Issues, Etc. Journal - March, 1996 - Vol. 1 No. 5
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the essence of Christianity, yet many Christians are unable to define the Gospel.
by Don Matzat
The rise of Evangelicalism has undermined many of the great truths of the Reformation.
A return to Reformation theology is a return to biblical truth.
by Don Matzat
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
Introduction by Don Matzat:
What is the essence of Christian faith? Should we focus upon the Ten Commandments and make morality our major concern? What about "Biblical Principles for Living?" Do such principles define for us the identity of a Christian? What is the essence of Christianity?
I am quite sure that many of you would respond to the question by saying, "The essence of Christianity is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ." If you would have answered the question in that way, congratulations. You are right! But now comes the hard events in which Jesus participated, or "the Four Gospels." What is the Gospel?
There is no more compelling question for Evangelical Christians today than the question: What is the Gospel? The obsessive interest with social and political issues, the focus upon feelings and experience, and the desire to be sensitive to the needs of seekers has caused major confusion over the content of the message of the Gospel.
In this edition of the Issues, Etc. Journal, we seek to clearly define the Gospel of Jesus Christ and present it as the only power behind the life and function of the Church. I hope you find the teaching to be helpful.
by Don Matzat
I am not Ashamed of the Gospel!
It is the Power of God unto Salvation!
(Romans 1: 16)
The meaning and significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was revealed to the Apostles and Prophets by the Holy Spirit. This revelation of the Spirit became the substance of the Christian proclamation and is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the essence of Christianity. St. Paul writes, "We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1: 23-24). In describing this proclamation, Paul writes, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. " (Romans 1: 16)
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mystery. We are not able to beneficially grasp by faith the blessings offered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through our natural reason and intelligence. The Gospel is not human wisdom. It is divine wisdom. The Apostle Paul describes God's plan for reaching out to sinful mankind as "secret wisdom" which can only be revealed by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2: 7-10) In fact, according to natural human reason, the wisdom of God revealed in the Gospel is foolishness.
Only as the Holy Spirit enlightens our mind will we understand what God has accomplished for us in Christ Jesus.
Ignorance of the Gospel
Even though this message of the Gospel is the essence of Christianity and is revealed in the Bible, many Christians do not have a clear understanding of the Gospel.
In one of the congregations where I was the pastor, I was accused by a group of people, some of whom were "leading members" of the congregation, of "not preaching the Gospel." While they were certain that "preaching the Gospel" was a very important ingredient in the Sunday morning service, which was to their credit, somehow they were confused as to what the Gospel actually was. They felt that I was not preaching it. This greatly concerned me. I knew that I preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday. They called for a special meeting of the congregation to consider their concern.
After much discussion it became clear that my critics were confused over the definition of the word "Gospel." What they meant was that I was not preaching "from the Gospels." In our Lutheran Churches we follow the appointed Scripture lessons for the year. There are three Bible lessons every Sunday, one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles and a third from one of the four Gospels. That particular year I had determined to preach from the appointed Epistle lessons, rather than from the Old Testament or Gospel lessons. I announced this in the beginning of the Advent season. According to their understanding, I was not "preaching the Gospel" because I was not preaching "from the Gospels."
They did not understand the meaning of a word which they had heard over and over again. They did not realize that there was a difference between the "Four Gospels," which refer to the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the message of the "Gospel," which offers the promise of forgiveness of sins, life and eternal salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though I was using texts from the Epistles as the basis for my Sunday sermon, I was still preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This example of confusion is not an isolated incident. In my own denomination, for example, a survey was conducted some years ago. One of the questions asked was, "What is the main emphasis of the Gospel?" Fifty-nine percent of those questioned stated that I they believed that the main emphasis of the Gospel was upon God's rules for right living.
The Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with "rules for right living." It is a message of God's grace in Christ Jesus. It is not a directive to live a good life but is a promise from God that offers the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
The essence of Christianity is the Gospel. While the Bible speaks about many diverse subjects and provides facts of history, religious rules and regulations, the life changing heart and core of the Bible is the Cross of Jesus Christ. We read and study the Bible in order to learn about Jesus and hear the good news of what he has done for us.
