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Getting the Gospel Right: An Interview with R.C. Sproul

February 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Daily Manna, Monthly Articles

Getting the Gospel Right: An Interview with R.C. Sproul

In the latest issue of Expositor magazine, Steven Lawson interviewed R.C. Sproul on “Getting the Gospel Right.”

You have written a book titled Getting the Gospel Right. Perhaps the best place to begin is, what is the gospel?

There is probably no term used more loosely in the church than the term “gospel.” You hear preachers say all the time that they are “ministers of the gospel” or that they “preach the gospel,” but many times they have no idea what the gospel actually is!

During my years teaching seminary, one of the D.Min. classes I taught was on justification. What I would characteristically do is put the word “gospel” on the blackboard and ask the ministers who were present to give me a definition of the gospel. They would say things like, “getting peace in your life,” “being reconciled with God,” “gaining purpose and self-esteem.” All of those things were true to a degree, but none of them qualified as a definition for the gospel. Several years ago, Michael Horton conducted a survey of one hundred people at a convention for Christian Booksellers asking the question, “What is the gospel?”. These were people who were seriously involved with Christian education. Yet when their responses were evaluated, only one adequate answer was provided.

To answer the question “What is the gospel?” is rather simple. The gospel is Jesus, the person and work of Christ—who Jesus is and what He did. The gospel also describes how the benefits of His ministry are subjectively appropriated. That’s why the doctrine of justification by faith alone was so pivotal at the time of the Reformation, because it wasn’t a secondary matter but rather had to do with the gospel. Essentially, the pressing question that the gospel answers is, “How can an unjust person become just in the sight of God?”

Another way of approaching the question is to examine the apostolic preaching, particularly the preaching in the book of Acts. Historically, when speaking of the gospel message, we have made a distinction between the kerygma and thedidache. The kerygma was the proclamation the early church made to the world, and once people respond to that they receive the didache, or the teaching. When Paul went to Athens and preached, he didn’t have time to start with Abraham and go all the way through Malachi. Yet he was able to present in a nutshell the message of the truth of God and of the history of redemption, which culminates in the person and work of Christ.

If we analyze that kerygma found in the book of Acts, we will see the message that this Man was born of woman, of the seed of David, according to the Scriptures. He lived a sinless life, made a sacrificial atonement on the cross, was raised by God from the dead for our justification, and ascended into heaven to the right hand of God, where He is crowned Lord of lords and King of kings, from where He will return and judge the world. The benefits of this is reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, and justification, from which we get peace with God, which is received by faith alone. That is the gospel.

One of the biggest problems we face in the church is preaching to people who are unconverted but think they are converted. They have made a profession of faith by walking an aisle, raising their hand, or signed a prayer card, and they think because they have done those things they have been truly converted. Just because we profess to have faith doesn’t mean that we have it.

I think can of two classical sermons that address this same theme. One was from Gilbert Tennent, “The Danger of the Unconverted Clergy,” and the other was from Jonathan Edwards, “A Warning to Professors.” This was Jesus’ great warning: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt 15:8). He ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Mt 7:21–23).

For me, it is liberating to be a pastor in a single location for a long time, because that allows me to preach verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible. I don’t have to lay awake thinking what verse I should preach; the text dictates that for me.

Preachers are accountable to preach the whole counsel of God. So, if I’m not bound to preaching through books, I can intentionally or unintentionally fall into the “hobby-horse syndrome” of preaching only the texts I like or want to preach. But when the preacher is dedicated to verse-by-verse exposition, he can’t avoid preaching the whole counsel of God.

Within expository preaching more broadly, I have found it tremendously encouraging to preach through the four Gospels. I enjoy this so much, because it is an excellent opportunity to tell people as much as you can about Jesus. Every single night, I pray for an awakening in our church. Getting the Gospels in front of people as much as possible allows their minds to be filled with Christ, that the Spirit might bring them all to a saving knowledge of Christ.

What are some of the distinguishing marks of preaching with a desire for conversions?

Sunday morning worship is primarily for the believer. I don’t establish our worship on the needs or desires of “seekers,” because no one seeks after God by his or her own initiative. Instead, I establish our worship for believers. But, at the same time, as Augustine said, the church is always a “mixed body.” This idea did not originate with Augustine but with Jesus. So, we know that on any given Sunday morning, the odds are great that there are going to be unbelievers present at our worship service.

On the one hand, if you preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday morning and focus your attention on the unbeliever exclusively, you have missed the point of corporate worship. The church is there to grow into the maturity of Christ through learning from the expounded Word of God. On the other hand, at the same time that my primary focus is on expounding the text for the benefit of the believer, I am also acutely conscious that there are unbelievers present. As a result, I almost always make an evangelistic appeal to unbelievers, letting them know that if they died tonight they would wake up in hell. There are many ways to make evangelistic appeals without spending the primary time doing so.

I do not believe I personally have an extraordinary anointing of God during my preaching like some men such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others experienced during their ministries. Therefore, I struggle with the inadequacy of my preaching. This struggle is exacerbated by not seeing the kind of response that I would love to see in response to the Word of God. That is why I pray all the time that God will move the people listening to the preaching of His Word.

Even though I often feel very inadequate, I am fully and completely confident in the power of the Word. The Word is not going to return void. When I preach the Scriptures, week in and week out, in an expository manner, people may not remember what I preached on several weeks ago, but there is still a cumulative effect that is building up in their lives. The power of the Word is what changes and transforms the hearts of people.

As Spurgeon ascended to his pulpit, he would repeat over and over to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” As I am walking up into the pulpit of my own church, I remind myself, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:1). God has revealed Himself in His Word, and there is no substitute for that.

I am reminded of the well-known illustration of Vince Lombardi picking up a football before his players and saying to them, “This is a football, am I going too fast for you?” Before today’s modern preachers, I would pick up a Bible and say to them, “This is a Bible, am I going too fast for you?” In other words, when we start anywhere other than with the Bible, we go every way but the right way. I am not providing a technique for success. This is the job and duty of the preacher of the Word of God. Forget your entertainment and other gimmicks, and preach the whole counsel of God!

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