Marks of a Healthy Church: A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark Three: A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
by William Klock
Mark Three: A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
We live in a world where news is important. We know the power the press has to influence what and how we think about this person or that issue. And when we get the news wrong, if we mix it up, it potentially has disastrous results. We can see what happens in a light-hearted way from what’s become on of the most famous news mix-ups in history. A newspaper was printing two stories: one about a new pig-slaughtering and sausage making machine and another about a local clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Mudge, who was receiving special honours. The paper’s typesetter had a little problem that day and this is what was printed:
“Several of Rev. Dr. Mudge’s friends called upon him yesterday, and after a conversation the unsuspecting pig was seized by the hind leg, and slid along a beam until he reached the hot-water tank…. Thereupon he came forward and said that there were times when the feelings overpowered one, and for that reason he would not attempt to do more than thank those around him for the manner in which such a huge animal was cut into fragments was simply astonishing. The doctor concluded his remarks, when the machine seized him and, in less time than it takes to write it, the pig was cut into fragments and worked into a delicious sausage. The occasion will be long remembered by the doctor’s friends as one of the most delightful of their lives. The best pieces can be procured for tenpence a pound, and we are sure those who have sat so long under his ministry will rejoice that he has been treated so handsomely.”
Oops! So they mixed up the news when it came to a couple of stories about a clergyman and a sausage-making machine. In the overall scheme of things, the confusion wasn’t that big of a deal. But, Friends, consider that Christianity is all about news. It’s the Good News—the best news the world has ever heard. And yet that news, sometimes it seems more often than not, gets scrambled just like the stories about Dr. Mudge and the pig. The Good News of the gospel gets confused. It gets made into a very thin veneer covering our culture’s values, being shaped and formed by them instead of by God’s truth. The end result is that we have all sorts of ideas being pushed on people and labelled as “Gospel” that really aren’t the Gospel—that only serve to lead people away from Jesus and the new life they so badly need.
This is Mark Three of a church that is healthy and faithful to God and his truth: that we have a biblical understanding of the Gospel. But what is the Gospel? There are churches in town preaching the old “I’m okay and you’re okay” message and calling it the Gospel. There are churches that tell us that the Gospel message is that God loves us or that Jesus wants to be your friend. There are churches teaching that the Gospel is the message that we should straighten up and live right. Are those message the Gospel? We have to ask, what is the Good News of Jesus Christ?
You’re all probably familiar with the book that was published back in the 1960s: I’m O.K., You’re O.K. Or as I recently heard some summarise the teaching of one of today’s most popular televangelists: “God’s nice, you’re nice, so be nice.” That’s the “good news” that a lot of preachers push as gospel. The problem with this kind of teaching is that it makes the realGospel irrelevant. It ignores the fall and it ignores the real problem of sin. None of us is okay. The Bible teaches us that in our first parents, Adam and Eve, we’ve all been seduced into disobeying God. None of us is righteous and none of us is on good terms with God. In fact, according to Jesus, our sin is so serious that what we need is actually a whole new life. St. Paul says we need to be created all over again, because we’re dead in our sins and transgressions. Friends, being dead isn’t “okay” if we’re talking about health.
And it only takes one sin to kill us. We tend to downplay out sins or compare them to the “bigger” sins of others. But St. James reminds us that,
Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11)
Paul reminds us in Romans that the wages of sin is death and James explains why sin is so serious. His point is that the laws of God aren’t just a bunch of statues arbitrarily published by some sort of heavenly parliament. No, God’s laws reflect God’s character. They’re expressions of God himself. To break any of God’s laws is to live against God. Even mature Christians rarely seem to grasp this. Take lying for example. Why is it wrong to lie? I’ve asked that question of more Christians than I can count and to this date I’ve never heard the right answer. People usually say something like, “Because the Bible says it’s wrong,” or, “Because God says so.” No. Lying is wrong—it’s against God’s law—because God is truth. To lie is violate the very character of God. Every one of his laws eventually boils down to his character.
If we can understand that, we can grasp why sin is such a heinous thing—why even one little lie separates us from God and is deserving of death. It doesn’t cut it to assume that because we haven’t committed the “big” sins, we’re okay. Even those sins we think of as small are violations of God’s character and holiness. For us to think that we can disregard him sometimes, that we can set him and his ways aside when we feel like, is to show that we haven’t understood at all the nature of our relationship with God. We can’t claim to be believers and yet knowingly, repeatedly, and happily break his laws.
This is where we find ourselves. We’ve all crossed the line. We’re all guilty. In Romans 3:10-20 St. Paul writes:
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. Forby works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Now this might all seem too much like bad news to part of the Good News, but we have to realize that an accurate and realistic understanding of where we stand now is essential to getting to where we need to be. One of the first things that has to happen when we become Christians is that we become aware of our own sin and our distance from God—and that we become aware that we stand under God’s just wrath, that we each deserve death and spiritual alienation from him forever—all because we have wronged our perfect, holy, and loving Creator God.
