I left the gospel out of my message on Sunday night. And it was intentional. Sort of.
On Sunday night I gave a message called “The Truth and the Lie: The ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ Saves,” as part of our “The Truth and the Lie” series. We’re looking at a variety of issues that I think Christians tend to oversimplify and misunderstand. So far we’ve tackled “The Truth and the Lie: America Is Important” and “The Truth and the Lie: Love Wins” in addition to Sunday night’s message.
In this message I tried to preach as strongly as I possibly could against false “conversion” without emptying the pews completely. (This is nobody’s favorite topic.) I suggested that far more of us than we realize have waved the white flag of surrender, but have actually continued to wage our war against God with our lives. As Jesus said, “You will know a tree…” not by what the tree says about itself or about what Jesus means to the tree, or whether the tree got baptized or prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” or signed a card or walked an aisle or cried at Bible camp when they were a kid, but “You will know a tree by its fruit.”
I said that the way you can tell whether a person is truly converted is by looking at what they do when their desires and God’s desires conflict. Sometimes our desires line up with God’s. And that’s good. Part of sanctification is increasingly delighting in what delights God. Sometimes things we abhor are things God also abhors. That makes obedience easy as well. But what about when our desires and God’s desires conflict? What a person does with those conflicting desires is ultimately revealing.
I said, “The profile of a person who really is saved…is a person who calls Jesus ‘Lord,’ believes that he’s been raised from the dead, does the things God requires when they want to do those things, doesn’t do the things God forbids when they don’t want to do those things, and when God’s desires and their desires don’t match up, they usually choose God’s desires over their own. I’m not talking about perfection. I’m saying that they usually choose God’s desires over their own. And when they don’t, they recognize it, they lament it, they desire to turn from it, they trust in Christ to forgive them for it and they plead with Christ to change their heart so that the next time they would choose God’s way over their own way. …But the person who consistently, flippantly, and casually chooses against God’s will for them is not saved.”
I based these things largely on Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 7:15-23: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
It seems like the people in Matthew 7 confessed Jesus as Lord and believed that God raised him from the dead (ala Romans 10:9-10). But clearly they had not surrendered to Christ. Clearly they had not truly submitted to him as Lord. Clearly they were not saved.
Sunday evening, a friend of mine emailed and asked me why I hadn’t included the gospel in the message. It was a really good question. Especially so because the message so directly charged people to examine themselves to see whether they are really in the faith (see 2 Cor. 13:5). What if they discover that they are not? I didn’t tell them what to do about that. Should I have more clearly presented the gospel? I actually did deliberate extensively over that question in my sermon preparation. Here’s why I chose not to be more clear:
(1) Neither Jesus nor his apostles clearly included the gospel message in every message they gave.
In fact, the main text I was drawing from, Matthew 7:15-27, forms the conclusion of Jesus’s most famous message, the “Sermon on the Mount.” I’ve been memorizing the Sermon on the Mount lately and have noticed that Jesus nowhere includes what most evangelicals would consider to be “the gospel.” To be clear: I think the gospel in the broader sense is all over the Sermon on the Mount. But nowhere does Jesus present “the gospel” in the sense that most evangelicals use that word. Namely, “Jesus died as a sacrifice for your sins to bring you to God if you will accept his free gift by faith.” I think there are at least two reasons for that, and they’re the two reasons I left the gospel out of my message on Sunday night. Keep reading…
(2) Jesus assumed that his audience understood the gospel message.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was mostly speaking to people who had heard him speak before. They were familiar with his overall message. They had likely heard his consistent teaching again and again. Jesus could speak as forcefully as he did and could assume the gospel because he knew that the vast majority of his audience were in no doubt about what the gospel is. I find myself in a similar situation in my church. My guess is that I’ve been very clear about what the gospel is and what a person needs to do to be saved in about 95% of my messages. Anyone who was unclear about the gospel on Sunday night was a first time visitor. We’re not a church that draws hundreds of unchurched visitors on a weekend, so I doubt we’re running much risk if we (infrequently) assume the gospel in a message.
Moreover, I’m not too concerned that a person who doesn’t know the gospel would have missed their only chance to be saved on Sunday night. My view of God is bigger than that. If God intends to save someone through the work and message of the Fusion Community at New Hope Church, he’ll make sure that person gets to Fusion on one of the fifty Sundays of the year when we’re more clear about the gospel.
(3) People can use the proclamation of the gospel to blunt the force of a message that needs to be especially forceful.
I think people run to grace too quickly in the American church. In Matthew 7, Jesus just leaves his very terrifying and direct warning hanging in the air. He wants it to land with devastating force on “unconverted Christians.” And so he doesn’t hurry to conclude with something like, “…But there’s grace and forgiveness available! We have a solution to the fact that you’ve been abusing grace for so long and using it as an excuse to continue your sinful and rebellious lifestyle. And the solution is more grace!” Some people need a terrifying and direct warning that lands on them with devastating force, and they need to feel the devastating force.
For a week.
Or at least for more than the five minutes between my explanation of Matthew 7 and my arrival at the “gospel message.” Going to “free grace” too quickly can sometimes blunt the force of an important warning. And I wanted some at NHC to hear that warning very clearly and forcefully so that they would no longer persist as unconverted “Christians,” and submit their lives fully to Christ’s lordship. I think it takes love to urge people to check themselves to see whether they’re in the faith and to be honest with them about the fact that they might not be in the faith if the evidence of their life doesn’t bear out that conclusion. It’s easy to tell a person who might have cancer that they’re probably fine and just need to get some more rest. It takes love to tell them the hard truth and urge them to seek serious treatment.
(4) I think I answered the question, “How can I be saved?” as we went to the Lord’s Supper.
So, maybe I’m contradicting everything I just said, but it’s tough for me to avoid sharing the gospel. I love the gospel. Everything in me wants to give the “good news” right after I give the “bad news.” I want people to hear Romans 3:21-26 right after they hear 3:9-20. So, I might have let the gospel “slip” as I invited people to the table. In fact, I think I did.