Gospel Above All
This June, members from Southern Baptist churches around the country will come together for our annual meeting in Dallas, Texas. As many of you know, I have allowed my name to be placed in nomination for president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This is a weighty decision for me and one I take by the counsel of the leaders of The Summit Church and with the encouragement of my wife Veronica.
As I prepare for this summer’s annual meeting, I have been reflecting on where I believe God is calling us, as a Convention, in the days ahead. The basic passions I expressed when I was nominated for SBC president in 2016 have not changed, and as I have written elsewhere, I am more committed to them than ever.
Chief among my passions for the SBC at this time is that we reinforce our identity as a gospel people, putting the gospel above all. We do not find our unity in worship styles or in views on eschatology or in political positions. We find our unity in the gospel. Whatever preferences we have must be secondary to this unifying standard.
What Is the Gospel?
I know that the word “gospel” has gotten to be so common in some circles that it has become stripped of its rich meaning. But the word was so central to Jesus’ ministry that I simply can’t get away from it. So what, exactly, do we mean when we say “gospel”?
The key word in all the gospel is “substitution.” At the Summit, we say that the gospel in four words is, “Jesus in my place.” Jesus went to the cross, not merely to die for you but to die instead of you. He took your burden of sin so you could put on the mantle of his righteousness. That’s the good news of the gospel: Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death we were condemned to die.
This principle of substitution separates Jesus’ gospel from every other religion. The great religions of the world all teach that you must do something to please God. Go here. Say this. Rub this. Touch that. Do this. Don’t do that. Pray this. Chant that. If you do these things often enough and well enough, God will accept you—or so you hope.
The gospel, on the other hand, is about what Jesus has done for you. In every other religion, the prophet is a teacher that gives you a plan to earn God’s favor. In Christianity, you get the story of a Savior who has earned God’s favor for you and gives it to you as a gift. You can spell religion “D-O.” You can spell the gospel “D-O-N-E.”
The Gospel Is for Christians, Too
Those of us in the church don’t usually deny the gospel. But we do tend to forget it quite a bit. For many of us, the gospel functions solely as the entry rite into Christianity; it is the prayer we pray to begin our relationship with Jesus; the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of the “real” Christian life.
The gospel, however, is not just the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity; it is the pool itself. It is not only the way we begin in Christ; it is the way we grow in Christ. As one pastor puts it, the gospel is not just the ABCs of Christianity, but it is the A-Z. All of the Christian life flows from the good news of what Jesus has done.
That’s why growth in Christ is never going beyond the gospel, but going deeper into the gospel. The purest waters from the spring of life are found by digging deeper, not wider, into the gospel well.
We Southern Baptists have always been a gospel people, and I pray that we will constantly and loudly and unashamedly talk about the gospel. None of our Bible lessons will be complete without it, because without the story of God’s grace the Bible can become instructions to obey without the power to obey. None of our ministry strategies will take off without the gospel, because we aren’t running a business based on pragmatics; we’re responding to God’s lavish grace with open hands. Nothing we do should ever lack a gospel-motivation and a gospel-focus.
We cannot remind ourselves of this truth often enough, because our hearts are hard-wired to run back to works-based righteousness. Grace is not natural to us, and so the gospel remains news even for those of us who have followed Christ for years.
As I often remind the people at my church, this kind of repetition is healthy and necessary. After all, when I’m sick of saying it, my leaders have usually just heard it. And when they’re sick of hearing it, the rest of the church has just become aware of it. That’s the kind of persistence we need when it comes to the message of the gospel.
Grace is not natural to us, and so the gospel remains news even for those of us who have followed Christ for years.
The Most Important Five Points of the Gospel
When I think of how we apply the gospel to the churches of the SBC, several points come to mind. (When I listed them out, I realized that I had come up with five main points. So I guess for all of you wondering whether I believe in “the five points,” here you have the five I think are really important.)
These are the five ways the gospel should play out in our churches:
For pastors particularly, the pulpit is the most critical place to saturate our churches with the gospel. Every sermon should be grounded in the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for us. The motivation to do in the Christian life always flows out of the reality of what Christ has done for us. That’s a relevant message for those who have never heard of Jesus and those who have been his disciples for 50 years.
Charles Spurgeon once said that in every one of his sermons, he would “plow a trough” back to Jesus. Since all of the Scriptures point to Jesus, this shouldn’t be too much of a trial for us. The point of the Bible is to exalt the name of Jesus. The point of every sermon is the same. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, the goal of a lecture is that people leave with information; the goal of a motivational speech is that they leave with action steps; the goal of a sermon is that people leave worshipping. Gospel preaching will always have Christ-exalting worship as its aim.
