If you are like me, there may have been a time in your preaching ministry when you thought the gospel was really only for evangelizing unbelievers and did not need to be a part of every sermon on a weekly basis. After all, aren’t we to be moving on from the milk of elementary teachings to mature spiritual meat? If we address the basic gospel on a weekly basis, are we not hindering the growth of our people into deeper biblical truths?

This was the rationale behind my understanding of the place of the gospel in preaching. In thinking the gospel was only for evangelistic purposes, I did not necessarily incorporate it into every weekly sermon because those sermons were directed primarily to church members who already had heard the gospel and professed faith in Christ.

Then I came across Romans 1:15. Once again, Scripture overturned my preconceived and erroneous notions, this time with regard to the gospel and its function in the church. In Romans 1:15, Paul expresses his eagerness to “preach the gospel” to the Christians in Rome, whom he already has addressed as “beloved of God” and “saints” (Romans 1:7).

The Greek word translated as “preach the gospel” is a form of the verb euangelidz?, which is where we get the language of evangelism. So, a legitimate and literal translation of Romans 1:15 could read, “I am eager to evangelize you also who are in Rome.” This translation clearly reveals the importance for Paul that the Christians in Rome hear the gospel again in order to grow in their Christian faith.

Having been confronted by Scripture with an understanding of the gospel that did not fit my thinking, I was forced to reconsider the function of the gospel in Christian preaching by asking: What does it mean to evangelize the church?

Life-sized Salvation
Central to understanding the perpetual importance of the gospel in week-to-week Christian preaching is a full-orbed and biblical understanding of salvation. Throughout Scripture, salvation is explained as a process that is ongoing throughout the life of the believer and is brought to its great climax in the resurrection of the body when Christ returns to consummate His kingdom.

All too often, though, we truncate the language of salvation to refer to the moment of conversion. While there is, of course, that decisive moment of initial repentance and regeneration as a person enters into a right relationship with God through Christ, this is hardly the full biblical vision of salvation. Rather, conversion is the decisive beginning of God’s saving work in the lives of His people.

Classic formulations of the order of salvation make clear that salvation begins with justification, extends throughout life in sanctification and culminates in glorification at the resurrection. Salvation deals with the past, present and future of the Christian life. A life-sized understanding of salvation means realizing that salvation is a continuing process throughout the life of the Christian.

Why is this important for our understanding of the place of the gospel in the weekly preaching of the church? It is because the gospel itself is God’s power for salvation to all who have faith (Romans 1:16). If the gospel is indeed the means of grace of God’s saving power, and salvation is an ongoing process throughout the Christian life, then the people of God have a continuing need to hear clear presentations of the gospel.

As we grow in Christian maturity, the great truth of the gospel should become more deeply beautiful to us and increasingly renew us in the image of the Christ who is the subject of our message. The weekly preaching of the gospel through the ministry of the Word is, therefore, vital to the life and health of the church wherever it gathers.

In light of these considerations, the preacher’s primary task and responsibility is to make certain the church gets a steady diet of gospel. The preacher is the shepherd whose job is to make sure the flock is fed. The responsible preacher understands the people of God need to be continually nourished by the truth of the gospel if they are to be healthy and continue to grow in grace.

A Firm Foundation
Many preachers may be concerned that preaching the gospel every week could cause their sermons to be perceived as repetitive and lacking in freshness or relevance. We must remember, though, the gospel is the foundation upon which all Christian teaching is built. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul speaks of the gospel as that which is of “first importance.” The gospel is that upon which everything else is grounded. If we get the gospel wrong, then we will get church wrong.

The fear among preachers that weekly articulation of the gospel in their sermons might come across as stale should be relieved by the knowledge that God has promised to use the gospel as the means of grace for salvation. Beyond this, we need to be reminded that pastoral teaching and instruction on any subject is only distinctively Christian if it is exclusively grounded in the gospel.

Take, for example, a sermon on marriage. In Ephesians 5:25, we learn that Christian marriage is a parable of Christ’s sacrificial love for the church, a truth communicated in the gospel. Any sermon on marriage should be clearly grounded in the gospel of Christ’s self-giving love on the cross for the cleansing of His bride, the church.

