05 April 2011

Is the Gospel "beginner's material"?

by Dan Phillips

Time was, I would have said an emphatic "Yes!" Now I say an emphatic, "Yes — and no!"

As I prepared for and entered pastoral ministry, I saw a scene filled with churches who preached how-to-get-saved sermons every Sunday. The sheep were told how to become sheep, Sunday after Sunday. It produced perennially immature, ignorant Christians who thought their great and sole goal in life as Christians was to tell other people how to become Christians.

It reminded me of the Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown had told Lucy that we were put here to make others happy.

"What are the others put here for?" responded Lucy.

The Bible says a whole lot more than that Christians should tell people how to become Christians, so that they could tell people how to become Christians, so that they could tell people how to become Christians, and so on ad infinitum.

I visited the major Southern Baptist church in a small desert town. The morning "worship" service was devoted to a chart and figures. It was like a sales-strategy meeting. They "did the math" on what would happen if one person "won" one person, then they each "won" two more people, and so forth. Soon, the whole community would be "won."

I thought, "'Won'? To what? To the art of winning more people? What are the other people there for?"

Evangelism is essential, but it isn't everything. Some of this mindset springs, I think, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the "Great Commission," Matthew 28:18-20.
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Many read these words as a charge to the church to evangelize. That thought is included, of course; but it's a bit like saying that God's will for married couples is that they have a wedding ceremony. Well, there is that; but there is a whole lot to the before, during, and... well... during of marriage than the ceremony.

To make disciples is to make pupils, to make students. What's the text? What's the subject? "How to Become a Christian"? Yes, of course; but not just that. Our Lord goes on to mention immersion of those who are disciples, and "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." That just blows out the walls, doesn't it? "All that I have commanded you" takes in a lot more than how to get saved.

If our sole goal were telling people how to become Christians, one is left to wonder why God wrote such a large book that deals with so many other issues as well (marriage, children, relationships, work, wealth, creation, etc.).

However, having said all of that, I have come deeply to see that indeed the Gospel is not just beginner's material. Not the wholesome, fulsome Gospel of the Bible.

One must teach what the Bible says about marriage, family, relationships and all that. But as one does, one must preach the Gospel — because the Gospel is fundamental (1 Corinthians 15:1), and if we get the Gospel wrong, we get everything else wrong. The Gospel is how I came to know God, but the Gospel is also how I continue to know God. There is a constant need for the Gospel in Christian life.

This is part of the premise of my upcoming book, The World-Tilting Gospel. The Gospel certainly does tell us how to get saved (1 Corinthians 15:2), but it tells us more besides. Our entire view of the Christian life depends on whether we got the Gospel right or not. Lloyd-Jones illustrates this ongoing need well in his book Spiritual Depression, where he highlights and illustrates our ongoing need to preach the gospel to ourselves.

Another illustration comes with R. W. Glenn's post addressed to Christians (Christians) who struggle to believe that God loves them (h-t Challies). This topic resonates with me. What solution does pastor Glenn propose? "Repent and believe the gospel." That's right: if I understand him correctly, Glenn is telling people who believed the Gospel perhaps decades ago, who are saved and Biblically-faithful Christians that they (you? I?) need to repent and believe the Gospel. Because what will assure us of God's love is not something other, greater, deeper, or more advanced than the Gospel. It is the Gospel.

So I think that was the problem I noted at the outset.

It was that churches' preaching of the Gospel was too limited.

And it was that my understanding of the Gospel was too limited.

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

Excellent, Dan. Thanks for this.

This is one of the points that I stress with Christian friends. We all need to hear the Gospel every day. This is because we sin every day and we can find ourselves in a state of depression very easily if we do not recognize that Jesus has done the work of salvation already. Thaqt doesn't mean we sin with reckless abandon because part of the Gospel message is repentance.

I remember reading "Respectable Sins" by Jerry Bridges and having this hit home with me. I especially remember where he mentions a thought from John Newton. At the end of his life, John Newton said he couldn't remember much, but there were two things he knew: 1) that he was a great sinner, and 2) that he had a great Savior. As we grow in our walk with God, we will see the depths of our sin more and more every day. As we do so, may we also recognize the abundance of mercy and grace He has shown us, and also the magnitude of the work He has done in our salvation. And may we rejoice in thankfulness and look to serve our King more faithfully every day in love for Him.

Tom Chantry said...

