What Sort of Gospel Are We Preaching?

Today I was reading the very familiar parable of the sower which Jesus gave (Matthew 13:1-23 = Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:5-15). Of course as many commentators point out, this is really a parable about the soil. It primarily deals with the different responses people give to Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven. It highlights the fact that the same message will be received differently by different people.

The first three types of soils (or human hearts) are those who inappropriately receive the word, or receive it for the wrong reasons, and are not real disciples of Jesus. Only the fourth type of soil is appropriate, and only that type of soil will produce genuine conversion, resulting in real fruit.

When persecution, hardships and testings come along, those who have wrongly received the word will simply give up. The word was never properly established in their hearts, and they came to Jesus for the wrong reasons. They wanted the good news of the gospel (the benefits) but not the bad news (the fact that we are helpless sinners who must renounce sin and self, and daily carry our cross if we are to follow Jesus).

Much of the problem of those who claim to believe but then quickly fall away when the going gets tough lies at the feet of the sowers. That is, often the blame must be apportioned to those who are proclaiming an insipid, me-first type of gospel. Those who simply tell people to come to Jesus to see all their problems, worries and cares taken care of are not proclaiming the message of Jesus.

Such benefits are all by-products of receiving the gospel, but they are not at the heart of Christ’s message. Telling people to come to Jesus so that we can get all sort of goodies is a distortion of his message. But too often that is just what we hear in so many churches today.

Indeed, we make it far too easy on our listeners. We give them a marshmallow gospel, and we try to lead them softly-softly into the kingdom. But in truth all we have done is led them further into themselves. Jesus came to take us away from ourselves. Self is the very problem that needs to be dealt with.

We should not be baptising selfishness, but crucifying it. Jesus made this quite clear time and time again:

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39)
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

There is no easy believe-ism here. No cheap grace. No words appealing simply to self. Sadly, our gospel proclamation is far removed from that of Jesus and the early church. We allow people to cling to their own selfishness and sin, and pretend they are real followers of Jesus Christ. As A. W. Tozer said,

“In every Christian’s heart there is a cross and a throne, and the Christian is on the throne till he puts himself on the cross; if he refuses the cross he remains on the throne. Perhaps this is at the bottom of the backsliding and worldliness among gospel believers today. We want to be saved but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying. We remain king within the little kingdom of Mansoul and wear our tinsel crown with all the pride of a Caesar; but we doom ourselves to shadows and weakness and spiritual sterility.”

Too often we invite our non-Christian listeners to sing ten choruses of “Just as I am,” and they simply leave just as they were. No real change has taken place at all. No radical commitment to Christ which says I will forsake all to follow Jesus. No sense of our own horrid sinfulness and God’s awful holiness.

comfortAs long as we preach a watered-down, feel-good gospel our results will always be disappointing. Sure, lots of people will raise their hands and go forward, but as soon as the heat is turned up, most of these folk will simply fall by the wayside.

I am reminded of an illustration which Ray Comfort used some years ago in this regard. It is worth repeating here:

“Two men are seated in a plane. The first is given a parachute and told to put it on as it would improve his flight. He’s a little skeptical at first because he can’t see how wearing a parachute in a plane could possibly improve the flight. After a time he decides to experiment and see if the claim is true. As he puts it on he notices the weight of it upon his shoulders and he finds that he has difficulty in sitting upright. However, he consoles himself with the fact that he was told the parachute would improve the flight. So, he decides to give the thing a little time. As he waits he notices that some of the other passengers are laughing at him, because he’s wearing a parachute in a plane. He begins to feel somewhat humiliated. As they begin to point and laugh at him and he can stand it no longer, he slinks in his seat, unstraps the parachute, and throws it to the floor. Disillusionment and bitterness fill his heart, because, as far as he was concerned, he was told an outright lie.

“The second man is given a parachute, but listen to what he’s told. He’s told to put it on because at any moment he’d be jumping 25,000 feet out of the plane. He gratefully puts the parachute on; he doesn’t notice the weight of it upon his shoulders, nor that he can’t sit upright. His mind is consumed with the thought of what would happen to him if he jumped without that parachute.

