The Explicit Gospel
"We have seen tons of people at The Village who sat here for years just hearing but not hearing, seeing but not perceiving, and then all of a sudden, at some random worship service or Bible study, the Lord just hijacked them."
We certainly see this alternating affection and aversion in the four Gospels, as Jesus and his disciples persevere in their itinerant ministry, declaring forgiveness of sins and the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Some are drawn; others are repulsed. But nobody hears Jesus and just says, “Eh.” In some cases, as in the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, they are drawn by his miracles, then repulsed when he connects the miraculous deeds to the miraculous words of the good news.
Knowing this, we don’t need all thirty-six verses of “Just As I Am,” a plaintive pleading from the altar, heads bowed, eyes closed, and shaky hands raised to issue a gospel invitation. No, the invitation is bound up in the gospel message itself. The explicit gospel, by virtue of its own gravity, invites belief by demanding it.
We each stand from birth on the precipice between life and death. Because we are stained with sin from conception, we are rushing headlong into the fires of hell before we can even walk.
Jesus lays his body across the path; there is no ignoring him. If it’s headlong into hell we want to go, we have to step over Jesus to get there.
Many Christians desire to say yes to the gospel, but one of our biggest problems is mistaking the gospel for law.
Faith Versus Works
Here’s the funny thing about the Old Testament: 85 percent of it is God saying, “I’m going to have to kill all of you if you don’t quit this.” Seriously, 85 percent of it is “I am destroying you” or “I am going to destroy you.” Because of this, there’s a lot of attempted appeasement going on. A lot of scared Israelites need a lot of sacrificial animals. I have no idea how they stocked that many animals. But in all their scurrying around from slaughter to slaughter, God is not just frustrated with their unrepentance, but with their approach to the sacrificial system that they’re trying to leverage. Let me show you what I mean:
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?” (Isa. 1:10–12)
This selection from Isaiah highlights the problem with the sacrificial system, both then and now. God doesn’t need sacrifices. God is saying, “I don’t need your bulls. I don’t want your goats. You’re missing the point. I’m trying to communicate to you how disgusting and how horrible and how costly your sin is before me. And instead of feeling the weight of that and actually repenting, you just keep doing what you’re doing, all the while bringing me goats and bulls like that’s what I really want.” They’re like the wife beater who brings his wife flowers. She doesn’t want his stupid flowers. She wants him to repent; she wants to be honored.
The same thing plays out even to this day. Christ’s work demands the response of faith, but we want to make donations. It is astounding how many evangelicals are not doing Christianity at all; they’re doing the Levitical priesthood. They’re trying to offer God good behavior so he’ll like them.
We continue living with unrepentant, faithless hearts, making religious pit stops along the way, even frequently, to keep laying things on the altar, and in the end, the altar’s closed. When someone dares to insert the unadulterated gospel into this religious mess, we get discombobulated. We get confused. I’m sure the Israelites were confused over prophecies such as that in Isaiah 1. God commands them to come into his temple courts and make these sacrifices, and then he says, “Who has required of you this trampling my courts?”
They’re thinking, “Um, you did. You told us to do this.”
Their heartless obedience—and our heartless obedience—demonstrates the bankruptcy of the sacrificial currency.
I’m a fixer, a type-A personality. I like problem solving. Give me a dry-erase board and some markers and throw the problem out there, and I think, “Let’s go; let’s fix it!” But I learned early on in my marriage that my wife doesn’t really appreciate that. She would be telling me about her day, about some problem or frustration she encountered, and say something like, “And this happened and this happened and this happened,” and my response was typically, “Let me show you what your problem is.”
Husbands, you know this does not go well. I’m a slow learner, but after all these years of marriage, when she tells me something now, I always say, “Are you saying these things because you want me to hear and empathize or are you asking me for help?” I’m so confident in all kinds of areas in my life, but while listening to my wife, all of a sudden, I’m thinking, “Is this a trap?” And I’m realizing something now. I’m realizing that after years of my asking, “Do you want me to empathize or do you want me to help?” I don’t think she’s ever said, “I’m asking for your help.”
