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An Inquiry into the Sum and Substance of the Gospel - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

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An inquiry to understand what the minimum requirements are in the Gospel message for someone to be saved.


The question posed – what is the substance of the Gospel?

There is much talk today in Calvinistic circles about the message of the Gospel. Not that the Gospel is incomplete and it needs some refurbishing; but many are wondering about the essence of the Gospel. In other words, thoughtful Calvinists are asking, “What is the sum and substance of the Gospel?” We may even ask it this way, “What do people need to know, in terms of the Gospel message, in order to be saved?” Calvinists are asking this question in order to understand the manner in which the Lord saves. For instance, there are Calvinists who believe that men are only saved if they adhere to the doctrines of grace found in the acronym TULIP. Other Calvinists say that Arminian preaching contains enough of the Gospel message for men to be converted. Others even say that the entire Gospel message, “the good news,” is contained in John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” and that would be all God needs to convert a man. Various Calvinistic interpretations have been given. But the question still remains – “what is the Gospel?” What do men need to know to be saved? This question has been the subject of millions of pages and thousands of books. The Puritans gave themselves over to this topic time and time again. In this brief paper I hope to tackle the main point of contention, and explain the biblical position, and the orthodox position of the church for the last 2000 years.

Every Calvinist would vehemently agree that God saves people in and through His Word preached, by the application of that Word through the Holy Spirit. The finished work of Christ’s birth, life, death, burial, resurrection and intercession is applied in and through the Word. It is not by osmosis that conversions take place. They do not take place in a vacuum. Men are never converted without the Word read, or the preaching of the Word. The confessions of the church bear this out distinctly. The Belgic Confession, in Article 22, states the following, “We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him.” This “kindling” or regenerative power is of the Holy Spirit alone. The Synod of Dort states in 3-4:6, “God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.” The glad tidings of the Messiah are preached, or read, but always communicated through the Word. In 3-4:11 it is even more specific, “But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the Gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.” The Westminster Confession’s Chapter 10 is even more poignant, “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” The Scriptures on this point abound: Acts 13:48; Rom. 4:28, 30; 11:7; Eph. 1:5, 11; II Tim. 1:9-10; II Thess. 2:13-14; James 1:18; II Cor. 3:3, 6; I Cor. 2:12; II Tim. 1:9-10; I Peter 2:9; Rom 8:2; Eph. 2:1-10; Acts 26:18; I Cor. 2:10, 12; Eph. 1:17-18; II Cor. 4:6; Ezek. 36:26; Ezek. 11:19; 36:27; Deut. 30:6; John 3:5; Titus 3:5; I Peter 1:23; John 6:44-45; Acts 16:14; Psa. 110:3; John 6:37; Matt. 11:28; Rev. 22:17; Rom. 6:16-18; Eph. 2:8; Phil 1:29.

All biblically thinking people agree that the Word of God is always involved in the conversion of anyone. No one who knows the Bible to some degree would say that men could be saved without the Word of God, and of some knowledge of it. Only heretics say that men can be saved without the Word of God. Orthodox theologians have, for centuries, believed that the Word plays an integral part in the Holy Spirit’s work upon the soul. The Holy Spirit applies the redemption of Christ by the Word to the soul. The Word is the means by which the soul is converted and changed. But the question at hand concerning the Gospel is much different – it is much more than this.

There are 66 books of the Bible. All of the content in those 66 books is 100% God inspired. It is the infallible and inerrant Word of the Living God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It is very powerful! The question is not asking us if the Word of God is actually the Word of God, but the question surrounds the substance of the “good news” or “Gospel message.” Everyone agrees that the Bible is the Word of God. Everyone agrees that only the Word of God can convert the soul. But it is imperative that one does not finish the syllogism by saying that any part of the Word of God in and of itself is able to convey the message of the “good news of God.” No good Calvinist would ever say that John 11:35 is not God’s Word. But every good Calvinist would say that John 11:35 in and of itself is not the Gospel. There is much more to the Gospel than simply saying, “Jesus wept.” It is very important to understand this point. John 11:35 is the Word of God. But John 11:35 is not the Gospel. That is a whole other matter, which we will hopefully see at the end of this paper.

General Revelation Insufficient to Save Anyone

General Revelation is totally and utterly insufficient to convert the soul. General Revelation is the manifestation of God’s attributes (those which can be seen) as Creator. This is where the Creator/creature distinction is found. The creature can look to the birds, the hills, the waters, the insects, the stars, even to himself, and see that there is a Creator with ultimate power behind the universe. However, they cannot name Him. They do not know that this Creator is Jesus Christ. And as a result of this, they cannot know the Gospel by looking to the stars in the heavens. Without the Gospel men are not converted. Men cannot look to the created order of nature and find the Gospel. The Gospel is not found there. Surely, good things about God can be seen there, but the Gospel cannot be seen there. Romans 1:20 states, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” The power of God is seen in creation, but the power of the Gospel to save is not seen in creation. Christ cannot be gleaned from General Revelation. The plight of the native in distant lands then becomes apparent. Christ’s words in Acts 1:8 vividly command us to carry this Gospel to the ends of the earth because those at the ends of the earth do not have it; “and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” If General Revelation provided a witness of Christ, then this command would be irrelevant, and the missionary journeys of Paul and Peter meticulous observed by Luke, would also be irrelevant. (Now, many more arguments surround this idea. But this suffices for the moment.)

Special Revelation Needed to know Jesus Christ

Special Revelation is either of two sorts: it is either the physical manifestations of the Word of God conveyed, (whether by theophanies, special angelic appearances, or in the incarnation of Jesus Christ), or it is by the canonized Word of God in the 66 books of the Bible. Special Revelation is different than General Revelation since it defines the information surrounding the Gospel, and the only Savior Jesus Christ. Acts 17:26-27 explains to us that until the Gospel had been revealed in Jesus Christ, and was extended, by God’s mercy, to the whole world in its proclamation, there were entire nations who groped in the darkness after things they did not understand or know. The pagan nations had created a form of religion stemming from their debased minds. However, the true religion of God, found only in the Word of God and the Gospel, had not been in their grasp. The text says, “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” Though God is the Sustainer of their very being (Acts 17:28), these men still grope after Him because they do not find the Gospel in General Revelation. They are in a dark room looking for a light switch that is really on the ceiling.

General Revelation will only make men sensible of their creatureliness and will, in cases when men actually sit down and think through metaphysics, supply them with the information that God is the Judge of universe and they are found wanting because they are not perfect. It will not, however, supply them with a Savior; only the possibility or need of one. Special Revelation supplies them with the distinct and purposeful plan of God, and the ultimate fulfillment of that plan in the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Only special Revelation is adequate to free men from spiritual bondage. Romans 8:15 says, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”” The Spirit of Adoption refers to the application of the work of Jesus Christ on the souls of His elect through the power of the Spirit who ministers the reality of that adoption to us. A clear statement of this contrast between general and special revelation can be seen in the first line of The Westminster Confession on the Holy Scriptures, “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” (Rom. 1:19-20; 1:32-2:1; 2:14-15; Psa. 19:1-4)

In preaching the Gospel to men who need to be converted, Paul says that this takes place when he preaches special revelation, or, “Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:21) It is in the message of the eunagelion of God that the herald (karusso) of the Gospel performs the preaching which is the manner of power for the application and quickening power of the Spirit to enact conversion. Without the Gospel in its special revelatory aim, men will not be saved. No one can be saved without the Gospel, the good news of God. The equivalency of the word “Gospel” and “good news” in the New Testament abounds. It is used over 41 times as a noun alone. There are a variety of derivatives and verb uses of the word throughout the New Testament, as well 28 instances of the word used in various ways in the LXX.

