The Lord's Day Morning
January 21, 2007
I Corinthians 15:1-4
Biblical Priorities for Church Life
The Gospel Applied
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Corinthians 15:1-4. We've been working our way through a series of topical expository messages on the subject of “Biblical Priorities for The Life of Our Church” and we've been asking ourselves all along, “What does the Bible say are the qualities (or the characteristics, or the attributes) of a healthy local congregation of Christians? What are the things which characterize their life and their ministry together, if they are being biblical?” And we've looked at a number of qualities of a healthy, biblical local fellowship of believers.
We've talked about a passion for worship; we've talked about a love for expository preaching; we've talked about the priority that is put on worshiping God in all of life. And last week, we began to look at the centrality of the gospel in the life of a healthy, biblical local church. We said that a healthy local congregation of believers is characterized by members who understand the gospel and who understand that it's the power of God unto salvation.
Well, we want to come back again this week and do some further explanation and application of that truth, because the centrality of the gospel is so important. In fact, a healthy local congregation of believers is filled with people who understand the centrality of the gospel to both the Christian life and the ministry; to both the way we live our lives with God and the mission of the church. Every healthy local congregation that is biblical in its character is characterized by a membership that has a robust grasp of the gospel message, who appreciate the importance of that gospel message, and who live it out.
And so, today, by way of continued exposition and application, I want to look at three things that we learn about the gospel in I Corinthians 15:1-4. We learn that the gospel is specific, that it is objective, and that it is sufficient. And then I want to look at four substitutes that are often offered for the gospel that confuse the gospel and confuse people about the gospel, by way of elaborating some of three great truths that are set forth in I Corinthians 15:1-4. Before we read God's word, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word because it is Your word. And, because we do not always hear as we ought to hear and see as we ought to see, we need Your Holy Spirit to open our eyes, if we are going to behold wonderful things in Your word. So we ask for that. By Your Spirit, help us to understand; but not only to understand, but to embrace and to live the truth which You set before us today. In Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Now last week when we were looking at the gospel together, we said that one way of summarizing the gospel is to say that the gospel is the glad tidings or the good news of God's redeeming lordship in the person and work of Christ, especially in His death, burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins according to the Scriptures. Now, that's a mouthful, but it basically is a summarization of what the Apostle Paul has said here in I Corinthians 15:1-4. And it would take not just one or two sermons, but a whole series of sermons to unpack all the glory of what Paul has just said here. But I do want you to see three things.
What we learn about the gospel
I. The gospel is specific.
Notice that Paul is telling us here that the gospel is specific and that it is objective, and that it is sufficient. He's telling us that the gospel is specific…and did you notice the three ways in which he tells you that the gospel is specific? (By the way, when I say that the gospel is specific, I mean that it has a definite, irreducible content.) It is a message which is specific. It is not a vague message. You know, sometimes we’ll say to somebody, “The Lord bless you,” and that's a biblical phrase; but if we were to stop one another sometimes when we say that and ask, “What do you mean bless?” We might find ourselves going “…be-deh-be-deh-be-deh…” because bless is one of those words that we use so often that sometimes it almost has no content left. That is not how Paul is using gospel here. It has tons of content, and he emphasizes that in three ways.
First of all, look at verse 1. Notice how he says “I make known to you the gospel which I preached to you.” In other words, he's reminding them of a message called the gospel that he had actually preached or proclaimed to them, so it has a definite content. It's a message.
Second, look at verse 2: “By which also you were saved, if you hold fast…”–what? “…the word which I preached.” This is another way that he's emphasizing that the gospel is not vague, it is not amorphous without shape or content, it is not ephemeral (you can't get your hands on it). It is concrete, there is content to it. And so he says “…the word which I preached…the message which I preached to you.” There's a definite content to that message.
Then he sort of gives you an outline of the contents. That's the third way that he stresses that the gospel is specific. Notice what he says:
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, He was buried, He was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
So he gives you a very quick thumbnail sketch of the content of the message that he had been preaching.
So the gospel is specific. Now that is hugely important. We’re going to see that as we look at these four things that are often substituted for the gospel. One of the things that we will find out in the first three of those things that are often substituted for the gospel is, the reason they get substituted for the gospel is that people do not adequately understand that the gospel is specific. It is a specific message with definite content that cannot be changed or altered or reduced.
II. The gospel is objective.
Secondly, notice that the Apostle Paul says that the gospel is objective. The gospel is not, in the first place, about something that you do.
We emphasized last week that the gospel requires a response. We must respond to the gospel in faith and in repentance if we are going to enjoy all the benefits of the gospel. But in the first place, the gospel is not about something that we do. It's about something that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We emphasized that both from this passage, where it emphasizes Christ's dying for your sins and being buried, and being raised again on the third day…the whole message of it is about Jesus…and we also emphasized this by going to Acts 17:24-27, and seeing how the Apostle Paul preached the gospel to the Greeks.