“Let’s analyze the motive and the result of each passenger’s experience. The first man’s motive for putting the parachute on was solely to improve his flight. The result of his experience was that he was humiliated by the passengers; he was disillusioned and somewhat embittered against those who gave him the parachute. As far as he’s concerned it’ll be a long time before anyone gets one of those things on his back again. The second man put the parachute on solely to escape the jump to come, and because of his knowledge of what would happen to him without it, he has a deep-rooted joy and peace in his heart knowing that he’s saved from sure death. This knowledge gives him the ability to withstand the mockery of the other passengers. His attitude towards those who gave him the parachute is one of heart-felt gratitude.

“Now listen to what the modern gospel says. It says, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He’ll give you love, joy, peace, fulfillment, and lasting happiness.’ In other words, ‘Jesus will improve your flight.’ So the sinner responds, and in an experimental fashion, puts on the Savior to see if the claims are true. And what does he get? The promised temptation, tribulation, and persecution. The other passengers mock him. So what does he do? He takes off the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s offended for the word’s sake (Mark 4:17), he’s disillusioned and somewhat embittered, and quite rightly so. He was promised peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness, and all he got were trials and humiliation. His bitterness is directed toward those who gave him the so-called ‘good news’. His latter end becomes worse than the first: another inoculated and bitter backslider.

“Saints, instead of preaching that Jesus improves the flight, we should be warning the passengers they’re going to have to jump out of the plane…”

Quite right. It is time that we stopped telling people what they want to hear, and start telling them what they need to hear. Jesus never diluted his message, or made it easy for people to come to him. In fact he made it exceedingly difficult. He hit people where they were at. He could tell the rich young ruler that he had to sell all his possessions in order to follow him. And we read of the result: “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth”.

That is why we keep finding that the crowds often turned away from Jesus. They liked to follow him when he fed them and did miracles for them. But when he gave them the hard word about what it means to be a true disciple, most turned away. And so it is today.

We will always draw a crowd if we tell people what they want to hear, and promise them nice things, goodies, and above all, words which cater to, and pamper, self. But we will turn away many when we give the gospel in its fullness, complete with demands of crucifying self and daily carrying our cross. As Tozer rightly said,

“Let me remind you of the journey of Jesus Christ to immortal triumph. Remember the garden where He sweat blood. Remember Pilate’s hall where they put on Him the purple robe and smote Him. Remember His experience with His closest disciples as they all forsook Him and fled. Remember the journey up the hill to Calvary. Remember how they nailed Him to a cross, those six awful hours, the hiding of the Father’s face. Remember the darkness and remember the surrender of His spirit in death. This was the path that Jesus took to immortal triumph and everlasting glory, and as He is, so are we in this world!”


[1650 words]

22 Replies to “What Sort of Gospel Are We Preaching?”

  1. An excellent and timely reminder!

    The modern emotional, physical, material “properity gospel” is one of the most dangerous perversions of the true Gospel today.

    That coupled with “political correctness” and the “liberal gospel” make for a heady mix indeed.

    Stuart Mackay, UK

  2. Thanks Stuart

    Yes there are all sorts of false gospels being preached out there, and as Jesus said, we can know them by their fruit.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Thanks Bill for this article. It is 100% correct and probably the most desperately needed truth that the Western church needs to rediscover. If the church could just get back to preaching the true Gospel then there is still hope for the West.

    Ewan McDonald.

