The pastor of a church plant in a far-southwest suburb of Chicago recently began a series of posts designed to discuss how the church he pastors is “doing church” differently from what most have experienced in the past. With admirable intentions to love their community, minister to those who have been hurt by the church, or reacted against “organized religion,” the posts discuss his strategy for ministry.
In his own comment, replying to an individual who commented on his recent post, the pastor said the following concerning “the gospel” and God’s Word:
“A great place that shows this [that presumably, as one contributor argued, people aren’t to take Paul’s words as God’s inspired and authoritative Word] is when people take Paul’s words for God’s way when Paul himself says in his own words that he is sharing “his gospel.” “Our” gospel at [the name of the church he pastors] is keeping it simple. It’s about restoration, being part of His kingdom on earth – it is “living and loving like Jesus.”
This reply grieved my heart, because not only does it undermine the Scriptures as God’s inspired and authoritative written Word, but also massively confuses the truth of the gospel.
Though Paul refers to the gospel as “my gospel” specifically in Romans 2:16, 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8, he makes it emphatically clear in Galatians 1:6-12 that the Good News he preaches is “God’s way,” as the pastor put it, and not his own interpretation or version of the gospel. He says:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-12 ESV, emphasis mine)
As ambassadors of Christ, we must be clear that there are not different or varying gospels. There is one gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Out of a deep gratitude for his work on our behalf, we ought to be people who contend to preserve it and declare it with love, boldness, and clarity for the glory of God and the salvation of others. To distort it is to dishonor the person and work of Christ. Moreover, we must be clear that the gospel is not, ultimately, “about restoration, being part of His kingdom on earth – it is “living and loving like Jesus.” Those are all indeed implications of the gospel, but not the gospel.
The gospel is the good news of the person and work of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners like you and me. The gospel is the good news that we are saved by what Christ has done, not by what we do. The gospel is the good news that because of God the Father’s great love, he sent his only Son into this world to perfectly fulfill his righteous requirement in the law, die in our place as the perfectly atoning sacrifice for our sins, save us from the Father’s impending wrath, be raised for our justification, and send his Spirit to keep us and continually mold us into the image of Christ, presenting those who have helplessly received Christ’s work, by faith, gloriously blameless before his throne to rule with him in the New Creation for all eternity; to the praise of his glorious grace! (cf. Rom. 3:23-26; 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; 1 Pet. 1:3-12)
The gospel is an historical, objective reality. It is God’s saving work in Christ, done outside of us. It is something that has been accomplished. It, by all means, has precious and God-glorifying implications for the here-and-now, but we must not mistake the implications of the gospel for the message of the gospel itself. God’s power to save lies not in human strategy, but in the message of the gospel.
God has promised to bless the proclamation of the gospel like no other message in human history (cf. Rom. 1:16-17). As followers of Christ, God has called us to preach it first to ourselves every day that it would establish our identity and impact every area of our lives; then lovingly, boldly, accurately, humbly, clearly, and urgently to our neighbor in the power and strength of the Spirit.
And, regarding the distinction between “Paul’s words” and “God’s Word” in the Bible… If we dismiss or view the Scriptures as simply and merely contextually motivated, experiential human letters of antiquity, then we saw off the foundational limb of graciously God-given, God-breathed, inerrant, revelatory, historical, authoritative, objective assurance that we sit on, and that the Scriptures declares to be their purpose (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:16-21; 1 John 5:13).
Some excellent resources in these matters are listed below:
Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton
The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World by Michael Horton
Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels by Tullian Tchividjian