The Gospel Is Not Being Preached in America Today
by Stuart DiNenno
Most professing Christians are astounded and puzzled when I tell them I do not believe that the gospel is being preached in America today, even in the most conservative Reformed churches, but this is the case, as far as I have been able to determine.
One reason why they do not understand my assertion is because they do not understand that there is the gospel, on the one hand, and then there is the preaching of the gospel, on the other. There is a sense in which something as simple as Romans 10:9 could be called the gospel because it is “the good news” of salvation: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” However, it is obvious that the preaching of the gospel must necessarily encompass much more, and a gospel message would be very incomplete if it only included an exposition of this verse along with similar passages about salvation through Christ. A gospel message must contain several other elements or it will be defective, and, in my opinion, the elements that must be included (not necessarily in this order) are these:
— the fall of man
— human depravity (total and universal)
— sin defined through an exposition of the moral law and all shown to be condemned
— the punishment for sin (the eternal wrath of God)
— the remedy for sin (Christ), who He is, and how forgiveness is given by God through Him
— the necessity of faith in Christ and our justification by it
— the new birth
— perseverance unto eternal life
— call to repentance
— command to believe
Not that other topics cannot be mentioned in a gospel sermon, but without these elements I believe the message is incomplete and likely to be ineffective or at least not as effective as it otherwise could be. Of course, everything on this list is drawn from the Scriptures, but some might ask how I came to the conclusion that these particular doctrines, and not other biblical doctrines, must be included in a presentation of the gospel. The answer is that I believe the inclusion of everything on this list can be drawn as a necessary implication from Christ’s words, “Repent ye and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
This simple statement tells us that repentance is required by God. From this starting point, we can work backwards and deduce that several things must first be given in a sermon before we can call men to repentance. If repentance is going to occur, then it is obvious that a man must be made to understand not only what it means to repent but also what it is that he has done wrong for which he needs to repent and this requires that he be given a definition of sin. We know that the definition of sin is the transgression of God’s law, so some degree of exposition of the law, including the ways that it is broken, is necessary. Sinners also need to comprehend why they sin, how it is that they came to be sinners, and understand that they are not able in themselves to cease from sinning, so that they do not begin to think that they can, merely of their own volition and power guided by a bare intellectual grasp of moral concepts, embrace righteousness and thereby reform themselves, which requires that they be informed of the fall of man and how that has brought upon them their innate total depravity and inability, which in turn necessitates that they understand their need for regeneration by the Spirit of God so as to free them from the bondage of sin and enable them to obey God. Finally, they need to see what is the ultimate consequence for their sin — that if they do not repent, then they will suffer the righteous wrath of God in their eternal punishment. I believe that all these things must be done if men are going to be made to understand that their condition is hopeless, if left to themselves, and if they are to see that they are completely bereft of righteousness or anything that could commend them to God. Only then will they give up all trust in themselves and cry out to God for mercy in true repentance.
Likewise, Christ’s same simple statement tells us that belief (i.e., faith) is required by God. From this starting point, we can work backwards and deduce that several things must first be given in a sermon before we command men to believe. If we have done the job described in the last paragraph, and the Holy Ghost is working in their hearts to receive the truth, then the hearers now understand that they can do nothing to save themselves. It becomes necessary then to provide a remedy by which they can be saved or, more accurately stated, it is necessary to show them what is the remedy that God has provided. That is, they need to understand “the good message,” which is what the word gospel means. The remedy given in the gospel, of course, is Jesus Christ. He is the object of our faith and it is obvious that in order to make Him known to the people, we have to define who He is, why He came into the world, what His ministry on earth was all about, what the meaning of His death and resurrection was, and what it accomplished for His people, as it is certain that no man can believe in someone he knows nothing about, nor can he embrace a plan of salvation without having an understanding of it. It is equally plain that we need to make known how repentant sinners can apprehend those benefits — which is by faith — as it is evident that benefits are of no value until it is understood how to lay hold on them. Moreover, there are things about faith itself that need to be recognized, lest people erroneously attribute it to anything naturally within themselves rather than glorifying God for the gift of it. Men must understand how they come to possess their faith and that they do not naturally carry it in their souls, or somehow generate it within themselves, and they also need to be made to understand that this faith is what justifies them with God and not any of their own works. Lastly, we need to set forth what is the end of our faith, that is, eternal life by perseverance in faith unto salvation, and how this also is accomplished by the power of God and not of our own strength. Every aspect of our salvation is entirely a work of God and unless this truth is set forth clearly by the preacher in all its particulars, then there is likely to be an element of self-sufficiency, and hence self-righteousness, in the beliefs of his hearers, and this will be a hindrance to true salvation.
Which of these elements are missing from today’s so-called gospel preaching? The great defect in today’s salvation messages is a lack of emphasis on the “bad news.” That is, the guilt of sin, the need for repentance, and the punishment for continuing in a life of rebellion. On the other hand, there is an overemphasis on the “good news” of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness in Christ. This is not to say that sin is not mentioned at all in today’s gospel messages, but it is to say that today’s preachers shrink back from doing what is necessary to create a strong conviction of the guilt of sin in their hearers, and those hearers are not made to understand the utter hopelessness of their condition apart from repentance and God’s forgiveness, before they are given the remedy in Christ. Typically, there is little, if any, exposition of God’s law with examples of how it is violated, nor is there much said about the Bible’s teaching on human depravity, and the truth of God’s righteous wrath against the natural, fallen man along with a declaration of how that will be manifested in his eternal punishment, is either de-emphasized or not mentioned at all. It seems evident to me, as I said above, that without these things men are not likely to truly cry out to God for mercy and so are unlikely to be given that mercy.
