For the last several years I have been expressing my growing concern that, in many ways and in many places, evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular have lost the gospel. One of the first blog articles that I ever posted addressed this concern and I have repeatedly expressed it in lectures, sermons, interviews, private conversations and articles. Founders Ministries, of which I am the President, is committed to working for “the recovery of the gospel and the reformation of local churches.” I entitled a book I edited, Reclaiming the Gospel and Reforming Churches.
Anyone who has read this blog even intermittently over the last year and a half should have some awareness of my burden for this issue. Some take strong exception to having this question even raised. To them, it is tantamount to denominational insurrection. But they typically belong to the crowd that judges any criticism or questioning of the “post-conservative-resurgence” SBC to be an act of war, more likely to get you lumped and dumped into the CBF crowd than if you denied the virgin birth. Quite honestly, I don’t have much hope of persuading folks from that sector of the family of the legitimacy of my concern.
I am much more hopeful of those whose commitment to Scripture’s authority is not mixed with political ambition or misguided bureaucratic loyalties. Honest evangelicals know that something is horribly wrong in our corporate life. Too many evangelical churches are spiritually unhealthy due to the extended neglect of basic biblical teachings, principles and practices. At the top of this list is the gospel itself.
When we interview prospective church members, we always ask them to give us a brief explanation of the gospel. Some of the answers that we have received—even from long-time members of conservative evangelical churches—have only confirmed in my mind that the gospel has been significantly neglected in much of American evangelicalism over the last generation. If you want to liven up your next Sunday School party, ask people to take 2 minutes and write down a simple statement of what the gospel is. Then collect those papers and read them aloud. It will be better—and potentially more profitable—than pictionary! It will probably also be very sobering.
The gospel is all about Jesus Christ. I teach the people I serve to think of it simply like this: It is the message of who Christ is, what He has done, and why it matters. Answering these questions from the Scripture will provide an outline of the biblical gospel.
Here is a summary of my concerns about spheres in which we have lost or are losing the gospel in our day.
1. In preaching
I took several hours last spring to listen to a number of SBC seminary chapel sermons. I heard lots about leadership, commitment, courage, faithfulness, sheep, shepherds, prayer and devotion, I heard very little of Jesus Christ. Often Christ was mentioned almost as an afterthought. I realize that this is far from a scientific study (but if you are interested in one that corroborates my concerns about Southern Baptist preaching, see Marsha Whitten’s All is Forgiven) but the sermons were preached by well-known and highly respected Southern Baptist pastors. It is not unreasonable to expect that their sermons to seminarians would be carefully prepared. Assuming that to be the case, I came away from my exercise rather discouraged.
Here is an experiment that I recommend. Get a simple outline of the gospel in your mind and listen to the sermons preached in your church (even if you are the preacher!) or other churches and try to determine to what degree the gospel is the basis of them. Too often only some facts related to the gospel are tacked on at the end of a message in order to justify some kind of altar call, but the gospel itself is not foundational to it. If a sermon would play just as well in a Kingdom Hall or Jewish Synagogue as it would in a Baptist church, you can be sure it is void of the gospel.
2. In Christian living
Very often the gospel is viewed only as the threshold into the Christian life by which one must enter the kingdom. Once in, however, the gospel loses its importance. Where this happens in conservative churches moralism tends to gain preeminence and Christianity tends to be conceived in terms of rules and requirements. In moderate and liberal churches sentimentalism tends to reign and attitudes and actions are evaluated in terms of how “loving” they feel. Do not misunderstand—the Christian life includes both rules and especially love (rightly understood, of course), but the Christian life is based on neither. It is based on Jesus Christ—who He is, what He has done and why it matters. That is why we are called to live by faith. Faith in what? Or whom? The person and work of Christ. This is also why Paul could write, “For to me, to live is Christ.” Christ was life for Paul because the gospel had come to him in power. Read the ethical portions of the New Testament to see how the Apostles exhorted the early church to holy living. It wasn’t by moralistic teaching. They teach the law on the basis of the gospel. I see very little concern for the relationship between law and gospel in Southern Baptist life today. The reason, I believe, is due to the removal of the gospel from the heart of Christian living.
3. In our churches
The gospel is the power of God to save all who believe. Churches are to be comprised of those who testify to having experienced this saving power. Of all the sectors of evangelicalism, Baptists most certainly should stand firm on this point. Yet, simply take an honest look at our churches—even good, “Bible-believing,” “flagship” SBC churches. What do you find more often than not? Bloated church rolls with twice as many members as regular attenders. The overwhelming majority of our churches have neglected gospel order, taking cues more from the marketing world or corporate America or therapeutic professions than from Scripture. John Dagg, the first writing theologian among Southern Baptists put this in his Treatise on Church Order, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” If he is correct, then how many Christless churches might we have within our ranks? Read Revelation 2 and 3 to see that Jesus Himself warns of this possibility. If the candlestick has been removed from a local church then the gospel has been taken with it.
So, have we lost the gospel? I think we have, in many ways. I know this seems like a harsh judgment, but I do not make it with any joy or intent to harm or even embarrass. Neither am I suggesting that every church or evangelical (or denominational) entity has lost the gospel. Rather, I am suggesting that the gospel has been forgotten, misunderstood, undervalued and marginalized by many churches and ministries that consider themselves evangelical. We can no longer assume that we know the gospel and prize it as the transforming power of God that saves all who believe. Such assumption, I fear, has contributed to the gospel’s demise in many churches.
Why even raise this question, knowing that it will inevitably provoke the angst of some brothers and sisters whom I respect and tempt them to dismiss me as a crank or some kind of helpless malcontent? I do so because it is simply too important to leave unaddressed. Too much is at stake. The glory of God in the salvation of sinners is at stake. So is the eternal destiny of many who may think that they are right with God but who are merely religious (Matthew 7:21–23).
If I am right in my suspicions, then all of the many other issues that are clamoring for our attention right now in SBC life and beyond are minor in comparison to this. If we have lost the gospel, or are losing it, then nothing else matters.