Third Mark of a Healthy Church MEMBER: Gospel Saturated
By Thabiti Anyabwile
The greatest need in the world today is the gospel. It is the greatest need of the world because men, women, and children are perishing without a vital knowledge of God through the good news of his Savior Son Jesus.
The greatest need in the church today is the gospel. The gospel is not only news for a perishing world, it is the message that forms, sustains, and animates the church. Apart from the gospel, the church has nothing to sayónothing to say that cannot be said by some other human agency. The gospel distinguishes the church from the world, defines her message and mission in the world, and steels her people against the fiery darts of the evil one and the false allurements of sin. The gospel is absolutely vital to a vibrant, joyous, persevering, hopeful and healthy Christian and Christian church. So essential is the gospel to the Christian life that we need to be saturated in it in order to be healthy church members.
How then does one immerse oneself in the gospel? What path might lead to greater spiritual health?
1. KNOW THE GOSPEL
The first order of business is to know the gospel. This seems such an obvious statement that stating it can feel silly. But, in point of fact, many professing and believing Christians possess a shallow understanding of the gospel as a result of years of hearing short "gospel presentations" tacked onto the ends of sermons. Still others who know the message of Christ find themselves awkward and incapable of sharing the good news clearly with family and friends. Taking steps to be sure we know the gospel with some clarity and depth, then, is a necessary first step.
Itís helpful to rule out some ideas frequently presented as the gospel. The gospel is not simply that (i) we are okay, (ii) God is love, (iii) Jesus wants to be our friends; or that (iv) we should live right. Neither is the gospel simply that all our problems will be fixed if we follow Jesus or that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. All of these ideas may be true in some sense, but only in a partial sense and never as a solely sufficient statement of what the gospel is.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is literally "good news." As news it contains statements of fact and truths derived from those facts. As good news the gospel holds out hope based upon promises from God and grounded in the historical facts and truths that vindicate those promises.
The gospel or good news of Jesus Christ is that God the Father, who is holy and righteous in all his ways, is angry with sinners and will punish sin. Man, who disobeys the rule of God, is alienated from the love of God and in danger of an eternal and agonizing condemnation at the hands of God. But God, who is also rich in mercy, because of his great love, sent his eternal Son born by the virgin Mary, to die as a ransom and a substitute for the sins of rebellious people. And now, through the perfect obedience of the Son of God and his willing death on the cross as payment for our sins, all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, following him as Savior and Lord, will be saved from the wrath of God to come, declared just in his sight, have eternal life, and receive the Spirit of God as a foretaste of the glories of heaven with God himself.
It is this messageóbriefly stated hereóthat we must imbibe and delight in if we are to be healthy church members.
2. DESIRE TO HEAR THE GOSPEL/PREACH THE GOSPEL TO YOURSELF
And so, we must cultivate and protect a ravenous desire for this message. Regularly hearing and plumbing the depths of the gospel increases our knowledge of the message, affection for the Savior, and skill in sharing the message.
So, we should listen actively for the gospel and gospel implications in sermons. Donít turn off your ears when the pastor begins to appeal to non-Christians with the gospel message. Listen to it afresh. Reaffirm your belief in its truth, promises, and power in your life. Appropriate it for any sins you are made aware of by the sermon or through self-examination. See your sins nailed to the cross as you hear the good news. Consider whether there are any new promises or aspects to the gospel included in the sermon. How will you hold onto those truths?
Listen so actively and longingly for this news that you feel your poverty and malnourishment when it is missing in a sermon. And when you find yourself dissatisfied or longing, preach the gospel to yourself. Itís a message that comes to you, for you. Own it. Rather than merely listening to others, or listening to that voice that plagues you with doubts, worries, and fears, listen to the voice of God in the gospel by proclaiming it to yourself when the need arrives. C.J. Mahaney in his excellent and helpful book, Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing, suggests that we along with other saints memorize the gospel, pray the gospel, sing the gospel, review how the gospel has changed us, and study the gospel.
3. TAKE THE GOSPEL TO ITS CONCLUSION
As you reflect on the events and promises of the gospel, press forward to the conclusion of the gospel. John Piper reminds us that God is the gospel, that the gospel is a message about God giving himself to us in love.
Until the gospel events of Good Friday and Easter and the gospel promises of justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God. You have embraced some of his gifts. You have rejoiced over some of his rewards. You have marveled at some of his miracles. But you have not yet been awakened to why the gifts, the rewards, and the miracles have come. They have come for one great reason: that you might behold forever the glory of God in Christ, and by beholding become the kind of person who delights in God above all things, and by delighting display his supreme beauty and worth with ever-increasing brightness and bliss forever.