The hard-won lesson I’ve learned in marriage, something I’m very grateful for knowing now, is that there are some things in my wife’s heart and some struggles she faces in life that I cannot fix. It doesn’t matter how romantic I am; it doesn’t matter how loving I am; it doesn’t matter how many flowers I send, or if I write her poetry, or if I clean the kitchen, or if I take the kids and let her go have girl time—I am powerless to fix Lauren. (And she’s powerless to fix me.) Doing all those things to minister to her are right and good, but there are things in my girl that I can’t fix, things that are between her and the Lord. Just like there are things in me that she can’t love me enough to overcome.
But the only way I would ever have learned this is to try, try, try—try to fix her, let her try to fix me, and then watch the escalating conflict that takes place when we try to do that.
What if the sacrificial system was given so that we would learn, no matter how much we gave and how much we worked and how many pricey things we sacrificed, that we still can’t fix what is broken?
By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Heb. 9:8–10)
The author of Hebrews is saying that we can sacrifice all we want, and that we can obey all the regulations we can get our hands on, but in the end, if our heart isn’t changed, we’re no better off. Answer me this: Is the alcoholic free if he doesn’t drink on Monday but everything in him wants to and needs to, and he’s in agony because he wants to do something he knows he can’t? Is that freedom? Of course not.
This is what Jesus emphasizes when he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:21–22); and, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (vv. 27–28).
You may be able to control yourself against sleeping with somebody you’re not married to, and you may be able to avoid taking someone’s life, but if you are a slave to lust and anger, you are not any more free than somebody who can’t control his urge to murder.
Acts of sacrifice, in the end, don’t do anything. They do not cleanse your conscience, and they do not set your heart on the things of God. The routine sacrificial system, then, was not empowered to or designed to cleanse the Israelites’ hearts any more than good works are empowered to or designed to cleanse our own. Even our most rigorous of attempts reveals the hardness of our hearts and the insurmountable brokenness inside them. This whole enterprise is a blessed exercise in frustration, but it is one that points beyond itself. Hebrews 10:1 tells us the law is just the shadow of the good things to come.
Similarly, the shadow of good works ought to proceed from the light of the good news. Our endless, bloody religious sacrifices ought to push us to look to the one sacrifice to rule them all. The gospel of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, then, is not an invitation to moralism; it is an invitation to real transformation. Our works don’t work. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” Paul writes in Romans 3:28. The only acceptable response to the gospel is nothing less than a heart of faith.
Clay and Ice, Cuts and Scars
The Puritans had a saying: “The same sun that hardens the clay melts the ice.”
I was converted to belief in Jesus Christ as savior and Lord over a period of time, so I don’t have the testimony of those who say, “I was at a Billy Graham Crusade; I heard the gospel for the first time, and I was all in.” Although my justification was secured in a moment, the process of my understanding and acceptance took place over a year-long time of some guys being patient with me and loving me and walking with me. They invited me to church gatherings and spiritual events, and they even allowed me to mock those things. They just patiently explained them to me more fully. I asked a lot of questions that I now know won’t be answered this side of heaven, but they let me ask them anyway, and they tried to answer. Sometimes they’d give me books to read. Through that whole year, God began to gather kindling around my life.
You start a fire with small pieces of grass and wood, and once that’s caught, you put on bigger sticks, and then you put on bigger sticks, and then you put on even bigger sticks. In those early conversations with my friends Jeff and Jerry and others, God was laying kindling around my heart, and then, three days before my eighteenth birthday, he lit it up. What’s funny is that in that moment I no longer needed all my questions answered. It took me a while to catch, but when I did, that’s when I was all in.
Before that, though, I needed to know how it all worked; I needed to know how everything fit; I needed to know why God would say such-and-such. But when the Holy Spirit opened up my heart to Christ my savior and God my Father and reconciled me to God, I didn’t need those questions answered. Even after my conversion, the residual contention I held out, that some specific complexity has to be solved for this whole thing to be credible, melted away in the light of God’s grace and mercy in my life. In May of that decisive year, I was an aggressive agnostic. In June I was converted and began to share the gospel.
I should explain what I mean when I say I shared the gospel. At that time, I knew that if you don’t love Jesus, you are going to hell, and therefore you shouldn’t drink beer and try to sleep with girls. That was the sum total of my frame of reference; I wasn’t theologically built out. But I had an insatiable thirst for the Word of God, so I studied the Bible constantly. Even so, I knew nothing of deep books, deep thinking, and the deep realities of the good news. I just knew that I loved Jesus, that I wanted other people to love Jesus, and that if you didn’t love Jesus the way I did, you were going to hell. That was my evangelistic strategy, so I told almost everyone I knew about this fantastic news: “This is what has happened to me. This is what God has done. This is what Jesus has done for you!”
