The gospel is not a footnote
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:14-15, ESV)
The churches of Galatia were being confronted by a dangerous heresy, a heresy that the Apostle Paul labels “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6); one that, by implication, was a false gospel.
The heretics Paul seeks to refute in his Epistle to the Galatians have been called “Judaizers.” They were Jewish-Christian false teachers who were trying to convince the Gentile Christians in the churches of Galatia that, in addition to believing in Jesus Christ, they needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be justified (i.e., declared righteous) before God.
In other words, the Judaizers taught that Gentile believers needed to become Jews first before they could become fully-initiated Christians. The Apostle Paul regards this Judaizing heresy as an attack upon the cross of Christ, a denial of the significance of the atonement and all that the atonement accomplished.
We have no reason to doubt that the Judaizers would have professed to believe in Jesus Christ. No doubt they confessed Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of sinners.
We have no reason to doubt that they confessed belief in Christ’s atonement on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. At some level they professed faith in elements of the biblical and apostolic gospel.
But the truths of the apostolic gospel got subordinated to their circumcision agenda.
In other words, the gospel became a footnote to their judaizing-circumcision agenda. As a result they lost the real gospel and ended up with a false, soul-damning “gospel” which was really no gospel at all.
There are numerous manifestations of the Judaizing heresy today, though they seem to be relegated to fringe movements, and they don’t appear to pose the same level of danger to the orthodox churches today as the first-century judaizing heresy which threatened the apostolic churches.
Nevertheless, as I look across the landscape of contemporary American Christianity I see the same kind of tendency that one detects in the Judaizing heresy of the first century: the tendency to relegate the biblical gospel to a footnote in the life of the church.
Take, for example, some of the popular emphases of the so-called “church growth movement” — a movement which has had a profound influence on the life and ministry of the American Church for the last three decades or so. These emphases include: being “seeker sensitive” by making church feel as non-churchy as possible so that “Unchurched Harry” will feel perfectly at ease when visiting church, and making sure that the sermons (now called “messages” so as not to sound too churchy) are “practical” and “relevant” by addressing the “felt needs” of the unchurched.
Many contemporary churches which have adopted the methods of the church growth movement would affirm the basic gospel message, at least on paper. Most will have some kind of “Statement of Faith” buried somewhere on their church website, and on occasion attendees will even hear the preacher mention Christ’s death on the cross for our sins and resurrection from the dead.
But the problem is that, in many such churches it seems, the good news of Christ’s death for the forgiveness of our sins and His glorious conquest of death by His bodily resurrection from the dead, while not denied, is nevertheless not at the center of the church’s life and teaching, and is thus not the main focus of the church.
Instead of hearing “messages” on who Jesus is, what He has done to save us, and how to live a life of obedience out of gratitude for God’s gift of salvation in Jesus, attendees are treated to “how to”style messages offering practical daily wisdom with some Bible verses sprinkled on for effect*. And thus congregants are treated to a regular diet of messages on topics such as: “How to have a great marriage?” “How to find meaning and purpose in your life!” “Being authentic in an inauthentic world.” “Dealing with loneliness.” “How to overcome addiction.” Etc.
It’s not that these topics are unimportant, or that the Bible doesn’t offer guidance in these areas. But before the church deals with such “felt needs” and temporal, earthly concerns it is called first and foremost to confront people with their deepest, most profound spiritual need — namely, the need to escape God’s righteous wrath against their sins by receiving the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God which are offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And instead of offering common, every-day wisdom that addresses common, everyday problems, the church of Jesus Christ is called to bear witness to the uncommon, ultimate realities of life. And the church can only do this if it stops relegating the gospel to a footnote and instead makes the good news of Jesus Christ front and center in its teaching, preaching, worship, fellowship and witness.
Now, before we in our Reformed and Presbyterian pride imagine that the problem of footnoting the gospel is only an issue in the (newer) tradition of the church growth movement, let us recognize that footnoting the gospel can be, and has been, a problem across the denominational and nondenominational spectrum — including among Reformed churches.
Sadly, it is not uncommon to find conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches which ride favorite hobby horses that have the effect of relegating the gospel itself to a mere footnote. For example, one could find Reformed churches which practice exclusive psalmody, and which so emphasize this practice that it basically defines the church. (Of course, there are exclusive psalmody churches which keep the gospel front and center, and which don’t allow this particular distinctive of their church to define the agenda of the church.)
Within the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian world one may find: Theonomic churches. 2K churches. Transformationist/activist churches. Culture-warrior churches. Blended worship churches. Van-Tillian presuppositional apologetics churches. Postmillenial churches. Amillenial churches. Churches where the preacher places more emphasis on predestination and God’s decrees than on the Person and Work of Christ. Etc. And while these churches claim adherence to the Reformed confessions and profess the gospel, often the gospel gets relegated to a footnote while the congregation’s particular “hobby horse” gets the main emphasis.
Dear reader, let us strive in our own individual Christian lives, and especially in the life of our churches, to keep the good news of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God front and center. That doesn’t mean that the pastor always has to preach on gospel doctrines like Christ’s deity, His atonement, His resurrection, or justification by faith alone. And it doesn’t mean that these gospel doctrines are the only subjects the Scriptures address. But it does mean that the biblical gospel will center, define and ground everything the preacher says and everything the church does as it seeks to fulfill its mission faithfully in the midst of this fallen world.
Let us not footnote the gospel, lest we, like the Judaizers of old, lose the gospel. Instead, let us placard the gospel, so all the world may know of Jesus and His love!
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (First Corinthians 2:2, ESV)
*I should make the reader aware of my conviction that moralistic, “how-to” style preaching which addresses topics instead of explaining and applying passages of Scripture is not biblical preaching at all. A practical, motivational talk sprinkled with some Bible verses may be helpful and useful and even inspirational, but it is not the preaching of God’s Word. True, biblical preaching proclaims law and gospel. It proclaims God’s Kingdom. Above all it proclaims Jesus Christ. It expounds and applies Holy Scripture. It is not merely a motivational pep talk with a spiritual emphasis.
Sadly, many Christians in churches dominated by moralistic “how to” style preaching have never actually heard genuine biblical preaching before. The same is true of those in liberal/modernist churches who get a steady diet of social-justice and/or politically-based “sermons” which have little if anything to do with any specific biblical text. A liberal preacher who gives a book report from the pulpit or who regurgitates political talking points and calls it a “sermon” is being deceptive. Such is not genuine, biblical preaching, which is the proclamation of God’s Word, not the spouting of one’s own cultural or political thoughts and ideas.