There is no more important issue than the precision of our gospel presentation. We may stumble in our understanding of secondary and tertiary issues without eternal consequences, but if we err in our gospel proclamation, we not only endanger the souls of those who hear us, but we will personally encounter God’s judgment. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8). Even a slight deviation from God’s message will be devastating. There is no margin for error.
Given this necessity for accuracy in gospel preaching, it is incumbent upon us that we be able to distinguish the authentic gospel from all its counterfeits. Though the modern religious world has been flooded with counterfeit messages, it is not difficult to distinguish the biblical message and the method of its propagation from the substitutes. I would like to suggest seven earmarks of the biblical gospel that will help us recognize any departure from it.
It is Built on the Foundation Laid by The Apostles
In his introduction to the Epistle to the Romans, Paul began with the words, “Paul, a bond slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.” He mentions his apostleship to establish his authority, conferred on him by Christ himself, to speak with certitude about the content of God’s good news. He made it clear in the verse I quoted above that the standard against which all other “gospels” are to be measured is “the one [gospel] we preached to you.” Any departure from that message must be a counterfeit gospel. We have no right or reason to preach any message that alters their message either by addition or subtraction. He wrote to the Corinthians, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder [wise architect] and someone else is building on it. . .” (1 Cor. 3:10). That foundation is Jesus Christ, and he tells his readers there can be no other. We must be careful how we build on that foundation. If we would know what the content of our message must be, we need only scrutinize the messages the apostles and early believers proclaimed. Their preaching must be our pattern.
It is God-Centered
The second characteristic of the biblical gospel is that it is a message about God. Paul wrote, “. . .separated to the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). This phrase “gospel of God” could be understood to mean the good news that has God as its author or the good news that has God as its subject. The difficulty is that both these meanings are true. If we understand the phrase in the first sense, the meaning is that there would be no good news for sinners if it were not for his salvation plan and his revelation of that plan in the Scriptures. Such a plan would never have occurred to us apart from God’s revealed truth.
The second sense in which we could understand this phrase is that God is the one who is the focus of this good news. That is to say, it is a message that is God-centered and not man-centered. Leon Morris wrote concerning the Epistle to the Romans whose central message concerns God’s universal salvific purpose, “Romans is a ultimately a book about God: How He acted to bring salvation, how His justice is preserved, how His purposes are worked out in history, how He can be served by His people.” To say this in a different way, the gospel is not primarily about the problems that have been produced by the existence of sin. It is not primarily about making people happy or repairing their broken relationships with other people. It is not even primarily about sinners going to heaven when they die. It is about the manifestation of God’s glory in the contrivance and execution of the plan of redemption.
It is According to the Scriptures
Paul wrote concerning this gospel, “. . .which he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2). It is important for us to remember that although God’s good news as it is disclosed in the New Testament Scriptures is more fully revealed than during the Old Testament period, it is not a brand new message. It is in full accord with God’s Old Testament promises. Additionally, the gospel call in the New Testament is essentially the same as the in the Old Testament. The essential difference between them is that the New Testament Scriptures reveal the fulfillment that only existed in type and promise during the Old Testament period. The New Testament gospel answers all the Old Testament questions regarding salvation.
It Concerns God’s Son
Paul’s continuing description of the gospel in Romans one defines the focal point of God’s good news. The gospel message concerns God’s Son in the two stages of his incarnate state. It is about his redemptive accomplishments during the period of his humiliation “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” and about his all-sufficient ability to save his people as the “Son of God with power” in his state of exaltation. It is as the enthroned conqueror that he now commands sinners to bow before his exalted throne and promises pardon based on the redemption accomplished during the period the writer to the Hebrews called “the days of his flesh.” First century preachers did not proclaim him as a Savior who would forgive our transgressions but who had no authority to rule our lives. God’s gospel does not invite sinners to kneel at the cross for forgiveness; It commands us to bow before the throne and promises that God will pardon our sins when we do.
It Excludes Boasting
God’s saving work and the gospel proclamation of that accomplishment will exclude all boasting in human ability or merit and will give all glory to God. In 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, after having described the sort of people God has called into the fellowship of his Son, Paul assigned a reason for his method of operation. He wrote, “. . .that no flesh [human being] should boast in his presence, but it is of his [God’s] doing that you are in Christ Jesus who of God has been made unto you, wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption in order that just as it is written, ‘he that boasts, let him boast in the Lord.” Any message that leaves the sinner any reason to boast about his contribution to the work of salvation is not God’s gospel. This seems to be a theme throughout Paul’s Epistles. In Romans three, after having explained the good news that justification is through faith alone and apart from the works of the law, he asks, “Where is boasting then?” He answers, “It has been shut out once and for all.”