This is, I believe, the great challenge of preaching. The gospel is necessary in every facet of the Christian life, so it must be central in preaching. At the same time, we cannot preach the same words week in or week out. No matter how full our comprehension of gospel truth, such preaching will fail to make every application of gospel power to our hearers. So the gospel must be preached repeatedly - the same rich, full, gospel - yet with varying and deepening layers of application to the whole of the Christian life.

Canyon Shearer said...

I can't wait to read your book. I recently took my Middle Schoolers through Hebrews 5:11-6:3 which makes the same point, that we don't just keep trying to get our saved congregation saved, but we move on to weightier matters of the faith.

Though I'm still not sure they could tell you what "imputation" and "expiation" mean, they do know that Jesus took their sins away and gave them his righteousness. With that foundation laid, I cannot wait to see how blessed they are knowing, and living, the rest of the Bible.

Word-verification: polob, n. an upside down palindrome.

DJP said...

Canyon, I see a lot of parallels between Christian life and marriage. People run into problems in their relationship, and they look to counseling for advanced, deep methods and so on.

I have made another proposal, parallel to the one I make in the post today but specific to marriage.

John Dunn said...

Great post! The faith which justifies is the very same faith which sanctifies. Sanctification apart from the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ quickly dengenerates into man-centred moralism or legalism. The Gospel can never be overemphasized, especially in this consumer-driven generation where pragmatic methods and approaches have become the benchmark of success, both in the marketplace and in the church. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation . . . our entire salvation.

DJP said...

Right, John. Piper's Future Grace helped me see the ongoing centrality of faith in the Christian life.

witness said...

Great post Dan! Once I had a believer tell me that I talked about the Gospel too much and needed to move on to deeper things because "saved" Christians shouldn't need it anymore. Wow.

This is the very reason Paul wanted to preach the Gospel in Rome... to believers.

So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. ~Romans 1:15

Bike Bubba said...

Amen, amen, AMEN. My family recently had to leave a church where every service was more or less structured as a revival service--and the pastor was wondering why he had a flock of immature Christians.

donsands said...

Thanks. I needed that. We are now in chapter 16 of Romans in my church. What a book Paul wrote for us to hear, read, study, and meditate upon. Our next book is John's gospel.

This verse came to mind as I read your lesson:
"But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him."-our Lord

Scooter said...

Without knowing it, a preacher can become a type of Marconite if all he preaches is "get saved!" He just glosses over large parts of Scripture for weekly revival.

Thanks for encouragement to keep the train on the tracka.

Carl said...

Dan, you touch on an important thing.

The gospel properly grounds and informs all the other godly doctrines flowing out from the pages of the Scriptures. And, yes, they all need be proclaimed and exposited (Acts 20:27) form the pulpit.

A proper understanding of this relationship curbs both, the local baptist church you mentioned (bent on encouraging with a mathematical equation their flock to winning their town), as well as the excesses of that other steadily increasing group of churches and denominations banding together under the name(s) of the "gospel" Coalition/Together For The/First (you name it!)...

It is equally imbalanced, even in the name of sound doctrine, to elevate the central message (and no-one should doubt it is central!) at the expense of fogging-up all other major heads of sound doctrine. And major they are, for they ground and equip us in solid truth.

Instead of promoting some of these groups and conferences, why not simply encourage the pastors to use the Westminster Confession of Faith (or another sound reformed confession) as a help to teach their flocks the 'main things' properly? It seems to me that this is precisely why these wonderful helps - confessions/catechisms - have been diligently and faithfully framed for us.

But we seem to favor the "conferences with new catch phrases and themes" approach...

DJP said...

Hopefully my Spurgeon fanboy creds are firm enough that I can say: I think he erred in this.

No one has ever preached the Gospel more richly than Spurgeon. However, in the dozens and dozens of Spurgeon works I've read, he simply bypasses the many passages of practical instruction. I think that's a mistake, it's an error. It would have served the church well had he, with his warm love for the Gospel, had shown how to preach on (say) Ephesians 5:22-24, and Ephesians 5:25ff., in a way that related the Gospel to the brass-tacks practicalities with which the apostles frequently dealt.

Lynda O said...


In some sense I agree with what you're saying, that Spurgeon never directly preached from specific texts with regard to direct application of practical matters in the church. But the more I read through Spurgeon's sermons -- sequentially, now half-way through volume 4 -- I am very impressed with the practical application which he included in every message, including many specific items of practical advice that have helped me in my own life and how I deal with so many every-day situations.