Knowledge is Needed to Know Jesus Christ

To say men need special revelation to be saved argues vehemently that men need knowledge to be saved. Men cannot be saved without knowledge. Calvin says, “By this knowledge, I say, not by the submission of our sense, we obtain entrance into the kingdom of God.”[1] How can men enter the Kingdom of God by anything but “spiritual perceptions” of the truth? (John 3:3) Turretin speaks well on this issue and I quote him at length:

“It is evident that knowledge is included in faith. (1) It is defined by knowledge: “This is life eternal, that they may know thee” (Jn. 17:3). Nor is this referred only to the intuitive knowledge in heaven, but it ought to be ex­tended to the saving knowledge required on the way which Christ proposes as the certain and infallible means of obtaining that life and by which it is begun in us (1 Jn. 5:13). “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” (i.e., by faith which alone justifies us, Is. 53:11). Hence elsewhere its act is described by understanding: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3). “And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (Jn. 6:69). Here knowledge is added to faith to explain it, to in­timate that it is placed in knowledge. Elsewhere faith is expressed by “full assurance of understanding” [plerophorian syneseos, Col. 2:2) and by “knowledge of the truth” (epignoin aletheias, 2 Tim. 3:7). (2) Faith and the word are related (Rom. 10:17; Jn. 6:45). Therefore, where faith is, there knowledge ought to be because the word cannot be believed or received unless it be known; for as there is no desire of, so neither is there assent to what is unknown. And if faith is from the hearing of the word and from the instruction of the Father (“Whoever hath heard and hath learned of the Father cometh to Christ,” Jn. 6:45), how can it be without knowledge? Can the believer be God-taught (theodidaktos) without a knowledge of the things which are taught by God?

(3) We are commanded to make confession of our faith and to give a reason for it: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth, con­fession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10). “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Therefore knowledge is necessary in faith. For who will say that a confession can be made and a reason given for things unknown? (4) Knowledge is everywhere required in faith. Hence the “word of faith” is called the “wisdom and understanding” of believers (Dt. 4:6). “I am now come forth,” said the angel, “to give thee skill and understanding. Understand the matter, and consider the vision” (Dan. 9:22, 23*). Christ commands us to “search the Scriptures” (Jn. 5:39), which cannot be done without that act of the mind by which knowledge is acquired. The Bereans are praised because they did not inconsiderately believe what they heard from Paul, but diligently investigated their agreement with the Scriptures, searching the Scriptures (andkrinontes tas graphas, Acts 17:11). And elsewhere Paul praises the Corinthians because they were enriched in all knowledge (1 Cor. 1:5), and challenges their judgment: “Judge ye what I say: I speak as to wise men” (1 Cor. 10:15). He enjoins upon the Colossians the knowledge and understanding of mysteries (Col. 2*:2*, 3*).”[2]

Turretin rightly shows the intimate connection between the faith that we have instantaneously been given in the act of regeneration, and a faith which requires us to know something about the One we are trusting in. If faith is devoid of knowledge, then Turretin rhetorically asks, “Can a believer be taught of God without knowledge?” How then could someone come to Christ who is not taught of Christ?

Knowledge is also argued well in this light when Turretin shows that faith and trust, being coessential, are the application of knowing something as good. A person would never trust in something they did not know was good. He says, “The objects of justifying faith, proper and specific…are the promises of the gospel, which cannot be received except by trust because they are proposed not only as true, but also as good.”[3] Men see the goodness of the propositions given to them and trust they are true and good. The Spirit works this into their souls and justifying faith is a result.

1 Corinthians 1:21

It is very easy to see the wisdom of God working in the special revelation of His Son to fallen men through heralds. These are specific men with a specific message. If the message did not matter, or God used anything to convert men, then the formal idea of a “herald” in the New Testament is not needed. 1 Corinthians 1:21 makes a striking statement of the manner in which men are converted, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” It is interesting to note that it is through the preaching of the “message” which men are saved. The “message preached,” is also more accurately translated “preaching.” It is the Greek word kerugma {kay’-roog-mah}) where in the New Testament it refers to the “the message or proclamation of the heralds of God or Christ.” This connotation is used throughout the New Testament as the special message of the herald of salvation found in Jesus Christ, the Mediator and Messiah of God (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32 (of Jonah’s preaching); Rom. 16:25 (the Gospel “heralded”) 1 Co. 2:4 (the demonstration of preaching as power in the Spirit) 1 Co. 15:14 (the preacing of the risen Christ); 2 Tim. 4:17 (preaching to the gentiles that the may be saved); Titus 1:3 (the Word is the preached Word according to the command to repent and believe).

Certain Scriptural Examples of Inefficiency

In understanding that the Gospel (which is the Word of God and is greater than General Revelation) is a specific message preached by specific kinds of men (heralds), and in this message alone the Spirit of Adoption applies the finished work of Christ to the souls of men, we would need to survey a few areas of the Bible and ask the question as to whether or not certain portions of the Word of God actually contain the Gospel, or, are certain portions silent on the matters of the Gospel which save. It is important to note that every portion of the Word of God is the Word of God. I am not trying to weaken or misuse the Word of God in general. Let it be said again that I believe all of the Word of God is the infallible and inerrant Word. But not all of the Word is the Gospel, and only the Gospel saves because only the Gospel is the Gospel.

Let me set the stage for our inquiry here. Let us say you are a minister of the Gospel and desire to preach to the “Hitchiwatchi” Indians in the Amazon. These people have been unaffected by technology and have, for all intents and purposes, been unaffected in the manner in which they live for 1000 years. They are lost, depraved souls who need the Gospel preached to them. Let us imagine that by some “providential appointment” you gain a manuscript of some of the writings of these people – as crude as it is . Let us imagine you learn their language. Let us imagine you have funding for the trip out there. All of the typical side issues are dealt with and you come face to face with the Hitchiwacthi Indians. What do you say to them? What is the Gospel message you will bring to them? What would you not say to them?

Here you are ready to preach to the Hitchiwatchi Indians. Where do you open your Bible? Let us imagine you turn to Genesis 11:29, where the text reads, “And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.” Now, it is with all certainly that this passage is the Word of God. It is inspired, and it is without error. However, it is not the Gospel. There are no Gospel elements to this portion of Scripture in any manner. The kerygma of God would not be able to stand on top of a log and preach this verse to the Hitchiwatchi Indians expecting them to come to faith in believing on Jesus Christ. Let us imagine that you as the preacher then decided this text was not working after reading it, so you turned to 1 Chronicles 7:1 and read, “Now the sons of Issachar were, Tola, and Puah, Jashub, and Shimron, four.” Unfortunately, the Hitchiwatchi Indians simply look on with a puzzled face. In knowing that these people still seemed a bit disoriented by your choice of texts, you turn to Esther 5:1-5 and read it. “Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house. So it was, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter. And the king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you — up to half the kingdom!” So Esther answered, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.” Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, that he may do as Esther has said.” So the king and Haman went to the banquet that Esther had prepared.” It is a nice little passage and the Hitchiwatchi Indians seem to like the idea of a king and queen, even eating at a banquet. But again, there is no Gospel message here. In desperation you turn to the New Testament hoping you will have better “luck” there. You turn to the historical narrative of Acts 28:3-6 where Luke records for us, “But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.” The Indians seem to respond in amazement. They know of the sting of vipers, snakes, asps, and the like. Could it be that the thunder god they worship in their back tent could be this “Paul” of the text? Should they bow down and pray to Paul? In seeing their amazement, you quickly turn back to the Gospels to John 11:35. “Jesus wept.” The Hitchiwatchi Indians stop shuffling. Jesus is said to have wept. He cried. But who is he? No mention of how he is related to Abraham. Esther had not mentioned him. Chronicles did not name him. The text from the book of Acts did not say anything about him – there was just a “Paul” in that text. So, who is this Jesus?

