Every Christian loves the gospel. By definition, you cannot have a Christian who isn’t shaped by and saved by the gospel.
So three cheers for the gospel. Make that 3 million cheers.
But let’s preach the gospel the way Jesus and the apostles did. Theirs was not a message of unconditional affirmation. They showed no interest in helping people find the hidden and beautiful self deep inside. They did not herald the good news that God likes you just the way you are.
Too much “gospel” preaching sounds like a slightly spiritualized version of that old Christina Aguilera song:
You are beautiful no matter what they say. Words can’t bring you down. You are beautiful in every single way. Yes, words can’t bring you down. So don’t bring me down today.
I don’t doubt that many of us feel beat up and put down. We struggle with shame and self-loathing. We need to know we can be okay, even when we don’t feel okay. It is good news to hear, then, that God loves us in Christ and that we are precious in his sight.
But the gospel is more than positive self-talk, and the gospel Jesus and the apostles preached was more than a warm, “don’t let anybody tell you you’re not special” bear hug.
There’s a word missing from the presentation of our modern gospel. It’s the word repent.
Yeah, I know, that sounds old school, like an embarrassing sidewalk preacher with a sandwich board and cheap tracts with bad graphics and lots of exclamation points. And yet, even a cursory glance at the New Testament demonstrates that we haven’t understood the message of the gospel if we never talk about repentance.
When John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, he preached repentance (Matt. 3:8, 11), just as Jesus launched his Galilean ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Jesus understood the purpose of his ministry to be calling sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). Just before his ascension, the resurrected Christ implored the disciples to be his witnesses, that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” would be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47). In fact, if there is a one-sentence summary of Jesus’s preaching, Mark gives it at the beginning of his Gospel: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).
Notice that pair: repent and believe. The two are virtually synonymous in the New Testament, not that the words mean the same thing, but that they are signs of the same Spirit-prompted work and lead to the same end times inheritance. Strictly speaking, the proper response to the gospel is twofold: repent and believe (Matt. 21:32; Acts 20:21). If only one item in the pair is mentioned—which happens often in the New Testament—we should realize that the other half is assumed. You can’t really believe without also repenting, and you haven’t really repented if you don’t also believe.
You can’t really believe without also repenting, and you haven’t really repented if you don’t also believe.
The gospel message is sometimes presented as a straightforward summons to repent (Acts 3:18-19). Other times, forgiveness is linked to a singular act of repentance (Acts 5:31; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:10). The message of the apostolic good news is that God will be merciful when we repent and that repentance leads to life (Acts 11:18). Simply put: repent, that your sins may be wiped out (Acts 3:19).
If the call to repentance is a necessary part of faithful gospel preaching, then maybe we don’t have as much of it as we think. The summons to turn from sin, die to self, and turn to Christ is missing from prosperity preachers, from preachers in step with the sexual revolution, and from not a few gospel-centered preachers, too. It’s certainly missing from most of our worship services that long ago did away with a deliberate confession of sin.
To be sure, we aren’t called to beat people up Sunday after Sunday. Many folks stumble into church in desperate need of the Balm of Gilead. I get that. I think anyone who listens to several weeks of my sermons will hear that I’m not a finger-wagging scolder. And yet, if I never call people, with God’s authority, “to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 89), then I’m not doing the work a gospel preacher should do.
The unpopular fact remains that the ungrateful and impenitent will not be saved (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:1-20; 1 John 3:14). The New Testament has nothing to say about building the kingdom, but it does have everything to say about how we can enter into the kingdom. The coming of the King is only good news for those who turn from sin and turn to God.
If we want to give people a message that saves, instead of one that only soothes, we must preach more like Jesus and less like our pop stars.