I realize that this quality of Spurgeon's does not come out in the selected "quotes" such as Pyro posts every weekend, or other selected readings that people post, or in his M&E devotionals -- but that's also why my approach to learning from the "paper pastors" is very different from the standard way as described on previous blogs here. At any rate, I find a great deal of very practical life help from Spurgeon, far more so than I can in my current local church situation.

Julian said...

Amen! Sometimes I felt that Christian leaders were telling me that the whole point of being a Christian was to be a virus, which exists to create more viruses. I knew this wasn't right, and I probably ended up erring too far to the other end of the spectrum.

Rachael Starke said...

"....it's a bit like saying that God's will for married couples is that they have a wedding ceremony."

Oh Dan, I am so totally borrowing this for the next time we have a loving argument with our dear pastor over all the recent missional community, church planting stuff that he continues to push. What's worse, the model he seems to be advocating for involves a whole lotta people shacking up together, without any "I pronounce you..."

And Tom, as usual, your comment warrants another extra-loud "Amen". At our previous church, the pastor had gone through a similar shift to Dan - rediscovering the gospel as essential to all of the Christian life. But, his preaching strategy was little more than uttering the words "the gospel" at regular intervals, decorated at times with words like "awesome", "amazing", and (my husband's favorite) "incredible". Nothing about what makes it those things (well, except for "incredible", of course). Nothing about how it affects all the things Dan lists. It was all justification, no sanctification.

Ironically, we left there to join our current church, which was at first gloriously about both, and we saw so much fruit in our lives. Now things are changing, and it's hard - a bit like getting baby food again after a season of grass-fed beef.

But the beauty of the gospel is that it nourishes at every stage of life. Even though at church we're not receiving it in the way we long for, it's still food and life.

Chris said...

We can't unhinge the gospel from from our daily Christian walk. We grow in maturity and begin to love others, disciple, care for the widow and orphans all in light of the gospel. If we unhinge the gospel we are just trying to be good people, we are no longer striving to be conformed to the image of Christ.

Scooter said...

Dan (or anyone),

Do you think that it's becoming in vogue to preach nothing but the Gospel every Sunday, in reference per your Spurgeon comment? I fear I'm beginning to see it in a younger generation of pastors.

I recently read a pastor that said unless you preach the Gospel all the time, you're preaching legalism.

wv: speteati, how a 3 y/o first says spaghetti

Halcyon said...


As a former fightin' fundy, this post resonates with me on many levels. The gospel is more than just the open door to God; it is the whole of life with God, beginning now and stretching forever on into eternity. Now that is good news.

Stefan said...


Yes. It's the Lutheran "Law/Gospel" distinction, which is becoming increasingly popular among some in the "Young, Restless, Reformed" movement—and is pushed especially by a certain popular radio program.

Every command or exhortation in the Bible (even the New Testament) is "Law," which is seen as bad, and which Jesus Christ fulfilled for us anyhow. Therefore, all preaching should be on all the other stuff—"Gospel."

There doesn't seem to be any attempt to merge the two together, and see how the Gospel empowers us to serve Christ in obedience. (Which we still fail at anyhow, which is why we need the Gospel.)

Tom Chantry said...


That absolutely is becoming common - and that very thought is taught as well as practiced. See the comment thread from Frank Turk's open letter to Mike Horton.

(And no, Mike Horton doesn't say that application = legalism, nor did Turk say that he does, nor (to my memory) did anyone else say it. The functional antinomianism in that thread nevertheless speaks for itself.)

It is one of a multitude of problems which impinges on pure, powerful gospel preaching in our day.

Stefan said...


There are very few truths in this vast, created universe that are more fundamental than this: that we believers, too, need to repent and believe the Gospel daily.

And we are commanded to walk in obedience, but it is obedience for the sake of growing in sanctification, and it is grounded in the precious blood of Jesus Christ, shed for our sins on Calvary's Cross...which brings us back to the daily need to repent and believe the Gospel.

Sarah : ) www.crumbsundermytable.blogspot.com said...

A friend of my husband and I had left a baptist church partially over this issue, and when his nephew asked him why he no longer went to church there, he said it was because he needed to go to a church where the whole counsel of God was taught and preached.
I think many of us (baptist or otherwise) can see that a neglect to teach hard truths or practical applications ( such as scriptures dealing with the biblical roles of men and women and the Sovereignty of God in salvation and divorce) leads to baby Christians unable to eat the meat and leaves our churches and our witness to the world weak and useless.