It Produces Obedience in Those Who Receive It
The authenticity of the message we preach can be determined by the fruit it produces. The authentic message, when rightly received, will always teach its recipients to live soberly, righteously and godly in Christ Jesus (see—Titus 2:11-14. If the message we preach does not produce the fruit of holy living we must assume it has either not been received rightly or that our message is not the authentic gospel. Paul wrote to Titus that the salvation bringing [note he does not say “the salvation offering”] grace of God, teaches us to say no to impiety, and worldly desires, and live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age (see Titus 2:11-12). God’s saving grace does not pardon sinners and then leave them in their sins.
The object of Paul’s apostleship was to bring about “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5). It is difficult to know whether he was, in speaking of “obedience to the faith” referring to the obedience which is faith or to the obedience that results from faith. In either case, his message called for submission to Jesus’ Lordship. Douglas Moo has written,
Paul’s task was to call men and women to submission to the lordship of Christ (cf. 4.b and 7b), a submission that began with conversion. This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, but which was to continue in a deepening, life-long commitment. This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, both as an initial, decisive step of faith and as a continuing “faith” relationship with Christ. . .obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience. They should not be equated, compartmentalized, or made into separate stages of Christian experience. Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience–for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord. . . (Moo, 1991, 44-45).
It Produces a Sense of Amazement and Admiration
If properly understood, the revelation of the biblical gospel will produce in us a sense of amazement and admiration as we contemplate God’s great salvation. We must not miss the fact that the ultimate goal of Paul’s gospel proclamation is stated in three words in Romans chapter one verse five. Paul states that the purpose of all his evangelistic activity is “for [on behalf of] his name.” A purpose that is even higher than obedience to the faith is the glory of the Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal in all God’s salvific activity as well his purpose in creating the world is the manifestation of his own glory.
As he came to the close of the doctrinal section of his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul seemed to have been overwhelmed with a sense of wonder as he contemplated those great truths that no eye has seen, no ear has heard and have not entered into the heart of man. He wrote, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past tracing out” (Rom.11:33)? Having considered the depths of God’s riches in accomplishing the salvation of his people, he could only conclude that his judgments [most likely referring to his decrees] are unsearchable and his ways [most likely referring to this acts of providence in executing his predestined plan] are inscrutable. He stood amazed as he considered the profundity of the divine mind in contriving such a magnificent plan. There is no evidence of an arrogant self-sufficiency that presumes to fully comprehend God’s mind. Often those who have failed to grasp the depths of their own corruption are so bold as to question what God should have done and what he would have been unjust to have done. They feign the ability to understand his paths and even seek to impeach the unfathomable ways of Jehovah. They will gladly receive God’s revealed truth as long as they can reconcile his providential dealings with their standard of fairness. Robert Haldane wrote,
Multitudes receive the testimony of God only so far as they can satisfactorily account for all the reasons and grounds of His conduct, when measured according to the petty scale of their limited capacity. How unbecoming in such a creature as man! Shall he who is but ‘of yesterday,’ and ‘knows nothing,’ who is born ‘like a wild ass’s colt,’ pretend to penetrate the counsels of the Omniscient! (Haldane, 1966, 549).
By contrast, Paul asked, “For who has known the mind of the Lord or being his counselor has taught him?” In his decrees and providential ways, God is infinitely exalted above the oversight or management of his creatures.
A biblical understanding of God’s good news will invariably demolish any thought of bringing him under obligation. Paul asked, “Who has first given to him that it might be repaid him” (v. 35)? If our concept of the gospel leaves us believing we have offered anything to God that would obligate him to smile with favor on us, we have clearly misunderstood his message. Charles Hodge wrote, “The creature has neither merit nor power. His hopes must rest on sovereign mercy alone” (Hodge, 1953).
The authentic gospel, when rightly understood, will inevitably and invariably lead us to ascribe all glory to God because it will lead us to understand that he is the source of all that is good “for of him are all things.” He is the means through whom all good occurs both in nature and in grace. His everlasting glory is the end to which all things are moving. Charles Hodge wrote,
When Paul asks, Who hath first given to God? the answer is, No one, for of him, through him, and to him, are all things. It is for the display of his character everything exists, and is directed, as the highest and noblest of all possible objects. Creatures are as nothing, less than vanity and nothing in comparison with God. Human knowledge, power, and virtue, are mere glimmering reflections from the brightness of the divine glory. That system of religion, therefore, is best in accordance with the character of God, the nature of man, and the end of the universe, in which all things are of, through, and to God; and which most effectually leads men to say, Not Unto Us, But Unto Thy Name Be All Glory (Hodge, 1953)!
If the message we proclaim does not lead us to a sense of awe and admiration as we contemplate the manifold wisdom of God in the plan, accomplishment and application of redemption, then that message is not the authentic gospel. A clear understanding of the biblical gospel will lead us to ascribe honor and glory to God as the beginning, middle and end of all things.
Haldane, Robert, The Epistle to the Romans, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1966.)
Hodge, Charles, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,) 1953.
Morris, The Theme of Romans, 249-63