Assuming the Gospel

I find that in the contemporary church the Gospel is often assumed. That is, in the church today there tends to be a bit of a “ho-hum” attitude toward the most important message in the universe. It is a mentality that says, “Well of course we believe the Gospel. Can’t we get on to more pressing issues now?” The assumption, and it is, I fear, common, is that there are issues (perhaps many) that are more pressing than the Gospel. I find it ironic that evangelicalism (a word that is taken from the Greek word that means “gospel”) has now been so broadly defined that men such as Brian MacLaren and Rob Bell who deny the substitutionary atonement of Jesus are among its most influential “leaders.” How can this be?

In the latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine David Gibson has written an excellent, albeit disturbing article entitled “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel.” In it, Gibson traces an all too common trend among organizations that once held to and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus’ sacrificial atonement for sinners: “Proclaiming, assuming, denying.”

Gibson writes:
“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”

This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists, etc. These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message.

But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel.

Evangelicalism as a word means little or nothing anymore. As a movement, it no longer resembles the Gospel-centered revolution that Martin Luther helped to launch. It may well be headed toward the historical ash heap with the many other formerly Gospel movements. David Gibson believes that Evangelicalism is in the middle stage toward outright denial; the stage he calls “assuming.”

“Assumed Evangelicalism believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, Assumed Evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others, and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day.”

I think many of us who grew up in evangelical churches, although we rarely recognized it, were growing up in churches that assumed the Gospel. We were more likely to hear a moralistic message on how we should be more like Abraham or how to slay the giants in our life than we were a careful and doxological proclamation of the atonement. Not many of us were raised to understand that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation declares Christ. Not many of us were taught to see the work of Christ foreshadowed in the garden, in the lives of the patriarchs, in the preaching of the prophets. These stories were taught to us primarily as lessons on living because that is what people want to hear. It’s “practical for everyday life.”

People get tired of hearing about Jesus all the time. They want to hear “Relieving Stress the Elijah Way” or “Rockin’ to God’s Oldies” or “Five Smooth Stones for a Happy Family.” After all, must everything come back to Jesus? Can’t we just hear something that encourages us? Can’t we just hear something that comforts us? We already know the Gospel…And just that quickly, the Gospel is minimized, marginalized, and ultimately lost.

In chapter one of The Great Work of the Gospel John Ensor makes an observation that is incredibly important. It is important precisely because of our tendency to assume the Gospel. It is important because of our natural tendency to drift away from the Gospel rather than toward it. He writes, “[The Gospel] seeks to scratch where we feel no itch. It offers as a matter of first importance what we consider of least concern – God’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life through the life and work of Jesus Christ.”

We will always tend to “feel” that there are matters of greater or more pressing importance than the Gospel. Among evangelicals, the Gospel is rarely, if ever lost in one grand movement of apostasy. It is gradually lost through small battles of attrition. Churches become family-driven or purpose-driven or morality-driven. Don’t misunderstand. Strong families, a God-centered sense of purpose, and biblical morality are wonderful things that ought to characterize every church. However, when the Gospel becomes simply one priority among many then the church loses her way. The church must be Gospel-driven.

“Some evangelical biographies and histories give the impression that difficult decisions only need to be made when we reach a watershed moment, a clear-cut choice between truth and error. In reality, such crisis points come about because of daily decisions, made on a minute scale and over a period of time, either to assume evangelical distinctives or actively articulate them. Individually, every day, we face the choice whether to sit under the Bible alone, to run to the cross alone and look to Christ alone, or to begin to shift our gaze on to other things. Once we begin simply to assume these truths, then we are already beginning to stop ‘acting in line with the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14). The potential consequences for ourselves are harmful; for the generation following us they are disastrous” (David Gibson).