“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the Lord.”
I know that the question which is the title of this article will be offensive to some. They will say that any such examination of the preaching in our day is far too strict, too unkind, and too critical. Some will suggest that such a question will breed divisions, discouragement, discontentment, and dissent. Others will think it the very epitome of pride to suggest that any church is not preaching the gospel. “Who are you to make such claims, to offer such opinions, to set these standards, or to suggest such hurtful things?” I can only say that it grieves me deeply to have to ask such questions at all. I would prefer that no such issues would ever have to be raised in our churches. But I feel I have no choice but to raise the question, and so let me briefly offer several reasons why.
1) The Bible declares that there is such a thing as “different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4, Gal. 1:6) or “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8). The Bible clearly warns that there will be “false prophets” (Matt. 24:24), “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13), “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4), “false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1), yes even “false Christs” (Mark 13:22). Such teachers speak with “great swelling words of emptiness” (2 Peter 2:18) and fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah who said “their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer. 50:6). This day in which we live has no special exclusion from these warnings.
2) The Bible commands that hearers examine with all carefulness what they hear. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).” The believers in Berea are commended by the Holy Spirit for they "… searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so (Acts 17:11)." Paul warned the churches about this "Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words (Colossians 2:4)." Men will come with all of the credentials, all of the Bible knowledge, and all of the appearances of sincerity and faithfulness, while underneath this cover they are enemies of the gospel. "… you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars (Revelation 2:2)." Proverbs warns that it is foolish to believe everything you hear "The simple believes every word...(Proverbs 14:15)."
3) The Bible teaches that a church without the gospel has no power to save at all. That church may be an instrument of many blessings to many souls, but without the gospel it cannot save a single one from hell. Only the true gospel will save. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 1:16)." When a church abandons the gospel, it is a sinking ship that may clothe and feed and comfort its passengers, but all the while they are heading swiftly and surely to death. Salvation is of the Lord, and it is only by the gospel of Jesus Christ that He saves "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18)."
And so dear reader, will you not give a little time to consider this weighty question? Does your church preach the gospel? I have not asked about your denomination. I do not ask ‘what is your tradition’ or ‘to what confession do you subscribe.’ I ask not whether your church is large or small, high church or low church, contemporary or traditional. All of these questions may be worthy of discussion in some way, but none seem as important as this: Does your church preach the gospel? Does your pastor come to you as an angel of God with “the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth (Rev. 14:6).” Whatever good your church may otherwise be doing, will you pause for just a moment to carefully consider the preaching that you hear and ask yourself if it is really the gospel?
In order to aid you in this inquiry, I should like to lay before you several elements which are central and imperative to the faithful preaching of the gospel.
1) Sin and the Depravity of Man. The word gospel means “good news”. However, good news is only good news if people first know the bad news. And the sad reality is that most churches today will not explain the bad news. Does the pastor talk plainly about the problem of sin? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Does he clearly explain that all men are both inwardly and outwardly rebellious against God? (Psalm 14:3, Psalm 53:3, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10, Romans 8:7). Some form of the word “sin” occurs over 750 times in the Bible. How many times does it appear in the sermon? In the literature the church uses? Is it on their website for the world to see? Do they shy away as though embarrassed about the plain and simple truth man is born an enemy of God? We are by nature unholy and at war with a holy God. The Bible calls it “enmity” with God (Romans 8:7). Left to himself man cannot please God (Romans 8:8). And this sinfulness leaves man both unwilling and unable to change. He is, as the Bible says, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). This truth is a dominant theme in the Scripture…but too often denied or ignored in the church. Pastors are afraid to offend and are thus ashamed of the gospel (I Cor. 1:23, Gal. 5:11). From such churches, I tell you, turn away. J. Gresham Machen once said this “No man is interested in a piece of good news unless he has the consciousness of needing it; no man is interested in an offer of salvation unless he knows that there is something from which he needs to be saved. It is quite useless to ask a man to adopt the Christian view of the gospel unless he first has the Christian view of sin.”
False teachers and preachers focus attention primarily on the problems of life caused by sin rather than on the problem of sin itself. They will speak of the problems of broken marriages, crippling addictions, destructive habits, relationship failures, emotional difficulties, and problems like fear, loneliness, greed, anger, and lust. They will preach on the evils of unkindness, cruelty, selfishness, and pride. But they rarely or never expose the real root of all these problems, which is the wicked, sinful, rebellious, disobedient and deceitful heart of man. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)” “But you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) A church that is afraid to preach about the issue of sin is a church that is not preaching the gospel. Without the knowledge of sin, there can be no saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Listen to author David Hegg’s words on the matter “Today, the pressure to fill auditoriums and services has driven many pastors to place the felt needs, or tastes, of the people above their duty to Christ. On every hand we hear of the Gospel being molded into a non-confrontative message intended to meet felt needs and impress the sinful heart. And, by most standards, this new philosophy of church life is working, as more and more auditoriums are filled with people hungry for a message that will affirm that they are actually on fairly good terms with the Almighty. But the biblical message is the message of the cross. It cuts right across the grain of the modern age's preoccupation with pride, tearing down the façade and exposing the wretchedness of the human heart…Unfortunately, while the modern 'un-gospel' may fill seats, it is the true gospel of sin and grace that is 'the power of God unto salvation' (Rom. 1:16).