And what did he say to them? Where did he start? He started with God the Creator, because the gospel is an announcement about what God has done, and we're going to see that one of the mistakes that is often made in those messages that are substitutes for the gospel is that they forget that the gospel is about God, and they change it into something that we do. And so the Apostle Paul is making it clear to us that the gospel is objective. It's something that happens outside of us that is preached to us, and which of course has a profound effect on us as we trust in Jesus Christ by faith. But it is not subjective. It's not something that we do. It's objective. God does it. It's about God. It's about Christ. It's about His saving work on our behalf. It's not about what we do, it's about what God does.
III. The gospel is sufficient.
And then, thirdly, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that this gospel is sufficient. It doesn't need anything to be added to it. We see how he does that here in I Corinthians 15, when he says (look again at verse 2): “…the gospel which I preached to you, by which also you are saved.” This gospel is sufficient for salvation. Paul makes the same point in Romans 1, doesn't he, when he says that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” It doesn't need anything added to it in order to be the power of God. It is sufficient to save us. The gospel alone. And the Apostle Paul wants us to understand how powerful that is.
Paul knows that in the eyes of the world somebody standing up in front of you and telling you the truth doesn't look powerful. In fact, he says in this book that it kind of looks weak, especially to people who fancy themselves intellectuals. But in fact, that message, however foolish it may look in the eyes of the world, is in fact the thing that God has chosen to display His power: that He will use a word spoken by mere human beings to bring men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation into an everlasting fellowship with Him. Now, only God could do that! …can use the mere words of men and women, to be used in the lives of men and women to bring them to faith in Christ. So the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is sufficient for our salvation.
What the world substitutes for the gospel
Now. What gets substituted for this gospel? Well, a lot of things do. We don't have time to cover all the things that get offered in the place of the gospel in churches. I'm not talking about somewhere out in the world; I'm talking about in churches, and even in Bible-believing churches. But let me mention four.
I. God accepts you.
One message that gets substituted for the gospel in our day and time is this message: “God accepts you. God accepts you as you are. You’re OK with God. No worries, mate!” It's sort of a spiritual version of the therapeutic “I'm OK, you’re OK.” And we can understand how people could mistake that message for the fullness of the gospel message, because the gospel message rightly understood results in an enormous sense of acceptance with the living God. What is justification about but the fact that God in His mercy accepts us, for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ? We are…what does the Bible say? “…Accepted in the Beloved.” And so, yes, the gospel does result in acceptance with God.
And of course there's another reason why that message is so attractive, because everywhere in the world today, including in churches, there are people who have experienced alienation and isolation and rejection in their life, and they are dying to be accepted by someone. They may have experienced rejection in their own families, and the message “You’re accepted” sounds so good, and it sounds so amazing and overwhelming.
But I've got some bad news and some good news. The gospel confronts you with a much more dire reality than that, but it also promises you a much more glorious acceptance than that. Because the gospel says ‘OK, here's the news: You are worse off than you thought you were. You’re not OK with God. In fact, you are (apart from Christ) rightly under His condemnation. You are in the bull's eye of His judgment. But in the greatness of His love and mercy, He has spared not His own Son, that you might become the righteousness of God in Him. He has spared not His own Son, that you might be declared to be right with Him. He has spared not His own Son, that you might be adopted into His family, and you are now accepted in His Son.’ So it's worse than you think, but God's grace is greater than you have ever dreamt.
You see, the gospel teaches not a shallow acceptance, but a deep acceptance. Our world likes to hear the shallow acceptance because then we don't have to confront our own sin. We can pretend like we're OK and we're accepted. But the Bible says until we understand how dire our consequences are, we’ll never appreciate the fullness of gospel acceptance. Yes, the gospel gets you to acceptance, but it gets you to a much deeper acceptance than the message that God simply accepts you will ever get you. In fact, many will hear that message, “God accepts you,” and never be accepted by God, because they haven't seen their need for the gospel; because the problem is not outside of them and what somebody has done to them, it's inside of them, and what they have done towards God. They have said to God, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll do it my way. Thanks, but no thanks, because there are things in this world that are better than You.” Every human being has done that, apart from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and until they come to grips with that, they’ll never understand how powerful is the acceptance that God does offer in the gospel.
So there's one message that's offered as a substitute for the gospel, that's not the gospel: “God accepts you.” No, the gospel's better than that.
II. God is love.
The second message that we often hear today is this one: “God is love.” We hear it in a lot of different forms, but the message is basically purveyed, “You need to understand that God loves you.”
Now once again, what a glorious biblical truth about the love of God! We've just been studying through the Book of Ephesians, and we said when we got to Ephesians 3 that one of the great things that the Apostle Paul wants all Christians to revel in is the realization that God does not love us less than He loves His only begotten Son! That is a thought that you will contemplate from now throughout all eternity, Christian, and you’ll never ever see to the bottom of it! You will see more and more of the light of God's grace as you contemplate that truth. But the message of the gospel is not “God is love. God loves you.” That response can often prompt this particular response: “Great. Beat it. If God loves me, I'm OK.” That's the implication of the message to somebody who's listening.
