What is the Gospel?
John G. Reisinger
Given the recent heated discussions of the question, "What is the gospel?" we might have trouble reaching any kind of agreement. Let's change the subject of this sermon and ask, "Do we have any examples in the New Testament Scriptures where the content of a gospel sermon was clearly recorded and that sermon resulted in genuine conversions?" I think you will agree that a clear instance of the content of any specific gospel message in the Bible will surely go a long way in teaching us what the necessary content of the gospel is. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have more than one instance of just such a sermon. We will look at one of the most famous.
The great Apostle Paul and his companion Silas were beaten "with many stripes" and jailed for preaching the gospel. We pick up the story in Acts 16:25:
And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house (Acts 16:25-34).
Normally, I would entitle this sermon, "The Only True Answer to Life's Most Important Question." However, in light of the current attempts to add a "correct theological understanding of Calvinism" to the gospel message, I changed the title.
I want to look carefully at five specific things: First, the man who asked the question; Second, the question that was asked; Third, the man who answered the question; Fourth, the answer that was given; Fifth, the result of believing the answer.
I. We will begin by looking at the man who asked the question. First of all the man was scared to death at the moment that he asked the question. An earthquake is enough in itself to scare anybody, but this earthquake did not damage the building but miraculously opened all the prison doors and unshackled the prisoner's bonds and chains. The poor frightened jailer drew his sword and was about to kill himself. He would have chosen that fate to being put to death in shame by the king or other authority. Paul cries out to keep the man from killing himself, and assures the man that no one has left the prison. "All present and accounted for". Whether Paul and Silas were the only prisoners or the other prisoners were also so scared they did not move we are not told. The important thing is to see how terrified the jailer is as he witnesses this display of God's power. He falls at the feet of Paul and cries out, "What must I do to be saved?"
II, The second thing to look at is, the specific question the man asked. The text says, "Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, SIRS, WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?" If you have never asked that question from the depth of your soul, then you ought to doubt that you are a Christian. In order to get converted that specific question must be asked, and it must be asked of God Himself, and you must look for the answer in God's own Word, the Bible. The one true answer that is found in the Bible alone must be believed. I ask you, "Have you ever asked God that question about your own soul? Did you find the clear answer to your question in the Bible? Have you believed that answer to the saving of your soul?"
First of all, the question shows that the man was concerned with his soul and not his body. There are those who say the jailer was only afraid that he was going to die and wanted to escape only physical death. The fact that the prisoners were still all there eliminated that threat. No, this man had beaten Paul and Silas for preaching about their God. The jailer had just witnessed an exhibition of the power of their God. He was kneeling at their feet because he was scared to death of their God.
In spite of all I just said, let's assume for a moment that the man was only asking how to save his physical life. The great Apostle gave him a spiritual answer. Paul was surely talking about spiritual life when he said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."
Secondly, the man was asking the question in sincerity. Why do I say that? Look at the radical change in his attitude. He addressed them as "Sirs." I doubt he did that when he beat them and put them into their cell. I do not believe he said, "Sirs, would you be so good as to please enter that cell." He probably cursed them, gave them a shove and maybe one more blow with whatever weapon he had in his hand at the moment. I think I am more than justified in saying the man asked the question sincerely.
Thirdly, The question was singular. I mean by that the question concerned only one thing. The man wanted to know how to saved and he wanted to know for sure. He was not concerned with the right view of baptism, the true denomination, the time of the second coming, the various views of the atonement, etc. The man asked about the one thing that was essential in order for him to be saved , to be justified or put in a right standing with the true God whose servants he had just abused. He did not say, "How can I become one of your disciples," but "How can be I received and forgiven by your God?"
Fourthly, the question was personal. The jailer was not concerned with the heathen and if they could be saved without hearing the gospel. He wanted to know how he personally could be saved. He was not wanting to discuss if someone divorced three times could be saved, or the man next door, or the homosexual. No, this man cried out "What must I do to be saved?"