Because of man’s sinful, lost condition, the gospel is a message about God seeking to save man, not man seeking to be saved by God. Man, by his now fallen nature, is dead to all spiritual realities and concerns. Without the Lord initiating our rescue we can never be saved. The Lord said “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away (Ezekiel 34:16).” "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.(John 6:44)." Charles Spurgeon said this in a sermon on that text “We declare, upon Scriptural authority, that the human will is so desperately set on mischief, so depraved, and so inclined to everything that is evil, and so disinclined to everything that is good, that without the powerful, supernatural, irresistible influence of the Holy Spirit, no human will ever be constrained towards Christ.”
2) God’s holy anger and wrath toward sin and sinners. Some churches and pastors will still acknowledge a “sin” problem amongst mankind, but then tend to move too quickly towards grace and forgiveness. It goes like this “yes you are a great sinner…but God loves you and is ready to forgive you”. Does that sound familiar? This is what I call “the gospel abridged”. And it is a deadly abridgement indeed! It entirely fails to acknowledge and declare that God has a righteous and holy anger toward all such sin, wherever it is found, and intends to justly punish such sin with His holy wrath. “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11). We water down the seriousness of sin because it is universal (we’re all sinners, nobody is perfect, right?), but not so with God. “I will render vengeance to My enemies, and repay those who hate me” (Deut 32:41). According to the Bible, every day a sinner lives he is mounting a greater and greater debt of sin and judgment against his own soul, “treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:3)"
Does your pastor tell you this? Does he not only point out the “problem” of sin, but also clearly indicate the terrible “consequences” of sin? “The wages of sin is death” says the Lord. In connection with this is the almost forgotten doctrine of the reality of “hell”. This is a true Biblical doctrine, of which Jesus Himself spoke more than any other Biblical author. “If your eye causes you to sin” said Jesus “pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Mark 9:47). Listen carefully to what your pastor is preaching. Jot down on your bulletin the number of references to sin, death and hell that come through in the message of the gospel. Does your pastor ever speak about the wrath of God? Would your pastor ever tell an unbeliever that as long as he remains unconverted “the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36)? Listen to what Dr. D.A. Carson has said on this matter “The cliché, God hates the sin but loves the sinner, is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty Psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner; His wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Romans 1:18ff) and on the sinner (John 3:36).” Without this element of the gospel, the cross itself is meaningless, because the cross is where God’s wrath on sin was poured out. On the cross our Lord Jesus Christ was “smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:2).” But unless we preach the wrath of God against sin, the cross can never be rightly understood.
3) The substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. Now comes the good news…but be sure your church gets it right! The good news is not that “God loves you just as you are and has a wonderful plan for your life”. That’s not the Bible. The good news, the gospel, is that Christ bore the punishment for sin upon the cross. Every sin, of everyone who would ever believe in Christ, was charged to Jesus on the cross, and He bore the just punishment for that sin. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The curse of the law is death, but Christ became that “curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The law was against us like a legal notice of execution, but in Christ it was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Many churches and pastors today are reluctant to talk about the cross in this way. They sentimentalize it and talk about the “great example” of sacrifice and love that Jesus’ death displays. That is not the gospel. If you hear that…run…don’t walk! The Bible talks about the “offense” of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and the true gospel is still offensive to man’s pride. We don’t naturally want to hear that our sin is so bad it required such a death, such a sacrifice, such a substitution as this. But the substitutionary death of Christ is the very heart of the gospel.
And without this doctrine of the cross, there is no forgiveness of sin. This is why Paul said “God forbid that I glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. You are not saved by being good. Most preachers will tell you that. But dear reader, do you understand that you are also not saved simply because God is good? You are saved, and can only be saved, because God is both good AND just, and He has dealt justly and righteously with your sin on the cross of Christ. If we could be saved merely by God’s goodness, there would be no need of a cross. But without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sin (Matt 26:28, Heb. 9:22) Does your pastor preach the cross? Does it even matter to you if he does? Listen to what Martin Luther, that bold reformer, once said “Whenever the true message of the cross is abolished, the anger of hypocrites and heretics eases…and all things are in peace. This is a sure token that the devil is guarding the entry of that house, and that the pure doctrine of God's Word has been taken away.”
4) Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. So how does the “good news” of the gospel become good news for you? Not by trying to reform your life. “Man is not justified by the works of the law…” (Galatians 2:16). Not by becoming more religious. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil?” (Micah 6:7). Not by devoting yourself to a life of serving others. “Many will say to Me in that day ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name…’ and I will declare to them ‘I never knew you’” (Luke 7:22-23). There is one way to be saved, and that is by faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “Therefore having been justified by faith we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1). A church that preaches the gospel will call sinners to faith in order to be saved. A faithful pastor will tell his hearers not to trust in their works, their traditions, their experiences, their family or their church for salvation…but to trust in Christ alone.
The “faith” that the Bible speaks of and which the gospel demands is very specific. Notice that saving faith is NOT the same as belief in God. Demons believe in God, and tremble! Saving faith is not merely an act of agreement with Christian doctrine or teaching. Hypocrites have that. Matthew Henry, the Puritan preacher, once wrote “We are too apt to rest in a bare profession of faith, and to think that this will save us; it is a cheap and easy religion to say, ‘We believe in the articles of the Christian faith;’ but it is a great delusion to imagine that this is enough to bring us to heaven.” Saving faith casts itself fully and completely upon Jesus Christ. And faithful ministers of the gospel will call unbelievers to do just that. Does your pastor ever pointedly, deliberately, clearly, and unashamedly tell his congregation that if they don’t repent and believe in Jesus Christ they cannot be saved? The substitute for this call today is something like “stick around and get to know us” or “take a class and you can join us” or “let us help you find a ministry to meet your needs.” My dear reader, such things may all have their proper place, but they are no substitute for the need to call men and women to turn from their sin and believe today in Jesus Christ.
So, dear reader, if you have tarried this far, all that is left now for me to do is to ask you the question again. Does your church preach the gospel? Do these themes flow as steady streams throughout the sermons that you hear? I do not wish anyone to make an uncharitable assessment of their minister. I do not expect that any preacher exhausts the message of the gospel every week. But I am even more fearful that many today sit weekly, monthly, yearly under ministries in which there is no gospel being preached at all. There is rich music, fine drama, friendly fellowship, engaging and entertaining messages…but not a shred of the gospel. “Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things (2 Timothy 2:7).”
Can I apply these truths for a moment?
1) Where there is no gospel, there is no true church of Christ. This question is essential because, whatever the religious sentiments, whatever the spiritual adornments, whatever the level of activity, energy, and accomplishments are going on in a church…if the gospel is not being preached, it is not a church of Jesus Christ. The Lord sent His disciples to “preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). The apostles in Acts went everywhere “preaching the gospel” (Acts 8:25). Paul understood himself as set aside to one great work and calling, which he described as “separated to the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Ministers have been “entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thes. 2:4). How then can a church which does not preach the gospel be called a church at all? They may have the most vibrant youth ministry in the area, they may feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and they may have Bibles and hymns and music and elaborate worship and large buildings and ministries and crowds of eager listeners. But if they preach not the gospel, they are not a church. So serious a matter is this that Paul said to the Galatians “if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:9).” The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and that truth is first and foremost the gospel (Eph 1:13).
2) Next, can it be right to stay in a church where the gospel is not preached? Would Christ Himself go there to be worshipped? Jesus went all about Galilee “preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23).” He did so in fulfillment of that great prophecy “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor…(Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18).” And shall we continue week after week under a ministry that is ashamed of the gospel? Is there no church in your area that is committed to Biblical, faithful, Christ-centered, God glorifying preaching of the great message of the gospel of grace? Maybe you are thinking “but this is my church!” My dear reader…it is not. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. And if there is no gospel there, then there is no Savior there either.
3) Third, maybe you are somewhere where the gospel is being preached. Praise the Lord! But may I remind you in closing that hearing the gospel is not enough. You must personally believe upon Christ in order to be saved. There are many sitting in hell right now who sat for years under the gospel on earth. Some of the most dreadful and terrible words in all the Scriptures are pronounced upon those who heard the gospel but would not believe.
4) For those who hear the gospel, and believe the gospel, let me close by reminding us all that we also must live the gospel. “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27).” Nothing is more shameful than when the children of God give the enemies of God a reason to mock. Nathan said to David “you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme (2 Sam. 12:14).”
5) Finally, to those faithful ministers who proclaim the truth week after week, let me remind and encourage you to never lose hope in the power of the gospel of Christ. George Whitfield once said that “other men may preach the gospel better than I, but no man can preach a better gospel.” Take heed to the ministry you have been entrusted with. Preach the Word! It is still “the power of God unto salvation!” I leave you with a few words from the missionary David Brainerd who said “I never got away from Jesus, and Him crucified, and I found that when my people were gripped by this great evangelical doctrine of Christ and Him crucified, I had no need to give them instructions about morality. I found that one followed as the sure and inevitable fruit of the other… I find my Indians begin to put on the garments of holiness and their common life begins to be sanctified even in small matters when they are possessed by the doctrine of Christ and Him crucified.”