[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "The Message of the Resurrection." Click on the title to get to the audio.]
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you...that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared..." (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3b-5a)
About five years ago, I was at a pastor's conference during which Derek Prime spoke about gospel preaching. During his ministry, Sunday evenings were more dedicated to evangelistic preaching because in the British culture of that day, there would be more unbelievers present in the evening. One Sunday evening, he looked out on the crowd and became very discouraged...he knew everyone there and knew they were believers. Immediately, he said he was tempted to not preach evangelistically, fighting thoughts like "Your people already know this." Yet, committed to the preparation he had done, he began to preach his sermon as planned...explaining the gospel.
Just after the sermon began, a young lady entered the church with a small child. Immediately, one of the older ladies agreed to hold the baby so that the young mother could sit in the service. After the service, Derek stood at the back to greet people as they left. When he shook the young ladies hand, he said, "Are you a Christian?" She replied, "No, but I'd like to be." What a wonderful effect of the commitment to gospel preaching! Later in that same conference, Derek made a statement about evangelistic preaching when everyone is a believer. He said, "A healthy believer loves to hear the gospel proclaimed."
I recall this story on the day after Easter for two reasons. First, I am convinced that there were unbelieving people dressed nicely and hearing the gospel in many churches yesterday. While we know that we often 'plant seed' and another will 'water,' it is still encouraging to read of times when God works in the context of one gospel service. Second, the message of Easter doesn't just come around every Easter...it comes around every Sunday. There is a temptation to think, "I already know this," and to want 'something more.'
The reality, though, is that there is nothing more that we need. Well, one might ask, what about all the ethical teaching in the New Testament? What about learning how to live like a Christian? These things are certainly important, aren't they? Yes, but if we try to divorce Christian living from the Christian gospel then is ceases to truly be "Christian living". You see, all of the ethical teachings of the New Testament find their foundation in the truth of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, was buried, and was raised again on the third day.
How is this true? Let's think about it briefly with a concrete example. Let's say that Johnny has been convicted by God about his harsh words toward others. He learns what the Scripture teaches about how he ought to speak, and he seeks to be obedient in this area of life. What happens to Johnny the first time he blows up in harsh anger at a co-worker? He remembers the teachings of the Bible about the tongue, and he feels his guilt and shame. He goes to the co-worker, confesses his sin, and seeks forgiveness. He is then restored, and again, he seeks to obey what he has learned.
What happens the fourth time? The tenth time? The hundredth time? We all continue to sin, and we all have our own particular weaknesses. From my experience of hearing people's struggles, Johnny can quickly decline into hopelessness, wondering about whether his relationship with God is real or not because of his constant struggle with sin. The line goes something like this, "I've asked God to forgive me, but I just can't get over this guilt." Have you ever been there? What area of life is it for you? Think about that for a minute, identify a struggle, and then read on.
What happens when we think primarily about our obedience to the Bible and its connection to our relationship with God? We can start to judge our acceptance with God based on our ability to control our tongue, our consistency in devotional times, our parenting successes/failures, and more. This is why divorcing the gospel from the ethical teachings of the Bible is so dangerous. God never meant for us to feel more accepted by him based on our performance in ANY area of life. The gospel reminds us that we are accepted by God based ONLY on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Are these areas of obedience important? Yes! We make it our aim to please God in this life (2 Cor. 5:9). However, while we may live in ways that please or displease God, we cannot improve or lose our acceptance with God based on our behavior! A parent accepts his child, even when the child does not please his parent.
So, we must put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), but we cannot do so in a way that loses sight of the truth that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). This is why the gospel is so critical in the life of every believer and in the life of every church. The gospel is our greatest weapon in the fight for spiritual growth. It continually assures us of who we are, of who Christ is, and of what Christ has done for us. It reminds us of the Spirit who has sealed us by God's grace and indwells us to conform us to the image of Jesus. It reminds us that the God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it. It reminds us that while we may work hard at working out our salvation with fear and trembling, the truth is...it is actually God who is at work in us to will and to do His good purpose.
We cannot live without the gospel, and we cannot grow without the gospel. It is very true that this kind of thinking even leads to the temptation to believe that God's grace is just a license to sin. This, too, is so very wrong. Gospel repentance is the change of our mindset about sin, ourselves, and Christ. We cannot see sin the same way if we have truly been converted by the gospel. The gospel teaches us to see sin as that which separated us from our God, as that which offends the holiness of the One who created and saved us, as that which brought the wrath of God on His dear Son at the cross, and as that which condemns a man to hell. No, the gospel does not take sin lightly.
So, as Jerry Bridges has said, we should 'preach the gospel to ourselves.' We need this to fight against works-righteousness, and we need this to fight against the idea that God's grace is a license to sin. Every Easter, every Sunday, every day...even every hour...we need what the Corinthians needed...a gospel reminder.