Editor’s Note: At this year’s General Assembly Rev. Stanley D. Gale, pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pa., will lead a seminar called “Reformed Evangelism.” The seminar will explore how Reformed theology informs our understanding of the gospel and its proclamation. Below, Gale offers a preview of the themes he will touch on.
Jesus is the only way to God, but there are many ways to explain this. What, uniquely, does a “Reformed” presentation of the gospel include?
God works according to His good pleasure. He can—and does—use stammering testimonies about Jesus; He also uses the well-crafted messages of trained pulpiteers. This, however, does not mean we can be careless about what we say, or how we say it. As appointed ambassadors for Christ, we must seek to honor God and be true to His Word. That is what it means to be Reformed—it is being consistent with the whole counsel of God. A Reformed understanding of the gospel deals not with packaging, but with systemic concerns related to the glory of God.
Before defining aspects of a Reformed gospel presentation, we must define the “gospel.” Dr. Edmund Clowney, a respected pastor and educator, liked to sum it up with Jonah 2:9: “Salvation is of the Lord.” In Romans 1:1–4, the apostle Paul summarizes the gospel in terms of the person and work of Jesus Christ, yet he provides a bigger picture in the body of Romans. There he speaks of the matrix of created relationship, the sinfulness of all people, justification by faith alone (and not by law), and the fruit of saving faith. This takes us to the center of operations, so to speak—the sovereign, electing grace of God in keeping with His covenant purpose. In Romans, Paul also discusses the response to the gospel and the necessity of evangelizing. Although all these truths are not technically the “good news,” they frame the gospel message and make it intelligible and personally significant.
With these expanded horizons in view, we can identify some distinguishing characteristics of a Reformed gospel presentation.
The gospel emerges from a biblical worldview. A worldview answers questions about how we got here, what went wrong, and how it can be fixed. A biblical worldview sees the eternal, self-existent God who is wholly other from His creation, yet sovereign Lord over it. Post-Fall history is decidedly a redemptive history centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. With a biblical worldview, life is relationally and morally qualified.
Salvation is God-centered and God-serving. God initiated salvation, but He did not have to. He sent His Son not because people were lovable, but because He chose to set His love on a people. The ultimate end of salvation is not people but the glory of God. Such a focus honors all God’s attributes, including wrath and love, mercy and justice. Paul captures the comprehensive tone when he says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
Jesus accomplished the salvation of His “sheep.” Jesus, the great Shepherd, represented those who were given to Him by the Father before the creation of the world. He died for them and was raised to life for them. He did not make people redeemable. He actually redeemed a people, none of whom can be taken from Him.
The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ to our hearts. The catechism’s definition of effectual calling covers the bases: “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered in the gospel.” The gospel comes to people who are dead in sin, with regenerating power according to God’s purpose in election.
Faith is a gift of God. A Reformed doctrine of salvation understands man’s total depravity and the bondage of the will to the sinful nature. Faith is not the feeble response of the sick person to the good news of God’s remedy in Christ. Faith is the spiritual ability of the once-dead person—now alive by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit—to have ears to hear the message of salvation, a heart to receive it, and a will to embrace Christ as the way to it.
Repentance is part of the gospel’s call. The gospel addresses us in our guilt and rebellion; a proper response to it involves not simply “accepting” Jesus, but also accepting God’s diagnosis, prognosis, and exclusive remedy. In so doing, we reject our ability to save ourselves; we reject any right to serve ourselves. We bow the knee before the Christ, the Son of God, declaring, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Assurance of salvation is the domain of God’s Spirit. Certainly we can insist that all who have God-given, saving faith in Jesus Christ will be saved. However, we cannot know others’ hearts. We cannot discern if the evidence of life (the fruit) is self-induced—an emotional response or intellectual assent—or if professions of faith arise from the sovereign work of the Spirit. In his first epistle, John pins assurance not to mere profession, but to the demonstrative fruit of God’s handiwork of grace.
So what do these characteristics look like in a Reformed gospel presentation? An explanation of a God-centered gospel includes five elements. It will:
• Showcase the glory of God as Creator and Redeemer, generating an awe of Him and a profound indebtedness for His covenant mercies expressed in Christ.
• Display the logical flow of the gospel, moving from problem to solution, as well as the glorious illogic of grace, the non sequitur of God’s love of the unlovely and His justification of the ungodly.
• Carry with it the overtones of God’s sovereign work in salvation and the undertow of His purpose in election, which is initiated and ensured by Him, and contingent on Him rather than our efforts.
• Be communicated in ways that rely on the Holy Spirit whereby we see ourselves as spiritual midwives and not spiritual salesmen; whereby we are driven to prayer in dependence on the Spirit and happily submissive to His working.
• Issue a call not merely to conversion but to discipleship as the exercise of lively faith and the fruit of genuine repentance; it must convey the necessity of obeying God’s commands to believe on His Son and to turn from sin and live by grace under the lordship and for the sake of Christ.
“You’ve just got to trust Jesus. He saves sinners,” declared a zealous believer to a non-Christian friend. This offered no real explanation of why the person should do so. It gave no details about who Jesus is and what exactly He did for people. Yet the friend trusted Christ and grew to understand the details later. He continues to walk with Jesus and grow in faith. Go figure.
God works as He wills. This should encourage us in our witness. People are not saved by our eloquence, persistence, or precision. They are saved by the work of the triune God. He is the surgeon; we are privileged instruments in His hands. Yet, it should be our goal to honor God in genuine zeal, dogged persistence, and theological precision as we faithfully relate to others the good news of what He has done in Jesus Christ. A Reformed presentation of the gospel seeks nothing else.
Stanley Gale is a PCA pastor in West Chester, Pa. He recently published an evangelistic booklet titled How Can I Know Eternal Life?, available through the CEP bookstore. For more information, please visit www.CHOPministry.net.