Monday, May 2, 2011

What is the Preaching of the Gospel? (58)

Dear Forum Members,

I have completed our discussion of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. There are other texts that are sometimes quoted in support of this erroneous doctrine, but they are very similar to the key texts that I discussed in previous articles.

I would not be satisfied, however, with a criticism of the doctrine, and neglect to offer to the readers the positive teaching of Scripture on what the gospel in fact is. If it is not grace to the hearers – if it is not an offer in the sense of God’s desire to save all who hear and his willingness to save those who do hear – what in fact is it? The Scriptures speak repeatedly of the gospel. What do the Scriptures themselves say?

The word for “gospel” in the New Testament is a word from which we get the English “evangelism,” or, “evangelical.” In the noun form it means literally “glad tidings,” or, “good news” and refers to the contents of the gospel. The contents of the gospel are God’s eternal determination to save his elect people in Christ. Or, if I may put it in the words of one of our Confessions, the Canons of Dordt, it is the promise of God to save all those who believe in Christ, and it is a command to all who hear to forsake their sin and put their trust only in Christ for their salvation (2.5).

I take my starting point in Paul’s definition of the gospel in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

There were in Paul’s day and there are many in our own time who are ashamed of the gospel. They are ashamed of the sharpness of the gospel when it puts all men into a condition of sin from which they cannot possibly deliver themselves. It is embarrassing to them to come to men with the Biblical truth that the saved are eternally chosen as God’s elect. They are fearful that a gospel which speaks of God’s love for his people only will drive people away. And they are especially afraid of speaking of the gospel as the good news of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross for his people only and not for the whole world. That makes them ashamed of a gospel of particular grace, by which power God saves those whom he has eternally chosen.

But Paul is not ashamed of the gospel in all its sharpness and distinctiveness. He is not ashamed to preach it because the power to save does not lie in himself or his oratorical abilities. He tells the Corinthians, “And I, brethren when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-6).

Paul’s only concern was to be faithful to Scripture in his preaching. God would accomplish his own sovereign purpose through the preaching, apart from the gifts of the preacher, and apart from any human power at all.

Today, preachers who want to be popular and attract large crowds, are afraid or embarrassed by the gospel as Paul preached it. They are concerned about making the gospel more palatable, more attractive, more appealing to men. So it is with the gracious offer of the gospel. It holds to the fact that God has an attitude of favor to all men, that it is Biblical to teach that God loves all men and that Christ died for all men. They claim that if a preacher keeps talking about sin all the time and condemning sin, then people will turn away from him. People have to be told that they have some remarkably good qualities about them and that sin is not always so bad as it is said to be: surely man is not totally depraved. And so God loves them all, makes salvation available to them all, and desires their salvation. All that remains is for man to accept the loving overtures of the gospel and all is well.

Paul will have none of that. The gospel is God’s power to save. God himself saves through the gospel and God saves whom he wills to save. He accomplishes salvation in the atoning suffering and death of his own Son. The gospel is the proclamation of that truth. And through it God does what he has eternally determined to do, that is, save his people.

Paul puts it clearly in 1 Corinthians 1. He says that the gospel may very well be a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but it is nonetheless “unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Because the power of the gospel does not lie in human ability or skill, in the persuasiveness of the preacher, in his charisma, where does the power of the gospel lie? The answer is, in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Both Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, when they still taught the truth of Scripture, spoke of the external call and the internal call of the gospel. The external call of the gospel was the preaching of a minister who set forth the promise of salvation to all who believe and who brought the command to repent and flee for a refuge to Christ. All present when the gospel was preached heard this external call that proclaimed salvation to believers, the command to repent of sin and the sure punishment of hell for unbelievers.

But both Presbyterian and Reformed theologians also spoke of the internal call of the gospel. This internal call was the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect people whereby they are efficaciously called out of darkness into light, out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Jesus
Christ. It is sovereign, irresistible and particular and is used by God to bring salvation to those who are chosen in Christ and redeemed in Christ’s blood. Without that work of the Spirit, all who hear the command of the gospel will never repent and believe in Christ. They are totally depraved, without the grace of God, hell-bent for destruction.
Two things therefore, must be said about the Spirit’s work. The first is that the Spirit never works salvation in the hearts of men without and apart from the Scriptures and the preaching of the Scriptures. This is Paul’s clear teaching in Romans 10:11-18. This passage ends with these words: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world” (Rom 10:16-18).

