive (motivation) to obey gospel imperatives (what God has commanded). To dwell daily on the wonders of redeeming love assures the enablement of the Spirit to transform the believer (II Corinthians 3:18) and impart incentive in life.
One modern writer related that the way he encouraged gospel focus in his life was to preach the gospel to himself each day. He joyfully testified that while he sinned less, the most important benefit was how quickly he recovered his footing after he had sinned. But what this minister has received by way of knowing the gospel in daily experience are only a couple of gospel benefits. When the gospel is internalized in one’s daily walk, its effects upon the believer validates its content and refutes heresy. In reality, nothing adorns the gospel that we preach greater than to be gospel governed. But it all begins by earnestly surveying the wonders of Christ and Him crucified.
Charles Spurgeon, who insisted that God’s people should take the time each day to plumb the depths of the gospel, wrote in his small volume Seven Wonders of Grace, “When the great God comes to deal with offending men in the way of mercy the mere idea of such grace is wonderful, but when he for the sake of sinners gives his Son to die it is a world of wonders in one.
One might wonder how much of Spurgeon’s gospel success could be traced back to his daily contemplation of the cross. Undoubtedly, he was gifted in intellect and natural abilities that few men possess, but his ongoing understanding of the wonders of grace certainly must have been instrumental in his mighty usefulness. In aforementioned work, Spurgeon said, “A dogmatic writer has said that ‘all wonder is but the effect of novelty upon ignorance,’ but assuredly it is not so when the work of redemption is the theme; here the more we know the more we wonder, and years of familiar acquaintance and growing understanding do but increase our astonishment. The name where–by our ever blessed Lord is called is “Wonderful,” and well does He deserve the title, for his person, his birth, his life, his death, his teachings, and his actions are all wonderful. Out of a proclamation of the amazing story of the love of Jesus other wonders grow, for signs and wonders are the witnesses of the gospel’s power.”
So as not to overlook Spurgeon’s point, note that he says signs and wonders are the witnesses of the gospel’s power. When we immerse ourselves in the gospel by exploring the beauties and glories of what God has put on display in Christ’s finished work, we encounter a clearer understanding of the atonement. This affects a personal transformation within us and greater power in preaching, for our very word is vindicated by the gospel that holds sway over our life. Therefore, is there any better way of refuting heresy and authenticating the true gospel than having it with all its strengthening and sanctifying influence at the center of life. I think not.
Interestingly, Spurgeon testified toward the end of his ministry that in 40 years he could never recall there ever being any more than fifteen waking moments that he had not thought on Jesus. One might wonder if this was not one of the greatest reasons for his gospel usefulness.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, writing to a friend after preaching on the subject of wonder in the gospel from Luke 2:18 on the Lord’s Day, wrote, ““My theme was the wonder and amazement that are inherent in the gospel message and our tragic failure to appreciate this. If we could but see the real wonder in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, what powers we should be! The Son of God dying for us – how can we remain so silent and so passive? Do we spend enough time in prayer and silent meditation? Are we not concentrating too much on what we can do in public and depending too much on our own abilities?”
In light of Lloyd–Jones’ words, could our negligence in being more protective of the gospel be traced to our passivity in regularly contemplating it? Could our lack of boldness in publically confronting heresy be the product of our laxity in meditation? Could our absence of fruit in the salvation of souls be the evidence of depending too much on our own abilities?
In the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts highlights Christ’s suffering. Christ, with all His passion, is displayed in such rich clarity that the hymn writer seems to relate from his own personal experience the effect it had on him. The word survey refers to something that is much more than a casual look. It means to carefully and thoroughly observe an object so as to appraise it. What Isaac Watts records here is the effects of the gospel’s power on himself as he earnestly grasped the reality of Christ’s passion. For example, the result of surveying the cross was a contempt for the pride of his accomplishments. In the second stanza of the beloved hymn Watts records another effect of his observation. His view of the death of Jesus engenders a mortification of those vain things that Watt’s gloried in. In a later verse, he discloses his affection to offer all of creation as a gift in response to the revelation of divine love that is displayed on a backdrop of incalculable sorrow.
Likewise, the far reaching effects of the cross are seen biblically in the Apostle Paul’s life and ministry. The gospel impacted everything he did, preached, and lived for. His whole world seemed colored by the atonement of Jesus Christ. And the message became so important to him that he said that he had determined to only know Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Corinthians2:2). From his motivation to his meditation to his mission, the gospel was at the center. As a matter of fact, as strange as it may seem, I believe that he found his leisure in the gospel.
One of the reasons the Apostle Paul was so formidable against his heretics, both within and outside the church, was because the gospel fueled his spiritual passion. For example, in Romans 1:16, the dynamic of the message emboldened him and made him spiritually invincible before the enemies of the cross. One commentator remarked, “He had so firm a conviction of its value and its truth; he had experienced so much of its consolations; and had seen so much of its efficacy; that he was so far from being ashamed of it that he gloried in it as the power of God unto salvation.”
Paul’s conviction in standing strong against his opposition was unrelenting. His courage in withstanding the attacks of antagonists for the defense of the gospel appeared supernaturally fueled. In Romans 16:25, Paul pays tribute to the emboldening power of the gospel when he says, “Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, …” This is strikingly significant, as it reveals the impact that the very redemptive themes of the gospel he had just defended in the epistle, could potentially have on God’s ministers. In other words, he says that the very doctrines relating to the atonement, like justification, election and perseverance, were the very gospel agents that could afford stability for his fellow servants.
But the gospel was not just to supply strength on the occasion of penning his epistle to the Roman saints. He felt its power of resilience after his stoning in Acts 14:20–22, “Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. Amazingly, following his attempted murder, Paul returns to the same cites that had rejected him for the sake of the gospel.
Another example of his enduring gospel courage is found in Acts 20:20–22 as Paul boldly asserts, “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
One might ask, why such resilience in the apostle? What constrained him to persevere against such opposition? Was it his divine call? Or his three year experience in Arabia? Or his constraining concern for the infant churches? I believe what moved him foremost was his encounter with the gospel. Personally, it would almost seem impossible that Paul could endure such intense hardships had he not been impacted by the inherent power of God found in the gospel. For nothing emboldens a man to earnestly contend for the faith more than the dynamics that he unearths in the depths of the good news.
In summary, I believe that every Christian’s duty is to be a spiritual watchman. To be prepared to earnestly contend for the faith by both the use of his lips and life. While in love he verbally refutes false gospel proponents with sound biblical arguments, he should seek to be gospel governed in his lifestyle before a watching world. For if there is no inconsistency between what he says and how he lives, this will prove to be a powerful tandem in dispelling gospel error and promoting the banner of the cross. As Iain Murray cautioned, “It is the oldest stratagem of Satan to disfigure the truth by misrepresentation.”