III. The third thing we want to look at is the man to whom the question was directed. When you ask important questions, it is vital that you ask someone who is qualified to answer that question. For instance, your banker may be a personal friend and a genius at investments but you would not ask him to give you a medical examination to determine the state of your health. Unless, of course you do not have a brain in your head. No, you would go to a medical doctor. Likewise, you would probably not choose a doctor that had been arrested five times for drunk driving.
The two things that qualify someone to answer questions are: (1) the academic credentials that prove they have mastered the subject, and (2) they have had some actual experience with the subject of the question. I remember starting to read a booklet by A.W. Pink on raising children. I thought it was the best thing I had ever read on the subject. Someone told that Pink never had any children. I never read another page in the book. I do not think people who have never raised children should be writing books on that subject.
The Apostle Paul had both of the above-mentioned qualifications. First of all, he had the education or knowledge credentials. He had studied under one of the greatest scholars of his day, a man named Gamaliel. He had taken on any and all comers in debate and always came out the victor. His enemies refused to meet him in either open debate or discussion but instead paid wicked men to lie about him. That was the only way they could handle him.
I once heard Martyn-Lloyd Jones tell of reading that the British Broadcasting Company was sponsoring twelve one-hour lectures on different great men who had had the greatest effect on Western civilization. He said, "I immediately secured a copy of the list, and sure enough, the Apostle was on the list." This also partly answers the question concerning his personal experience. However, the really great proof of this second qualification was Paul's own conversion. He, like the jailer, had been struck down while persecuting God's people. One day with a sword in his hand, hatred in his heart, and a letter of authority in his pocket to beat and imprison Christians, Paul was on his was to Damascus. Saul of Tarsus, like the jailer, saw an exhibition of God's power. He was struck down in his tracks. Out of the same kind of fear from which the jailer cried, Paul had cried out the same question. "Lord, what would thou have me to do?" I'm sure Paul's memory of his own traumatic conversion must have made him ready to weep at the jailer's cry. Paul knew the answer to this question because he had asked it under very similar circumstances and had experienced the answer himself.
IV. The fourth thing to look at is the answer given to the question. Here is the answer that Paul gave to the question of "What must I do to be saved?" He said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house" (Acts 16:31). I think we can make several clear observations about this answer but before I do that, let me press a vital point. If we go back and review the terrible shape the poor jailer was in and feel something of the absolute urgency of the moment, we will realize that such a situation demands a full and honest answer. If Paul leaves out the least little thing that is essential for salvation or adds something that is superfluous and not essential to salvation, then he becomes a scoundrel. In other words nobody but the most callus person would give anything but a full and truthful answer to a man in such a state. The importance of our realizing that is this: If what you are hoping in to get you into heaven is not found in Paul's answer, then you are not going to heaven! If your answer to "What must I do to be saved" is a different answer than Paul gave then your answer is wrong. Here is a clear biblical touchstone to use in measuring the validity of salvation.
I must also add that the same text and situation applies to any and all who want to argue about what must and what must not be included in the gospel message we preach. Just as we can say with confidence that your hope of heaven must be found in Paul's answer or your hope is not valid, so we can say if your Gospel message does not embody the same truths that Paul sets forth than your message is wrong.
When Paul pronounced a curse (Gal. 1:7, 8) upon anyone who in anyway changes the gospel that he, Paul, had preached, this is probably one of the texts he had in mind. We must be very careful in pronouncing anathemas on people. Paul is talking about someone who actually changes the Gospel message. He is not talking about wrong views of baptism, millennialism, election, or even the extent of the atonement. I believe the Bible is absolutely clear that baptism is by immersion and is for believers only. In fact, it is just as clear as the doctrine of justification by faith. However, if anyone says, "A person must be immersed as a believer to be truly saved" then they come under Paul's anathema. They have added to the Gospel. Speaking in tongues may be or may not be a gift today (I do not believe it is) but that is not the question. If anyone says, "A person must be baptized in Holy Spirit and speak in tongues or he cannot be saved" they are under Paul's curse for adding the to Gospel of "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." It does not matter how true or even how important the thing is that you are advocating, the moment you make anything but "faith alone in Christ alone" essential for salvation then you have corrupted the Gospel and you are under the anathema of God.