In God’s mercy, he covered my naivete and honored my sincerity with the powerful gospel in spite of me, and I actually won people to Christ. I began to see a great deal of openness to the good news among my friends. Several came to know the Lord right after I did and began to follow him, love him, and serve him, and they continue to do so to this day. What I learned in those early days is that the proclamation of the glory of God, the might of God, and the majesty of God brought to bear on the sinfulness of man in the atoning work of Jesus Christ actually stirs the hearts of men. And men respond to that stirring. Some are stirred to belief; some are not.
I remember some friends who were stirred not to belief but to interest. “Explain this to me,” they’d say. “Help me understand this.” But, in the end, those guys were hardened to the gospel, and as time went on, and as they asked more questions, they didn’t become more and more open to Christ but more and more closed to him.
This is what the gospel does. This is why the gospel of Jesus is dangerous. When we hear the gospel word, we are opened up to the Word of God. We’re subjected to God’s Word reading us. We sit underneath it, and for the moment of our hearing, it rules us. It does not save all, but all who hear it are put in their place. This is dangerous, because the proclamation of God’s Word goes only one way or another in the soul of a man, and one of those ways is the hardening of a man toward the grace of God.
This means, for instance, that nobody can really attend church as though it’s a hobby; to do so does not reveal partial belief but hardness. The religious, moralistic, churchgoing evangelical who has no real intention of seeking God and following him has not found some sweet spot between radical devotion and wanton sin; he’s found devastation. The moralism that passes for Christian faith today is a devastating hobby if you have no intention of submitting your life fully to God and chasing him in Christ.
It is an amazing thing, but this one message can reach both those who are near and those who are far (Eph. 2:17) and bring one person near and push another farther away. The same sun that hardens the clay melts the ice.
Jesus gives us some insight into this phenomenon in his parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1–8. The sower does not offer a different seed in all his scattering; he apparently doesn’t even adjust the way he scatters. He has one seed, and evidently he distributes it indiscriminately. He knows every soil needs this one seed to grow what only this one seed produces. The different responses to the seed are contingent upon the receptivity of the soil. The seed finds purchase in soft soil but does not in hard soil.
I think of the way the Word of God, which is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), cuts into the soul of every man and woman. The Word is sharp; there’s no doubting that. But some souls it cuts to the quick, breaking open like freshly tilled soil; others it bruises, leaving marks scarred over. This is not because the sword is not sharp enough, or that God cannot cut to the quick any soul he wants. Our softness or hardness is subject to the good pleasure of God (Rom. 9:18). Nevertheless, the effect is such that the sharp word of the gospel cuts some open, and others it scars, further callousing them against its promise of life. There is no one in between.
Response and Responsibility
A lot of Christians love Isaiah 6, and this is because they stop reading before the story is over. Let me show you what I mean:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim few to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (vv. 1–7)
Evangelicals love this text. It radiates the exaltation of God. It conveys a thrilling bigness. Then you have verse 8, which is a definite coffee-cup verse: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’” We absolutely love Isaiah 6:8. We romanticize it. So when we hear a sermon on missions, and the preacher has moved into leading a “Let’s do something good for the Lord” cheer, we feel the gravitational pull toward Isaiah 6:8: “Here am I! Send me.” It sounds gutsy, masculine. We can hear Braveheart’s guttural yawp in there. “Let’s do it! Let’s take it! Let’s go get ’em!”
We are as zealous about Isaiah 6:8 as we are oblivious of Isaiah 6:9. There is a roadblock waiting for us there: “And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’” Do you see what is happening here? God says, “Here’s your ministry, Isaiah. Go tell them, ‘Keep on hearing but do not hear.’”