  4. Thanks Ewan

    While I am all in favour of being salt in light in society, seeking social transformation, and reclaiming territory for Christ and his Kingdom, I realise that at the end of the day, unless the church gets its act together, it will mostly be a lost cause. Our number one priority today is to repent, get back to our first love, stop playing games, and start getting serious about the enormity of the task that lies before us. May God have mercy on his people.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Another approach (and probably an over-simplification) to this problem is the preaching of Jesus as Saviour, and Lord, (in that order). As Saviour He tidies up my past, but for the future I relate to Christ as my Lord, as Paul says, in 2 Co 10:5: “Cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” It is a slow process to make this transition but it opens the door to the guidance which, once experienced, one would not want to lose.
    John Butterss

  6. Thanks John

    Yes we need to proclaim Christ both as Saviour and Lord. I again think Tozer was right when he said:

    “I think there is little doubt that the teaching of salvation without repentance has lowered the moral standards of the Church and produced a multitude of deceived religious professors who erroneously believe themselves to be saved when in fact they are still in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.” And again, “God will take nine steps toward us, but He will not take the tenth. He will incline us to repent, but He cannot do our repenting for us.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Good on you, again, Bill. I look forward to reading your material every day, and am continually delighted at the breadth of your articles.

    Think again about that word ‘gospel.’ I know it’s usually translated ‘good news’ but I don’t think the Greek requires that. Commentators take the etymology of both the Greek and English words and so say it means ‘good news.’

    And then when preachers preach the ‘gospel’ they assume that it must, somehow, be ‘good news.’ News of joy and peace etc. in Christ. As you say.

    But usage, not etymology, is the best guide to the meaning of a word. The use, for instance, of the word ‘gospel’ in places like Revelation 14v6,7 and Romans 1v15-17 and Romans 2v16 questions it’s translation as ‘good news.’

    In each of those three contexts the word ‘gospel’ is shortly followed by a description of God’s judgment.

    In Revelation 14v6,17 the angel brings the everlasting ‘gospel’ and it’s about fearing God and giving Him glory because the hour of His judgment has come. Good news? Well, only for those who respond. But for those who don’t, it’s their last chance, and the most terrible description of God’s judgment in Scripture follows.

    In Romans 1v15-17 Paul says he’s going to remind the Romans of ‘the gospel’ and after his great summary (Romans 1v17), when he gets to ‘the gospel’ begins to talk about the wrath of God (Romans 1v18).

    Romans 2v16 reads, ‘This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.’

    In those three places ‘gospel’ can hardly be translated ‘good news.’ Far better it is to simply use the word ‘gospel’ for ‘the Christian message.’ A better general translation of ‘gospel’ which makes sense of all contexts and the etymology is ‘a well spoken message’ or ‘a valuable, important message’ or ‘great and significant news.’ The Greek word ‘eu’ well sustains such an understanding. It’s not necessarily ‘happy.’

    To understand ‘gospel’ like that meas that I can and must preach both the good and bad news, as you say; warning them of judgment to come (very much part of the gospel) and of the wonderful reality of Christ.

    Andrew Campbell

  8. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

    I believe it important to understand the context and meaning of 1 Cor 9:22 – we can become the ‘honey pot’ to attract people to the gospel but we cannot stay nothing but sugar. God’s truth leads us to new life and freedom, not overlooking our sin or offering cheap grace.

    “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
    Matthew 5:12-14

    When we no longer have a message that separates the dark from the light, then we have no relevance to the world, but have become it.

    Garth Penglase

  9. Hi Bill, thanks for this article. I had the pleasure of being at an evangelistic crusade in Blacktown this last week where I heard for the first time in a long time the “full” gospel. The people that responded were weeping at the altar and that was not just an emotional response…. there was no feel good music pumping and stirring, just the truth spoken and then the call to repentance.
    I pray that the church will come back to our true calling- to go and make DISCIPLES not just as you said feel good ear tickled converts who can’t stand the flames.
    Thanks again Bill, enjoy your articles and insights.
    Rebekah Matson

  10. I like Ewan’s response.

    My own is that in so many places, in so many ways, Jesus’ message amounts to “actions speak louder than words.” Why? Because actions are necessary. If all you’re getting, all you’re giving is words, that ain’t the Gospel.