Since the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the essence of Christianity, failure to understand the Gospel results in great confusion over the nature and teachings of Christianity. As a Christian pastor for over 28 years I have had countless opportunities to speak with people about the Christian faith. I have often been amazed by their gross misconceptions. It is rare treat to find a person who truly understands what it means to be Christian.
For example, at the request of some members of my congregation, I conducted a funeral for a family with whom I was not acquainted. I sat down with the niece of the deceased, who claimed to be a Christian, in order to get some information.
"Was your uncle a Christian" I gently inquired. "Of course he was," she firmly responded. "He was a very good man. He lived a good life. Everybody liked him."
Without seeming to appear too pushy, I continued the questioning. "Well, that's great," I responded. "It is nice to know that he was such a good man, but was he a Christian?"
"He seldom went to church, if that's what you mean," she responded, becoming a little disturbed. "I think he had a Bible, but I don't know if he ever read it."
"Being a Christian," I began to explain, "is more than going to church or owning a Bible. Christians believe that their sins are forgiven and that they have eternal life because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Did your uncle believe in Jesus?"
"Oh she quipped, obviously embarrassed. "I don't know anything about that!
This confusion is widespread, If you don't believe me, try asking some of the people with whom you work or daily interact what it means to be a Christian. See what kind of answers you get. You might be very surprised, While of course a very few would correctly define Christianity by the Gospel, others would focus on the Ten Commandments, or appeal to church membership and involvement, Sill others would identify a Christian by love, or "the golden rule," or involvement in religious rites or traditions, I knew one man who identified a Christian as someone who was not a Jew. Even though we claim to be a Christian nation, only a very small percentage of alleged "Christian" people know what it means to be a Christian.
At a recent convention of the Christian Book-Sellers Association one of the major Evangelical gatherings, a poll was taken by the Christians United For Reformation organization. Participants in the convention, who were not merely disinterested observers but were those behind the booths offering the merchandise, were asked, "What is the Gospel?" The responses were taped.
The results were both amazing and frightening. The answers defined the Gospel primarily as an experience, or a message promoting morality. Few identified the gospel as a message of God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
The same ignorance does not exist among people who embrace other world religions, such as Islam or Hinduism, because it is not difficult to understand or explain a religion which is based upon laws, rules or religious rituals. Relating to God by way of rules, regulations, and rituals fits our natural way of thinking. It is easily understood.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, we visited Egypt. Our guide in Egypt was a Muslim. One of the members of our group asked him what Muslims believed, He clearly, precisely, and in an orderly fashion, explained the principles of Islam. His explanation was very easy to understand. Muslims believe that there is one god, and Mohammed is his prophet. They pray. They fast. They give to the poor. And they take a trip to the city of Mecca. Basically, that's what it means to be a Muslim.
While a religion of rules, regulations and rituals it is very logical, it is not logical that the grace and forgiveness of God is given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Gospel is supernatural truth. Without the Holy Spirit opening our eyes, the Gospel can not be beneficially grasped, and if the Gospel is not grasped, our lives will not be affected.
Why do so many Christians seek secular solutions to their problems? The answer is simple. They have not grasped the life-affecting truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Focusing on the Gospel
If the Gospel of Jesus Christ were the only possession of the Christian Church, it would no be difficult to identify Christianity by the Gospel. but this is not the case. Focusing upon human behavior, family concerns, social issues, good works, and missionary endeavors are also a part of the teachings of Christianity drawn from the Bible. It is therefore not strange that people say, "I am going to heaven because I have obeyed the Ten Commandments." It is not strange that some have seen Christianity and psychology as being compatible. After all, do they not both deal with human behavior?
In addition, over the yeas we have added to the Gospel much paraphernalia in the way of our own traditions, Church rules and regulations, spiritual experiences, gimmicks and worship rituals so that the message of the gospel always seems to get lost in the shuffle. For this reason, the Christian Church has been continually discovering and rediscovering the Gospel for the past two thousand years. With all the confusion today over the integration of psychology and theology, with the intrusion into the church of Recovery Programs and support groups, with emphasis upon Church Growth, Signs and Wonders, and the Promise Keepers, never has there been a time more ripe for the rediscovery of the powerful, life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Isolating the Gospel
In order to understand the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be good for us to go back to the very beginning, to the first century of the Christian era, and try to put ourselves into the place of those who heard "the strange message" for the first time. If we do this, we will soon recognize that the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the heart and core of Christianity.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles preached about the meaning of his death and resurrection. The Apostle Paul took the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit worked through his words and thousands were converted to Christianity. They believed in Jesus. Their sins were forgiven. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Church rapidly grew.
