3. Telling the good news thoroughly
‘God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles – which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 1:28).
Last month we began to consider the question, ‘What does it mean to preach Christ?’ We recalled that three main Greek verbs are rendered ‘preach’ in English, meaning respectively ‘to tell good news’, ‘to tell thoroughly’ and ‘to herald or proclaim’.
We saw last time that to preach Christ is to tell the good news concerning Christ, namely, that he came to deliver his people from their sins. This requires us to explain both the nature and consequences of sin and the need for repentance and faith.
Next we begin to explore the implications of the second word for preach — to tell thoroughly.
Many people advocate ‘the simple gospel’ which requires us to go no further than the matters considered last month. Didn’t Paul just preach ‘repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21)?
No — for the passage quoted goes on to say that Paul declared ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).
There must indeed be simplicity in our proclamation of Christ, for the gospel must be comprehensible to weak and foolish sinners like ourselves. But what passes for simplicity is often superficiality — in which the gospel is stripped of its biblical content and becomes focused on human needs rather than divine glory.
This we must avoid.
The glory of the gospel
In Colossians 1:28 (cited in the heading) Paul tells us that God’s will and purpose is to ‘make known the riches of the glory of the mystery’. By ‘mystery’ he means the gospel, once hidden but now revealed (compare Ephesians 3:4-7).
This tells us that God himself is not satisfied with a superficial message. He wants people to hear not the bare bones of the gospel but its riches and its glory!
Accordingly, Paul goes on to say, ‘him [Christ] we preach’ — using the Greek word katangello which means to ‘tell thoroughly’. In other words, to preach Christ and please God we must tell people all we know about his work of redemption.
Nor should we treat this ‘thorough gospel’ as ‘icing on the cake’ — a luxury for those who enjoy rich spiritual fare but not really essential for salvation. Paul preaches Christ thoroughly to ensure that his hearers are made ‘perfect [that is, complete] in Christ Jesus’.
A solemn responsibility
If this is the case, a most solemn responsibility rests on those of us who preach the Word. Paul tells Timothy, ‘Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing so you will save both yourself and those who hear you’ (1 Timothy 4:16).
This alerts us to the fact that preaching Christ involves teaching doctrine; not in the sense of lecturing about doctrine, but in the sense that our preaching should be doctrinal in character — based on a clear view of God’s eternal purpose, the person of Christ and the meaning of the atonement.
We dare not preach Christ in a perfunctory manner. We must do justice to the ‘riches’ and the ‘glory’ — both of his person and redeeming work. That will take time and effort, but anything less dishonours Christ and displeases God.
When Paul talks about ‘presenting everyone complete’ he is talking about that day when ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’ to give account of our lives and service (2 Corinthians 5:11-12). Trenchantly, he adds, ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men’.
Are we serious?
But the fear of God is out of fashion. One of the great problems of our day is a lack of seriousness in preaching. There is a vogue for lightness and ease of assimilation. The best preaching, we are told, is easy on the ear and soothing for the mind. It should not make great demands upon the hearer.
Therefore it must be short, neat, and not too intense. Solid truth must be interspersed with jokes or anecdotes — sound bites are more important than sound doctrine. Our preaching must never make anyone feel angry or uncomfortable. After all, people come to church to experience the feel-good factor, don’t they?
This kind of thinking is endemic in Charismatic churches, but it is creeping in to the Reformed constituency. Yet if we are to preach Christ thoroughly, the tendency must be resisted.
All God’s counsel
Let us return to Acts 20:26-27. Taking leave of the elders at Ephesus, Paul declared himself ‘innocent of the blood of all men’. What was the basis of his confidence? The fact that he had ‘not shunned to declare … the whole counsel of God’.
This is surely what it means to preach Christ thoroughly. We have no warrant to limit our preaching of Christ to those things we feel will be acceptable to men. The latter approach breeds a man-centred message — ‘what Jesus can do for you if you will only let him’. Such preaching is a travesty.
As an example of doctrinal preaching, consider the opening statement of Hebrews — that, in these last days, God has spoken to us through his Son (Hebrews 1:2). Christ is God’s ultimate messenger — ‘the Messenger of the Covenant’ (Malachi 3:1). But what covenant is that?
It is the covenant of grace and mercy established in eternity between the Father and the Son, through which God ‘has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began’ (2 Timothy 1:9).
We cannot preach Christ thoroughly without declaring this truth — that God chose his people in Christ ‘before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love’ (Ephesians 1:4).
Why not? Because this truth explains the nature of God’s saving plan and the reason behind it. Without this information our most basic questions remain unanswered.
Yet such teaching is anathema to most Evangelicals today, and is approached with caution even by many who subscribe to ‘the doctrines of grace’. Just because election is taught in Scripture, they complain, it doesn’t mean we have to preach it openly.
Should we not keep it as a ‘family secret’ for those who are mature enough to receive it? To tell the unsaved that God has appointed some to eternal life and not others (Acts 13:48) is surely a recipe for disaster in evangelism?
Well, if by evangelism you mean persuading sinners to ‘accept’ Christ by an act of their unregenerate wills, you are probably right. But if you mean proclaiming Christ to those who are dead in trespasses and sins, so that they might be quickened to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are wrong.
The doctrine of election humbles proud sinners (who otherwise think they can save themselves) and glorifies Christ (who alone can do so). It is fundamental to our whole understanding of salvation by grace.
The glory of God’s grace
I do not mean, of course, that this doctrine must always feature prominently in evangelism, as if it were the most important thing. The heart of Paul’s message to the Athenians, for example, was ‘Jesus and the resurrection’, and to the Corinthians, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (Acts 17:18; 1 Corinthians 2:2).
Nor am I saying it is mandatory to mention election in every sermon or evangelistic message. But unless our preaching sets God’s saving work in the context of his eternal counsels, we are not preaching Christ thoroughly — for he is the Messenger of the everlasting covenant, without which there would be no grace and no salvation.
Nor, if we neglect this eternal dimension of salvation, are we giving God the glory that is due to his name. For when Paul lists ‘every spiritual blessing’ bestowed upon us by the gospel, he includes election, predestination, adoption, acceptance in the Beloved, and redemption through Christ’s blood — all designed to celebrate and honour ‘the praise of the glory of his grace’ (Ephesians 1:3-7).
It is only ‘the grace of God that brings salvation’, and this grace ‘has appeared to all men’ (Titus 2:11). It is not something God wishes to conceal, as if he were somehow ashamed of its implications.
No more shall we conceal it if we preach Christ thoroughly.