It also needs to be said that a gospel message must be preached in a confrontational and convicting, but loving and sincere, way. One can preach a message that includes all of the elements listed above but do so in an indirect, detached, and clinical way, as if the preacher is not speaking about those present in the congregation and is only giving a lecture on abstract concepts that do not actually apply to anyone in attendance at the time. It is obvious that this oblique sort of preaching is unlikely to create much of a conviction in its hearers. Gospel preaching also needs to be balanced. There must be a strong dose of God’s condemnation and punishment for sin but an equal dose of God’s loving forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ. Most, if not all, sermons today are far too heavy on the love of God and far too light on the wrath of God.
Am I claiming that no one can be saved unless preachers are careful to include every item listed above in every presentation of the gospel or am I asserting that no one is ever saved through today’s preaching? No, in fact I believe that some men are saved outside of preaching altogether by reading the Bible and studying doctrine for themselves, and I cannot say that God does not sometimes use even a very weak gospel message to at least spark an interest in some to whom he eventually reveals the missing pieces of the puzzle so that they are saved. However, the ordinary means of salvation is through the preaching of the gospel and it is obvious that the more incomplete the message, the more unlikely it is to bear any fruit in those who hear it. Furthermore, we cannot expect God to bless the ministry of cowardly preachers who shrink back from declaring the hard truths in a presentation of the gospel because they are fearful of offending unregenerate men, and it is doubtful that we will find much life in churches that are subjected to nothing beyond such flawed preaching, and whose officers and members do not recognize the deficiencies in it.
Let us take a look at one example of what passes for the gospel message today from the denominational website of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. While it might be possible to find a somewhat better statement of the gospel on the websites of other so-called conservative Reformed denominations, theirs is fairly typical of what is found today. You can find this presentation for yourself, if you go to the ARP’s website and simply enter the word gospel into the search tool. It begins with the following:
#1 Confess that you are a sinner and that you cannot save yourself.
““For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). This means that even though you try to do your best, you still fall short because you are a sinner. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Salvation is the gift of God to you. That’s the way He planned it.”
What is quoted above is the totality of what is given in the presentation to create a conviction of sin and guilt in the reader before moving on to point #2 and speaking of salvation in Christ. In fact, it is already speaking of salvation in Christ by the time the reader reaches the second line of this first section. Now I ask you: Is it not absurd to think that anyone is going to cry out to God for mercy after reading this? There is no definition of sin, even in the most general sense, and no mention of human depravity, God’s wrath against sin, His punishment for it, or repentance. What is sin? What is a sinner? Why am I a sinner? Why cannot I just stop sinning? What is salvation? What is it saving us from? None of these questions are answered. Not only is it entirely worthless in creating any conviction of guilt for sin in the reader but it even makes him sound like a pretty good guy when it says “…even though you try to do your best…” When does an unregenerate man try to do his best according to any biblical definition of righteousness? Never! He only does his best if it is defined as doing his best to fulfill his own lusts, doing his best to justify himself, doing his best to avoid submitting to God, etc.
Because this is not taken from a sermon, some might claim that it is not fair of me to judge the gospel preaching of the ministers in the denomination based solely on it. I answer: It is quite obvious that this is being represented as a solid presentation of the gospel, and it is a representation made on the website for the entire denomination, not just one of the churches in it. There is no reason why a complete gospel message could not have been presented here in writing, just as fully as it is in a verbally presented sermon, and I must assume that the ministers in the denomination see this as a valid presentation of the gospel. Otherwise, why would it be where it is? And if this is claimed to be only a summary of some important truths and not meant to be complete in itself, then why does it not at least contain a general definition of sin, and some mention of human depravity, God’s wrath against sin, His punishment for it, and the necessity of repentance? Are these truths not important enough to be even briefly mentioned? And if it is not meant to be complete in itself, why is there no link or reference on the page to something that is more complete? No, these excuses cannot hold water. It is obvious that this very incomplete presentation is not seen as such by the overseers of this denomination and that it has their blessing as a faithful presentation of the gospel message.
Of course, none of what I have presented above in the entirety of this article is categorical proof that the gospel is not being preached anywhere today, but the fact that the horribly defective message given on the ARP’s website can be passed off as an accurate communication of the gospel by a fairly large so-called conservative denomination is indicative of how low the standards have fallen, and I can testify that I have not yet heard, either in person or in a recording, a gospel message that contains all the elements I listed earlier in this article and which is preached in the confrontational and convicting way that I have described herein, despite diligently searching for the same via numerous requests to a multitude of churches.
It can be said that the gospel is being preached in many American churches only if the definition of the preaching of the gospel is reduced down to the delivery of a tepid and incomplete message that does not convict of sin nor bring forth repentance. Of course, there are those who claim that I am painting with too broad of a brush and that the gospel still is being preached in its fullness in some American churches. But I have yet to see any proof to support this assertion.