Lynda O said...

Agree, it's important that we consider the definition of the "gospel," that it is found throughout all of God's word and not to be limited to simple steps of how to get others saved. I think of how Paul spoke to the elders in Acts 20, that he had proclaimed to them the whole counsel of God, and then consider how much Paul taught in the NT letters.

One preacher I listen to has pointed out, for instance, that we learn in Acts that Paul had spent very little time with the church in Thesalonica -- a time period that could have been at most six weeks, but apparently only 15 days. Yet in that brief time, he had taught them many things that go beyond our limited "gospel" definition: all about the cross, about the Holy Spirit, Christian living, and of the coming Tribulation period, the kingdom, and the man of sin.

Robert said...

Just thought of a post from a few weeks ago (think it was one of Frank's open letters) and wanted to say that this post re-emphasizes to me how we should be living the Gospel in our lives every day.

donsands said...

"I recently read a pastor that said unless you preach the Gospel all the time, you're preaching legalism."

I agree. Why would anyone preach anything but God's grace and the Cross.

Unless I missed something.

Yet, we need to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of our Lord at the same time.

Tom Chantry said...


The people Scooter was talking about mean by "preaching the gospel" that each and every sermon must have as its topic the atonement. Further, they mean that no application may be made. Nothing may be said to urge the believer to "live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of our Lord."

I assume that is not what you mean by preaching the gospel.

The gospel of salvation by grace must be a constant theme in our preaching, and it must be the motivation for a righteous life. That perception, which may seem too obvious to require defending here at Pyro, is essential to a balanced preaching of the whole counsel of God firmly rooted in the gospel.

jmb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joel said...

I went and heard Paul Washer preach in Sacramento last night. Washer claims that almost the entirety of christianity in the United States does not in fact have the true gospel of Christ; and I believe he includes Southern Baptists who think they are preaching it every Sunday. I personally was raised in a conservative Christian church that highly honored the word of God and preached a message of salvation by faith not by works, but from that I came away believing that I was saved essentially by my personal act of faith. Many Evangelical Christians have kind of created a mega-sacrament out of faith, saying as long as you have and profess faith you are saved. Faith in and of itself is not the gospel. I believe that in the minds of many if not most American Christians it has been turned into just as much of a work as the Roman Catholic sacraments.

DJP said...


What Sacramento church would host Paul Washer?

donsands said...

That's spot on Tom.

David C. Miller said...

The Lutheran Law/Gospel distinction is not that the Law is Bad and the Gospel is Good. The distinction is that the two serve different purposes: the law curbs immoral behavior, shows a sinner that they are sinful, and guides them in what they should do as a new Creation in Christ.

The Gospel is different. Not better or Good but different. It's the announcement of the forgiveness of sins that Christ accomplished on the cross.

The Gospel comforts us where the Law terrifies us. It is unconditional, where the Law is conditional. The Law puts the Old Adam to death, and the Gospel brings the New Man to life.

There are problems when we misuse Law and Gospel. We can forget to preach the Gospel, and this turns the Christian message into one solely of obedience that no one can ever live up to.

But this post is a welcome reminder that we can also forget to preach the Law (or forget to preach all three uses of the Law), which turns the Christian message into one solely of lovey-dovey God Loves You No Matter What and Hey Ain't Jesus Awesome What With His Cool Beard and Great Attitude and All that makes us forget why we need the cross or the Gospel in the first place.

Preach both. Preach all that Jesus taught.

Stefan said...


Those are good points. Perhaps I was not precise enough with my words. It was meant to be obvious hyperbole, but it didn't come across very well in writing.

Of course, no Christian would claim that the Law is "bad," but there does seem to be a growing school of thought that believes that preaching on the Law is bad, even as the definition of "Law" is extended to include even New Testament commands. There even seems to be a minority camp that holds the call to "Repent and believe the Gospel" to be legalism.

Of course, we need to strike a balance between the Law and the Gospel. We are no longer under the Law, but nevertheless stand condemned by it and are tutored by it. For myself, I was so concerned for a number of years to avoid anything that smacked of "works righteousness," that I hardly progressed in my Christian walk at all.

Scooter said...

Stefan and Tom,

Thanks for the info. I am noticing it in the YRR movement. Not a clear Law = bad, Gospel = good extreme, bit the waters appear to be getting murky.

joel said...

