I have been on a summer journey of reflection. One of the things that I have wanted to study is if the gospel message that is being proclaimed today is different than the one proclaimed 200 to 300 years ago. If it is different, what kind of Christians did the older gospel produce? In other words, did the Puritans, Methodists, reformers and Calvinists of the 17th and 18th Century preach the same gospel that we do here today? While we might say that the most important work is to know what the Bible says about the gospel, we will find that on foundational truths everyone agrees. The disparities we find are in what is missing from today’s gospel. This essay will seek to answer these questions:
- What is the gospel we hear today?
- What was the gospel proclaimed 200 to 300 years ago?
- What do these differences between gospels tell us?
It seems reasonable that if we wanted to understand the contemporary gospel, we would look to Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. On a website linked to the Billy Graham Association, www.peacewithGod.net , the contemporary gospel is proclaimed. This is the gospel message according to the website: God loves us, but we are sinful. Jesus came to pay the price for sin so that we might be forgiven. When we believe in Jesus, we are saved and receive eternal life.
Is this the historic gospel?
To find the answer, I want to explore several key thinkers that are unanimously agreed to be bright lights of gospel clarity. This includes several Puritans, John Calvin and John Wesley. In each instance, I will articulate their understanding of the gospel.
The Puritan Gospel
The Puritans strongly believed in human depravity. The language of human sinfulness is starkly different than the more upbeat language of the Graham Association website. John Baxter once wrote, “As a sinner, you are far viler than a toad.” He then continues and gives basically the same gospel message as the website:
Yet Christ was so far from making light of you and your happiness that He came down into the flesh and lived a life of suffering, and offered Himself a sacrifice to the justice which He has provoked, that your miserable soul might have a remedy. It is no less than miracles of love and mercy that He has showed to us.
There is basic agreement between the Puritans and the contemporary gospel concerning the basics of sin, Jesus and atonement; but the Puritans don’t stop with human vileness and Jesus’ sacrificial death. For them, this is the foundation of the gospel but not its fullness.
Jonathan Edwards places affection (or intimacy with God) at the center of the Christian life. Edwards writes, “He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion”. If you are saved, then you are intimately connected to God. If you aren’t intimately connected then, you are not saved. Here, Edwards grounds salvation in experience and not just information to acknowledge. John Owens then adds holiness.
Owens would wholeheartedly agree with the website on sin and atonement, Baxter on depravity, and Edwards on affection. He would add another element to describe the gospel: becoming like Christ in this life. Owens writes,
Sanctification is a qualification indispensably necessary unto them who will be under the conduct of the Lord Christ unto salvation; he will lead none to heaven but whom he sanctifies on the earth. The holy God will not receive unholy persons; this living head will not admit of dead members, nor bring men into the possession of a glory which they neither love nor like.
One of the theological challenges in talking about the gospel is the difference between earning salvation and salvation having its effect on a person. The Puritans stand with the reformation and the truth that Christ’s death fully pays what is necessary to be born again. Salvation is a free gift. Yet, there is often a forgotten truth: salvation isn’t just a gift that gets you into heaven when you die; It is a gift that grows heaven in you right now.
The final piece that the Puritans add to the gospel is mission. Again, John Owens writes with a clarity that is sorely missing in the contemporary church:
God has work to do in this world, and to desert it because of its difficulties and entanglements is to cast off his authority. Universal holiness is required of us, that we may do the will of God in our generation. It is not enough that we be just, that we be righteous, and walk with God in holiness, but we must also serve our generation as David did before he fell asleep. God has a work to do, and not to help him is to oppose him.
Salvation brings us into the kingdom of the heavens. This kingdom has a king. This king has authority and expects to be obeyed. His command is that his followers would make disciples. Salvation life is given so that we are enabled to obey God by embracing mission. You can’t be “saved” and say no to his mission.
In summary, we might articulate the Puritan gospel this way: You are lost, dead and vile because of your sin. Jesus in love paid for you, pursued you and showed you mercy without measure. Your heart is set aflame with affection for God as you receive this love; you experience the reality that there is no one better, smarter, more glorious or more powerful than Jesus.
He is your Lord! This affection is the energy for pursuing sanctification and you pursue it with single focus. Sanctification—becoming like Christ in this life—is the obvious effect of being born again. Like an apple tree that produces apples because that is its life, salvation produces Christ’s character in the believer because that is its life. We become people who obey our king. The king has a mission and it’s partnering with us to make disciples.
