Herman Bavinck said the big question in religion comes down to this: what must we do to be saved? How we answer that question, of course, determines the kind of religion we have.
We can answer it any number of ways. We have no lack of religions. Some say we’re saved by our good works. Some say by our lack of bad works. Others strive for an enlightened state. Yet more sacrifice to appease the wrath of the gods, crossing their fingers it’s enough by the last breath. Still others (the right ones, I believe) put their full hope in a Savior.
Just as we answer the all-important question individually, we also do so corporately. In fact, that’s what the church is. Every church is answering the question. And the question we must ask of every church is what is their answer?
In other words, every church has something at the center. Something driving the gatherings, the activities, the functions. Something serving as the engine powering everything that moves. What’s at the center is what’s all around.
So what’s that something? Or, better yet, what should that something be? In a world where self-salvation projects are many, what single thing can shatter them with enough glory to save them from themselves?
The gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what.
Of First Importance
The Apostle Paul said, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He said elsewhere he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). What’s at the center is what’s all around. For Paul, it was the gospel.
Speaking humanly, Paul was the greatest church planter the world has ever seen. The New Testament tells us of 14 churches he planted throughout the ancient world. He may have planted even more than that. In each case, what he brought to establish was not a significant budget, it was not a put-together team, it was not a polished worship service, it was not a plan event for city renewal. All Paul brought with him was the gospel he received from Jesus. That’s all he needed. In the 1960’s another Paul sang “All you need is love.” It’s a good song, but the wrong noun is at the end. The Apostle Paul sang a different tune. All you need is the gospel.
So what is the gospel?
The gospel is the good news that God saves his sinful people from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, promising to share his glory with them in a renewed creation forever—all to the praise of the glory of his grace.
The gospel is the best news the world has ever—or will ever—hear. It’s an endless song of joy, one that is big enough to be the center of a church, the center of a people, even the center of heaven.
Good News of Great Joy
William Tyndale, the man who translated the Bible into English in the 16th century, said:
Evangelion (what we call “the gospel”) is a Greek word, signifying good, merry, glad and joyful news, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy.
A church without the gospel fails to be a church. It’s something else—a social club or political action committee or a rallying point for pet projects or hobby horse hermeneutics. Those are man-centered organizations. And they can’t last. They make us sad. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately. Every man-made institution ends in tears. But the gospel ends with a party. It’s good news of great joy.
Ray Ortlund wrote a great little devotional book on Romans, A Passion for God. In the afterward, he says this:
A wave of authentic revival sweeps over the church when three things happen together: teaching the great truths of the gospel with clarity, applying those truths to people’s lives with spiritual power, and extending that experience to large numbers of people. We evangelicals urgently need such an awakening today. We need to rediscover the gospel…
We should not think, “Well, of course we have the gospel. The Reformation recovered it for us.” Such complacency will cost us dearly. Every generation of Christians must be retaught afresh the basic truths of our faith. The church is always one generation away from total ignorance of the gospel, and we today are making rapid progress toward that ruinous goal. Rather than carelessly assume the gospel, we must aggressively, deliberately, fully and passionately teach and preach the gospel. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. If we do not intentionally search them out, we will miss them.
I believe Ray is right. What will sustain us over the long haul is constant dependence upon God. A rugged commitment to his message of grace. A recurring rediscovery of his gospel. If we ever abandon the gospel as the centering point in our churches—no matter how good a thing we replace it with—we will have failed to remain faithful, and God must bring us to repentance or shut our doors.
Everyone coming into our church is asking the same question: what must I do to be saved? If our answer isn’t “throw yourself upon Christ in repentance and faith” we’re peddling religious goods unable to last. When the buyers’ joy turns to remorse, it will be because we failed to give them the good news they sought. God will hold us accountable.
Our faithfulness to the primacy of the gospel is the issue, the pulse that proves we’re still alive. The degree to which we keep the gospel at the center is the degree to which we will see what only God can do.
The gospel is big enough to be the center of our church. We don’t have to add to it. To do so only ruins it. It’s big enough by itself.