Experientially, we know exactly what this means. We have all at some point said the right words to people who simply are not hearing them. The phrase “It’s like talking to a brick wall” is common for a reason. One of my frustrations living in the Bible Belt is that the gospel and its ancillary truths have been so divorced from actual living that a lot of beautiful theology has become cliché. There is a sentimentalization of the faith that occurs when you sanitize the gospel of Christ crucified or sift it from the substance of the Christian religion. The result is a malleable Jesus, a tame Jesus. The result is, as Michael Spencer says, “a spirituality that has Jesus on the cover but not in the book.” When we dilute or ditch the gospel, we end up with an evangelicalism featuring special appearances by Jesus but the denial of his power (2 Tim. 3:5).
I meet a lot of people swimming neck deep in Christian culture who have been inoculated to Jesus Christ. They have just enough of him not to want all of him. When that happens, what you have are people who have been conformed to a pattern of religious behavior but not transformed by the Holy Spirit of God. This explains why we see a lot of people who know objective spiritual truths but in the end have failed to apply them in such a way that their lives demonstrate real change. They’re hearing, but they’re not hearing.
A really vivid way we see this occur at The Village is in response to what the staff jokingly calls my “State of the Union” addresses, in which I say to the congregation, “Hey, quit coming here. If you’re not serious, if you don’t want to plug in, if you don’t want to do life here, if you don’t want to belong, if you’re an ecclesiological buffet kind of guy, eat somewhere else.” And then people who are doing all of those things will sit there in the crowd and say, “Yeah! Get ’em. It’s about time someone said this.” I’m thinking, “I’m talking to you! You’re who I’m talking to.” It makes me want to pull my hair out. They hear the words coming out of my mouth, but they’re not listening.
God commands Isaiah, “Tell them to keep on seeing, but not to perceive.”
Have you ever come across someone who absolutely knows his life is a mess but cannot put the dots together to see that he’s a part of the issue? If you run into someone with a victim’s mentality, someone who is constantly leaving carnage in her wake, someone who has a new group of friends every twelve to fifteen months, someone who has story after story after story about how this person betrayed him and another person did him wrong, but he has no ability to see or comprehend that he is the common denominator, you’ve run into someone who can see but can’t perceive. Such people know their life is a mess, but they can’t figure out, “Hmm, I seem to be the major malfunction here.” As it relates to spiritual matters, this seems to apply to all mankind.
God continues in Isaiah 6:10:
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.
Now, nobody wants this ministry. Can you imagine this want ad?
“Now hiring: Pastor. Must make hearts dull. Those seeking fruitful ministry need not apply.”
For all the ambition that I’ve seen in young preachers, not a single one of them has said, “I want to be faithful to the Word of God and have no one respond to it.” So Isaiah does what any of us would do, and he asks about it:
“How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. (vv. 11–13)
God’s response to Isaiah is simply this: “I’m going to gather the remnant. I’m going to gather the genuine believers. I’m going to work this thing over until all that is left are those who really love me, trust me, and seek me.” Isaiah, then, is not called to be fruitful but simply to be faithful. And, in fact, he’s told he will not be fruitful. The priority God charges him with is not success but integrity. He is sent to proclaim a word to people who in the end can see but not perceive, who can hear but can’t hear.
Let us allow the implications of this for Christian ministry settle into our minds. Let’s steep in this text; let’s wrestle with it. Let all of us Christians do this, but we in church leadership especially need to come to terms with what exactly happened there in the temple.
God’s commissioning of Isaiah is a torpedo into the way ministry is appraised in the church today. God is saying, “Isaiah, you’re going to proclaim faithfully, but they’re going to reject continually. And I’m at work in that.” Now, if Isaiah was a minister within today’s evangelicalism, he’d be considered an utter failure. Jeremiah would be an utter failure. Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. John the Baptist didn’t get to see the ministry of Jesus. On and on we could go. We would not view the ministry of these men as successful.
One of the things we don’t preach well is that ministry that looks fruitless is constantly happening in the Scriptures. We don’t do conferences on that. There aren’t too many books written about how you can toil away all your life and be unbelievably faithful to God and see little fruit this side of heaven. And yet God sees things differently. We always have to be a little bit wary of the idea that numeric growth and enthusiastic response are always signs of success. The Bible isn’t going to support that. Faithfulness is success; obedience is success.
