WHAT DOES PREACHING THE GOSPEL MEAN?
The Greek verb translated "preach the gospel" appears fifty-five times in the New Testament. Sometimes the word is rendered "show glad tidings" or "declare glad tidings" or simply "preach." Probably the best-known use of the word is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. "Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; by which also you are saved, if you keep in memory what I have preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain" (1 Cor. 15: 1-2). Paul reminded the Corinthians that he had taught them about the death of Christ, about his burial, about his resurrection, and about the many people who saw him after he was raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-9).
Only the most radical theologians would deny that preaching the gospel of Christ must include the death of Christ, his burial in Joseph's new tomb, his glorious resurrection from the dead and the number and the integrity of the men and women who say that they saw Jesus after he was raised. But is there not more to preaching the gospel than the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord? Let us look briefly at some of the uses of the expression, "preach the gospel." Luke records the dedication and faithfulness of the early Christians at Jerusalem. "Therefore they who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.... But when they (the Samaritans) believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Christ, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:4, 12). My question for you to consider in this study is very simple: "What Does Preaching the Gospel Mean?"
I decided to discuss this topic because of a letter I received from a gracious listener. He was troubled because of my exposition of the writings of Tim Woodruff and Rubel Shelly. He says he is not defending what these men have written, but thinks there may be a better forum than the International Gospel Hour for me to express my views about their writings. I must make two observations before I examine the preaching of the man who told the Corinthians: "Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you" (1 Cor. 15:1).
If Tim Woodruff and Rubel Shelly were the only two preachers promoting postmodernism, I would have wasted the time of my listeners in discussing their writings. But the influence of these men has led many people - especially some of our young people - to repudiate the teaching of scripture. For example, Rubel Shelly and John York's book, The Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the Unity of the Body of Christ (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2003), approves of "unity in diversity." Rubel Shelly argues that postmodernists "have no difficulty with than less-than-perfect-interpretations, for they value persons over formulas" (p. 83). Both Christ and the apostles had "difficulty with less-than-perfect interpretations." Our Lord based an argument on the tense of a verb (Mt. 22:32). Paul based an argument on the number of a noun (Gal. 3:16). If we do not know exactly what the scriptures teach, how can we be sure we are obeying our Lord or if we are really preaching the gospel?
The word of God explicitly urges all Christians - and not just preachers or other teachers - to examine the beliefs and practices of those who claim to be speaking for God. The Holy Spirit commended the Christians at Berea for searching the scriptures daily to ascertain whether Paul and Silas were teaching the truth (Acts 17:11). The Apostle John demanded: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). Paul warned the elders of the Lord's church at Ephesus about false teachers - both from outside and from inside the church (Acts 20:29-30).
I have an obligation - as do all preachers - to refute the soul-condemning errors of radical theologians like John Shelby Spong and Leslie Weatherhead. But the writings of those men do not reach many members of the churches of Christ. So how can I ignore the writing and preaching of Tim Woodruff and of Rubel Shelly that have had such an enormous impact on many of our young people? There have been many young people - and some not so young - who have been deceived into leaving the church and joining denominational groups because of the teaching of men like Tim Woodruff and Rubel Shelly. That alone inspires me to refute the teaching of these and other postmodern preachers among churches of Christ.
I now return to the question I am discussing with you today. "What Does Preaching the Gospel Mean?" Is it the same a preaching Christ crucified (1 Cor.2:2)? Does it mean preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27)? These and similar terms are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament. If preachers have any interest in having God's approval of their preaching, they cannot be silent on any issue or problem confronting the church and the world. We must preach the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Let us examine what preaching the gospel meant in the work of the Apostle Paul.
The great prophets of the Old Testament constantly warned the people of God of the danger of becoming like the pagan nations surrounding Israel. Moses told the Israelites: "When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.... For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you" (Dt. 18:9, 12). If the Jews participated in the practices of the pagan people, God would drive the Jews out of the land. Tragically, they did adopt some of the heathen practices and were eventually driven from the land God had promised to their fathers.
In the first century, the churches of Galatia were guilty of attaching certain elements of the Mosaic covenant to the gospel of Christ. That may not seem to the modern mind to be a very serious matter. After all, the Mosaic covenant just as surely came from the mind of God as the new covenant. But you cannot read the book of Galatians without knowing the grave danger of perverting the gospel of Christ. There were teachers among the churches in the province of Galatia who were trying to retain certain elements of the Mosaic covenant and combine them with the gospel of Christ. They almost certainly believed that a new religion combining the best teachings of the Law of Moses and the best ideas in gospel of Christ would make a religion superior to either of the covenants alone.
While the views being circulated among the Galatian Christians may not seem serious to postmodernists, the Apostle Paul was deeply disturbed by what was transpiring. He accused the false teachers of preaching "another gospel." In order for us to understand what was happening that so upset Paul, let us examine the divinely inspired words of Galatians 1:6-11. Paul expressed amazement at the changes that were taking place among the Galatians. "I marvel that you are so soon removed from him who called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there are some who trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:67).
The Greek says the Galatians "were removing themselves from the grace of Christ." The English Standard Version says the Galatians were "quickly deserting him." They were leaving the grace of Christ for "another gospel." The Greeks had two words which are translated "another." The word alios means another of the same kind. Jesus used that word when he spoke of the Holy Spirit. He promised his disciples: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter" (that is, another Comforter just like Jesus), that he may abide with you forever" (John 14:16).