I hope it is obvious that the good news of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not apparent in any of the texts mentioned. Simply reading those texts would not convert a single soul. The Hitchiwatchi Indians may be wiser to certain portions of the biblical record and the Word of God, but they are not more wiser to the Gospel than the day you arrived. Christianity is a rational biblical faith – it is not by divine osmosis that the Word of the Gospel is channeled through a few words in a text. The Gospel is much more than that.

What, then, is the substance of the Gospel message and evangelism?

While Jesus Christ walked the earth He preached the Gospel. At times, the Gospel writers give us insight into entire discourses on what he actually said. At other times they simply say that it was preaching that Jesus was doing. And at other times they simply make statements about the Gospel, though the particulars about the Gospel were not given. For instance, Mark states in 1:1, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…” Calvin comments on this verse by saying, “Hence, the fact that he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom is properly attributed to him. And Mark prefaces his Gospel with: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” [Mark 1:1]. There is no need to heap up passages to prove something so fully known.”[4] In other words, Calvin attributes the short statement about the Gospel of Christ, but does not explain or expound what the Gospel means or what constitutes the Gospel other than that it is of Jesus Christ. In simply reading this statement in Mark, it would not furnish us with enough information to understand what this Gospel of Jesus Christ is really about unless we keep on reading through his entire narrative.

We find out the intricacies and details of the Gospel as we survey the entire Bible and seek to understand the common elements of the information given to us in this special revelation. The “Euangelion” or “good news”, as we discussed earlier, is what we are after. We desire to know the message of the “good news.” How do we go about “evangelizing someone” if we do not have a specific message to “evangelize” them with? One contemporary writer quoted a committee in wrestling with his question and shows what they decided as a summary of the Gospel message gleaned from the New Testament. “To evangelize…is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept him as their Savior, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His church.”[5] This writer goes on to say, “Now this is in many ways an excellent definition. It states admirably the aim and purpose of the evangelistic enterprise, and rules out many inadequate and misleading ideas. To start with, it makes the point that evangelizing means declaring a specific message. According to this definition, it is not evangelism merely to teach general truths about God’s existence, or the moral law; evangelism means to present Jesus Christ, the divine Son who became man at a particular point in world-history in order to save a ruined race. Nor, according to this definition, is it evangelism merely to present the teaching and example of the historical Jesus, or even the truth about his saving work; evangelism means to present Christ Jesus Himself, the living Savior and the reigning Lord. Nor, again, it is evangelism, according to this definition, merely to set forth the living Jesus as Helper and Friend without reference to His saving work on the cross; evangelism means to present Jesus as Christ, God’s anointed Servant, fulfilling the tasks of His appointed office as Priest and King…there is no evangelism where this specific message is not declared.”[6] This is wholly the point at hand. Here is where we come to preach the substance of the Gospel. But there is more. He also says that this message is not enough, but needs to be applied to the hearer when he comments, “…again, the definition makes the point that evangelizing means declaring this specific message with a specific application…There is no evangelism where this specific application is not made.”[7]

To have a Gospel is one thing, to evangelize someone “into this Gospel” is something else.

It is true that we must be exceedingly careful not to make the Gospel more difficult than it is. That means we must preach it in its simplicity. Its simplicity is certainly shown above. Simplicity does not mean “shortness” or “brevity” but rather, that everyone from the least to the greatest sitting in a congregation should be able to comprehend, at least intellectually, what the Gospel message is all about.[8] Calvin warns us about such things when he remarks concerning the Corinthian church. Even in all their error, they still held to the substance of the Gospel message. He says they “were persons who did not openly take away any thing from the substance of the Gospel, but, as they burned with a misdirected eagerness for distinction, I am of opinion that, with the view of making themselves admired, they contrived a new method of teaching, at variance with the simplicity of Christ.”[9] They certainly made the Gospel more difficult (and this is apparent from the manner in which Paul explains the Gospel to them in the Corinthian correspondence) however, I do believe, as Calvin said, that they still possessed it.

Many ancient writers believed that 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 was a very well defined summation of the Gospel. As John Owen’s states in his Christologia, “This is the substance of the Gospel, as it is declared by the apostle, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.” Such a sublime summary is seen in that text, “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Such is the sum and substance of our Gospel message both stated and preached.

Martin Luther also summarizes the Gospel when he says, “All genuine reforms or revivals in the churches of God must have as their basis a plain declaration of this doctrine. The tendency of Christians is like that of the world, to shy away from this truth which is the very sum and substance of the Gospel. Those with any acquaintance with Church history know how sadly true this is. Within fifty years of the death of the last of the apostles, so far as we can now learn, the Gospel of God’s grace almost ceased to be preached. Instead of evangelizing, the preachers of the second and third centuries gave themselves to philosophizing. Metaphysics took the place of the simplicity of the Gospel.” He summarized it in four points, “1. The fruit of the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ is peace, that we know Christ, and place all our confidence in him. 2. No one should doubt, although he may even not trust and believe enough. For Christ says here to his disciples: “Peace be unto you. It is I myself;” and yet they were terrified, and they feared still the more. 3. This weakness, as everything else, Christ can indeed suffer in those who are his, and he reveals himself in words and signs, as he still does at the present time through the Gospel and the sacraments.

4. Likewise, the Scriptures bear witness of Christ, how he should die and rise again from the dead; but of the fruit of this death and resurrection they say, it is a sermon of a spiritual life and the forgiveness of sins among all nations in Christ’s name, and through nothing else, either in heaven or on earth.”[10] Here Luther captures the main points, the substance of the Gospel message. Even Spurgeon, who comments on Luther, says this, “I have always considered, with Luther and Calvin, that the sum and substance of the Gospel lies in that word Substitution, — Christ standing in the stead of man. If I understand the Gospel, it is this: I deserve to be lost for ever; the only reason why I should not be damned is, that Christ was punished in my stead, and there is no need to execute a sentence twice for sin. On the other hand, I know I cannot enter Heaven unless I have a perfect righteousness; I am absolutely certain I shall never have one of my own, for I find I sin every day; but then Christ had a perfect righteousness, and He said, “There, poor sinner, take My garment, and put it on; you shall stand before God as if you were Christ, and I will stand before God as if I had been the sinner; I will suffer in the sinner’s stead, and you shall be rewarded for works which you did not do, but which I did for you.” I find it very convenient every day to come to Christ as a sinner, as I came at the first. “You are no saint,” says the devil. Well, if I am not, I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Sink or swim, I go to Him; other hope I have none. By looking to Him, I received all the faith which inspired me with confidence in His grace; and the word that first drew my soul — “Look unto Me,” — still rings its clarion note in my ears. There I once found conversion, and there I shall ever find refreshing and renewal.”[11] Here, again, are the main points of the Gospel mentioned.