What we learn about God’s call to Isaiah provides a strange sense of freedom. A hearer’s response is not our responsibility; our responsibility is to be faithful to God’s call and the message of the gospel. No, a hearer’s response is his or her responsibility. But one of the mistakes we can make in our focusing on individual response in the gospel on the ground is to lose sight of God’s sovereign working behind our words and actions and our hearer’s response. Receptivity and rejection are ultimately dependent upon God’s will, not ours. Paul reminds us, “[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:15–16). From the ground, we say what we choose to say and hear what we choose to hear. From the air, our saying is clearly empowered—“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3)—and our hearing is clearly God-contingent—“having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Eph. 1:18).
You can find a whole bunch of verses about God’s moving and gathering large groups of people, which means if there’s numeric growth and much enthusiasm, we can’t say that it’s not a work of God or that God isn’t moving. I’m just saying that I guarantee you there’s some old dude in some town that most of us have never heard of faithfully preaching to nine people every week, and when we get to glory, we’ll be awed at his house. We’ll be awed at the reward God has for him. In the end, we have this idea being uncovered in Isaiah that God hardens hearts, that people hear the gospel successfully proclaimed and end up not loving God but hardened toward the things of God.
I know some people think, “Well that’s Old Testament, and God was really angry then. But Jesus is a lot nicer than God.” (Should we set aside the fact that Jesus is God?) But God’s sovereignty over the hardened response of hearers is well laid out in the New Testament too. Let’s return to the parable of the sower. In Matthew 13 Jesus tells us about the guy who casts the seeds. Some seeds land on the path, some land among the thorns, some land on shallow ground, and some land on good soil. After Jesus tells the parable, his disciples approach him confused because nobody can understand it. They ask him, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell these stories? Nobody knows what you’re talking about.” Here is Jesus’s response: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt. 13:11).
Now if we just stopped there and stared at this verse, we could find real joy for a long time. Right now, there are millions and millions of people who have no idea about the kingdom of heaven. But not you. You know the secret. They have no idea about the kingdom, no idea about God’s grace, no idea of God’s mercy. But not you. You know. You get to worship him, you get to walk with him, and you get to hear from him. Jesus tells his disciples, “It hasn’t been given to them. It has been given to you.” And he continues:
For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:12–17)
So on both sides of the covenant—old and new—we see that God is in control. His sovereignty is not diminished or thwarted. The hearer of the gospel is responsible for his response, but God is responsible for his ability to do so. The preacher of the gospel is responsible for his proclamation, but God is responsible for the transforming power.
The gospel message goes out, and while some hearers respond with faith in Christ, some people simply can’t hear.
The Unadjusted Gospel Is the Empowered Gospel
It is all of grace that some do hear. At the close of chapter 3 we asked, “What will we do with Christ’s substitutionary work?” The answer is, “Whatever the Spirit allows us to.” Blessed are the eyes that see and the ears that hear because the Spirit of God has opened them to do so. The power in the gospel is not the dynamic presentation of the preacher or the winsomeness of the witness, although the Spirit does empower and use those things too. The power in the gospel is the Spirit’s applying the saving work of Jesus Christ to the heart of a hearer. Charles Spurgeon puts it this way:
“You cannot induce them to come; you cannot force them to come by all your thunders, nor can you entice them to come by all your invitations. They will not come unto Christ, that they may have life. Until the Spirit draw them, come they neither will, nor can.”
In Acts 2 we find the first post-ascension sermon of the Christian church. The apostle Peter addresses the crowd that has witnessed the response of many to the outpouring of the Spirit:
Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of
the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:14–21)
Peter begins the very first Christian sermon with the majesty of God. If there is prophecy, if there is utterance, if there is the miraculous, if there is power, if the sun is darkened, if there is vapor, if there is blood and fire, where does it all start? With God.
God prophesied; God said this would happen, and he brought it about. Peter is basically saying, “All that you understand about the prophets, all that you understand about the miraculous works of God, and all that you understand about how God moves is wrapped up in the Godhead, who saves all who call on him.” Look what he says next:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (vv. 22–36)
So we have this incredible sermon exulting in the majesty of God, tying God’s work in the incarnation of Jesus Christ back to the promises of the Old Testament, specifically to David’s promise of an eternal king. But the refrain echoing in this text is, “You crucified him, you killed him, you did this.”
This is not a seeker-sensitive sermon. Peter does not shrink back, fearing, “Oh man, this is going to be offensive.” He is not thinking, “How can I make this sound cool to the young Jerusalemites that are here? How can I soften this?” He knows that if he tells them they killed Jesus, they’re going to get really angry. But he says anyway, “You killed Jesus.” Then he says it again. “Oh yeah, this majesty? You killed it.”
