I thank God for all the talk about the gospel among evangelical churches today. Granted, some of it can degenerate into trite jingoism and anomalous platitudes, but still, at least the necessity and centrality of the evangel is once again being recognized by believers who purportedly take their identity from it and who agree that evangelism is our great work. Considering where American evangelicalism was 30 years ago, this is a huge improvement.
This does not mean that Thabiti Anybwile’s “mild rant” against all the modern talk about the gospel is completely unwarranted. Bunyan warned about the kind of groupies who only love religion when it walks in “silver slippers” and gospel-centrality certainly seems to be enjoying that kind of status in our day. When it becomes chic to talk about the gospel then watch out because much gospel-talk will contain more talk than gospel. So I tip my hat to Thabiti’s point.
But I do not think we are in any danger of obsessing over the gospel. In fact, I fear that our case is quite the opposite. Particularly, I am afraid that we have yet to begin to plumb the depths of the gospel’s sufficiency. The gospel is most certainly an exclusive message. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Peter reiterated that point when he said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The gospel is a very narrowly defined message. It is all about Jesus–who he is, what he has done and why that matters. It is the only message that saves those who believe.
But the gospel has implications that are infinitely broad. It applies to everything. That is why Paul can say what he does in 1 Corinthians. When he first went to Corinth he “decided to know nothing among [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). He preached an exclusive message: the gospel. Yet, as his letter indicates, he recognized that the gospel applies to everything. Dissension, jealousy, immaturity, injustice, slavery, sexuality, marriage, singleness, the future, the past–all of these subjects and more are addressed by Paul in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. In that sense, no matter what the problem is, the answer is always the gospel.
One of the greatest challenges that a church faces as devotes itself to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2:42) is keeping the gospel as the sole foundation for unity. Over time, as associations and relationships grow within a body it is inevitable that church members will discover that they have other things beside the gospel in common with some of their fellow members. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply a reality.
The temptation that this inevitability presents, however, is making those other things more important than the main thing that we share in common, that is, the gospel. It usually happens subtly and even unconsciously. Families that homeschool their children can naturally gravitate to other homeschoolers. Sports enthusiasts can do the same. Young married couples naturally enjoy spending time with others close to their age and stage of life, as do young people, single adults and senior adults. The relationships forged along such affinities are not necessarily bad and can even be very beneficial. There is nothing wrong with closer relationships developing along those kinds of lines.
Where such relationships can become problematic is at the point that they begin to take on more importance than the gospel. When your affinities start to trump the gospel in your decision making you can be sure that Christ has been supplanted as the basis for your fellowship.
Here are some indications that this may be happening in your church.
When statements like this are being heard:
“I just don’t feel at home in that church because there aren’t enough _________ (fill in the blank however you want to: homeschoolers; Republicans; young people; old people; single people; married people; Cubans; business people; bikers; surfers; professionals; blondes; left-handers, etc. etc. You get the point).
When those who are in any of the above (or other) affinity groups find it impossible to relate to believers who are not.
If you find yourself thinking that you don’t really have anything in common with an older (or younger) member or single (or married) member or an adoptive (or childless) family, it’s time to back up and reexamine what the basis of your fellowship really is.
If we are living out the conviction that the gospel really is enough then we will not require anyone to be in our “age and stage” of life in order to enjoy genuine fellowship with them. Age, race, marital status, occupation, hobbies, etc. will all be recognized and appreciated but they will not be allowed to be attached to the gospel as a necessary basis for fellowship.
As that happens then the manifold wisdom of God will be put clearly on display before a watching world. God will be glorified. His gospel will be adorned. And His church will be strengthened.