Guarding the gospel
Gospel preachers need to be keenly aware of popular gospel perversions in order to safeguard the message they preach. For example, an awareness of past gospel perversions alerts us to similar dangers today.
In New Testament times, these were already at work. Paul was keenly aware of antinomian tendencies when he said, ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?’
‘Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God’ (Romans 6:1-2, 12-13).
And Jude warned that, ‘certain men have crept in unnoticed … ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 4).
Then there was also the opposite danger of legalism. This was propagated by the Judaisers, who claimed that faith in Christ had to be supplemented by such Jewish traditions as circumcision, keeping the Mosaic feasts and observing ceremonial food laws.
Paul called all these additions to faith in Christ ‘weak and beggarly elements’ (Galatians 4:9) and said, ‘Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ’ (Colossians 2:8).
He was very serious in his warnings about perverting the gospel: ‘But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8-9).
On in church history, the Roman Catholic Church has long taught salvation by works, the ultimate authority of church tradition, the repeated sacrifice of Christ in the Mass and baptismal regeneration.
Today, the ecumenically minded ignore the biblical principle of separation from fundamental error (Romans 16:17; 2 John 9-11) and justify close interaction with Rome. They claim that, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Rome has become more open-minded. However, this supposed transformation has not taken place (see p.5 of this ET edition).
The Roman Catholic Church has not changed, and it is unlikely that it will ever change, as its errors are too deeply entrenched. If Martin Luther could not change that church, can we expect to do any better?
The Reformation and Puritan eras led to the recovery of the sole authority of the Bible, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and a healthy missionary-mindedness.
In the eighteenth century, hypercalvinism affected many otherwise orthodox Christians and churches. A distorted emphasis on the sovereignty of God resulted in a lack of enthusiasm for outreach and missions among such groups as the Particular Baptists. But then God worked in the hearts of William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff and others to stir up a burden for overseas mission.
The Second Great Awakening occurred in North America in the early nineteenth century. Two evangelists greatly used then were Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney. The former was a Calvinist and he saw the danger of the ‘altar call’ popularised by the Arminian Finney.
The revival under the ministry of C. H. Spurgeon, in London, during the mid-nineteenth century was soon overshadowed by the spread of theological liberalism from Germany. At the same time, Christians were being influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
By the middle of the twentieth century, many denominations, seminaries and missionary societies had succumbed to liberalism. The principle of ‘the sole authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice’ was abandoned.
Gospel preaching had, in many places, become secularised into a message advocating the social ‘liberation’ and transformation of communities and the meeting of individual, personal ‘felt needs’. In short, a ‘social gospel’ had replaced the true gospel of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’.
In the late twentieth century, the Charismatic movement introduced a damaging subjectivism into the churches, which reinforced the man-centredness of liberalism. Erroneous Charismatic claims of restored miraculous signs proved a major distraction from true gospel preaching.
While some of that movement’s early excesses may have abated, today’s widespread acceptance of Charismatic theology as part of mainline Christianity is very disturbing.
Arminianism is also very much alive. The altar call is practised across the world; in personal evangelism, Campus Crusade’s Four spiritual laws is widely used; and other approaches, in which the gospel is reduced to a few easy steps, are common.
The gospel has been minimalised to the point of perversion, coupled with man-centredness in which salvation is portrayed as the sinner ‘doing his part’ since Christ has done his.
Closely related has been the international emergence of the Alpha Course. This course combines Arminian and Charismatic theology. Its sessions take some ten weeks to complete and include a weekend spent away. It ends with a ‘celebration’ in which the individual, who prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’ in the third week, introduces someone else to the meeting.
The course portrays the God of love meeting the needs of man through the death of Jesus Christ. Healing, prophecy, tongues speaking and emotional release are all advocated.
The sacrificial death of Christ as an atonement for sin, the holiness and justice of God, the guilt of man and certainty of judgement, the redeeming work of Christ and need of repentance, are all seriously underplayed. Those involved show commendable zeal, but are often lacking in biblical understanding.
In missiology, there has been much discussion about gospel contextualisation. The modern church growth movement advocates the need to ‘build bridges’, ‘earn the right to be heard’, have a ‘pretext’ to establish a context, engage in pre-evangelism before evangelism, and break the church up into cell groups. Large numbers of people present at meetings, or ‘walking the aisle’, or saying the sinner’s prayer, are taken as sure indications of success. But are they?
What are we to say to all these emphases? The answer is, ‘To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isaiah 8:20).
We reject the bulk of what the ‘gurus’ of church growth teach, because they fail to measure up to Scripture. Yes, they do say some good things that accord with Scripture, for which we are thankful. For example, there is a need for proper and biblically limited contextualisation in the work of missions.
It is a commendable concern of the Alpha Course to build up the faith of the professed believer, equipping him to live the Christian life and to be an effective soul-winner. But we would recommend, instead of its minimalist approach, the use of Reformed catechisms and confessions of faith.
What then have we to offer in place of unbiblical methods and gospel perversions? The answer is found in Jeremiah 6:16: ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls’.
We believe that the Word of God is sufficient for all our needs. ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
To be concluded
The author is pastor of Damansara Reformed Baptist Church, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia