The intellectual battle for the pure gospel

“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you that 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.  For do I now persuade men, or God?  Or do I seek to please men?  For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.”  Galatians 1:6-10

When the Holy Spirit inspired the preceding words through the pen of the apostle Paul, the apostle was dealing with a very serious issue in the Galatian churches.  The gospel of Jesus Christ was being deviated from by false teachers, who were leading people astray.  The Judaizers were teaching that you had to stick to the Mosaic Law as a prerequisite to salvation.  They were abandoning the grace of Jesus Christ for the various requirements, ceremonies, and standards in the law of Moses.

Paul was amazed that people were deserting Jesus Christ so easily and quickly for a “different gospel”, which as the NIV puts it in verse seven, “is really no gospel at all”.  He put it that way because he knew the truth.  He knew the gospel that he had preached, the same gospel that had been given him by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (vv 11-12).  He knew that there was only one gospel.  And for anyone who preached differently, Paul’s strong words, “let them be accursed” or damned, ring very strongly.

It is hard to imagine Paul having stronger words for false teachers, but he would probably need them in 2003.  Today the gospel is being butchered and perverted like never before.  Unfortunately, most churches in America and the world today are contributing to that perversion.  The abandonment of biblical Christianity has had both intensive and extensive effects on 21st century churches and society in general.  Sadly, most church-going, Christ-professing evangelicals are even subject to the perversion.  However, while the times have changed, the perversion by and large has stayed the same.  The attack on the grace of Christ that Paul was combating is much the same today.  For many professing Christians it is easy to recognize the ever-increasing amount of hucksters parading around as preachers on television networks with big golden chairs.  However, the bigger, more serious problem is subtler, and more widespread.

The problem with the preaching of the Judaizers was the addition of works (i.e. human merit) to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Salvation no longer became a matter of God making alive the unregenerate sinner and calling them unto salvation by giving them faith in Jesus.  Instead the deciding factor became how good a Jew you were.  It was no longer the righteousness of Christ that saved, but the righteousness of the one sticking to the ceremonies, traditions, and laws of the Old Covenant.

Salvation by works remains a huge problem within the church.  The gospel is under attack on a variety of “Christian” fronts.  The most obvious example of this perversion is the Roman Catholic Church, but they are not alone by a long shot.  The strides made toward biblical truth by the Protestant Reformers have been slowly, but surely reversed to a large degree.  The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the Protestant denomination I have been a part of all of my life is guilty.  A very large majority of SBC churches preach a version of salvation by works.

“I prayed the prayer.”

“I walked down the aisle and talked to someone.”

“I joined the church.”

“I was baptized.”

“I was re-baptized.”

“I re-dedicated my life.”

I have heard and/or said all of these things over the course of my life in explaining to someone, or hearing someone explain, why I or they were going to heaven.  None of these are correct.  I believe that God saved me and I made a public profession of that faith on August 11, 1983.  But it wasn’t because I raised my hand or went down front, which I did.  It’s not even that I decided to follow Christ.

So how was I saved?  How can I be sure that I will spend eternity with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?  Most denominations (and I’m not slamming denominations) have done their own version of “Judaizing” the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul fought for so valiantly.  The waters have become so muddied that, truth be told, many professing Christians don’t know what to believe; or worse, they are either naive to it or simply ignoring it.

Well, then?  What is the gospel?  To answer this question we have to understand a few things first.  There must be agreement on what our authority is:  the Word of God.  Without that objective standard of truth any and every opinion could be validated.  The truth about salvation is not relative.  It is absolute and unchanging.  It is Scripture that judges what is right and what is wrong.  So that is the basis upon which I will attempt to answer the question, “What is the gospel?”.

We also must have a proper understanding of those being saved, and why they need saving.  Since God created man in His own image He has had a supreme requirement:  perfect righteousness.  This is best articulated by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:48:  “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  It is exemplified in the curse coming upon Adam and mankind after one transgression.  Adam died spiritually when he sinned, and since we are all descendents of Adam we all come into the world spiritually dead. as Paul says in Romans 5:12:  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because sinned–“.  We are cursed before we come out of the womb because Adam’s sin is inherited in us.

Our spiritual death results in an inability to meet God’s requirement of perfect righteousness.  Romans 3:10-12 says “There is none righteous; no, not one.  There is none who understands.  There is none who seeks after God.  They have all turned aside.  They have together become unprofitable.”  We can’t even seek God in our spiritual condition.  It was Jesus who told Nicodemus that (and notice the order here) you must be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).  Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that the natural (unsaved) man cannot understand the things of God.  They are “spiritually discerned,” and the natural man is spiritually dead.

In our helpless condition, the result if nothing changes is the Great White Throne judgment, where all unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire for eternity, separated from the eternal blessings of God.  This is not negotiable.  All sin is rebellion against God and must be punished.  Because God is perfect He must be perfectly just.  He cannot overlook sin.  How can a sinful man ever merit God’s blessings when this is true?  He cannot.  Therefore, God has provided one, and only one, solution.

In my pastor’s words, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, took on flesh.  He lived a perfectly sinless life and then went to the cross in our stead, to bear the full fury of the wrath of God for all sin, for all time, for all who will ever believe in Him.  God has to punish everybody’s sins, so Christ has borne the punishment for the sins of every believer for all time on the cross.  Christ, the sinless One, the righteous One, is the only One who can meet our righteousness deficiency.  Only if you rest in the finished work of Christ for your salvation and absolutely nothing else — not anything (at all) that you have done — will you be saved.

There are many different things to look at when we study salvation.  Of course, there is no way to cover every aspect of this in this space, but let us now dig a little deeper into what comprises so great a salvation.

