No Cross, No Gospel
"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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
I have noticed a trend which ought to concern any member of a PCA church. There seems to be an increasing number of PCA church plants whose stated definition of the gospel is void of any mention of the cross or atonement. In other words, there seems to be a growing number of PCA churches and/or pastors who do not properly define the gospel.
The following example from the front page of a PCA church’s website was sent to me from a concerned member of one of our churches. Notice that they are answering the question, “What is the gospel?”:
What is the Gospel? It is the announcement (literally “good news”) that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of salvation for the entire cosmos and will be completed when he returns. God is restoring the peace (shalom) of his creation through the work of Christ and is renewing people, families, neighborhoods, cities and nations, as people trust and follow him.
I have read a number of other definitions of the gospel on other PCA church websites that define the gospel in essentially the same way.
I have no reason to believe that the writers of statements such as the one above are anything other than fine brothers in Christ. It may be that they are pastors who preach Christ crucified every Lord's Day. I certainly hope that is the case. The fact remains however that the answer given above to the question "What is the gospel?" is so incomplete as to be wrong. It is not possible to explain the gospel without placing Christ's death for sinners at the center.
Certainly the resurrection of Jesus is essential to the gospel. If we are not proclaiming Christ as risen then we are not proclaiming the gospel. Jesus’ resurrection is necessary for our salvation. Likewise, it is true that the salvation Jesus accomplished is cosmic in scope. That is, there will be a new heaven and earth in the age to come. Sin has ruined everything so the new creation will include both redeemed persons as well as a redeemed creation. I also understand that it is not possible to include everything about the gospel in a single statement. Certainly a statement that addresses the gospel in all its fullness and implications could not fit in a simple statement.
But there is simply no gospel apart from the cross. There is no proper explanation or proclamation of the gospel apart from the fact that “Christ died for our sins.”
So how can it be that there are PCA churches which define the gospel in such a way as to leave out the heartbeat of the gospel itself?
One of the standard features of progressive or liberal theology is a disdain for the atonement. You will hear talk about the various “theories of the atonement.” It will be said that while some accept the “theory” of penal substitutionary atonement others prefer another theory like Christus Victor. Of course they fail to understand that Christ’s victory is grounded in part in his death as our vicarious substitute; our propitiation.
Incidentally, I am making no claim about the intentions of those pastors who neglect to mention the cross or atonement in their definitions of the gospel. They may well be wonderful folks. But if we can't be "sticklers" about getting the gospel right then what are we?
So, what are we to think about pastors in the PCA who, when asked to explain the gospel, make no reference to sin, the cross, or the atonement? If it were a one-off we could explain it as a probable oversight; a mental speed bump. But I am concerned that this problem is way beyond anecdote. It seems to be a trend.