4. ORDER YOUR LIFE AROUND THE GOSPEL
As church members, our aim is to understand the gospel so deeply, so intimately that it animates every area of our lives. We set out to escape the fallacy that says (in practice or effect) that the gospel was meant to be preached until it reached me and then bottled up until Jesus comes. We want the gospel central to our communication with others, central to how we encourage and correct, central to individual career and relationship decisions, central to the decisions the church makes corporately, and central to all our habits of life. We want the gospel, the God of the gospel, to take priority in every area of life. Gospel-saturated church members should consider any number of strategies for organizing their lives around the good news of Jesus Christ:
Intentionally frequenting the same stores (cleaners, restaurants, etc.) with the aim of building relationships and familiarity with store personnel, and hopefully having gospel conversations.
Using vacations for short-term mission trips.
Volunteering in community-based organizations to influence for the gospel.
Hosting home discussions regarding religion and philosophy.
A staple: inviting neighbors over for dinner or for holiday parties and talking with them about Christ.
Hosting Bible studies in the work place.
Joining neighborhood clubs (garden clubs, cycling clubs, etc.) to build relationships and further gospel opportunities.
Inviting friends to church and special religious events where the gospel was sure to be center stage.
We want to recognize that there is no risk in sharing the gospel, only the reward of faithfulness. We want to be "at the ready" with the words of life.
5. SHARE THE GOSPEL WITH OTHERS
It sometimes appears as though some Christians believe the gospel was meant to be preached widely until it reached them, and then stored safely in the vault of their personal history away from everyone else. Some suppose that just sharing their testimony or living a good Christian life is as effective a witness as doing evangelism. No doubt such a life is a witness of some sort. But is it a witness to the cross of Jesus Christ? Does "witnessing" by personal testimony and general habit of life point effectively enough to the cross and the Savior?
In too many cases such attempts only leave a vague impression of religiosity, not a brilliant display of the glories of God in the redemption of sinners through the sacrifice of His Son. If we would contribute to the health of our local congregations, we must be committed to not only harvesting the gospel for ourselves but of shipping it to others as well. We must do the work of an evangelist. With urgency and love, we must tell the non-Christians among us to repent of their sins and to believe on Jesus Christ. We must tell them that turning to God does not result in an easy life, but the decision is well worth it. The forgiveness and satisfaction their souls long for is found only in the person of Jesus Christ.
We have an opportunity to improve the work of our pastors by planting and watering gospel seeds even as he plants and waters through his pulpit ministry. We can greet and talk with visitors to our churches and invite our non-Christian family and friends. We should use the occasion of their visit to discuss spiritual things, particularly their understanding of and acceptance or rejection of the good news. We can meet together with other Christians specifically to plot and pray for evangelistic opportunities. A gospel saturated life is a life that splashes out onto others with the good news. A healthy church is built, in part, on healthy gospel-motivated members.
6. GUARD THE GOSPEL
Finally, a healthy church member takes serious the responsibility of guarding the gospel from corruption and abandonment. The New Testament seems to place this responsibility ultimately on the congregation rather than on the pastors alone. When the church at Galatia was unsettled by false teachers looking to add circumcision to the demands of the gospel, the Apostle Paul writes not to the pastors and elders but to the churches themselves. He addresses the membership and calls them to guard the gospel he had preached to them. His instruction is strong: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:8-9).
The Galatians, indeed all Christian church members, are to be careful concerning what they entertain in gospel preaching. The Apostle John warns his readers that "if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work" (2 John 10-11). Peter reminds his readers that those who follow the "shameful ways" of false teachers "bring the way of truth into disrepute" (2 Pet. 2:2). So, itís understandable, then, that Jude exhorts his audience to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). The healthy church and church member contests, resists, fights for, and protects the apostolic gospel delivered and preserved in the pages of Scripture. And without accepting that responsibility and being vigilant in understanding, applying and preserving the gospel, we leave it to be corrupted, abused, and abandoned by unscrupulous teachers and the forces of the evil one.
In the gospel of Jesus Christ, God offers himself for sinners and to sinners. It is the gospel that makes us aware of the love of God, of our depravity and need for redemption, and of the possibility of eternal joy through worshipping God. It is this same gospel, and a healthy understanding of it, that creates health and strength in members of the Christian church. Let us be saturated in it!
Suggested Reading for a gospel-Saturated Life:
Jerry Bridges, The gospel for Real Life
Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace
C.J. Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the gospel the Main Thing
Charles Spurgeon, The Power of the Cross of Christ
John Stott, The Cross of Christ
D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry
Thabiti Anyabwile is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, and the author of The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Crossway, 2007) and the forthcoming The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faithfulness to Cultural Captivity (IVP, 2007).
1. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), see chapter 3.
2. John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on Godís Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), p. 38. Italics in the original.
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