We are never, ever, ever going to make Christianity so cool that everybody wants it. That is a fool’s errand. It is chasing the wind. We can’t repaint the faith. It doesn’t need our help anyway.
Every effort to remake the Christian faith leads to wickedness. Every effort to adjust the gospel so it appears more appealing, more palatable, is foolishness. This is liberal theology’s only play in the playbook. “Let’s get rid of the atoning work of Jesus Christ because it’s harsh. Let’s get rid of hell because it’s offensive. Let’s save Christianity by changing Christianity.” But in the urban context of Acts 2, with people all over the ancient world gathered in Jerusalem, Peter announces, “You killed him. This majestic one true God of the universe—you crucified him.” And what happens?
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (vv. 37–41)
All they did was preach the gospel, and men were cut to the core. They wanted to know, “What do we do in response to this news?” Peter tells them, “You repent and get baptized.”
What saved them? Their faith. No action brought about their salvation. They hadn’t fed any poor people. Apart from what Peter is saying here, they hadn’t been sitting under teaching or going to church each week. They hadn’t, in the end, done anything but heard, “God is majestic, and you have sinned, but in Christ you can be reconciled to him,” and they were so cut to the heart that they responded with saving faith.
Acts 2 takes us back to the truth that we simply have to tell. God does the opening of hearts. God opens minds. There is such freedom in this! Do you see how that takes weight off the perfection of our presentation? We don’t have to be able to explain it absolutely or completely or be able to apologetically defend creationism or argue the falsity of materialism or whatever. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue those things. I’m saying that in the end it is God who opens up eyes and ears. Our responsibility is to tell them. It is as simple as that.
Some people won’t like hearing it. What else is new? This has been true as far back as Genesis. It has always been true that some people do not want to hear this message. But some are going to hear it and be saved. So, relational evangelism? Go for it, as long as it turns into actual evangelism. You hanging out having a beer with your buddy so he can see that Christians are cool is not what we’re called to do. You’re eventually going to have to open up your mouth and share the gospel. When the pure gospel is shared, people respond.
The spiritual power in the gospel is denied when we augment or adjust the gospel into no gospel at all. When we doubt the message alone is the power of God for salvation, we start adding or subtracting, trusting our own powers of persuasion or presentation. We end up agreeing with God that preaching is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21) but disagree that it is required anyway. This is a colossal fail. Only the unadjusted gospel is the empowered gospel. And this message of the finished work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and the securing of eternal life is carried by the Spirit like a smart bomb into the hearts of those the Spirit has given eyes to see and ears to hear.
Response to the Gospel Is Not the Gospel
One crucial thing that viewing the gospel on the ground helps us do is distinguish between the gospel’s content and the gospel’s implications. One danger of viewing the gospel in the air is the conflating of the good news with its entailments. As we rightly see the gospel as encompassing God’s work, through the culmination of Christ, of restoring all things, we can be tempted to see our good works, whether preaching Scripture or serving meals at a homeless shelter, as God’s good news. This is a temptation that honing in on the ground gospel can help us identify and mark out. We need to rightly divide between gospel and response, or we compromise both. D. A. Carson writes:
“The kingdom of God advances by the power of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word. Not for a moment does that mitigate the importance of good deeds and understanding the social entailments of the gospel, but they are entailments of the gospel. It is the gospel that is preached.”
We can exercise this delineation by continuing in Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
All the things that prompt people to mistakenly say, “This is the gospel,” can be found in this passage. What we actually see in Acts 2:42–47 is the beautiful fallout of the proclamation that precedes it. This list tells us the hearers’ response to the gospel. Why did they start living in community? Because the gospel had made them a people. Why did they begin to share their goods with one another? Because the gospel had made them a people. Why are they now on mission? Because the gospel had made them a people. Why are they seeing signs and wonders? Because the gospel had made them a people. All of these workings are outworkings of the gospel.
