It is almost a joke at this point to see a book entitled “Christ-centered X”: worship, preaching (I have both those books and they are excellent!), parenting…there might be a cooking one at this point. But why was there that boom of titles? It wasn’t just marketing. It had become clear that in much of our evangelical culture we had traded the gospel for moralism.
In this chapter Ferguson dives into the very heart of the Marrow controversy. You have a bunch of Scots from hundreds of years ago fighting about a book (see Part 1). The ideas in that book were powerful and they were right. They exposed a subtle corruption of the gospel that had come into the church. This is why we must always go back to the basics regularly. This chapter centers upon a specific question:
How do we offer the gospel?
Ferguson breaks it down into two smaller questions:
1) What do you say when you call people to Christ?
2) On what grounds are they entitled to come?
Our automatic response might be to say, “Anyone can come!” That’s true as Ferguson argues, but is it true in practice? In Thomas Boston’s day the church had added requirements, prerequisites to receiving the gospel. Remember the question from chapter 1: Must one forsake sin prior to receiving Christ? Largely the church said, “Yes.” It sounded right. It felt right. It made sense in a certain way. But it was actually wrong. Even worse it was corrupting the gospel they loved.
This wasn’t just a problem back then. Many churches are guilty of the same thing today whether they are Reformed in their theology or Arminian as the day is long. Must one recant of their sexual immorality or political affiliation before they can become a Christian? Are there certain non-essential doctrinal commitments that must be made before once can come to Jesus? What about how they dress and speak? Can they truly come to Jesus as they are or do we need to put an asterisk* next to the hymn?
The point is that there are things that can sneak in under the radar that become advance requirements for people coming to faith. That makes these basic questions much more important and more uncomfortable to answer.
The common error
You may not be familiar but there is an old argument between the Calvinists (like myself) and Arminians. Calvinists believe that God has set apart certain people for salvation while Arminians believe in the possible salvation of all men (salvation is not determined by God). If predestination is true, and there are elect from every nation set apart from eternity past by God for salvation, then the Arminian says, “I cannot preach the gospel to every man, because the gospel is not for every man.” While I would disagree with this response, the Scottish Presbyterian church basically said, “Y’know what? That’s right!” and doubled down on it. So the church ended up creating a faulty logic that we call hyper-Calvinism:
Major premise: God’s saving grace is for the elect alone
Minor premise: The elect are known by forsaking sin
Conclusion: Therefore, you must forsake sin in order to participate in saving grace (43)
If you read the above do you notice anything missing? How about Jesus? Ferguson makes the point that this kind of preaching makes an “implied separation between Christ and the benefits of the gospel”(44). Effectively a person is doing something in order to make themselves qualified to receive salvation: they forsake their sin. What this does is separate Christ himself from the benefits of the gospel. This is a bigger problem than you might think. Ferguson explains:
Wherever the benefits of Christ are seen as abstractable from Christ himself, there is a decreasing stress on his person and work in preaching…This is accompanied by an increased stress on our experience of salvation rather than on the grace, majesty, and glory of the Lord Jesus ChristPp.49-50
Translation: There are ways to preach the gospel in which you lose Jesus and focus on the things Jesus does for you. The hyper-Calvinist prerequisite of forsaking sin before being allowed to enjoy the gospel is comparative to the Arminian revival preacher saying, “You don’t want to go to Hell do you?!? Now repeat after me…” In this way hyper-Calvinists and Arminians share the same error because they end up focusing on the experience of salvation in the individual rather than on Jesus. In this way salvation becomes more about me than about Jesus.
The only correction
The only correction is to recover what was lost: Union with Christ. Jesus did not die to secure heavenly benefits for us and store them up to pass them out as we do good things. Grace is not a customer loyalty program. All the benefits of the gospel are in Jesus. So if we are to “get those benefits” then we must find a way to be in Christ and him to be in us.
When the New Testament talks about us and the gospel it usually talks about how we are “in Christ.” This is because all the infinite riches of salvation and glory are in Jesus and not in us(48). This is precisely why we need salvation. Our need is met not in programs and benefits, but in the person of Jesus himself. We don’t need the benefits of grace. We need grace itself which is the person of Jesus Christ himself.
The correction we need to get the gospel right is to recenter it away from us and our experience on to the person and work of the Savior.
The only way to offer the gospel
This brings us back to how we offer the gospel to others. When we look at the scriptures we do not see any prerequisites for receiving and resting in Jesus. As Ferguson writes no one is disqualified from receiving the offer of the gospel. The question of election addresses why some believe and why others do not. Election doesn’t function as a screening process to filter out the unworthy. How could it? Having Christ at the center makes all the difference as can be seen here:
Benefits gospel:Pages 48-49.
1) For the preacher: “How can I offer these benefits?” and
2) For the hearer: “How can I get these benefits?”
1) For the preacher: “How do I preach Christ himself?” and
2) For the hearer: “How do I get into Christ?”
For the first model Jesus is the means to an end. For the second Jesus is the end.
Now let’s go back and see if we can answer the questions from the beginning. What do we say when we offer Christ to people? We say what Christ said, “Come to him all ye who are weary and heavy laden and he will give you rest for your souls.” We say, “Here is the word of life, Jesus Christ himself. Hear, repent, and believe.” We say this because:
I was not always Reformed in my theology. I have asked the questions of this chapter. How do I as someone who believes in election offer the gospel? And the answer is I offer it freely and to everyone. I don’t know who the elect are. I’m not supposed to. My favorite way to explain this is to paraphrase Charles Spurgeon who was embroiled in a similar controversy in England. You want to know who the elect are? You want to know if you are elect? Well, then believe in Jesus and follow him all your days. This is because the elect believe and rest in Jesus.
In our membership course I always make sure to disabuse people of any notion they must be good people to be a part of our church. Since we are a conservative congregation I will usually say something along the lines of, “You don’t have to be pro-life to be a member of our church.” This normally gets me incredulous looks. I had one couple sheepishly ask me if I thought abortion was wrong. I said, “Of course I believe it is wrong. I believe it is evil. But being pro-life is not the gospel.”
This chapter presses us to consider the subtle ways we have corrupted the gospel by adding prerequisites or experiential requirements. It is such an amazing chapter because it brings us back to the glory and wonder of the gospel which is our savior Jesus Christ! For Jesus IS the grace of God.
What do you think? Are there ways you have seen the church add to the gospel that remove Christ? What would it look like if churches ditched these things and recovered the grace of the gospel? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!