This week, at the Together For the Gospel conference, John MacArthur supposedly made the following statement, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words. I don’t know who said that, but it’s stupid.” The subsequent conversations that have followed have centered in the realm of semantics, arguing whether one can preach only through words – as preaching is a verbal activity – or if it’s appropriate to say that one can preach through actions as well. At the heart of this debate, though, is another debate of greater consequence: What is the gospel?
Essentially, the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is King and that His kingdom has been established on earth. In one sense you can argue that, yes, this is a verbal activity and MacArthur is right. However, when we dissect what is hovering between the lines of MacArthur’s statement, I think we can say that he is absolutely wrong.
The original quote is normally attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, though there is no proof of that. It makes sense, though, given that St. Francis’ call to preach the gospel stemmed from a sermon he heard on Matthew 10:9. The Franciscan Order was established on the basic principle to “follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” In any case, whoever originally said the quote clearly had a high view of the gospel and faithful obedience.
If the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship over all creation, then there are necessary implications for our lives. Following Jesus means that we live in a such a way that declares Jesus is King. When we gather for worship, we gather to worship the King. When we marry, have children, go to work, and love our neighbor, we do so in a way that declares Jesus is King. All of our actions point to this most important truth, because this is the truth the world needs to see and hear. Part of the message of the gospel is a call to follow Jesus, but this is not just a verbal call. Our lives – if lived obediently – shout to the world that there is something true, something good and something beautiful about following Jesus.
At the heart of MacArthur’s statement, though, is a view that God sets his favor on the spoken word as opposed to other means. He may agree with everything I said above regarding the gospel, but he would insist that salvation only comes through the preaching of the gospel. In fact, this is the popular sentiment among many in the evangelical church. What this view does is minimize the gospel into a set of propositions that must be perceived by the hearer. For example, when they read Romans 10 they see that faith comes through hearing and they immediately equate this with a sermon – the gospel they need to hear is the whole package of salvation… and at least to some degree they must understand it. There’s a few problems with this though. First, the whole package of salvation that these men believe must be preached is the same package that is found within the scriptures. Is that to say that a lost person could not read the Bible, believe, and be saved? Second, does it have to be a gospel sermon that the lost person must hear? Could it be snippets of truth from time to time, or perhaps – as Peter, Stephen and Paul preached – a history lesson? Third, and perhaps most important, are we to apply the way the gospel was preached (and the reasons why it was preached) in the New Testament to our culture today?
One of the things we have to be careful of, when interpreting the New Testament, is applying those events in the same way to our own time. The New Testament covers a very specific period of time that had a particular significance. In 30 A.D. Jesus had died, risen, and ascended into heaven. These events ushered in the New Covenant. However, the Old Covenant did not technically end until 70 A.D. at the destruction of Jerusalem. What we have, then, is a 40 year “wilderness” period – much like the one in Exodus – in which the church is being created over and against the de-creation of the Old Covenant system. This is why the New Testament records strange events like Timothy being circumcised or Paul offering sacrifices at the temple. It’s a transition period that is unlike our period. It’s against this backdrop that we find miraculous events like the Pentecost conversions tied to Peter’s sermon… and Paul’s letter to the Romans. The purpose of preaching in this era was to primarily convert mature Jews who were otherwise faithful to the Old Covenant, yet didn’t see (or refused to acknowledge) that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant Law. This doesn’t happen in our era. It’s not supposed to. Once the Old Covenant era was completely wiped out, the New Covenant was firmly established. Jesus is King and the reign of the church begins. We are saved by being united to Christ in faith. This isn’t established on our understanding of the gospel, but is declared at our baptism. This doesn’t mean that hearing isn’t just as important today – it’s absolutely vital – but in a different sense.
The gospel comes to the world through various means. One of those means is most definitely preaching. If we’re talking about preaching to the world outside the context of a worship service – sharing the gospel with a co-worker, for instance – then we have to say that our actions are just as important as our words are. Neither “trigger” salvation in the other person, but they do work to lead them toward Christ, where salvation is found. And if we’re talking about preaching in the context of worship, then we have to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of God’s Word… but He also works through the sacraments – the water, the bread and the wine. These are all means of grace that work together to save us.
MacArthur is part of a large evangelical group that elevate preaching above the rest of worship. Preaching is the central activity in worship because, according to them, it is the means by which people are converted. Again, though, it is wrong to minimize the gospel to a set of propositions that must be heard and understood for salvation. Rather, preaching plays a key role in the liturgy that eventually builds to the climax of a peace offering – the Lord’s Supper. God uses the whole of worship to break us down and reshape us into new creatures. This didn’t happen when we finally understood the atonement or could articulate the right prayer. It happens on a weekly basis when we present ourselves to God as living sacrifices united to Christ. This is why being a “loner” Christian is so dangerous, and also why it’s so important for the church to be practicing weekly communion along with the preaching of the Word.
Salvation is found in Christ alone, and Christ has given us His Word and Sacrament to save us. This is all good news. It’s gospel! Jesus is King and He reigns on high. As sons and daughters of the King, we reign alongside Him. We should tell this to our neighbors, to our family, to our co-workers. Preach the gospel to them – use words if you must. They might not agree with what you say, but they might just crave what you have. Invite them to church. Heck, drag them along. It’s there that they will find a new identity in the waters of baptism. It’s there that they will join with all the saints worldwide – past and present – to sing praises to our King. It’s there that they will be broken and made whole again. It’s there that they will know true peace over bread and wine. It’s there they will find salvation. This is the gospel.