By Gerald Cowan
I’ve often been confronted, perhaps you have too, by apparently serious persons – professed Christians as well as agnostics, atheists, and anti-religionists – who say, “Just preach the gospel – nothing else, not politics or culture or tradition or church doctrine but only the gospel of Christ.” It may be persuasive in any and all religions, but it will probably be disregarded in certain cultural and political systems today. There are in fact some theocratic systems where religion and politics are one and the same (theocracy does not apply exclusively to the Judeo-Christian religions). Islam is theocratic. Several of the current “isms” (including both Catholicism and Protestantism) would impose theocracy if they could do it successfully by making their version of the law of God also the law of the land and of the world.
A mantra often heard even in the churches of Christ is: “Just preach the gospel, nothing else.” The trouble with that concept is that those promoting it are almost invariably ignorant of what the gospel really is. Self-identified evangelical churches constitute a separate category within Protestantism, so-called because they view themselves as promoting and living by the evangel—EUANGELION (the Good News) of God in an intensely personal relationship with God. We also speak of evangelism – teaching and preaching the good news gospel as our mission from God (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16). We try to convince people how important – how absolutely essential – it is that they “obey the gospel.” Yet the evangelists are hard put to define the gospel or to make intelligent sense of how one is to “obey the gospel.”
Gospel is sometimes used as a euphemism for truth – “that’s the gospel” we say, meaning “that is the truth.’ All of God’s word is truth (John 17:17); all of God’s word is gospel. Obey the gospel means obey God’s words, God’s commands, God’s truth. The definition of gospel is often lifted from 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 in which apostle Paul reminds his readers of salient points of the gospel concerning Jesus Christ which he had preached to them – such an important truth that they had been and were saved by it if they had believed it and were faithful in living by it. He does not mention here the birth and life or personal ministry of Jesus but starts with the crucifixion and sacrificial death of Jesus, followed by burial as befitting the really dead person, then the resurrection of Jesus — all as predicted and certified in the scripture. He then emphasizes the revitalization of the ministry of Jesus (notice that he does not make direct mention of the ascension to heaven of Jesus here, though he does often elsewhere). So the definition of gospel is held by some to be a three part proclamation: “The gospel of God or of Christ is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.” Preaching the gospel then is a matter of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus – anything other than that is superfluous and talking about it is irrelevant. Preachers are often reminded that a sermon that does not mention the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is not a “gospel sermon.” I have been told, mostly in this country, that if one does not mention the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and accompany it with an invitation to “obey the gospel” he is not a “gospel preacher.” I find such a concept both troubling and insulting, no matter how sincere the one who expresses it may be.
Just what is “the gospel?” When Paul talks about his gospel (Romans 2:16), the mystery and promises in the gospel he preached (Ephesians 3:6, 6;19), does he mean to limit it to the 41 words of 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 4? What about the rest of Paul’s writings? Surely we are not to assume that his comment upon this three-part death-burial-resurrection of Jesus can rightly be called his only “gospel sermon.” He claimed that all the things he wrote, as well as all sermons he preached were the words and commandments of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:37). That would apply to everything in his thirteen epistles (Hebrews was almost certainly not written by Paul, though he would certainly agree to everything said in it) – all he wrote and preached were part of his gospel and all his commandments (since they are from the Lord) are to be obeyed. His writings have a multitude of commands to be obeyed and principles to be applied, otherwise any attempt at salvation will be vitiated. He does not say or imply that if one obeys the death-burial-resurrection gospel he will be saved and preserved by God. By the way, a rather urgent and insistent question keeps coming to mind: How does one obey the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus? How can you obey the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus? The so-called evangelical in the Protestant reformation has no answer. Do we in the church of Christ have an answer? Do you?