I have opinions on more things than just the gospel. For instance, I love political conversations, and I enjoy deep theological discussions about any biblical doctrine—from the mysteries of God’s electing graces to when the rapture will occur. But I know that our church only has a very limited bandwidth; we can only be “about” one thing in the eyes of our community. I want that one thing to be the gospel. I may be wrong in some of the particulars of my political economics. I might be wrong about some of the finer points of doctrine. And even if I am right, those views don’t affect gospel proclamation. But I know I’m not wrong about the gospel. I never want my views on the former things to prevent people from hearing me on the latter.
My mentor, Dr. Paige Patterson, always told me that Jesus’ own summary of his ministry was that he came to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). At various points of my life, Dr. Patterson challenged me to let that be the filter for where I devote my energies. Other issues will always seem pressing, but as he said, “Not every theological battle is worth fighting.” He reminded me that the reason he and others fought the inerrancy battle so vehemently was because it was intricately connected to evangelism. After all, where confidence in the Bible diminishes, fervency for evangelism fades.
Jesus said there was more joy in heaven over the salvation of one sinner than the 99 who are faithful. That means few things we do with the 99 make Jesus as happy as our striving to reach the one. The devil would like nothing more than to distract us from the main thing with secondary things. But every time we argue unnecessarily about secondary things, the devil wins and evangelism loses. Everything we do and every word we speak should be run through the filter of how well it helps us fulfill the Great Commission.
Every time we argue unnecessarily about secondary things, the devil wins and evangelism loses.
I’ve often told the people at my church that politics is like a skunk. Touch it even once and you’ll smell like it for far longer than you’d like. Our churches need to smell like gospel, and political odors can keep people from that. Again, I’m not opposed to engaging in politics. In fact, we need more people in our churches applying the gospel to politics, not fewer. But politics is not the primary call of the corporate church. As one of our elders summarizes, this is the difference between the church as organism and organization. As “organism,” members of the church should saturate every level of society and be working in those areas for peace, prosperity, and justice for our city as their consciences direct. But as an organization, we try to show restraint in what we attach Jesus’ name to because our calling and mission are different.
One of the dangers of politics is that it threatens to steal our attention and command our ultimate allegiance. But we have to remember where our hope lies. As gospel people, our true citizenship is in heaven, not America. We belong to a country whose walls can never be shaken and whose glories will never fade. That reality doesn’t make me one ounce less passionate about seeing change in my earthly country, but it keeps me from making politics the main thing.
I long for my homeland to turn to God as much as anyone, to experience the blessings that come from walking with him. But salvation does not come riding in on the back of a donkey or an elephant. It’s not found in the stars and stripes of our flag but the scars and stripes on our Savior.
I have often pointed out to our church that one of Jesus’ disciples was “Simon the Zealot.” Zealots were those Jews that thought Judaism should revolt against Rome, driving out all Roman influence. Included with him in that circle of 12 was “Matthew the Tax Collector,” who had worked for Rome collecting the taxes. One thought war with Rome was the best course of action; the other thought complicity with Rome was wiser. I’m sure they had some incendiary political discussions by the campfires in the evening. I’d love to see Jesus’ posture as he listened to them. But at the end of the day, they found in their love for Jesus a unity greater than the political questions that divided them.
Because the gospel reminds us of our sin, it helps us act in humility toward others, extending grace to them just as God extended grace to us. For instance, one of the things the staff team at my church repeats all the time is that we insist on giving others the benefit of the doubt. The gospel drives us to assume that others have good intentions and to question our own hearts. In so doing, it cultivates an atmosphere of grace.
What if our associations, our state conventions, and our national convention were characterized by this kind of gracious leadership? Jesus himself led his disciples, profoundly, by picking up a towel and washing their feet. He showed them that love is the most essential element in leadership. How beautiful would it be if that spirit characterized all of the interactions of the SBC?
Jesus showed that love is the most essential element in leadership. How beautiful would it be if that spirit characterized all of the SBC?
5. Loving Our Neighbors
Antagonism toward Christianity is growing in our society, but this is no time to despair. The early church didn’t grow exponentially because the government was behind them but because they trusted the Spirit and proclaimed the gospel boldly. They took the commission that Jesus had given them—to love their neighbors and take the gospel to them—and they turned the world upside-down.
Our world is sick and in need of the healing balm of the gospel. We must aim for the same paradox Jesus embodied in his ministry, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:17). Truth without grace is fundamentalism. Grace without truth is vapid sentimentality. The Great Commission is that we proclaim the gospel; the second Great Commandment is that we love our neighbors. Both should be evident among Southern Baptists. We must not only speak the truth of Christ; we must do so with the spirit of Christ. As I’ve heard it said, people don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
Southern Baptists have always been a gospel people; God-willing, we always will be. The gospel is, as Paul said, “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). We must avoid the temptation to let smaller doctrinal issues or any personal preferences replace the centrality of the gospel as our unifying standard. The need is too great, the hour is too near, and the beauty of the gospel is too precious for us to define ourselves by anything else.