    Leon Brooks

  11. I like what Andrew had to say about the Gospel being ‘good news’. When the reality of my sin and depravity was revealed to me I felt like I was in a terrible state, how could this be good news? Getting back to the Gospel and seeing what Christ did to fix the problem (which is the bad news you refer). One thing I notice with a couple of Christian friend’s that I have, they come from a legalistic background and seemingly have gone in the opposite direction and only preach Christ’s ‘love’, which doesn’t seem to make sense unless in the context of God’s holy anger at sin. A timely article!
    Keith Jarrett

  12. Thanks Keith

    Yes it is easy to lose the biblical balance and head off into extremes here. Some are into a legalistic extreme, where it is all law and no grace, eg. But the answer is not to rush to the other extreme, where we end up with a sappy, sentimental notion of love, and become antinomian. We must hold the biblical components together, as hard as that might sometimes be.

    The same with God’s attributes. It is a package deal, and we cannot pick and choose which attributes we prefer. God is fully a God of love, but he is also fully a just and holy God. All these attributes go together, and we dare not emphasise some, while ignoring or minimising others.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. C.S. Lewis, talking about the Christian message, said: “It does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay…and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”
    David Skinner, UK

  14. Hi Bill, I was forwarded your article by an associate it was titled ‘others seem to be catching on’ we are very pleased that others are also striving to balance up the body of Christ from its either ‘legalistic’ spirit to what we are seeing today being a serious error falsely labelled ‘love and grace’. Your article was solid and scripturally sound as well as culturally relevant for the majority of Western Christianity today, look forward to reading more outstanding and truthful articles such as this, appreciate your forthrightness, boldness, zeal and honesty, keep it up for Jesus.
    God Bless, Rev Dorian Ballard, Miracle Christian Center Inc.

  15. God’s ways are not our ways. People have to be prepared to give their LIVES to Christ. I was a nominal Christian in my mid-forties and quit because no one could tell me that God existed. When I was finally told the Gospel my life changed. My wife and five children all committed their lives to Christ. He took most of my money away, but we have never wanted. Our needs have been met in most amazing ways. I am now forty years older, my children are committed Christians, and the Lord called my wife home, but I am blessed every day. And it is my observation that the churches that are preaching the Word and the Righteousness of God are the ones that are growing.
    Tom Wise

  16. Garth, I was at the meetings Rebekah spoke about and that message was the same in Orange NSW and Barossa Valley this month also. Speaker in every instant was Suzette Hattingh of Voice in the City (a Christian ministry based in Europe) an intercessor and evangelist who ministers in UK, Europe, Asia, Death row, prisons, Africa, etc – she apparently is the only female preacher that speaks to men and women on death row in America. She was invited to Blacktown Showground to preach the gospel in partnership with the Blacktown ministry Network (which is made up of large number of churches and ministries in Blacktown City). The meetings were called the Jesus All About life Sydney Celebration, and was possibly the only combined church event in Sydney where the gospel was preached during the Jesus All About Life campaign so far. I was also impressed in Orange at the deep conviction of sin that came upon many people during prayer for repentance and forgiveness of sin at completion of preaching on each occasion.

    On the 50th Anniversary of Billy Graham’s great Sydney Crusade, this timely gospel preaching, was very moving. To hear such preaching in Australia in these deceptive times is a breath of fresh air. I hear gain Paul’s challenge to Timothy– Preach the Word!

    I believe a large of the fall way rate can be mostly attributed to a defective gospel shared in first instance- with our largely defective gospel being shared we have at best a retention rate of 6%, whereas preachers ministering a more correct gospel the retention rate is 80-90% or more. This difference in retention is often put squarely on follow up, and though this is important, more important is the right message up front so people have a fuller encounter with Christ and from a better connection coupled with an understanding of difficulties and the challeges ahead. The closure to old life is much more complete, producing a better beginning to the new life with Christ.

    Stephen Lewin

  17. One of your best here Bill, really spoke to me. I was just discussing 1 Tim 4:1 with a friend, wish I`d read this 90 mins ago, I`ll email it to him as it goes on better than what we ended up discussing.

    Johannes Archer

  18. A cross-less Christianity is a false Christianity! It has to be because it has a false Christ.

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