If the natural man cannot even see the kingdom of God nor discern spiritual things, how in the world does anything ever feel compelled to believe in Jesus Christ?  Something external from man has to change the man internally.  Paul said to Ephesian believers, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,”  Ephesians 1:3-4a

It is important to see who the “us” is in these verses.  It is believers.  He chose believers in Him before the foundation of the world.  Peter calls believers a “chosen race” (1 Peter 2:9).  Luke recounts this scene in Acts 13:48:  “When the Gentiles heard this (the gospel), they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (parentheses mine).

Appointed?  Chosen?  Yes.  The Scriptures are clear.  Whom He foreknew, these He predestined (Romans 8:29).  The Scripture does not say “what He foreknew about them.”  It simply says “whom He foreknew, these He predestined”.  You may counter by saying that God is omniscient.  He knows everybody. Well, yes and no.  Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23:  “Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?  And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”  If God knows everybody how can He honestly say He “never knew” those “who practice lawlessness”.

The Greek word in Romans 8:29 indicates a strong, intimate knowledge.  The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the same form of the word in Genesis 4 when it says Adam “knew” Eve, and she conceived.  There are obviously some, those whom He has predestined, that God knows intimately, that He “forloves” so to speak.  He has set His affection on those He has chosen from before the foundation of the world.  God’s election of those He will save is based on nothing more than His good pleasure.  It is not based on what He knows about us.  God didn’t look into the future and see that I would someday accept His Son as my Lord and Savior, and then elect me.  He saved me on His own.  Election is a biblical reality that has to be understood.

That said, even if God did elect me, I was still born a sinner, spiritually dead.  Every man inherits the sin of Adam, and unless there is some intervention from outside of me, since I cannot discern spiritual things, I suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).  How did I wind up being in Christ?  Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3:  “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Being spiritually dead, I had to be born again, or regenerated.

“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1.  Regeneration is the act of God of making spiritually dead sinners alive in Christ.    He gives us spiritual life, where we are now able to discern and understand those things of God, those spiritual things we could not comprehend before.  God does this at some point in time in the life of every person He chose, or elected, before the foundation of the world.  Man has no part in initiating this.

Think about it this way.  Did Lazarus decide at some point that he did not want to be dead anymore?  Of course not.  It was the power of God, Jesus Christ, who made him alive.  He came out of the grave and the burial cloths were removed.  The power of God works the same way in us.  We can understand the message of the cross and not only know it factually, but believe it spiritually.  Upon regeneration Jesus Christ gives us faith.  We are able to rest in His finished work on the cross to save us.  We may be made spiritually alive, but what good does that do us if we are still condemned because of sin?  That sin had to be punished, and it was in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 3:23-25a:  “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood through faith.”  That word justified, or in the noun form — justification –means to be declared righteous.  We are declared righteous freely, without a cause in us, by God’s grace through redemption in Christ.  That other big word, propitiation, means wrath-absorber.  Jesus Christ absorbed the wrath of God that had to be poured out on our sins when He went to the cross.

Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  God treated His own Son like a sinner, punishing Him in the stead of the elect, all who will ever believe.  On the other hand, He declares believers righteous, crediting the perfect, sinless life of His own Son to the sinners He saves.  We are justified by faith in God, a faith that is given to us by Jesus Christ by the grace of God the Father.  You may be saying, “Yeah, the grace is God’s part, but the faith is our part.”  This is a very common misconception taught in today’s churches.  Consider the words of Ephesians 2:8-9:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  It’s the grace AND the faith that is the gift of God.  He, not us, is responsible for our salvation.  He is the author and finisher of our faith.  Salvation is not a synergistic effort.  It is completely of God.

But it does not stop there.  When God justifies us we are saved from the penalty of sin.  But as we live our Christian lives He begins to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).  Sanctification, the act of God’s grace by which our affections of men are purified, or alienated from sin and the world, and exalted to a supreme love to God.  In other words, as 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it, the old passes away and all things become new, as we are a new creation.  Believers begin to crave the things of God more and more, growing in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).  This process of being conformed to Christ is life-long, and it involves hard decisions for the believer living in a world super-saturated with sin.

The process is finally complete when we see Jesus Christ face-to-face, which is either upon physical death or His return for His own.  This is glorification, when we shall be saved from the very presence of sin.  We shall be sinless, He is sinless.  Remember the Garden of Eden?  Man was made in the image of God, perfect and sinless.  But then sin entered the world through Adam.  Upon glorification sin is done away with in a believer, the curse no longer having any part in a man.  Any sufferings or tribulations that man should suffer on earth are petty compared to the glorious riches that await a justified one in glorification, the final link in the golden chain of redemption.

“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover, whom He predestined; these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”  Romans 8:29-30

Christians don’t have to say all of this when sharing the gospel, but the truths need to be made clear.  God has chosen to save some to magnify His mercy.  Others He has predestined to wrath to magnify His justice, a holy God having to punish sin.  And this is all for His glory.  The overarching purpose of everything is the glory of God.  That is the purpose of our lives, and should be the motivation for everything a believer does.  Way too many churches are putting “reaching the lost” with a perverted gospel ahead of the glory of God.  They are getting the cart before the horse.  A pure gospel glorifies God, and His people will respond by proclaiming the good news as they are going.

That is why we must continue to fight for the pure gospel, being diligent to present ourselves approved of God.  In 2 Corinthians 10:4 Paul tells us that the weapons we’ve been given in the spiritual war we find ourselves in are for pulling down strongholds.  What kind of strongholds?  The next verse tells us.  The intellectual battles.  “Casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”  We will never know if a different gospel is being preached unless we know the true gospel as defined by our objective standard, the Word of God, the Scriptures.

Examine yourselves and your church.  Do you have the pure gospel?