If we piggyback the work of the church onto the message of the gospel, we don’t enhance the gospel. It is just fine without us; it doesn’t need us. Furthermore, doing that results in preaching the church rather than preaching Christ. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves,” Paul writes, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
Believing the news that God is holy, that you are a sinner, and that Christ has reconciled you to God by his life, death, and resurrection is what justifies you. This is our foundation, our root. The things that we read in Acts 2:42–47 are the fruit. They show the building of the home, but they are not the foundation.
If we confuse the gospel with response to the gospel, we will drift from what keeps the gospel on the ground, what makes it clear and personal, and the next thing you know, we will be doing a bunch of different things that actually obscure the gospel, not reveal it. At the end of the day, our hope is not that all the poor on earth will be fed. That’s simply not going to happen. I’m not saying we shouldn’t feed and rescue the poor; I’m saying that salvation isn’t having a full belly or a college education or whatever. Making people comfortable on earth before an eternity in hell is wasteful.
The Response of Faith
Everybody comes out of the womb in rebellion. David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). David doesn’t even get himself out of the birth canal before he thinks, “Sinner!” What are we like apart from Christ? What is our default position from conception? Ephesians 2:1–3 says that we’re: (1) dead; (2) world followers; (3) devil worshipers; (4) appetite driven; and (5) children of wrath.
I am not sure it is possible to be worse than this. But the good news is that upon the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God raises, rescues, ransoms, reforms, and reconciles. God saves sinners. Does he save all? No, but he saves.
People are going to respond to the gospel every time it is presented. They’re going to respond in belief, or their heart is going to become more and more hardened toward God. But no heart can ever be too hard for God. Some hearts will grow harder and harder each day until the day God’s mercy blows them up like dynamite. We have seen tons of people at The Village who sat here for years just hearing but not hearing, seeing but not perceiving, and then all of a sudden, at some random worship service or Bible study, the Lord just hijacked them, the way that Paul was apprehended (Phil. 3:12). In that moment of rebirth, all those steps toward hardening get evaporated in fire from heaven.
The gospel is news, not advice or instruction, but it nevertheless demands response. So, if we look at our lives today, a question I think we have to ask ourselves is this: “How am I responding to the good news of Jesus Christ? Am I stirred up toward obedience, or is Jesus becoming cliché to me? Am I becoming inoculated to Jesus, or do I find myself being more and more stirred up to worship him, to let other people know him, to submit my life fully to him?” We have to ask these questions, because everybody responds to the gospel. We must test ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), because it is faith by which salvation comes. Faith is the only saving response to the gospel.
Every good gift the Father gives—every richness from Christ, every blessing from the Spirit—flows from the gospel and is received through faith.
• We receive righteousness through faith (Rom. 3:22).
• We are justified through faith (Rom. 3:30; Gal. 2:16).
• We stand fast through faith (Rom. 11:20).
• We are sons of God through faith (Gal. 3:26).
• We are indwelled by Christ through faith (Eph. 3:17).
• We are raised with Christ through faith (Col. 2:12).
• We inherit the promises through faith (Heb. 6:12).
• We conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, and stop the mouths of lions through faith (Heb. 11:33).
• We are guarded through faith (1 Pet. 1:5).
We live through faith, and we die through faith. Everything else is garbage. Even works of righteousness, if not done through faith, are works of self-righteousness and therefore filthy rags. Be very careful about going to church, reading your Bible, saying prayers, doing good deeds, and reading books like this through anything but faith in the living Lord. Because the result of all that is belief in a phony Jesus and inoculation to the gospel. You can end up knowing the jargon and playing pretend. Be very careful. Watch your life and your doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16). Some of you are so good that you’ve deceived yourselves. God help you.
On the ground, the gospel comes to us as individuals, as the crowns of God’s creation, as people made in his image, and puts before us the prospect of joining the forefront of his restoring of the cosmos. It says something personal about us: “We are rebels.” It says something specific about this rebellion: “Christ has made atonement.” It holds out a promise requiring individual response: “If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
The gospel on the ground, then, reveals the integral narrative we can outline this way: God, sin, Christ, response. But this is not the only gospel narrative in the Author’s revelation.
Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of The Village Church, a multicampus church of more than 10,000 people in the Dallas metroplex. His sermons are among the chart-topping podcasts on iTunes, and he speaks at conferences worldwide. He was featured as The Outreach Interview in the 2010 Outreach 100 special issue.
This excerpt is taken from The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler. Copyright © 2012. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Ill.
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