The simple gospel?
Many a young preacher has been advised, ‘Just preach a simple gospel sermon’. Many have also found that this is easier said than done. The sermon may be over-simplified or simply be inaccurate. Both these dangers can be seen in the use of ‘the ABC of the gospel’: Accept that you’re a sinner; Believe that Jesus died for your sins; Confess Jesus as your Saviour. It couldn’t be simpler, could it? But is it biblical?
Accept or repent?
Some people think that ‘hell’ is the most ignored word in the modern preacher’s vocabulary. In fact, it is ‘repent’ that is missing. Both John the Baptist and his Lord began their ministries with a call for repentance (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:15). From the Day of Pentecost on (Acts 2:38) the apostles majored on the same demand (Acts 17:30; 20:21 and 26:20).
But what is repentance? In the praiseworthy attempt to be simple, the command to repent is watered down to ‘accept’ that you’re a sinner. To ‘be sorry’ for your sins is a good start, but even that does not go far enough. The essence of repentance is a radical change of mind, leading to a change of heart attitude and then a changed life. We must admit we have been wrong and rebellious; then we must leave that old life behind. In addition there is a positive turning back to God: ‘repentance towards God’ (Acts 20:21). Repenting is not just a matter of thinking or feeling, but of acting. The prodigal son not only came to himself; he went back home (Luke 15:20). Biblical repentance is really conversion: a turning back to God. As Isaiah put it (55:7), ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord.’
Believe that or believe in?
We do begin by believing the truth, that the gospel is true. However, there is more to faith than that. According to historic Reformed doctrine (and more importantly, the Bible!) Jesus did not die for every single person, but for His elect people (Is. 53:8), for His church (Acts 20:28), for His sheep (John 10:15). This doctrine, known as ‘particular redemption’, is not just negative (so-called limited atonement); it tells us that all those for whom Christ died are actually redeemed and therefore will be saved.
In the New Testament no-one ever tells a non-Christian to believe that Jesus died for him or for his sins. That way is to make faith just a matter of thinking, believing that something is true; that was the Sandemanian heresy. The correct way is to make clear the way of salvation by the cross and that Jesus is the only Saviour – and then to call on all unbelievers to put their trust in Him and be saved. This is the difference between believing ‘that’ and believing ‘in’. The second idea is put in varying ways in the New Testament. In John 3:16 the condition stated is to believe (literally) ‘into’ Him, so as to be united to Him. In verse 18, the same word is translated by the AV as ‘on’, which correctly conveys the idea of resting or relying on Him. Sometimes the ‘in’ is omitted altogether, as simply ‘believe’ in 1 John 4:16, which correctly gives the meaning ‘trust’ or ‘rely on’ (NIV). The Saviour is a Person, not a doctrine.
Does this matter? Certainly. It is quite possible to believe that Jesus died for your sins without actually entrusting yourself to Him. And so be lost. Evangelists urging people simply to believe ‘that’ Jesus died for their sins are endangering their souls. Usually, one hopes, the preacher goes further and speaks of committal to Christ or taking Him as Lord, but this is not always the case. So, wanting to have an evangelist who believes in particular redemption is not nit-picking, dead orthodoxy, but a safeguard, a desire to make sure that sinners are called, invited and persuaded to put their trust in the Lord Jesus, not just told to believe a doctrine. (Incidentally, it is possible to have the right doctrine of the atonement and still speak incorrectly [deficiently] about faith.)
Confess Jesus as Saviour or as Lord?
Thankfully we do not hear so much as we used to about a later experience in which we ‘accept Jesus as Lord’. When we believe, we trust the Lord Jesus as our Saviour. So we must link this with our confession also (1 Cor. 12:3). We can put this in terms of consecration (which conveniently begins with a ‘C’!), not a second blessing, but as an essential aspect of our conversion. When the apostle Paul defined his gospel preaching, he included doing ‘works befitting repentance’ (Acts 26:20).
This requirement, however, does not sound very much like ‘good news’. The good news comes from another, neglected, aspect of the gospel. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter promised not only ‘the forgiveness of sins’, but also ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:39). How can we live a new life or do works befitting repentance without the power of the Spirit? However, this is rarely included in the benefits of gospel faith. Perhaps that is why the Pentecostal teaching of a separate ‘second blessing’ baptism of the Spirit so easily took root.
I cannot make all my points begin with ABC, but they are actually just as basic and fundamental to the gospel as those three letters are to the alphabet. Sadly, some have been so brainwashed by popular, but wrong ideas, that they feel inferior when it comes to evangelism. It is not true that Reformed preachers cannot preach the gospel. Too often, biblical evangelism is rejected in favour of an inadequate message. Let us get back to demanding true repentance – not just saying ‘sorry’, preaching real faith/trust not just believism, and seeking a thoroughgoing conversion to new life in the Holy Spirit, not just a hasty acceptance of forgiveness.
John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.