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What we proclaim.
The gospel’s verbs invite us to take and have.
The gospel is an announcement. That’s what euangelion means: it is indicative of one who has news that he can’t help from sharing due to how glad or joyful his news is. To have a gospel, therefore, is suggestive of any number of things, from the announcement of unexpected fortune to the tidings of victory on the battlefield. But to have the gospel suggests something uniquely different — namely, the announcement that God in Christ has cleared your debt of sin by subsuming your sin in his own death on the cross. It is the proclamation of clearance, of clemency, of pardon for sinners through the passion and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son notwithstanding how mountainous their rebellion and ruin might be. In the apostle Paul’s summation of it, it is the declaration that the one “who knew no sin” was made sin “for our sake,” in order that “him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“The gospel is not good advice,” writes author and speaker Jared C. Wilson, “it is good news” (81). It’s something we announce. At times, though, it can appear that for as “freely” as the church proclaims God’s good news, we can’t help ourselves from couching that freedom by stressing the believer’s requisite need to respond to it. To be sure, there will be a response to the announcement of the gospel, but more often than not the free grace of Christ tasting death for everyone (Heb. 2:9) is undermined by our insistence that it be responded to with an appropriate amount of “doing.” The grace that’s put on the table, then, is subsequently sabotaged by the emphasis that’s put on behavior.
I’ve spent some time thinking about this conundrum in recent days and weeks, and, at least in my mind, I think it comes down to a severe distrust of the Holy Spirit to do what the Word says that he will do. There are times when our functional religion is more downstream of Pelagius than we’d ever care to admit. This isn’t to say that there’s no behavioral change in the aftermath of the announcement of the gospel. It’s just to say that the job of faith isn’t to police the behavior of others. God’s good news is announced and received. The gospel’s verbs invite us to take and have (Isa. 55:1). Nineteenth-century British preacher Alexander Maclaren puts it like this:
We honour God by taking the full cup of salvation which He commends to our lips, and by calling, while we drink, upon the name of the Lord. Our true response to His Word, which is essentially a proffer of blessing to us, is to open our hearts to receive, and, receiving, to render grateful acknowledgment. The echo of love which gives and forgives, is love which accepts and thanks. We have but to lift up our empty and impure hands, opened wide to receive the gift which He lays in them — and though they be empty and impure, yet ‘the lifting up of our hands’ is ‘as the evening sacrifice’; our sense of need stands in the place of all offerings. The stained thankfulness of our poor hearts is accepted by Him who inhabits the praises of eternity, and yet delights in the praises of Israel. He bends from heaven to give, and all He asks is that we should take. He only seeks our thankfulness . . .
You have nothing to do but to receive the things that are freely given to you of God — the forgiveness, the cleansing, the life, that come from Christ by faith. (4:1.10, 15)
Rev. Maclaren’s words are expedient but are nonetheless the echo of Christ’s own proclamation: “This is the work of God that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). The work that’s required, according to Jesus himself, is but to believe; to receive that announcement as unflagging truth. This, then, clarifies the church’s mission. It’s to announce the good news. “The herald,” writes Lutheran theologian R. C. H. Lenski, “announces what he is ordered to announce, no more, no less, without alteration. That remains the preacher’s task to this day although many think that they are authorized to herald their own ideas” (427).
Let us, then, not be filled with our own ideas of what constitutes a gospel. Instead, let us resolve to saturate ourselves in nothing more or less than the gospel, which invites one and all to receive absolution for their sins by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Grace and peace to you.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).