Brothers and sisters, true Christianity is realistic about the dark side of our world, our life, our nature, and our heart, not because true Christianity is pessimistic, but because this understanding has to be present before we’ll ever be willing to hear the Good News that God has provided a way to be restored to his fellowship.
Other times we hear the Gospel represented as the message that “God is love.” Now the message is right. Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but is that the whole story?
Think about it from the standpoint of parenting. Kids will say things like, “If you loved me, you’d let me…” An awful lot of the time when people present the Gospel as “God is love,” they’re just like the kid who thinks a loving parent should let him do whatever he wants. As parents we know better—that love doesn’t always let. In fact, a lot of the time real love prevents and even punishes. So if we say “God is love,” what are we thinking divine love must look like? But more importantly, is love all the Bible says God is? We saw last week that God is loving, but we also saw that just as importantly, he’s holy and just, he’s faithful, and he’s sovereign. We could expand on that list of what God is and sit here all day. Yes, God is love, but his love is wise, it’s holy, it’s just, it’s faithful, it’s sovereign. God can’t give up any of those other characteristics without ceasing to be God. God loves us, yes, but passages like Hebrews 12:14 also tell us that, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
It’s only as we consider God’s love as part of his totality and in the context of his other characteristics that we can understand the depth of meaning in a statement like “God is love.” It’s only as we contemplate the greatness of God that we begin to realize that his love has a depth, a texture, a fullness, and a beauty that we in our present state can only wonder at. Yes, God is love, but that’s not the Good News itself.
How about this? A lot of times the Gospel is simply presented as “Jesus wants to be your friend,” or that he wants to be our example. While these may be true, the Gospel is not just a matter of cultivating a relationship or following an example. You and I have a real past to deal with—real sins we’ve committed and real guilt as a result. What will our holy God do? If he wants us to come to know him, how can he make that happen without sacrificing his own holiness?
Would he just tell us that he’s a big God, so our sins are no big deal? That he’ll just forgive and forget? If you read the gospels, you’ll see that the one thing Jesus taught above everything else is that he came to die. That was the centre of his ministry—not teaching or being an example, but, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Why is there such bad news at the heart of the Good News? Very simply because the cross is God’s way to bring us back to himself. Jesus explained the cross before it happened and brought together in himself both the Son of Man spoken of in Daniel and the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Here’s what we read in Mark 8:27-38:
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in thisadulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus’ death is often presented as a sacrifice, involving his blood. So, for example, we read in Ephesians, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). Jesus chose to die at Passover to make it clear that he was offering himself as an atoning sacrifice.
And this all has to do with our being slaves to sin because the Bible tells us that through his death, Jesus redeems us from sin—that he has bought us out of that slavery. Christ’s death was the price paid for our freedom. Christ’s death is how God redeemed us from sin’s slavery. But the Bible doesn’t just use economic language to describe what Jesus has done for us. It talks in terms of relationship too. Through Jesus’ death God has reconciled himself to us—his rebellious creatures whom he made in his own image but who have had a falling out with him and so have destroyed the relationship. Through Jesus’ death, fellowship with God is restored as sin—the root cause of the hostility between God and sinners—is dealt with. The New Testament uses legal language too, telling us that God has justified us through Jesus’ death. He has declared us “not guilty,” because Christ has taken our punishment on himself.
The work of Jesus is described as redemption—a purchase by which the liberty of certain oppressed people is secured. The work of Christ is described as reconciliation—where the enmity is resolved between two people. The work of Christ is described as a propitiation—a satisfying of God’s just wrath against sinners and their sin, so that he can deal justly with sinners in terms of his love instead of in terms of his wrath.
I hope you can see that Jesus isn’t just our friend. He’s much, much more. By his death on the cross he has become the Lamb that was slain for us, our Redeemer, the One who has made peace between us and God, who has taken our guilt on himself, who has conquered our most deadly enemy and has satisfied the well-deserved wrath of God.
Now I think that by now it goes without saying that the message that the Good News is simply that we should live right isn’t the Gospel either. Lot’s of people think this way—that Christianity is all about being a do-gooder, doing religious things, or being involved in community service. If you’ve followed me this far, it should be clear that the biblical Gospel is not fundamentally about doing good works. To be a Christian is not just to live in love, follow the Golden Rule, or practice “possibility thinking”—or indeed to do anything that we can do ourselves.