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul’s condemnation of factions in the church comes with an appeal to “the word of the cross.” The gospel he proclaims is at the heart of church unity. The tendency of the Galatian church to seek righteousness on the basis of works of the law is evidence of its turning to a different gospel (1 Corinthians 1:6; 1 Corinthians 3:10). Paul wrote because the church stood in desperate need of hearing the gospel of grace once again to avoid error and the danger of apostasy.

The Philippian Christians were exhorted to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:27). How were they to obey this command if they are not continually reflecting on the content of the gospel and considering its implications for their ongoing spiritual formation and sanctification? The Colossian warning against hollow philosophies was accompanied by a reminder of Christ’s victory on the cross (Colossians 2:8-15).

The evidence from Scripture repeatedly bears out the importance of the gospel in every aspect of the life of the church. A chief task of the preacher, then, is to lead the congregation in addressing the question as to how the weekly sermon topic is grounded in the truth of the gospel. If he or she is having a hard time answering this question, it may mean deeper work needs to be done; it could mean the topic needs to be reconsidered.

Guarding Against Moralism
A significant benefit of grounding every sermon in the truth of the gospel is that such preaching is especially apt to guard against any encroachment of moralism in the life and ministry of the church. Moralism is what happens when Christian teaching is reduced to ethical maxims and divorced from an acknowledgment of our need for salvation in Christ. In moralistic preaching, the focus is generally more on what you should do rather than on the increase of your faith, and Jesus is usually portrayed only as teacher or example rather than Savior.

Moralism is monergistic with regard to the hearer, placing all responsibility for good works on him or her apart from the saving work of Christ. In contrast, true Christian preaching grounds all human effort and morality in the finished work of Christ in His death and resurrection, and acknowledges that human beings are unable to be morally upright apart from spiritual regeneration.

The temptation to moralistic preaching easily befalls us. When preparing to preach from a text that is characterized by moral imperatives, the preacher easily can focus on what the hearer is to do while neglecting what Christ already has done. We must remember and emphasize the indicative of the gospel always precedes ethical imperatives.

Preachers need to pay special attention to the gospel context of any passage that is weighted heavily in terms of moral instruction. Consider a sermon on Ephesians 4:25-32, a homiletic unit of eight verses with no less than 11 ethical exhortations. It would be very easy for a sermon on this text to focus exclusively on how a Christian is to live, while neglecting to remind the congregation that Paul spent the first three chapters of Ephesians explaining how the gospel reconciles Jews and Gentiles to God in order to display His glorious and many-splendored wisdom through one ethnically diverse church. The imperatives of chapters 4, 5 and 6 are all grounded in the indiscriminate and redeeming work of Christ as planned in the eternal wisdom of God before the foundation of the world.

The moral maxims of verses 4:25-32 must be preached within the larger context of the whole letter to make it clear that ethics always follow the gospel and cannot be separated from it. To be authentically Christian, a sermon on a passage saturated with ethical imperatives has to be grounded in the gospel to guard the church against moralistic preaching.

The Evangel for Everyone
The biblical evidence indicates the perpetual preaching of the gospel is necessary for the increasing health of the church. My own mistake was thinking the gospel was only necessary for evangelizing unbelievers; and to correct my error, I needed to hear Paul express his desire to evangelize the church in Rome.

When we understand that salvation is bigger than conversion, we begin to understand more accurately the gospel is the necessary means of grace for the lifelong formation of the people of God. The gospel is not a single classroom in the school; it is the building in which all classes are housed. The gospel gives coherence to our preaching and grounds it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It provides continuity and unity to everything we say in the pulpit.

Our preaching task is not to help the church grow beyond the basic gospel to deeper spiritual truths; rather, it is to lead the church in understanding how the gospel informs and confirms every spiritual truth.

We never will hinder the growth of our congregations by preaching the gospel to them week after week. The reality is that neglecting to preach the gospel will be a hindrance to the growth and formation of those we shepherd. At the end of the day, the life and health of the church depends not only on the evangelization of unbelievers, but on the constant and ongoing evangelization of all the people of God in the weekly ministry of the Word. 

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