Before I point to the fatal flaw in the answers usually given without ratiocination, without the application of reason and logic, obey is a meaningless word when standing alone. Obey necessarily implies a preceding command. One cannot obey a command not given or implied. Obey is not like such common imperatives (commands) as sing, pray, laugh, eat, smile, listen, etc. Obey? Obey what? Do it? Do what? Now, what command is included or implied in death, burial, and resurrection of Christ? None. You are not told what to do or how to do it. This does not bother the “salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone” advocates. They like to claim Jesus paid it all, did it all and nothing can be added to what he did, what he has provided for us by his death, burial, and resurrection – they claim it would be sacrilegious to suggest we should do or even think we ought to do anything.” No works of ours can be in salvation (Ephesians 2:5, 8-9). Again: Jesus did it all; there is nothing we or anyone else must do or can do for one’s own salvation. That doctrine is comforting and reassuring to many – perhaps to you too – but it is a lie and any rational thinking person knows it. Let me explain it to you. There’s much emphasis on knowing, believing (having faith), accepting and trusting in the Lord and what He has done to save you. Some are willing to include confessing and repenting of sin, asking the Lord to “come into your heart,” and being baptized. Salvation cannot be received without these (the list varies widely but these and other such things are the way of salvation. Do you not understand that believe, trust, accept, ask, invite, confess, repent, and receive are all verbs indicating something one must do – acts or works one must do to obey the one who commands or requires them? Being baptized is strongly resisted as a “work,” but it is passive, something done to or for you and not done by you. Why is that an important principle? Because there are a number of things done to you or for you to accomplish your salvation. Example: you did not die – but Christ died for you. Some taught you what to believe and what to do, but nobody believed for you. Someone obeyed Christ by baptizing you. Some things are required and commanded which others cannot do for you – even God or Christ cannot do them for you: believing, repenting, confessing, trusting, asking, accepting, etc must be done by you for yourself. None of these things are adding to the work of Christ. He made the sacrifice you cannot make, paid the debt you cannot pay – but he cannot do your part in accepting, obeying and receiving it.
So, how does one obey the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ? We in the church of Christ like to claim that Romans 6:1-5 is the answer. There the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus become a metaphor which we duplicate in symbolic death, burial, and resurrection. By repentance and confession of our sins we die (with him). By baptism (immersion – other so-called forms or methods of baptism are invalid and incorrect by definition) we are buried (with him and into him). By emerging from the immersion we are resurrected (with him and placed into a new life with him and in him). That is our explanation of type/antitype, duplicating a metaphor. Where does God explain or command this symbolism? How can we call this obeying the gospel since there is no command – except perhaps by implication and inference which we have worked out for ourselves.
We have not yet determined what the gospel is. It was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:8). Was the death, burial and resurrection of the Christ contained in it then? Jesus sent his apostles into the world to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). What gospel were they to preach? Matthew 28:18-20 says it was “everything that I (Christ) have commanded.” Jesus himself was a preacher of the gospel (Luke 4:18-21). How much of his preaching was about his death, burial, and resurrection? Jesus said man lives not by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). All scripture inspired by God must qualify as words of God which are profitable and useful for the student of God’s word of truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). All of God’s words endure forever and are preached in the gospel (1 Peter 1:25). Even the words of the Old Testament; everything written before the time of Christ is useful for informing and guiding the people of God under the New Testament (Romans 15:4). The authors of those scriptures remind us constantly that they are the words of God, words that God himself put into their hearts, minds, mouths, and hands. In the word we mentioned before, EUANGELION, the literal meaning is good news/message, every word in the message of God. Ninety nine times in the Bible (NASB) the word gospel appears and never once is it limited to the death burial and resurrection of Christ, although it does include that and much more. We, like Paul, are to be preachers of the gospel – woe to us if what we preach is not the gospel of God (1 Corinthians 1:17, 9:16-18), nothing but the gospel message taught to him by Christ (Galatians 1:6-12) and, as he said of himself, zealous and careful to leave nothing out but to preach accurately and completely the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Do you want to please God? Do you want preachers to please God? Then we must preach as the needed truth of God every word in this book we call the Bible. Not culture or traditions. Not creeds or church dogmas. Not copied or amended sermons from “great preachers.” Preach the full gospel, the whole gospel, being careful to divide it rightly and apply it properly (2 Timothy 2:15).
- Gerald Cowan, a longtime preacher and missionary, is retired from full-time pulpit preaching. Gerald publishes an e-mail newsletter entitled GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICAL WRITINGS. He is available for Gospel Meetings and he may be contacted at Geraldcowan1931@aol.com