by William Webster
In his opening chapter to the Romans, the apostle Paul states that 'the gospel is the power of God for salvation' (Rom. 1:16). Few statements can equal this one in importance. Paul is underscoring both the priority and importance of the gospel message. It is by the preaching of the gospel that God has ordained that men and women should hear truth and be brought (through the ministry of the Holy Spirit) into the experience of salvation. The critical importance of the gospel message in the salvation of sinners is further stressed by Paul in the following scriptures:
In Him you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13).
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thes. 2:13-14).
The Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph. 3:6).
Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how sshall they hear without a preacher?...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:13-14, 17).
When the biblical gospel is preached it becomes 'the power of God for salvation.' The importance, then, of a correct gospel message can hardly be overstated. As B.B. Warfield put it:
We must not fail to mark the honour which is thus put by the Ascended Jesus on what we have learned to call by way of eminence, the Truth, or, the Gospel message. Everything is made to turn on that. It lies at the root of all. The Apostle's duty is to open men's eyes. Whatever of salvation may come to men comes subsequently to that and as an outgrowth of that root...Men are in darkness, they need light...The appointed means of breaking this darkness is the proclamation of the Gospel by which alone men's eyes can be opened (B.B. Warfield, Faith & Life (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), pp. 174-176).
We live in a day when the gospel message is being relentlessly assaulted by two great enemies: legalism and antinomianism. These two errors have confused and deceived many, wreaking spiritual havoc throughout both Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism.
The sixteenth century witnessed one of the greatest revivals in church history: the Reformation. The Protestant Church was born out of a protest against the entrenched legalism of Roman Catholicism. The Reformers fearlessly preached the gospel bearing witness to the biblical message of the sufficiency of the work of Christ, the grace of God and the full and final authority of scripture. They brought the Church back to the essential and liberating message of justification by faith as defined by the word of God. Since the sixteenth century the Reformation gospel has been the standard of orthodoxy for Protestants.
Today however, we find a new interest in Roman Catholicism from of all places, conservative Protestantism, and a willingness to uncritically embrace the teachings of the Church of Rome. This is due in part to the fractured nature of evangelicalism and to an antinomian emphasis which is becoming more and more prevalent in evangelical circles. This has sparked an ongoing debate within evangelicalism as to the nature of saving faith and the meaning of salvation. But renewed interest in Roman Catholicism is motivated by more than a reaction against a liberal and antinomian form of evangelicalism. Given the state of today's culture there are those who desire that all conservative forces within professing Christendom unite in a common battle in the culture war for moral values.
Unity is the clarion call of this movement but a unity gained at the expense of truth-in particular the great gospel truths which were articulated by the Protestant Reformers. Those evangelicals who promote such an agenda are short sighted. They have forgotten that scripture declares that the God ordained means of changing a culture is through the clear preaching of the gospel of Christ. But it is at this point where there is so much confusion. The recent ECT Accord (promoted by evangelical Charles Colson and Roman Catholic Richard John Neuhaus) has highlighted this wide spread confusion.
There is a desperate need today for a clarification of the biblical gospel. We need to return to a fearless and uncompromising proclamation of the fulness of the truth of the gospel as revealed in scripture. This is what characterized the preaching and teaching of the Reformers. Their gospel message was grounded on the ultimate authority of God's word and God blessed their efforts with an outpouring of his Spirit in great power and conversion. The answer for evangelicals who are concerned about the superficiality of evangelicalism and the state of the culture is not union with or tolerance of the legalistic gospel of Rome but a return to the biblical and Reformation gospel. It is this gospel that much of evangelicalism has abandoned.
This series of articles is an attempt to set forth the biblical (Reformation) teaching of the gospel of salvation. They seek to assess the teachings of Rome and evangelicalism in light of that message and to challenge us to return to the faithful and consistent proclamation of its truth. What is the gospel and what does scripture mean by salvation? What is the essential salvation message of Jesus Christ himself? And what is the content of the gospel that has been consistently taught by those who have followed in the heritage of the Reformation?
These are the fundamental questions which will be addressed in these articles. There will be extensive quotations provided from the writings of the Reformers and major Reformed theologians of the centuries following the Reformation. Given the widespread confusion that exists on the nature of the gospel of the Reformation, it is essential that we adequately document its true teaching.