John Gill also remarks on what he believes in the sum and substance of the Gospel message when it was given in its infancy form to Adam and Eve. Though it was complete in the sense that we have the ability to understand its fullness based on complete revelation, it was still under the shadows of the Old Testament at that time. “Our first parents themselves [heard the Gospel], Adam and Eve, and that both by words and actions. By words, and these spoken not directly to them, nor by way of promise to them; but to the serpent, and threatening-wise to him; and yet were the first dawn of grace to fallen man, Genesis 3:15, from whence it might be at once concluded by Adam and Eve, that they should not immediately die, but that a seed should be of the woman who would be the ruin of Satan, and the Saviour of them; which must spring light, life, and joy, in their trembling hearts: and though these words are short and obscure, yet contain some of the principal articles of faith and doctrines of the Gospel; as the incarnation of the Son of God, signified by the “seed of the woman”, who should be made of a woman, born of a virgin, unbegotten by man, and without father as man; the sufferings and death of Christ for the sins of men, signified by the serpent’s “bruising his heel”, bringing him to the dust of death in his inferior nature, sometimes expressed by his being bruised for the sins of his people; and may hint at the manner of his death, and crucifixion, since his feet could not well be pierced with nails without bruising his heel; also the victory he should obtain over Satan signified by “bruising his head”, destroying his power and policy, his schemes and works, his authority, dominion, and empire; yea, him, himself, with his principalities and powers; and may express the bruising him under the feet of his people, the deliverance of them from him; the taking the captives out of the hand of the mighty, and the saving them with an everlasting salvation. Which is the sum and substance of the Gospel, and matter of joy to lost sinners.”[12]

Gill also states in his practical section of his works, what the sum and substance of the Gospel is when he says, “Christ and him crucified is the subject matter, the sum and substance of the Gospel ministry; “We preach Christ crucified”; this is the preaching or the doctrine of the cross; the doctrine of salvation by a crucified Christ; of peace by the blood of his cross; of the reconciliation of God’s elect in one body, by the cross; of the atonement and expiation of their sins by his sufferings and death upon it; this the apostle Paul determined to make the subject, and the alone subject, of his ministrations, 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2.”[13] As we can see, Gill had much to say about the substance of the Gospel. It is right for Gill to say that the sum of the Gospel is found in the words “Christ and him crucified.” But is it not interesting to you that gill takes a long time to explain what that means? After adequate explanation of the text, in light of all that the Gospel involves, would such a text be used by the Spirit and applied to the heart to regenerate a soul.

In commenting on the same text as John Gill above, John Owen says this about the protoevangelium, “That the seed of the woman should break the serpent’s head,” Genesis 3:15. In this promise the Lord Christ was a “lamb slain,”

though not actually, yet as to the virtue of his incarnation whereby he became a lamb, the “Lamb of God,” and of his death, wherein he was slain to take away the sins of the world. Now, the declaration of the Lord Christ as the Lamb of God slain to take away the sins of the world, is the sum and substance of the Gospel.”[14] Again, here we find John Owen explaining what is meant by “the substance of the Gospel.” The Word is always attended by an explanation of the text. It is not enough tot give the text and then sit down. The herald is not doing his job unless he explains the text at hand and how it fits into the full context of the Bible and the plan of redemption.

John Owen also states in Hebrews chapter 9 of the same work, “It is the second thing mentioned, or the advantage of the church by the taking away of the first covenant, and all its sacred administrations, that he principally insists upon. For herein he designed (as was before observed) to declare the glorious mystery of the counsel of God concerning the redemption and salvation of the church by Jesus Christ. But whereas this in general is the substance of the Gospel, and the subject of all his other epistles, he doth not here consider and declare it absolutely, but as it was prefigured and typed out by those institutions of worship, whereby God both instructed the church and exercised their faith and obedience, under the Old Testament.” Here he shows that though the substance of the Gospel can be found in the Old Testament, it was still under its shadow, as the writer of Hebrews teaches. He goes on to say what constitutes the Gospel in opposition to those who destroy the Gospel (like the Socinians), “That the Lord Jesus Christ did give himself a ransom for sin; that he did it in the shedding of his blood for us, wherein he made his soul an offering for sin; that herein and hereby he made atonement, and expiated our sins; and that all these things belong unto our redemption, is the substance of the Gospel. That this redemption is nothing but the expiation of sin, and that expiation of sin nothing but an act of power and authority in Christ now in heaven, as the Socinians dream, is to reject the whole Gospel.”

In explaining Hebrews chapter 10 in the same work (volume 6) Owen says, “But how comes this “Son of God” to be concerned herein? what injury is done him by apostates from the Gospel? I answer, that as the Lord Christ in his own person was the special author of the Gospel; as his authority is the special object of our faith in it; as his office with all the fruits of it is the subject, sum, and substance of the Gospel: so there is no reception of it in a due manner, unto salvation, no rejection of it unto final condemnation, but what is all of it originally, fundamentally, and virtually contained in the reception or rejection of the person of Christ. This is the life, the soul, and foundation of all Gospel truth; without which it is of no power or efficacy unto the souls of men. But I have treated at large of these things elsewhere. I cannot but observe, that, as whosoever rejects, refuses, forsakes the Gospel, rejecteth and forsaketh the person of Christ; so on what account soever men take up the profession of it, and perform the duties of it, if the foundation be not laid in a reception of Christ himself, of the person of Christ, all their profession will be in vain.” Here we see that those who reject the message of the Gospel reject Christ. It would be impossible for us to assert that in rejecting the phrase “Jesus wept” is an actual rejection of the Gospel message. Someone redaction critic could remove this from the Bible (though he would do damage to the Word of God) but still retains the Gospel message in other areas of the Bible. However, when an apostate rejects the specific message of the Gospel, it is only then that he rejects the Christ of the Bible. Could a minister stand before a congregation and read “Jesus wept,” then sit down and expect to hear about the conversions that took place immediately afterwards without any prior understand of the text or subject? No not at all.

In commentating on the substance of the Gospel in Romans 3:26, Albert Barnes states the following, “At this time: The time now since the Saviour has come, now is the time when he manifests it. That he might be just: This verse contains the substance of the Gospel. The word “just” here does not mean benevolent, or merciful, though it may sometimes have that meaning. But it refers to the fact that God had retained the integrity of his character as a moral governor; that he had shown a due regard to his Law, and to the penalty of the Law by his plan of salvation. Should he forgive sinners without an atonement, justice would be sacrificed and abandoned. The Law would cease to have any terrors for the guilty, and its penalty would be a nullity. In the plan of salvation, therefore, he has shown a regard to the Law by appointing his Son to be a substitute in the place of sinners; not to endure its precise penalty, for his sufferings were not eternal, nor were they attended with remorse of conscience, or by despair, which are the proper penalty of the Law; but he endured so much as to accomplish the same ends as if those who shall be saved by him had been doomed to eternal death. That is, he showed that the Law could not be violated without introducing suffering; and that it could not be broken with impunity. He showed that he had so great a regard for it, that he would not pardon one sinner without an atonement. And thus he secured the proper honor to his character as a lover of his Law, a hater of sin, and a just God. He has shown that if sinners do not avail themselves of the offer of pardon by Jesus Christ, they must experience in their own souls forever the pains which this substitute for sinners endured in behalf of people on the cross. Thus, no principle of justice has been abandoned; no threatening has been modified; no claim of his Law has been let down; no disposition has been evinced to do injustice to the universe by suffering the guilty to escape. He is, in all this great Transaction, a just moral governor, as just to his Law, to himself, to his Son, to the universe, when he pardons, as he is when he sends the incorrigible sinner down to hell. A full compensation, an equivalent, has been provided by the sufferings of the Saviour in the sinner’s stead, and the sinner may be pardoned.”[15] Barnes surely takes a long time to explain what “just” means here. It should be apparent that the herald must explain the text and apply the text to the hearer, otherwise the Gospel could not be conveyed in a few simple words.