Paul employs the word heteros in this context. That word means another of a different kind. When we understand those two words, the text actually says: "You are removing yourselves from the grace of Christ unto a gospel that is different from the true gospel." By preaching another gospel, those false teachers were troubling the Galatians and were perverting the gospel of Christ. The word "pervert" literally means to change to its opposite. In other words, the false teachers were changing the soul-saving gospel to a soul-condemning gospel.
Paul makes it very plain that there is one and only one true gospel. "But though we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that you have received, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that you have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8-9). This is some of the harshest language to be found in the scriptures. The men who preach another gospel and those who embrace another gospel will be accursed. No man - I repeat, no man - has the authority to change one word of the true gospel. That was the reason our Lord told his apostles: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Mt. 16:19).
Paul asked the Galatians: "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Jesus Christ. But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:10-12). Incidentally, the word "certify" means to make known. Paul wanted the Galatians and all subsequent Christians to know that what he and other apostles preached was the only saving gospel.
Paul used the Greek word translated "preach the gospel" four times in verses 8-11. But in exposing and opposing the false teachers among the Galatians, was he preaching the gospel? In other words, when we point out the errors of men like Rubel Shelly and Tim Woodruff, are we preaching the gospel? If you listened carefully to my examination of Galatians 1:6-12, you should have no difficulty answering my question. Preaching the gospel must include the great positive truths of the New Testament, but if the apostles are our models for preaching, it must also include refuting error. How could you find a better example in the New Testament than Galatians?
Paul asked: "0 foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain, if it be yet in vain? He therefore who ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith" (Gal. 3:1-5)? Paul used the word "foolish" of those who were preaching and believing a false gospel. The word means senseless. J. B. Phillips renders the Greek: "0 you dear idiots of Galatia." The New English Bible translates the Greek "stupid."
Paul was not just venting his frustration because some of the Galatians were deserting the cause of Christ. His main concern was encouraging them to repudiate the false teachings being promoted among the churches of Galatia and to return to the pure gospel of Christ. He pleaded with them: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify to every man who is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law." Now please listen to Paul's conclusion. "Christ has become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by law; you are fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:1-4).
Would my correspondent have thought that Paul was no longer preaching the gospel? He requested that I preach on God's mercy, grace and love. He wanted to know if I believe that Jesus is the answer to people's deepest needs. He then pled: "Please ask him to preach the gospel." I have no idea how many of my sermons on this program he has heard, but I have sought to preach "the whole counsel of God." For example, during the past year, I have discussed "The Living Word of God," "The Promise of God," "How to Become a Christian." "Following Christ," "When Will Christ Return?", "Walking by Faith in God's Word," "God Became a Man." "Closeness to God and the Church" and many similar topics.
But if I do not expose false teachers, I am not imitating Christ or his apostles. And did you know that Paul mentioned certain men by name who were preaching error? He wanted Timothy, his son in the gospel, to be aware of what was being taught. "This charge I commit unto you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on you, that you by them might war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning the faith have made shipwreck: of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme" (l Tim. 1:18-20). Paul warned the same young preacher: "But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as does a canker: of whom are Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some" (2 Tim. 2: 16-18).
At one time, a man by the name of Demas had been faithful to the Lord. In his letter to the church at Colosse, Paul listed Demas as one of his fellow workers (Col. 4:14). He later told Timothy: "Demas has forsaken us, having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:10). The word "forsaken" means to desert, to leave in the lurch or to abandon. Was Paul aware that his mentioning men like Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus and Demas might interfere with some people obeying the gospel?
My correspondent doubts that many people who do not know Jesus are reading books by any church of Christ preacher, much less Woodruff and Shelly. That may be true, but they probably have read or are reading books by people who espouse the same false positions. Many of the denominations are troubled by postmodernists in their fellowship. Of course, I am concerned about every person who listens to our programs. But I am especially concerned about members of the body of Christ. They need to know what some of our preachers are teaching. That was unquestionably Paul's reason for warning about false teachers. Did Paul preach on God's mercy, grace and love? No serious Bible student would ever deny that. But in the very books where he discussed these topics, he also pointed out the errors that were being taught. He addressed one of his great letters "to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 1:7). When he preached on grace, mercy and love, did that mean he would not condemn the errors of false brethren?
For fifteen years, I have been the speaker on the International Gospel Hour. I have worked virtually every day during those years to decide what to preach and how to preach it. If I know my own heart, I want to preach in such a way as to have our Lord's approval. I do not have an axe to grind. I want to preach the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I do not wish to offend anyone. I know at my age I am nearing the time when I shall have to give an account of my preaching. So I preach only what I believe God wants me to preach. I want to be able at the end of my life to say: "I am now ready to be offered, and time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me in that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also who love his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
As I close this brief study, I must thank the man who wrote about preaching the gospel. I am grateful to every one who listens to our programs. I am especially thankful for those who write to comment or to ask questions. I thank God for those who write to say their faith has been strengthened or they have obeyed the gospel because of the lessons I have delivered. That makes all the effort worthwhile. I am reminded of Paul's statement about preaching. "For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel" (1 Cor. 9: 16)!
The International Gospel Hour
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