Conserving the Gospel – 3

The gospel is threatened when its meaning is warped. In fact, the only way one can avoid misunderstanding the gospel’s purpose is by understanding its meaning. But its meaning lies in something that modern religionists hate: doctrine.

The way Paul describes the gospel in I Corinthians 15:1-4 on the surface seems to be a simple recounting of historical events: Jesus died and rose again, verified by His burial and by the witnesses that saw Him after His resurrection.

This rather plain reading of the gospel has led some to think that the gospel is nothing more than mental assent to these historical events. However, the gospel is definitely more than historical events. It can never be less than those events, for if Jesus did not actually live, die and rise again, the entire Christian faith collapses (I Cor 15:14).

But the gospel lies primarily in the interpretation of those events. An interpretation will simply be the teaching that explains the significance of the events of Christ’s death and resurrection. Another word for teaching is doctrine. Put simply, you cannot conserve the gospel unless you conserve the doctrines that explain the meaning of the gospel.

Paul helps us understand part of that doctrine when He says Christ died for our sins. This introduces the idea of substitutionary atonement. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we might be forgiven, and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. We must conserve the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

However, why was this atonement needed? Because without it, we would have paid the penalty ourselves. What was that penalty? To offend an infinite God is an infinite offence. Yet we are finite, time-bound, mortal beings. The only way we could pay an infinite debt would be if we were punished for an infinite period of time. To conserve the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of eternal punishment.

How then could Christ pay for our sins over a space of three hours? The answer must be that Christ was actually an infinite Person with infinite merit. If an infinite Person suffers as a substitute, He pays an infinite price. This means that Christ had to be God. To have the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

However, Jesus was acting as a substitute for mankind, not for angels. To be a true substitute, He had to be a true human being. He had to be able to die, something God cannot do. Therefore, we know that part of the gospel is that Jesus was truly human. To have the gospel we must conserve the doctrine of the humanity of Christ.

This leads us to something else. How did Jesus enter our world as both God and man? Of He had simply appeared as a fully grown man, He would not have been truly human, not having been born. But if He were simply born as all of us, He would not be God. To have the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of the virgin birth.

Jesus could only have been a true sin-bearer had He been sinless Himself. Likewise, only if He bodily rose from the dead would He have been successful in His atonement – having rendered death itself as an unlawful act upon His sinless life – and upon all who would be found in Him. Essential to the gospel then are the doctrines of the sinless life of Christ and the bodily resurrection of Christ.

The fact that Jesus was paying a penalty on the cross to God, while being Himself God leads us to another truth fundamental to the Gospel: God is more than one Person. This means that essential to the gospel is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Going back, we consider that payment for our sins means something about us. We are sinners. Man is sinful and inherits a sin nature. To say that man is innocent or could become righteous by his own acts contradicts the gospel. To conserve the gospel we must conserve the doctrine of human depravity.

That leads us to something else. If man was able to achieve salvation through his own means, then Christ’s death was needless. The gospel teaches that man cannot be saved by his own works, only by the grace of God through faith. To conserve the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of human inability.

For that matter, does this gospel have a deadline? Does anything happen if the world keeps rejecting it? The answer of the Bible is that the same one who died to provide atonement will also personally return to execute judgement on those who rejected it, and to vindicate those who received it. Thus if we deny the doctrine of the personal return of Christ, we deny the gospel.

Of course how do we know all this? Paul tells us that these things are true because they are ‘according to the Scriptures”. Thus, if the Scriptures are fallible, filled with errors, and only containing the Word of God, we are in trouble. How do we know if the Scriptures have not led us astray on one of these doctrines? Thus, to conserve the gospel is to conserve the doctrine of the authority and infallibility of Scripture.

These doctrines, as you can tell, form the very basis of understanding the gospel. They are part of the gospel itself. To deny them, is to deny the gospel. Because these doctrines are essential to the gospel, they have sometimes been called the fundamentals. People who hold to the fundamental doctrines as being the boundary of Christianity are, at least historically speaking, fundamentalists.

Now, not everyone understands all these things at the point of salvation. Most of us grow to understand these things more as we mature. But ignorance is a different matter to denial. No one can flatly deny these doctrines, without denying the gospel itself.

A conservative Christian must be dedicated to studying, understanding, articulating and defending doctrines essential to the gospel. If we do not, we lose the gospel itself.

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