John Calvin’s Gospel
Next, let’s look at John Calvin and the gospel he preached. John Calvin would affirm Baxter’s assertion that humanity is depraved. He would also affirm that Jesus suffered and died to be the payment that justice required; he would embrace affection and sanctification as the obvious outcomes of salvation. Yet Calvin gives a central insight to the Christian life that is a fundamental out working of salvation. Book three of his Institutes is titled, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow”.
Salvation frees us for what Calvin calls “joyful obedience”. Joyful obedience is summed up, for Calvin, with a word: self-denial. He writes,
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
At the center of the Christian life is to “forget ourselves”. In case we might translate this as an Oprah aphorism, Calvin continues,
For when Scripture bids us leave off self-concern, it not only erases from our minds the yearning to possess, the desire for power, and the favor of men, but it also uproots ambition and all craving for human glory and other more secret plagues.
This is so we can follow Christ where he desires to lead us:
For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children.
Calvin asserted that the central effect of Christ‘s grace is the settled condition of the soul to not get its way. Christ saves us but this salvation is so He can fully crucify our old man. In its place is His life that has one desire: obedience. The idea that salvation would happen in a person and that person would stay self-focused, self-involved and self-led is like saying that a pregnant woman might have a zebra for a baby. It’s non sensical. Women have human babies. Salvation produces joyful obedience—the death of self.
John Wesley’s Gospel
One other person that is worth exploring is John Wesley. Wesley is part of another tradition but no one can doubt his influence on American Christianity and his profound maturity in Christ. Some of the best hymns that we sing came from his life in Christ. Wesley was able to spread a Christianity that matured untold numbers of believers by setting up societies of disciples.
Wesley writes, “a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.” These societies (think churches) were broken down into groups of 12. Membership was for those who had “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins. But wherever this is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits.”
Leaders in these Methodists societies were primarily concerned with discipleship:
(a) To see each person in his class once a week at least, in order to inquire how their souls prosper, to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require. And to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the poor.
(b) To meet the minister and the stewards of the society once a week; in order to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved.
(c) To pay to the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; and to show their account of what each person has contributed.
Wesley ties fruit bearing as the proof of salvation. He and thousands of others wanted to take seriously that good trees bear good fruit. So, all of their work was to help one another work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Most of us look at Wesley and cannot imagine going to a church like that. It seems extreme. Yet, in any place where the life of Christ is regularly being formed, this kind of community—or something quite similar—will be at the center.
The Contemporary Gospel versus The Historic Gospel
When we consider the gospel as portrayed by Baxter, Owens, Edwards, Calvin and Wesley with the current contemporary gospel, there is similarity but also profound differences. All the Christian visionaries I explored would agree with the contemporary gospel’s assertions of love, sin and atonement. But each historic leader would claim that this is a reduced gospel. It gives the gift without explaining the life this gift gives.
The contemporary gospel separates belief and forgiveness from intimacy, transformation, obedience and mission. It gives the impression that you can be saved and not follow Jesus when in fact being saved is so you can follow Jesus. It has no other purpose. One wonders if this separation is the reason the American church look as it does.
I will leave you with this quote from my hero Martyn Lloyd Jones. Is he right? Have we lost something essential and are we paying a heavy price because of it?
I wonder whether this is not the thing which needs to be emphasized most at the present time, not least in the ranks of evangelical people? I wonder why it is that the whole idea of the godly man has somehow or other got lost amongst us? Why is it that Christian people are not described as ‘godfearing’ people? Why is it that there is such a difference between us and the Christian of a hundred or two hundred years ago, or the Puritan of the seventeenth century? They were truly Christian. ‘Methodist’, too, was a kind of nickname given to people because of their methodical life. I wonder why it is that somehow or other we have lost this particular sense of the Christian life?
I have no doubt but that the explanation is that it is an overreaction on our part from the pure legalism that was so common at the turn of the century when many people had lost the true spirit of the New Testament. They imposed a certain kind of life upon themselves and upon their children; they laid down rules and regulations; and people then reacted and said, ‘That is pure legalism, not Christianity.’ But now we are so much like everybody else because we have forgotten this about ‘fear and trembling’, vigilance and circumspection. Sometimes I am afraid we have been so anxious not to give the impression that to be Christian means being miserable, that we have imagined that we must be smiling and laughing all the time and we have believed in this so called ‘muscular’ Christianity.
Maybe it is time to reclaim the historic gospel. We need it and so does the world.