John Calvin has a wonderful section in his series of sermons on the Deity of Christ that speak on the substance of the Gospel and its definition, “The word “Gospel” indicates that God in sending our Lord Jesus Christ His Son declares Himself Father to all the world. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to evangelize those who were near and those who were far from God. Those near were the Jews, who were already allied with God. Those far were the pagans who were aloof from His Church. When we have looked at it in the light of all Scripture we shall find that this word “Gospel” has no other meaning. That is why this word is the title of the four written histories of how our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, He went about, He died, He rose again, He ascended into heaven. That, I say, comes under the title “Gospel.” And why all that? Because the substance of the Gospel is comprehended in the Person of the Son of God, as I have already said. The Ancient Fathers surely had the promises of salvation. They were well assured that God would be their Father. But they did not have the Guarantee for the love of God and for their adoption. For when Jesus Christ came into the world, God signed and sealed His fatherly love. We have received full testimony of life, the substance of which (as I have already said) we have in Jesus Christ. That is why St. Paul says that all the promises of God are in Him, Yea and Amen. For God then ratified all that He had previously said and had promised to men. So not without cause those four histories have been named “Gospel,” where it is declared to us how the Son of God was sent, He took human flesh, and He went about with men in this life. All that is comprehended under the name “Gospel,” because it declares to us how God perfected and accomplished everything which was required for the salvation of men, and it was all done in the Person of His Son.”[16] This is a wonderful summation of what the point of this paper is all about. He goes on to say the same thing in his commentary on 2 Peter, “The power and the coming. No doubt he meant in these words to include the substance of the Gospel, as it certainly contains nothing except Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom. But he distinctly mentions two things, — that Christ had been manifested in the flesh, — and also that power was exhibited by him. Thus, then, we have the whole Gospel; for we know that he, the long-promised Redeemer, came from heaven, put on our flesh, lived in the world, died and rose again; and, in the second place, we perceive the end and fruit of all these things, that is, that he might be God with us, that he might exhibit in himself a sure pledge of our adoption, that he might cleanse us from the defilement’s of the flesh by the grace of his Spirit, and consecrate us temples to God, that he might deliver us from hell, and raise us up to heaven, that he might by the sacrifice of his death make an atonement for the sins of the world, that he might reconcile us to the Father, that he might become to us the author of righteousness and of life. He who knows and understands these things, is fully acquainted with the Gospel.”[17]

Does the Word “The” save?

23814 times the word “the” is used in the Bible. This word is used in innumerable passages, and is part of the Word of God. The word “a” is used 6309 times. The word “so” is used 3349 times. The word “it” is used 6202 times. Now, take any one of these and use them as the basis of a “Gospel” message. Let us utilize the word “The”. Could the Spirit use, in and of itself, the word “the” as a means to convert the soul? Let me be more specific before you tally your answer. Let us place a man on a desert island. He is not familiar with the Bible at all and really knows nothing about Jesus Christ. One day, a small boat washes up on shore and he looks therein and finds a skeleton holding a copy of the Scriptures. Now this copy has been soaking in the water of the ocean’s waves and the rains falling on it for some time. It is a wonder that it was not lost. In excitement he grabs the book and opens it up. He cannot make out anything in the book except, on a few pages, he can make out the word “the.” In other places he can see the word “a” and the word “so.” After reading over these words, could such a man be saved? No, he could not. The word “the” is not the Gospel. Now, there is a point to be made here that one should not miss. Let us not be quick to assume that the Spirit works “hap hazzardly” with any word in the Bible. As much as the word “the” is Scriptural, it is not enough to save, even if we piled up all 23,000 instances of it in one pile, to convert someone. There is no Gospel message contained within it.

The Gospel, Faith, and Regeneration

To believe the Gospel in its substance there must be the reflex activity of faith after regeneration has occurred. Regeneration never occurs unless the Word attends the power of the Spirit. It is the general consensus of the orthodox Christian church that when a person is regenerate, he also enacts faith in what he understands to be true in the Gospel, is justified, adopted and begins his life as a Christian at that specific moment. In an unpublished sermon on Acts 26:18, Jonathan Edwards states, “Now it is certain that every sinner that becomes good there is a last moment of his being bad, and a first moment of his being good, a last moment of his being in a state of damnation and a first moment of his being in a state of salvation or that there is a time before which is he had died but one moment he would have gone to hell, and after which if he had died he would have gone to heaven, this is self-evident, or which is all one he is made immensely a better man in a moment than he was before…”[18] There was a specific moment when the person was lost, but then there is an instantaneous “transaction” to his removal from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. He moves from “lostness” to “savedness” in a moment. That moment is called regeneration, where the Word of God is made effectual to him.

William Ames explains the process of regeneration vividly, “As for man, receiving is either passive or Active. Phil 3:12, “I apprehend because I have been apprehended.” The passive receiving of Christ is the process by which a spiritual principle of grace is generated in the will of man. Eph. 2:5, “He hath quickened…” Active receiving is an elicited act of faith in which he who is called now wholly leans upon Christ as his savior and through Christ upon God. John 3:15-16, “Whoever believes in him…” 1 Peter 1:21, “Through him believing God…”[19] This is important to note that leaning, here, is believing and understanding. Without this “fiducia” or “faith” men cannot be saved. Is it not a wonder why so many sit under Gospel preaching for so long? They are gaining more and more information about the Gospel, in pieces, and then the Spirit, on a particular day the Gospel is presented and explained, makes that knowledge of Christ a reality in faith for them through regeneration.

It has been often the case that Calvinists confuse the idea of God’s sovereign grace with the reality of regeneration. It is by no means disputed that men are saved and regenerated by grace alone. As Augustus Toplady states, “Regeneration must, and always does, come between the decree of election and the ultimate accomplishment of that decree, the means and the end being inseparably linked together, both in God’s own purpose and execution of it.”[20] But it is exceedingly important not to mix up this idea with being ignorant of what the Spirit is working in and through. We are very aware that the Spirit regenerates based on his application of the Word of God. This means that men must know something, and that the Spirit then effectuates what they know into what they trust in. This is exceedingly important to understand. Men are not saved in a vacuum as I stated earlier. They are not saved apart from understanding the rational Biblical Gospel. They are saved through believing the rational Biblical Gospel by the power of the Spirit and a regenerate heart. They are never saved apart from it. Edwards says, “No natural man makes a choice of God until he is converted.”[21] This is important. Men make choices after they are converted, by faith, to believe in what they know to be true. They are not converted and wander in ignorance until they are slowly sanctified and then learn about the Gospel two or three years later. Regeneration is only the application of the power of the Sprit, but it is unmistakably united with what the hearer understands. If this is not the case, then there is no need of faith to be saved. As AW Pink states, “Now the Gospel of God’s grace is epitomized in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”[22] Men immediately work from the new nature infused into the soul (which the Holy Spirit creates as a result of the Word), just as they were continually, moment by moment, living in unbelief by the old nature. Does this mean justification by faith alone is simultaneous with regeneration? Yes, since prior knowledge is the foundation of what the hearer believes. This believing is made effectual by the Sprit though the enablement of the exercise of saving faith. At one moment the one hearing the Gospel is not able to spiritually apply the truth of what he knows to be true. He cannot lean on Christ for repose in his own heart. He is not able to act on real faith. The Spirit of God in regeneration supplies the hearer with the ability to act in faith and trust in Christ – through the Gospel message which surrounds Christ’s work.

