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Getting back to the Gospel in 2013

CrossRev Matt Stone begins the new year by shaking us out of our spiritual amnesia and reminding the Church of the obvious - why it is so important to live and proclaim the Gospel.

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1:16)
At the start of a new year, I want to direct your minds to the Gospel: the startlingly good news of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was raised again for us. Through him we have “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” as the Apostle’s Creed puts it. Through him, we can “have life in all its fullness” (John 10:10).  
It is by the Gospel and because of the Gospel that the Church exists. The very purpose of the Church is to live and proclaim the Gospel. Why is it necessary to say these obvious things? It is necessary because it is the obvious that is constantly forgotten. Christians and churches suffer spiritual amnesia, time and time again.
As we face an uncertain year ahead, I want to highlight three ways we can suffer spiritual amnesia:
First, the Church worries too much about things that don’t matter – like how big, small, successful, unsuccessful, popular or unpopular we are.
The theologian and former URC minister, Lesslie Newbigin, put it like this:
“Those who do not believe in the Gospel — and they are the vast majority — see the Church as an organisation which belongs to the well-known category of 'good causes'. They see it getting larger or smaller. They discuss its successes or failures. They suggest that if something or other is not done it will dwindle and disappear. They ask whether one should be optimistic or pessimistic about its prospects. From their point of view these are natural questions, and they are not necessarily unfriendly.
"But from the point of view of a believer in the Gospel they are meaningless chatter. If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, all this talk has as much and as little importance as the twittering of sparrows. I do not find anywhere in the New Testament any traces of anxiety about whether the Church is large or small, successful or unsuccessful, popular or unpopular. I find only anxiety about whether this or that community of believers is living in faithfulness to the Gospel or not. There is no hint of anxiety about the final outcome. How could there be? Christ has met and mastered all conceivable powers that threaten man. He reigns victoriously. He will come in glory as the Lord of the new creation. All this is sure, and to be anxious about it would be as absurd as to be anxious about whether the sun will rise tomorrow.”
Newbigin spoke those words 35 years ago at the URC’s General Assembly, but they are just as relevant today. We don’t exist to please secular society and politicians. All that matters for the Church is whether we are living and proclaiming the Gospel.
Secondly, we have to preach the Gospel – not the Law.

Christian ministers and preachers can fall into the trap of missing the point of the Gospel in their sermons. Indeed, I have done it myself. We can exhort people to love one another, to do good deeds, to take care of the environment, to give money to charity, to uphold proper ethical standards, and so on and so forth. None of these are necessarily ‘wrong’ in themselves: indeed, to the contrary, they are part of our response to the good news of Jesus Christ. However, we have to realise that there is nothing distinctively Christian about them. They are what Paul might call ‘the law’ and we can, if we’re not careful, fall into preaching salvation by good works.
By contrast, the Gospel is about grace: ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’. Both Christians and non-Christians alike know that we ought to love our neighbours and care for the environment and so on. What Christians have to proclaim is that salvation comes through Christ: “There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Jesus has fulfilled and satisfied the law in a way we never could. He has paid the price and suffered the penalty of our sin. This is the good news that “in all things we have complete victory through him who loved us!” This is the good news that makes us “certain that nothing can separate us from his love...” (Rom. 8:37-38).
We know that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), but faith comes first. Contrary to popular thought and most funeral sermons, the Bible doesn’t teach us that good people will go to heaven. Believing the Gospel is the crux of it all.  
Thirdly, our communities need the Gospel more than anything else.
Following on from my second point, it is the Gospel that our communities need more than anything else. We mustn’t convince ourselves that we are doing our Christian service simply by hiring out our church halls for Pilates, putting on lunch clubs or running parents and toddlers groups. They can be part of our response to the Gospel, but we must not be ashamed of actually telling people about Jesus. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith!
Social action can be a brilliant way of building relationships and creating Gospel-sharing opportunities, but it can also be where many churches and Christians stop. We run the coffee drop in or donate to the night shelter, but we don’t step out to share the immense joy and hope they have in Jesus. We help people’s physical needs, but not their spiritual needs. We help people in this life, but not into the next.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1:16)
Let’s not be ashamed. Let’s go back to the Gospel. Let’s remember why we exist. Let’s give God the glory.

Rev Matt Stone is a minister in the Norwich Area United Reformed Churches.

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