by Robert Andrews

For the past few weeks we have discussed the nature of the gospel that characterizes our relationship with God. We saw that this relationship is not a ladder which we climb to become more and more righteous and less and less sinful; we are at all times simultaneously saints, with the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us, and sinners, the thoughts and intents of whose hearts are continually only evil.

This is a hard concept for us to grasp for at least two reasons:  first, because we have always feasted on the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, living by obedience to the law, and that is a very difficult diet to change—it is woven into the very fabric of our flesh; second, because it’s what we have always been taught. We are accustomed to thinking in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, and the idea of dying to obedience to the law as Paul teaches and being raised up to a whole new way of life, a life of faith alone apart from the works of the law, is impossible to comprehend until God Himself opens our eyes and shows us.

Now I want to continue to discuss the nature of the gospel by investigating two ways to approach presenting this scandalous gospel to the world as we are commanded to do in the Great Commission: the gospel as an appeal and the gospel as an announcement.

The gospel as an appeal

The gospel as an appeal is the customary approach today. We learn the history and the facts of the Christian faith—what Jesus did and taught during His life on the earth, the significance of those deeds and teachings and then how they affect us and our eternal destiny. Then we are encouraged to choose to believe what we have learned and commit ourselves to living in light of that choice.

This is not only the method of gospel presentation to those who sit in church pews on Sunday, but this is also generally the method of preparing for the ministry in seminary. The Bible, as the source of this information, is studied diligently in its original languages, and evidences are examined that overwhelmingly indicate Christianity to be true. Then these trained ministers relay what they have learned and are continuing to learn about the validity of the Christian faith to those of us who are in their churches. Subsequently, we teach this information to our children. The result of this approach is that we transfer what we have chosen to believe from generation to generation.

This teaching includes all the great doctrines of the Christian faith—the divinity of Christ, the sinfulness of man, the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross for sin, maybe even the five points of Calvinism, or whatever the distinctives of one’s particular theological system may be.

The characteristic of this approach to the gospel is that its bottom line is the preservation of our free will, our ability to choose, even if it is to choose to not believe in free-will! I am asked to make a decision to believe, to renounce unbelief and exercise my will to choose to believe because Christianity is more logical and reasonable than unbelief.  Maybe the appeal is to believe that one particular theological system is more biblical than another.

The origin of the appeal to choose—the old Adam

Do you see that this is still eating from the wrong tree? I am still operating by choosing between right and wrong, good or bad; still functioning in terms of the holy, righteous law of God—a method of operation that is for the Judge of all the earth, not for man, as we have seen.

The gospel includes our death on the cross in Christ, but our flesh, all that we were in Adam, still remains in our sinful bodies. It desperately does not want to die. It fights to preserve its life, to be as God, to decide right and wrong, to continue to defend its right to choose–its free will–and then it defends to the death the soundness or correctness of its choice. This, of course, is nothing more than living by the law—choosing for myself what I deem to be right.

Free will is the last, impregnable bastion of the flesh. Earnest Christians will fight to preserve it, because “I’m not a puppet, am I?” The gospel means death for the flesh, but living by the law, by my freedom to choose between good and evil, requires that the flesh remain alive. After all, I have the responsibility to make “good” choices, both initially and continuously and not bad ones, don’t I? This necessity to choose is nothing more than a subtle effort by the flesh to participate in its own salvation, therefore making remaining alive a prerequisite. I can avoid that painful, ugly old cross.

The results of the gospel as an appeal to choose

If the gospel really is an appeal, then my flesh, though definitively crucified, continues to thrive in my body because it has an important part to play in my salvation.  It must be alive in order for me to choose by exercising my free will. Free will is in the domain of the flesh, in the realm of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I may, of course, ironically choose to believe intellectually that I am a totally depraved sinner unable to choose, saved totally by grace, but that belief is “outside me,” somehow always at arms length, a philosophy, an intellectual curiosity only, that has nothing to do with how I really live, as I continue to choose what I believe.

In other words, I don’t see myself as a sinner in actual practice, only in theory, because I have a vested interest in seeing myself as “good” because of my good choices. It is difficult for me to see myself as one whose thoughts are only evil continually.

This blindness expresses itself in innumerable ways. Disagreements and conflicts are always someone else’s fault. I am defensive when someone speaks the truth in love to me. I am more concerned about the sins of others than I am about my own. In real life I preserve, protect, defend, excuse and promote myself. I love to talk about myself and my family and subtly tell you of my great accomplishments and those of my children.  “That’s nothing, listen to what I’ve done!” is continually in my heart, if not on my lips.

These are evidences that my flesh wants to stay alive at all costs, and in practice I do everything in my power to practically evade the cross that will kill me, eliminating my right to choose, even as I quote Bible verses about total depravity, salvation by grace alone and taking up my cross and following Jesus.

The gospel as presented in the church today is often based on this appeal—an appeal to choose to change my view of Jesus, to decide to believe in Him, surrender my will to Him and become a Christian—which means, then, continuing to decide for Him as a way of life. The Christian life becomes a series of choices; you either decide to do what’s right or you do not–to make “good choices” or “bad choices.” In other words, you live by the law. What began as an appeal to choose to believe continues as an appeal to choose to live rightly, and the flesh continues to avoid the cross—to live on as a self-righteous Pharisee if one sees himself as making good choices, and a discouraged, defeated Christian or even a rebellious one if he is not able to do so.

Next week we will look at the alternative to the gospel as an appeal to choose: the gospel as an announcement.

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Steven Lawson: Foundations of Grace
John Calvin: Grace and its Fruits