To understand faith is to understand this process. As Pascal said, “The substance of faith consists of Jesus Christ.”[23] The question is this, “How does one come to faith at the moment of regeneration?” The preaching of the Good news of the Gospel precedes the regeneration of the Holy Spirit that effectually works in the heart. Men do not understand this change until it is acted upon afterwards by faith, repentance and the like, i.e. instantaneous conversion. But the reflex activity of the manner of saving faith is divided into 3 parts. Historic Christianity has leaned upon this 3 fold division as something thoroughly needful for salvation. There are 3 Latin words every Christian should know: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia is first in the order of knowing. It is when somethings “noted” but not necessarily believed. For instance, I could say, “There is the desk.” I may not fully believe the desk is there, but I seem to see it and I note the information as such. Next is assensus. This is where I assent to the validity of the information.[24] I have examined the desk and so I believe that it is really there. That does not mean, however, that I place my faith and trust in the desk. Intellectual assent does not earn me saving faith. There must be a prior knowledge for faith to express itself after regeneration. It may be that some people preach the Gospel in such a complete manner that at that specific time faith is enacted. I would never doubt that this could, and has, happened. The substance of the Gospel must be present, but knowledge, assent and faith all must be a part of this conversion process. The Spirit cannot apply the Word to a regenerate heart without that person understanding what is being applied. Otherwise, we would have to concede that the Spirit saves in a vacuum without the Gospel, or a rational biblical theology surrounding the Gospel. To say this would be to intend that the Spirit saves men without needing them to be coherent or thinking.

AA Hodge helps us to understand that faith is the substance of things hoped for (real things known and understood) while commenting on the Westminster Confession when he says, “in consequence of the change wrought in them in regeneration, they obey the call, and subsequently more or less perfectly co-operate with grace…a spiritual influence is declared to be necessary to dispose and enable men to receive the truth. John 6:45, Acts 16:14, Eph 1:17.”[25] Here then is the important note, they receive the “truth”, which is something they understand. Only the truth shall set you free. He then says, “The infusion of such a disposition must therefore precede any act of true spiritual obedience.”[26] In other words, making a man willing to believe the Gospel (regeneration) is far different than exercising a willingness about the Gospel (intellectual pursuits after it). He must believe, have faith and understand this, otherwise it is what Christ calls “spurious faith” (Matthew 13:20) which is no faith at all.

How is it that instantaneously in connection with regeneration that justification could take place without faith? Schaff states, “Henceforth the doctrine of justification by faith alone was for him [Luther] to the end of life the sum and substance of the Gospel, the heart of theology, the central truth of Christianity, the article of the standing or falling church.”[27] This cannot be the case, and Luther was a lunatic, is faith is not requisite. How can someone be justified without faith? How can someone be regenerated without understanding the Gospel and then trusting in it by faith? The Spirit works in men the understanding they have of the Gospel. They then react by the reflex activity of faith, and are justified. In this all orthodox theologians agree.[28]

TULIP and the Degrees of Understanding the Finite Points of the Gospel.

It is ludicrous to state that men must first understand all the fine points of Calvinism to be saved. There are many Calvinists who believe that one must believe the fullness of the doctrines of grace in the acronym TULIP to be converted. Simply, this is nonsense. To demonstrate the folly of this, I shall ask the question in this manner, “How well do you know the fine points of TULIP and who decides how fine they go?” For instance, you may be reading this article and may have known the doctrines of grace for 10 years. There may be someone else who has pondered those same doctrines for 12 years. They may, in relation, know the points in a greater capacity of intricacy and understanding than you do. If that is the case, then it must needs be that he is saved and you are not. Maybe his degree of understanding is the point by which we measure who is or who is not saved. Maybe we should measure that by my understanding of those points. Maybe we should measure that by Calvin’s understanding of the points, or the Synod of Dordt’s? You will say, “No, that is not true. What we mean is the basic underlying ideas contained in the Gospel which are most certainly contained in TULIP – that is what we mean.” Wonderful. That is what the point of this paper is all about. The substance of the Gospel saves. The fine points of theology help us to praise Christ all the more. TULIP no doubt contains the Gospel. But the substance of the Gospel is much simpler than TULIP. In one sitting Lydia’s heart is opened and she believes by faith. Did she have the ability to articulate such things? No doubt she could articulate the foundational truths of the Gospel, but to say that the theology found in TULIP is the most basic of the Gospel message is to confound the simplicity of the message. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 is a wonderful summation of the Gospel. How much of TULIP is found there? This is not to say that TULIP is not the Gospel and is not found in that passage. It is a very enlarged and full definition of the Gospel. It also does not mean that the grace of Christ found in TULIP is not unlike the grace found in the simple Gospel that converts sinners. To say though, that one must be learned enough to articulate TULIP would be to cast many of you reading this into perdition in my own mind if that were the case. I am not trying to boast, however, I would imagine there are some out there who do not know TULIP as well as I – does that make you lost? And I would imagine there are some out there who know TULIP better than I – does that make me lost? By what degree will you measure? You are measuring in the wrong light. Ask the minimum, the substance, of the Gospel to be had, not the maximum. Let us save the maximum understanding of TULIP for a lifetime of learning about Jesus Christ.

I know it is true that you are simply trying to propagate a true theology. Amen to that. We need more people contending for the Gospel. But do not contend for it in a manner in which would exceed that of the Spirit of grace. There are many people in many unorthodox churches who have heard the Gospel and were saved in those churches. The question, though, is still surrounding what the substance of the Gospel is and how it is t be preached.

The Golden Chain

(Decree, Effectual Calling or Regeneration, Faith, Justification, Adoption, Sanctification, Glorification.)

Men are not spiritual zombies when they are converted. Regeneration is acted upon the voice of the Shepherd calling the sheep and they hear his voice and follow Him. They are not unaware after they are regenerated. It is not that God saves men by ringing sounds, or simple tones of vibrations, in the ear. Hearing is not hearing music. Hearing is understanding the call given. The outworking of the divine decree in the life of a believer is not something that happens as a result of noise. It is rational. What do I mean by this? Surely salvation is by grace, through the Word of God. But Romans 10:14 states, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” It is not simply by the act of the eardrum banging that the Spirit regenerates. It is by the believing in which he works in them to understand and receive a certain message. This is the means of realizing the elect’s salvation in the golden chain of salvation. John 3:1-8 holds forth the preaching of the word as the act (this is that spiritual “perceiving” being done) and the blowing of the wind as the application of the act (that is the Spirit working regeneration by the word.) Hearing does mean spiritually understanding. Spiritual quickening, then, is both the act of regeneration in the Word applied, but also gives way immediately to the faith in trusting in the knowledge known and preached at the moment.

Even though regeneration is a radical change, a radical moral change is no infallible sign of true conversion. I make this remark more as remarking than explaining.[29] Some give testimony to be being “saved in a vacuum without knowledge or understanding of the Gospel.” This is simply unbiblical. No amount of radical transformation in the moral life of a person is any sign that a man is really converted. It could be a step in the Spirit’s drawing men to the Gospel, but it should not be gloried in that “so and so” was saved without understanding Jesus Christ. Even Kierkegarrd, the philosopher, set 3 stages in a man’s life: the degenerate, the moral and the spiritual. Men who are degenerate can go through great changes to become moral and upstanding, and even have an interest in spiritual things. But no man can become a spiritual man, or man of faith, without the operation of the Spirit working the knowledge of God into the person’s heart through regeneration. There must be given an examination in the manner in which God may act spiritually around a person to draw them into the fold. This may include a change of heart towards understanding the things of the Law and the need for a Mediator. But it is only through the Gospel in which men are saved.

