Saturday, January 21, 2012

The gospel: sanctification or evangelization?

The other day I ran across D. H. Hart’s recent post If Wrapping Yourself in the U.S. Flag is in Bad Taste, What About Wrapping Yourself in the Gospel? It has a link to a review by Matthew Lee Anderson of Jared C. Wilson’s book Gospel Wakefulness (Crossway, 2011).

I have been struck for some time by the use of the word/concept “gospel” in New Calvinistic circles. The word “gospel” is prominent in the names of para-church ministries and conference (e. g., “Together for the Gospel” and “The Gospel Coalition”). A number of recent books that have come from New Calvinistic authors have made use of the word “gospel” in their titles and as their subjects. Language about the “gospel” tends to permeate New Calvinistic preaching and teaching, where phrases such as the following are frequently heard:

“We need to remind ourselves of the gospel every day.”

“We need to preach the gospel to ourselves.”

“We need to meditate on the gospel.”

The problem with this language is that it seems primarily to make the “gospel” a focus of personal contemplation and a means of spiritual growth for believers rather than the good news (euangelion) of God’s work in Christ that is to be preached to non-believers. The idea of Christians preaching the gospel to themselves has undertones of the “Sonship” theology. The normative use of the “gospel” in the Scriptures, however, relates to its proclamation to unbelievers. Typical would be Mark 13:10: “And the gospel must first be published among all nations.” Or, the Great Commission in Mark 16:15: “Go ye and preach the gospel to every creature.” In fact, a little concordance work will show that when the word “gospel” is mentioned in the Gospels and Acts it is almost always done in the context of evangelistic preaching (with “preach” or “preaching” from kerusso). When Paul says he is “separated unto the gospel” (Rom 1:1), he most certainly means that he has been called to an apostolic ministry of preaching the gospel (cf. Rom 15:20: “so have I strived to preach the gospel [euangelizomai], where Christ has not been named”). He can also refer to the gospel as the core content of the evangelistic message that he preaches to unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor 15:1). It is orthodox and not “another gospel” (Gal 1:6).

I once heard a “Sonship” influenced speaker claim Romans 1:15 as justification for the New Calvinistic way of speaking about the gospel. Indeed, Paul does say to the believers, “I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom 1:15). See, the speaker said, Paul was preaching the gospel to those who were already Christians in Rome. He went on to stress all the ways a Christian might apply the “gospel” to his life. The dative pronoun humin (“to you”), however, more likely has the sense of “among you” or, even, “with you” in Romans 1:15, as Paul anticipated engaging with the Roman Christians in evangelistic preaching. In context, Paul makes clear in the very next verse the evangelistic focus of the gospel of which he is not ashamed, as it is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom 1:16).

Hart drew on the book review cited above to make the point that rallying around “the gospel” is pointless without also rallying around other defining doctrines. He’d rather be part of the “Presbyterian Coalition” than the “Gospel Coalition.” For me, the review of Gospel Wakefulness points more to confusion in New Calvinistic circles of the “gospel” with “sanctification” rather than “evangelization.”



AJ said...

To add to some of the recent phrases using "gospel" in new and unprecedented ways;

Live out the gospel!

The church is a gospel community.

Gospel living.

And of course the way that some of the "missional" groups teach about "adorning the gospel". It is trendy and easy to slip into using this terminology if we don't remember sound doctrine.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for adding to the list. Once you start listening for this, the examples multiply. Sometimes the word "gospel" is used as a synonym for Christ or God or the Christian life. One might answer that the issue is merely semantic, but, as you note, the issue is whether or not the language we use reflects "sound doctrine." The best test of this, in my view, is whether or not our language reflects Biblical language. That is the question, Are these innovative phrases Biblical? And, What implications might this hold if it does *not* reflect explicitly Biblical language? Does our language matter?