The Gospel calls for a more radical response than any of those things allows for. The Gospel isn’t just something we can “add” to make our already good lives better. No. The Gospel is the message of wonderful Good News for those who know and realise their desperation before God. Good works are a part of Christianity only as they become the fruit of the actual Gospel at work in the lives of desperate men and women redeemed by Christ.
So as we start to understand our sense of need, as we come to understand who God is and what Jesus is and what he as done—when all these things come together, how should we respond? According to Scripture, our response should be to repent and to believe. God calls us to repent of our sins, and to rely on Jesus Christ alone. Before we close, let’s look at both of these.
In the New Testament, repentance and belief are often mentioned together. When St. Paul was meeting with the leaders of the Ephesian church he summarised the message saying, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21 NIV). We see this over and over again: once you have heard the truth about your sin and God’s holiness, about his love in sending Christ, and about Christ’s death and resurrection for our justification, then you are called to respond.
And how are we told to respond? Notice we’re never told to walk an aisle, fill out a card, life up a hand, say a prayer, join a church, or make an appointment to talk with the minister. Now some of those thing might sometimes be involved as we respond, but none of them is necessary and many of those things have been used and abused to give millions a false assurance because they’ve prayed the prayer or walked the aisle and assumed that that was the response. No. The response to the Good News is to repent and believe. Once we’ve heard the truth about our own sin and God’s holiness, about his sending Christ, and about Christ’s death and resurrection for our justification, then as instructed by the first word of Jesus recorded in St. Mark’s gospel, our response is to “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
But repentance doesn’t stand alone. Belief follows. We must honestly believe that what the Gospel says is true. We must believe it in that sense, but there’s more to it than that. You can believe, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun or that water boils at 100°. You can believe that Stephen Harper is Prime Minster or that Hungary is a country in central Europe. But none of these kinds of believing are the believing that Jesus is talking about.
Jesus calls us beyond mere intellectual assent. He’s talking about a believing in and fully relying on the Good News of salvation. It’s the difference between believing that a chair is a chair and actually trusting it enough to support your weight by sitting yourself in it. We have to come to grips with the fact that we are unable to satisfy God’s demands on us no matter how morally we live. We shouldn’t end up trusting a little in ourselves and a little in God; we should come to realise that we must rely on God fully, to trust in Christ alone for our salvation.
That kind of true believing and relying on makes a difference, and so this belief demands not only faith but also repentance; it demands that our lives actually change. Repentance and faith are actually to sides of the same coin. It’s not like you can have the basic model (belief) and then, if you really want to get holy at some time down the road, you can upgrade and add repentance to it. No. “Repent” is what you do when you start thinking rightly about God and yourself—belief without this kind of change isn’t real. Bishop Ryle put it well when he said, “There is a common worldly kind of Christianity in this day, which many have, and think they have enough—a cheap Christianity which offends nobody, and requires no sacrifice—which costs nothing, and is worth nothing.”
The repentance that Jesus calls for is connected with believing this news, because if it is a new message, it is no surprise that you change your mind when you hear it. The Greek word for “repent” literally means “to change your mind.” And because of your mind change, your life changes too.
So I hope, Brothers and Sisters, that you see, real Christianity is never just an addition, it’s not just a cultivation of something that’s always been there. No. It’s in a radical sense a total about-face, a turning around. It’s a turning around that all Christians make as we come to rely on Christ’s finished work on the cross. To say that you trust, without living as though you do, is not to trust in any biblical sense of the word. We change the way we act, but only because we change what we believe. That kind of change is the work of God’s Spirit.
We need to really ask ourselves if we’ve heard this Gospel. And if we have, have we believed it with our lives or are we just playing at religion? Do we come to church every once in a while only because we’re feeling guilty or because we enjoy the people, while spending most of our time living first and foremost for ourselves?
Friends, to really hear the Gospel is to be shaken to your core. To really hear the Gospel is to change. Have you heard the Gospel—not soothing word about your goodness, or about God’s acceptance, or about Jesus’ inoffensive willingness to be your friend, or even some convicting word about purging some sin from your life—but have you heard the Bible’s great message about God and us? Does it sound like the best news you’ve ever heard? Old sins forgiven! New life begun! A restored relationship with your God, now and forever! That’s the Good News. That’s the Gospel. And that’s what we need to be committed too, each one of us, and all of us together if we want to be a healthy church.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, there are so many messages in our world, and even in the Church, that compete with the Gospel message itself. Help us cut through the lies and half-truths that lead us astray, and come to the message of cross. Shake us to the core with the Good News and work in us by your Spirit that we might be moved to real faith and real repentance. And Father, we ask, as we each commit ourselves to the Gospel, let us place it at the centre of who we are as a Church. Let us set aside everything else, that we might centre our being, our worship, and our ministry as a people on the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen.
This series of sermons is adapted from Mark Dever's book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2004.