The second is that the Spirit who always works only in connection with the preaching of the gospel, also always accomplishes God’s purpose in having the gospel preached. And it is this that I want to say a few things about.

First of all, let it be said emphatically that as far as I personally am concerned, I could never be a preacher if that were not true. If the success or failure of the preaching depended on me in any way whatsoever, I would be so frightened that I would never want to enter a pulpit again. The only truth that keeps me going is that God will do his work regardless of what I am or how I preach.

But there is more. Isaiah, in an important passage, says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing wherein I sent it” (Is. 55:8-11).

This passage is a clear statement that God accomplishes his purpose through the gospel. The emphasis falls on God’s purpose; his purpose of eternal election in Christ and his purpose revealed in the cross.

The same figure of the preaching of the gospel as rain falling on the earth is found in Hebrews 6, although with a different emphasis. In verses 4-6, the author of this epistle speaks of those who have once tasted the good word of God but have fallen away. It is impossible, the apostle says, that they be renewed unto repentance. In verses 7-8 the apostle gives the reason for this: the reason being that the word of God always accomplishes its purpose, but not only now in the salvation of the elect, but also in the damnation of the reprobate. “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God. But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.”

The gospel that is widely preached is like the rain that falls upon the earth. In some instances, because of the blessing of God, it brings forth fruit. In other instances, the same rain brings forth briars that are destined to be burned. The latter as much as the former is the realization of the purpose of God accomplished through the gospel.

The outward call of the gospel that demands repentance and faith in Christ from all who hear it has its purpose. Its purpose is, first of all, that through the work of the Spirit, the elect bring forth fruit. But it is also that the wicked who reject the gospel and in whom the Spirit does not work, are left without excuse when they bring forth only briars.

But behind the rejection of the gospel lies the purpose of God in the decree of reprobation. It is no wonder that men hate the doctrine of reprobation, for it more than any other reveals the sovereignty of God. But that the gospel also is used by God to accomplish his decree of reprobation is clear from Scripture.

In 2 Corinthians 2:14-17, the apostle Paul writes: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish. To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and t the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.”

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. He rather considers preaching the gospel to be a triumph in Christ because God’s purpose is accomplished. And God’s purpose is accomplished whether the gospel saves or hardens. In both cases the preaching of the gospel is a pleasant smell to God. No wonder the apostle says, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (16).

That the decree of reprobation stands behind the rejection of the gospel is taught elsewhere in Scripture. This firm teaching of Scripture does not detract from man’s responsibility, because, as I said in an earlier installment, God accomplishes his decree by means of the sinful rejection of the gospel by man. But that does not alter the fact that God remains sovereign.

There are many passages in Scripture that teach this. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and told Moses he was going to do this before Moses ever confronted Pharaoh with the command, “Let my people go” (Exodus 4:21, and at least eight other places in Exodus). Paul confirms that this was the work of God’s sovereign decree of reprobation in Romans 9:17.

Jesus explains the unbelief of the Jews as God’s sovereign work when he explains his purpose in teaching in parables (Mark 4:11-12). Jesus, in speaking of himself as the good Shepherd, explains the unbelief of the Jews as being rooted in God’s decree: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you” (John 10:26). It is a mistake to turn this around, as some do: “Ye are not of my sheep, because ye believe not.” In very strong language Jesus explains the unbelief of the Jews in this way: “Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, “He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them” (John 12:39-40). It is impossible to harmonize these strong words with a God-loves-you, God-wants-to-save-you, God- pleads-with-you-to-accept-Christ gospel. The exegetical daring of those who try leaves one breathless.

The gospel is God’s great power unto salvation to all who believe. Any minister who takes his calling seriously stands in awe before the great power of the gospel. He mounts to platform, explains a text – and unleashes powers that make a destructive earthquake of less power than the pop of a small firecracker. The gospel makes saints out of sinners and the bride of Christ out of spiritual prostitutes. It carries on its power the elect from the spiritual dirt and filth of sin into the purity and glory of heaven.

And the gospel also accomplishes God’s purpose in hardening the reprobate that they might, in the way of their sin, manifest the judgment of God.

Let us humbly give thanks that God has used the gospel to transform us. And let the gospel be our light and guide in life.

For who is sufficient unto these things?

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko

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