There were no traditions, rules, rituals and practices among the First Century Gentile Christians to overshadow the message of the Gospel. While the Jewish converts still had to deal with their traditions and rituals, such as circumcision which often got in the way of the Gospel, the Gentiles heard a message "with no strings attached." Those who believed in Jesus Christ did so as the sole result of the miracle of the Holy Spirit opening their eyes and producing faith.
If you put yourself into the place of a first century Gentile who is confronted for the first time with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you will better understand what is meant by the "miracle of enlightenment and faith."
"I Believe IT!"
One morning you decide to go to town to do some shopping. When you arrive at the town square, you see a commotion taking place. A man is standing in the midst of the square, proclaiming some message to about 30 or 40 people who seem quite interested. Out of curiosity, you draw closer to the group...
"...and God determined that this Jesus of Nazareth should be put to death by the Romans," the speaker proclaims. "God put all of your sins upon him. He suffered the penalty for the things that you have done wrong. On the third day after his death, God raised him from the dead. Believing in him, you have the forgiveness of all of your sins and eternal life with God."
You had never heard this strange teaching before, but as the man continues to preach and explain this message about Jesus of Nazareth, a very mysterious thing happens to you. You begin to believe the message! Your eyes are opened. You clearly understand what the man is talking about. While you have "spiritual needs" and perhaps are plagued by a sense of guilt which is not removed by appeasing your pagan gods, you have no reason whatsoever to believe that this message is true. Something inside of you is telling you that what he is saying is true and that the message is for you. Your eyes have been opened!
You actually understand the message and believe it! You believe that Jesus died for your sins. You claim the forgiveness of your sins. You believe that you have eternal life. You believe it! Joy begins to well up within your heart. You know that your God loves you.
But the problem is, not everyone believes it. Some scoff and laugh at the speaker. But there are other, like yourself, who believe the message.
After the speaker finishes and the crowd begins to disburse, there is a small group of you who remain. You gather closely around the speaker. "What is next?" you ask him. "What are we supposed to do now?"
The speaker explains to you about being baptized and forming a church fellowship. So you, together with your fellow converts are baptized and make plans to regularly gather, break bread together, and share your new found relationship with Jesus Christ.
"You Believe What?"
Can you imagine the response of your friends and relatives to your announcement that you have embraced a new "religion." After trying to explain the basics of your new found faith to your husband or wife, the response might possibly be something like this:
"Now explain that to me again," your spouse asks. "You're telling me that you believe that a Jewish Rabbi by the name of Jesus was executed by the Romans and was raised from the dead. Because of his death and resurrection, you believe that your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life. This is why you have such joy, peace and contentment?"
But while you are living in the midst of many scoffers and unbelievers, even within your own family, your faith remains strong. You regularly gather together with your fellow Christians and talk about Jesus and share his Supper. You long to hear that Gospel message over and over again because through it, your life was changed. Jesus is your Lord! He is your Savior! Through the Gospel, your eyes were opened and you believed.
You Receive a Letter...
One day, your little fellowship receives a letter from the man who first came to your town and preached the Gospel. He is explaining to you in greater detail the teachings about Jesus Christ, addressing some of the problems that may arise in your fellowship, and encouraging you to stand firm in your faith. This letter becomes very precious because it produces in your heart the same results that were produced when you heard the Gospel for the first time. The letter is faith productive. Again, your heart is touched.
You make hand-written copies of your letter, and pass them on to other fellowships in nearby towns and cities. You also receive the benefit of reading the letters that were written to them. The letters are saved and read over and over again. They are precious because they produce results in the hearts of people. The leaders in your fellowship use the content of these letters as the basis for their teaching and preaching.
Now then, in conclusion, how would you answer these questions: first, what is the essence of Christianity, and secondly, how does God work to produce faith and change lives?
The answers are obvious. The essence of Christianity is in the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through that message, God works to create faith and to change lives. Because you heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for some mysterious reason, your heart was warmed, your eyes were opened, ...and you believed it!! As a result, you would never be the same.
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