Or, it can prompt this kind of response: “The implication is God loves me; therefore, He forgives me; therefore, I don't even worry about it.” And so you get people saying, “Look. Of course God will forgive me. That's His business. He's obligated to forgive me. He can't be a loving God unless He forgives me.” In fact, one youth worker once told me that he was seeing more and more young people that he was working with respond to the message of the gospel by saying, “Christ died for me? Well, yeah. Of course.” And the implication being, “I'm a great guy! Of course Christ died for me.”
Well, you see, that's not the gospel. Because the gospel reminds us that God is not simply love, He is holy love. And so as Derek has often reminded us, we can't summarize the gospel simply with “God loves us.” We must remember that God loves us at the cost of His Son.
You know, the thing that amazes the Apostle Paul in Romans 3 is not that God is kind and merciful. You know the Apostle Paul knew that. If God were not kind and merciful, the Apostle Paul would have been a black smudge mark somewhere on the road to Damascus. He was a persecutor of Christians, and if God weren't merciful, Paul would have just been a smoldering heap of ashes on the road to Damascus. He didn't have to convince Paul that God was merciful. What blows Paul's mind, in Romans 3:21-27, is that God has showed His mercy in such a way that His righteousness and justice has not been compromised. That is, He shows His love in a way that His holiness is not compromised. He visits the judgment that we deserve on His Son, Jesus Christ; and as we rest and trust in Jesus Christ, we experience the acceptance and the blessing and the love that Christ deserves. So “God loves you” doesn't get at that glorious truth of what God must do in order to visit His grace and mercy upon sinners in rebellion against Him.
III. God is your friend.
Another substitute for the gospel is the message “God is your friend. Jesus wants to be your friend.” And you understand what's being conveyed in that: a sense of sympathy; that God understands the hard things that you’re experiencing in this world, and comes alongside of you in the trials of life. And that's a very important message. In fact, it's a part of the biblical message that our God is near to His people in their time of need. But to substitute the idea that God is our friend, or that Jesus wants to be our friend, and that God is sympathetic with the gospel, is to rob our experience of the fullness of what He says He will do for His people.
His people are in need of much more than sympathy. I don't just need sympathy; I need forgiveness, and I need to be changed. And in the gospel we learnt that God's friendship with us has been purchased at the cost of His own Son. His own Son cries out, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” so that we might be friends with God. The Father causes the Son to experience the loss of His friendship, so that we might gain the Son's friendship with God. That is a much deeper, much richer, much more comforting, much more profound understanding of the kindness, and the sympathy, and the friendship and the love of God than could ever be conveyed in the message that God is your friend.
IV. Do something.
But last, so often, even in Bible-believing churches, the gospel is presented this way: “Do something. You need to do something. You need to be good.”
In our culture, where morals are going down the tube, so often well-meaning preachers say, “Christians, this world is sinful, this country is sinful. We need to be good.” And very often they present that as the gospel. My friends, “Be good” is really bad news if it's the gospel! Because “Be good” means you and I are going to hell, because we haven't been good and the Apostle Paul says we can't be good, and that no one in fact is good. He's not denying that we do good things for one another from time to time; he's just saying that our hearts aren't right with God. We don't love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind, and all our soul and all our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We’re selfish! We want to do it our way. We’re not good. “Be good” is not the gospel.
Even those who don't say “be good” or “do right” and give that as the gospel, sometimes they’ll say things like this: “Here's the good news, friends. It's a hard world out there; think positively!” And notice again, the focus is on what? What God has done? No! It's on what you’re supposed to do. And no matter what they fill in the blank with what you’re supposed to do, I want to promise you this: It won't work!…because the problem's not outside of us, the problem's inside of us; and so the solution is not inside of us, the solution is outside of us. It's in what God does through Jesus Christ. He sent His Son into this world to live and die, to fulfill His Law perfectly, to be offered as a sacrifice for our sins so that all who receive and rest on Him alone for salvation are declared right with God, are accepted by God, are welcomed into the family of God, and will commune with Him forever.
Oh, my friends! A healthy church, a biblical local congregation of believers is on fire for that gospel! It wants to live that gospel out in our relationships to one another; wants to live that gospel out in our witness to the world; knows that that gospel is all about the way we live and what we're here to do, because the mission of the church is to live and tell that truth to the world.
Heavenly Father, in the gospel of Your Son, You have made Your eternal glory known. Grant that we would understand the gospel; grant that we would embrace the gospel; grant that we would live the gospel; grant that we would tell the truth, until all the nations are brought into the eternal enjoyment and the pleasures of the living God. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.