“But God…”

Martin Lloyd Jones preached a very good sermon on the phrase “But God…” from Romans 5:8. Now, what shall we do with such a thing? People were converted as a result of this sermon. Lloyd Jones only preached on “But God…” Does this do damage to what has been said so far? To the contrary, you may have missed the important aspect of the statement. I said he “preached a sermon” on this phrase. Do you see what I am getting at? Let us assume that no one in his congregation had ever heard anything about Jesus Christ before, and it was simply by an amazing act of providence that they all came together to hear this man speak. Lloyd Jones then reads, “But God…” Now, do you know what happened? Nothing. Nothing at all. No one was converted at that point in the sermon. No evangelism had taken place. The people waited for him to continue. Do you know what happened next? Well, Lloyd Jones preached through a sermon greater than and hour long on what these two little words meant in the context of the book of Romans, and in the context of the Gospel. Can God save a man on two words? Certainly, after they have had a thorough explanation of what they mean. If after an hour and a half of preaching the content and message 0f the Gospel was clearly given, certainly, “But God…” can be used by the Spirit to convert all those people sitting and listening to the herald preaching the Word of God.

I think Calvinists have a difficult time understanding that an explanation of a text must surround the reading of a text in order for preaching and conversion to take place.

The Sum of the Gospel

Jonathan Edwards said, “a remarkable work of Grace I have sometimes formerly, in reading the apostle’s discourse to Cornelius, (Acts 10.) wondered to see him so quickly introduce the Lord Jesus Christ into his sermon, and so entirely dwell upon him through the whole of it, observing him in this point very widely to differ from many of our modern preachers: but latterly this has not seemed strange, since Christ has appeared to be the substance of the Gospel, and the centre in which the several lines of divine revelation meet. Although I and still sensible there are many things necessary to be spoken to persons under pagan darkness, in order to make way for a proper introduction of the name of Christ, and his undertaking in behalf of fallen man.”[30] Dwelling on Christ is the first step to precision when explaining the Gospel. “Jesus wept” may be included in the larger presentation of the Gospel, but it, in and of itself, is not the Gospel. So, after all this, what is the Gospel? What are the bare minimums to explain the Gospel?

Spurgeon gives us a glimpse of the sum and substance of the Gospel (I have bolded the major points of the Gospel message here), “Jesus Christ himself” is as we have said THE SUBSTANCE OF THE GOSPEL, and therefore how closely should we study him. Sirs! Do ye believe there is a hell, and that you are going there? And yet do you still march heedless on? Do you believe that beyond you, when the stream of life is ended, there is a black gulf of misery? and do you still sail downwards to it, quaffing still your glass of happiness, still merry as the live-long day? O stay, poor sinner, stay! Stay! It may be the last moment thou wilt ever have the opportunity to stay in. Therefore stay now I beseech thee. And if thou knowest thyself to be lost and ruined, if the Holy Spirit has humbled thee and made thee feel thy sin, let me tell thee how thou shalt be saved. “He that believeth on the Lord Jesus Christ and is baptized, shall be saved. “He that believeth not,” saith the Scripture “shall be damned.” Do you not like that message? Ought I to have said another word instead of that? If you wish it, I shall not; what God says I will say; far be it from me to alter the messages from the Most High; I will, if he help me, declare his truth without altering. He saith “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.” What is it to believe? To tell you as simply as possible: to believe is to give up trusting in yourself and to trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior. The negro said, you know, “Massa dis here is how I believe — when I see a promise, I do not stand on de promise; but I say, dat promise firm and strong; I fall flat on it; if de promise will not bear me, den it is de promise fault; but I fall flat on it.” Now, that is faith. Christ says, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Faith is to say, “Well, then, sink or swim, that is my only hope; lost or saved, that is my only refuge. I am resolved, for this my last defense, “If I perish there and die, At his cross I still will lie’.” “What!” says one, “no good works?” Good works will come afterwards, but they do not go with it. You must come to Christ, not with your good works, but with your sins; and coming with your sins, he will take them away, and give you good works afterwards. After you believe, there will be good works as the effect of your faith; but if you think faith will be the effect of good works, you are mistaken. It is “believe and live.” Cowper calls them the soul-quickening words, “believe and live.” This is the sum and substance of the Gospel.”[31]

What did Spurgeon say? Now this is not all of his sermon, but it will do well to see some of the main points here. What are the elements? Jesus Christ himself; Imputation of sin; the reality of a literal hell; judgment; God as Judge – knowing you are lost and ruined; knowledge; humiliation; shame; believing on Christ, and an explanation of believing; unbelief; a specific message; faith; good works; etc, etc. there are a number of important points here, and all of them make up the simplicity of the Gospel message. Luther also used these same points previously quoted in this paper: the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ; peace; knowledge; trust in Christ; unbelief condemned; sin; the death and resurrection of Christ; regeneration; forgiveness; etc. etc.

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 and 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrate what the apostle attributes to the Gospel message to the Corinthian church. 1 Corinthians 15 states that the chapter deals with the Gospel message. Paul is emphatic to state that in this chapter that he is dealing with the Gospel. Some elements of the substance of the Gospel are:

Verse 1: A declared, specific Gospel message preached.

Verse 2: Belief in that message

Verse 3: the death of Christ preached, as stated in the Scriptures (which would have been the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures.)

Verse 4: That He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.

Verses 5-9: undeniable proofs of this truth

Verse 10: Grace in us through the power of God

Verses 11-14, 16-18: the Resurrection

Verse 15: The Messiah promised

Verse 20-22: Imputation of Sin and judgment

Verse 23: the Return of Christ

Verse 24: The authority of God and Judgment

Verse 25-28: Judgment and eternity

Verse 28ff: Sanctification, hope and glory

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 has much of the same:

Verse 18: God’s power, reconciliation, the Mediator and Savior Jesus Christ

Verse 19: Sin, imputation of sin, enmity with God, Christ’s power to reconcile lost sinners

Verse 20: Preaching the message of reconciliation, God’s command to repent and be saved, reconciliation, and belief

Verse 21: Justification of us, the cross, the Justification of God

I think it is also helpful to understand what the early church thought about the Gospel. There was a small document compiled by unknown Christians about the gospel message called “The Apostle’s Creed.” The apostle’s did not write the document, but it was coined that since the doctrine held within it was in accordance with the apostolic message. It read as follows: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.” If anyone desires to stick closely to the sum and substance of the Gospel, I believe there is no better simple statement than this creedo. Now certainly, some explanation is in order, but such an outline would be helpful to any preacher desiring to set forth the Gospel.

Faith, and Examples through the Bible of the Gospel

There are a variety of encounters all through the Old and New Testaments concerning the message of the Gospel. No man is ever saved in the Old Testament or New Testament without the Gospel to the extent that revelation is given to him. This would consist of the promised Mediator to save lost and ruined sinners from God’s wrath. It would also consist in how such a thing is done, and by what steps God uses to do such a thing.[32] (For one of my own Gospel tracts see this link.) Faith in the Gospel message, however filled with light that may be, is a sign that someone has believed in the One God sent to save sinners. In searching through the Bible, faith can bee seen at this level on a variety of fronts: The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28, “O woman, great is your faith!” Of people in general, Matthew 21:21, “If ye have faith and doubt not.” Abraham is said to, “not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”” (Romans 4:20) Of Paul and his example for all men, “However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1 Timothy 1:16) Paul, being a pattern for believers, then applies this love and trust he has for Christ as something every believer must have in order to be saved; Romans 8:16, 32-33; Ephesians 1:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Colossians 1:5; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12.