It was Grace Family Church in Carmichael a Russian/ukrainian church I believe. And I get the impression that Paul Washer might preach one time at a lot of churches.

Seth said...

Well said.

pduggie said...

But if the Gospel tells us mere indicatives, we can hardly "live the gospel". if the gospel is just what jesus has monergistically done for us, how can it be our sanctification too, when sanctification is synergism (we do stuff).

Jesus' great commission is not 'teach them to preach the gospel to themselves every day'. Its teach them to observe all my commands.

DJP said...

Not sure what your point is. Actually, He says "teach them to keep all things whatsoever I taught you." Is the Gospel not among those things? Are you arguing that it ceases being relevant to the Christian in his daily life? At what point? Do you have a textual authority for that?

pduggie said...

What translation is that? The vast majority talk about teaching obedience to Jesus' commands.

But the "Gospel" is not a command. (is it?)

DJP said...

You answer first, then I'll answer your next question. That way, maybe we can move forward.

pduggie said...

well, if I put the 'gospel' as one of the things we are to teach obedience to in th great commission, I run into the issue of the gospel defined as 'promise' only (as Horton, et al, empahsize)

There are broader and narrower senses of Gospel, i think, and in the broader sense, it gets included in the things we teach disciples to observe.

We never move on from Christ and what Christ is doing for us. But some of what Christ is doing for us is being done IN us, and that, for some, has to be separated out from 'gospel' (or at least, justification). It just seems like the horns of a dilemma from our understanding of a monergistic justification and a synergistic sanctification. If that's right, how is the one the 'engine' of the latter?

That's my attempt to answer the question. Yeah, gospel is included in the 'all'

philness said...


You won't find much empathy with these guys concerning the "how to" to do Christianity which I call progressive sanctification. Phil, Dan and Frank have been saved with a measure of faith that most of us saints can only dream of. For most of us saints in our near apostate local churches we have been delivered a steady junk food diet of "how to" do Christianity from within our own selves and power. Hearing messages in our local churches every Sunday on behaviorism and performance and how unless we can look like Paul (never mind Romans 7) we are not saved, and without teaching the "how to" has left many a saint indignant & starved. But to guys like Phil, Dan and Frank the progressive sanctification process from one on one discipleship and mentoring; which is what I think the great commission is, will never really be an important issue to them because they figure if they can work it out concerning the "how to" and respond to the word with lightning fast change then so should all of us average saints. So it's pretty much foreign to them of the great need in the church to make learners of the saints for discipleship & combating sin. But it's funny- they can sure pin point with blinding accuracy the ring leaders and weak shepherds most of us saints have been fed from. And yet another funny is how especially Dan will shun and have zero patience with anyone coming into Pyro off the streets starving for Gods truths and almost monthly will post a back handed down talking to about getting fed from Pyro (as if, like its a 100% full feed, local church replacement on our part). Not to mention a regular beat down of discouraging us from leaving our low view of God & scripture churches. It's all a bit maddening at times but for the most part the munchies are pretty good here, and you can always just eat and run. Therefore, because of and in spite of all of that- I am thankful to God for Pyro.

You are correct in saying our salvation is monergistic and likewise so is our sanctification ultimately. But just like in salvation where God breathed into us first his Spirit before we could even manifest a response or change he likewise is progressively making us more like the image of Christ. And that process does seem to have elements of synergism of our responding & changing from a daily diet of the Bread of Life- studying the word and being totally dependent on Him and so forth. But Dan would rather bust on you to go find scriptures that support doctrinally that sanctification is synergetic, because doctrinally & strictly objectively it really isn't but it is subjectively and applicatively if that's a word.

trogdor said...

Today I was reading through Ephesians 4-5, and was reminded of this post. Yes, there's more to Christianity than initial belief (or else Paul wouldn't have spent so much time writing commands/exhortations), but everything that comes after that requires the gospel as a foundation.

Before getting into a huge list of commands, Paul starts with a statement of the gospel (4:17-24). From there, the commands to be honest (4:25), to be kind, tenderhearted, and to forgive (4:32), to walk in love (5:1), and to be generally pure (5:3ff) are all explicitly grounded in the gospel. And of course the marital commands in 5:22-33 could not be more gospel-based.

Get the gospel wrong, and all these aspects of sanctification suffer with it. The gospel is not so much beginner's material as it is foundational.