I have been trying to write this article for several days now. I recently re-read J.I. Packer’s Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I first read the article about 15 years ago when I was an intern in Dallas.
It wasn’t until some events that took place this week that I was reminded of just how important this topic is to our salvation and eternal well-being. If you recall, I lamented the fact that so many of my seminary acquaintances on Facebook were celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent and thought it odd that I would challenge them on it. This is important because when you begin to think about why they are celebrating something (by adding to the gospel and Christ’s righteousness), it comes back to this issue of the old gospel vs. the new gospel that Packer wrote about so many years ago.
In other words, so many who came through Dallas seminary were there because of their belief in the new gospel, as opposed to the old gospel. They were not their because God called them, regenerated them, gave them a new heart in order to believe. They were there because they decided to follow Jesus, in the same way that one decides to follow the false prophet Mohammed or Mary Baker Eddy, or Joseph Smith. There is no conversion necessary for one to follow those people. We are born with a heart to follow those who are into works righteousness because our fallen natures lead us to believe we can earn our own righteousness apart from Christ. The new gospel plays itself right into our fallen nature because we like works righteousness.
We get Christians like that because of the new gospel. Listen to Packer’s words:
“Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel (the old gospel) for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why? We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. If fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do.”
Packer goes on to say that the new gospel doesn’t save as the old gospel because it is not intended to. The new gospel makes it possible for men to save themselves. In other words, Christ didn’t die on the cross to save sinners. Christ died on the cross to make it possible for sinners to save themselves.
This is nothing short of Arminianism in it’s fullest form. It strikes at the heart of the gospel because it suggests that men can save themselves. This is why this argument between Calvinism and Arminianism is so important. If we can save ourselves, as the Arminians say, then Christ did not need to die. (Please forgive me for the strawman. Arminians do not believe this. Please see Kyle’s comment below.)
But we cannot save ourselves, this is why He did die. As Paul writes Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. Jesus saves sinners and that is what we need. We don’t need a gospel that seeks to make it possible for us to be saved, but one that brings about the certainty that we are saved.
That is part of the difference between the two gospels. One leads to God moving in a person and saving that person, while the other seeks to encourage fallen humanity to move toward God and save themselves. How does it bear fruit? You see it in things like Protestants taking up a Lent, or other such nonsense instead of walking by faith and trusting in the means God has given us to grow in grace and maturity.
The fruits of the new gospel seem to be winning out. Packer continues:
“(The old gospel) was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the might Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. This subject of the old gospel was God and His ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed.”
How has this affected the church?
It has affected the church because those who came to know Christ under the old gospel, are starving in the pews because of the new gospel. These new gospel preachers are not preaching reverence, sin, repentance… they are preaching better marriages, better families, better politics even. But they are not calling men to fall upon the mercy of God. There is no need to, since they are not in need of God’s grace or His mercy. To them, it’s good enough that God provided a way through Jesus Christ. They don’t need any more Jesus than that.
This results in a popular religion that looks a lot like Christianity because it never really calls us to accept our own sinfulness. The new gospel merely calls us to be better, do better, try harder. It’s the gospel of Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey. It is not the gospel of Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin or John Owen. In fact, the purveyors of the new gospel don’t have time for men like Spurgeon, Calvin or Owen, except to criticize them with one faulty charge or another.
The new gospel doesn’t allow for time to read what men of the faith have said in the past because there is no room for such when you need the latest self-help book from the Christian bookstore (just the term “self-help” undermines the Gospel). We are too busy with our accountability partners, our what-the-Bible-means-to-me Bible studies, our retreats, and our sacraments of door-to-door evangelism and revival meetings.
There is no time for reading or reflection, unless it contemplative reflection upon ourselves, because to read someone like Owen, would show that we truly need to rely upon God to be saved. We are in need of His mercy. And there is no room for that in our new gospel churches. Not only do we have to save ourselves, we have to save the world as well. Leave it up to God? While only a bunch of Calvinist would do that. There is no time. We can’t wait for God, He is far too slow. We need to do it and do it now.
Some rejoice at the new gospel. We have seen it reinvent itself in a number of ways, from Seeker Sensitive Churches to the Emergent Movement. The problem is that the new gospel gives us the same old bad fruit. Through the new gospel we get rock bands in worship, rock-star preachers, tattoos, a yearly Harley Davidson Sunday, and cancelled services on Super Bowl Sunday, services held in movie theaters when the occasional film about Jesus comes along and whatever floats the ex-druggy music minister’s boat.
Don’t worry, there is nothing about holiness, repentance, reverence of God or other things in the new gospel churches. They are far too advanced for that.
And those of us who long for true gospel preaching, preaching of the full-counsel of God, communion, prayer, songs that are prayerful… never mind us, we will continue to long for Jesus’ return knowing that when He does, He will have the purveyors of this new gospel ripped from the church and cast into outer darkness along with the rest of the tares.