It is folly to say that men are saved without prior knowledge of Christ in some measure. Even the blind men of Jesus’ day, who would have been hard pressed to find the synagogue, much less regularly attend meetings, knew something about the Messiah to come. They said, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!” (Matthew 20:30) Such faith is even demanded of the Apostles in their teachings. They demanded faith in the resurrection and divinity of Christ as seen in: Romans 4; 10:9; 1 Corinthians 15; Acts 2:24; 4:10; 10:40. Turretin also says of this idea concerning the faith that saves, “Although the faith of believers has been according to the measure of revelation, either more obscure or clearer in the Old and New Testaments, yet it always had for its object God’s special mercy in Christ. Under the New Testament Christ clearly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, the Savior of the world (Jn. 4:26), by the merit of his death (Mt. 20:28; 26:28) and by the efficacy of the Spirit (Jn. 4:14; 7:37), indeed to those who believe in his name (Jn. 3; 6). And if the apostles did not sufficiently understand what he said about his passion and death (Lk. 18:32-34), this must be ascribed to their weakness and their preconceived opinion about the temporal kingdom of Christ, which was afterwards corrected by him; but not to a defect in the revelation, which was sufficiently clear. As to the believers of the Old Testament, their faith (although more obscure) had also for its object Christ and the promises of grace in him (as is evident from Jn. 8:56; Lk. 10:24; Acts 10:43; Heb. 11; 1 Pet. 1:10, 11). And even the sole little clause of the covenant proves this. It could not be received by them in faith, unless they believed in the Messiah also, on whom that covenant was founded and in whom all the promises of God are Yea and Amen (2 Cor. 1:20).”[33] Unless this is understood, then it is impossible for men to be saved.


I am not shortening the arm of the Lord to save by saying what has been stated in this paper. However, God has bound himself to save in a specific manner with a specific message. I am hoping that certain ideas are apparent in this paper. First, men cannot be saved by general revelation. Second, men are saved through special revelation, which argues a specific message (otherwise such revelation would not be needed). Third, the entire Bible is the Word of God though not every passage in the Bible contains the Gospel. Fourth, sent heralds bring a specific message based on a text in the Bible concerning the Gospel and explain that message and that text thoroughly to lost sinners. Fifth, Regeneration is not done in a vacuum. Sixth, The Holy Spirit applies the Word of God preached as the means to regenerate and illicit a grace-given faith. Seventh, the Holy Spirit does not haphazardly apply texts by osmosis to men in order to save them. Eight, justifying faith is notitia, assensus and fiducia respectively. Ninth, “faith” is believing and trusting in the divine object (Jesus Christ) of a specific message (the good news) and knowing that such an object of knowledge is good. Tenth, no one would ever trust in anything they did not know. Eleventh, spurious faith does not save – only grace-given faith saves. Twelfth, all men, whether Old Testament or New Testament believers, believed the Gospel to be saved in the manner God apportioned it to them. Thirteenth, the substance of the Gospel has never changed, from Genesis 3:15 to John 3:16. Fourteenth, the fullness of the Gospel is seen in the New Testament though its substance has been the same through all ages.



[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.2.

[2] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2, P & R Publishing House, Philipsburg, NJ: 1994. Page 566.

[3] Ibid, Page 569. Turretin also continues when he says, “From the acts of faith. For since (as was proved above) in the conception of faith is included an act of persuasion and the act of flying to and reception of Christ (which cannot exist without trust), from this very thing it is evident that trust cannot be separated from faith, but belongs to its essence. And even the word plerophoria (attributed to it) invincibly proves this. Here belong the passages in which faith is described as a fiducial apprehension of Christ and his satisfaction: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12); “that they may receive forgiveness of sins by faith that is in me” (i.e., in Christ, Acts 26:18). Elsewhere faith is placed in this—”that we believe he was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25); that by faith we apprehend him “as a propitiation set forth by God in his blood” (Rom. 3:25). By this act, it is distinguished from the other kinds of faith which either do not have respect to the promise of God or not in the same manner.”

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA: 1990. Page 425.

[5] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, IVP, Downers Grover, PA: 1991

Pages 37. Emphasis mine.

[6] Ibid, Pages 37-38. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid, Pages 39-40.

[8] This is obviously why it is so important to be able to preach in a manner that exhorts both the children and the adults to believe in Christ. Preachers often speak over the heads of people, and as a result, the Gospel message is slowly lost because though they may be preaching well, they are preaching well over everyone’s head.

[9] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, The Epistle to the Corinthians, Introductory statements, and the “Argument.”

[10] Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, Easter Sunday Sermon.

[11] Charles Spurgeon, Sermons, “The Great Change.”

[12] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, Book 4.

[13] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, Book 3.

[14] John Owen, Hebrews, Volume 4, Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA: 1990. Page 296ff.

[15] Albert Barnes, Barnes notes on the Bible, Ages Software, Romans, Page 802.

[16] John Calvin, Sermons on the Deity of Christ, Sermon 1, Old Paths Publications.

[17] John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Peter, Hendrickson Publishers, chapter 1. Emphasis mine.

[18] Jonathan Edwards, Unpublished Sermon: Acts 26:18, page 1 Nov. 1747. Found in John Gerstner, The Rational Biblical theology of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 3, Page 152.

[19] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1997, Page 159.

[20] Augustus Toplady, Works, Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, VA, 1987. Page 640.

[21] Jonathan Edwards, Works, II:664-668.

[22] AW Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead, Part 1.

[23] Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire, Multnomah Press, Portland, OR: 1989 Page 164.

[24] Satan and the demons have both “notitia” and “assensus” respectively.

[25] AA Hodge, The Confession of Faith, Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA: 1983. Page 169.

[26] Ibid, Page 169.

[27] Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 7, book 1 chapter 2

[28] It is important to note that all the Puritans are agreed here. There was no dissent on this issue. The instantaneous converting process was all inclusive based on the Word worked into the regenerate’s soul, and then a faith reflex action immediately proceeded from that work. But it could be that such a work of the Spirit could take several sermons to accomplish since only portions of the Gospel may have been communicated at any one time.

[29] For a more full explanation see Edwards, “Religious Affections,” or Thomas Shepherd’s “The Sincere Convert and the Sound Believer.”

[30] Jonathan Edwards, Brainard’s Journal.

[31] Charles Spurgeon, Sermon, “The Jesus Christ Himself” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit

[32] I am not going to use the example of the thief on the cross since the message given to him by Christ while hanging there is not recorded for us. It is not fully accounted for by the Gospel writers (there is much we do not know about the account in general, but we do know what is needed to be known concerning the crucifixion of Christ.). Something was said to him, though the record does not bear out what this was. It is impossible, again, by osmosis, that the thief was suddenly “zapped” by the Spirit without a Gospel message given to him while he was being crucified. We know he was blaspheming Christ along with the other thief up until a certain point. Then, through some preaching (most likely by Jesus Christ – which is an amazing thought) he was converted. He called him Lord, knew he was a sinner, feared God, knew Christ was sinless, and knew he was the King of a Kingdom.

[33] Turretin, Institutes, Page 580.

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