I have spent forty-five years preaching the glorious doctrines of grace. I have shed blood for those truths and will gladly shed some more. I will preach with my dying breath that I am saved only because of the unconditional electing grace of God. I will publicly praise my blessed Lord that I am saved only because He died a particular, efficient, vicarious death for me as one of His chosen sheep. However, if you tell me that the poor sinner must believe either or both of these things before he can be saved, or that those glorious truths must be added to the Gospel preaching of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:30, 31 then I will say, "You are just as far off the mark as the man who insists that I must be immersed to be saved or speak in tongues to go to heaven." When you put something into your Gospel that is not in Paul's answer to the jailer then you must say that Paul did not tell the man the full story. He must have left something out. Let us now examine his answer more carefully.
Note what the answer does not say. It does not mention works of any kind, baptism or church membership, different views of theology, or any of the hundreds of things that Christians argue about.
First of all, it was a simple answer. There were no "fifty cent words" as my great Aunt used to say. I believe it is a preacher's duty to be simple. His goal must never be to prove how smart he is but to preach the gospel and the doctrines of Scripture as clearly and simply as possible. John Wesley used to write out his sermons and then give them to a scrubwoman to read. She would underline any word, phrase or sentence that she could not understand. Wesley would then re-work that part until she did understand it. When chided by the intellectuals that he was "demeaning the King's English," Wesley said, "I am concerned with the souls of men and not the King's English. Men only benefit from preaching if they clearly understand what is preached." I believe Wesley was right.
People often tell me that they can understand me when I preach. I think that is because I am an old farm boy that could not be profound even if I tried. I remember when I was in high school a particular teacher used to ask a question and before you could open your mouth she would say, "Don't tell me you don't know." One day she pulled that on me and I had prepared and memorized a response. I answered, "I am sorry, but under the circumstances I have not acquired the proper knowledge to answer your question correctly, and as it is against my principles to deviate in any way from the path of accuracy, I refrain from any answer whatsoever." I wound up in the principle's office.
Now you may string the above 42 words together in a response to the teacher's statement, or you may simply say, "I don't know." They both mean exactly the same thing. Everyone will understand the "I don't know" answer but not so with the other one. I have often felt that some preachers actual study hard and long to speak in such a way that everyone agrees with them simply because they have not said anything that is understandable. Paul's answer was simple and to the point.
However, the answer was more than just simple. The answer was sufficient. It was what a lawyer calls inclusive and exclusive. Paul included everything in his answer that was necessary for the poor sinner to know in order to be saved. He also excluded everything that was not absolutely essential to salvation. Notice the following:
(1) Paul told the jailer what to do - "Believe."
(2) It was not just a vague belief but "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ".
He must believe in Jesus, that is His earthly name. This proves He was a man like us and yet without sin.
He must believe in Christ. This is the name of the promised Messiah. The one who fulfills all the OT prophecies.
He must believe that the Jesus, Who is the Christ, is also the Lord. This is the name given to Him at His resurrection and ascension as a reward for His work of redemption.
We may sum up the message of Christ with the words, the cradle, the cross, and the crown. Jesus reminds us of the cradle and His humanity. Christ reminds us of the cross where He suffered for His people and fulfilled all the law and the Prophets. And the word Lord reminds us that He has all power and all authority to save or damn whom He will.
Paul did not stop with telling the man exactly what to believe, but he also assured the man that upon believing he would be saved for sure. Paul did not say, "You have a great chance to be saved," he said, "thou shalt be saved" beyond doubt.
One last thing about this answer, it was a safe answer. All of the people saved before the advent of our Lord in flesh had believed this answer. 3,000 souls on the day of Pentecost were saved for eternity by believing this Gospel. Some terrible sinners, including a most wicked woman who went through husbands like paper towels, were forgiven the moment they believed the Gospel promise. Luther, Calvin, the Pilgrim's, some potheads and homosexuals (I Cor 6:9-11), and a host of other sinners like you and me have been saved for eternity by "believing on the Lord Jesus Christ."
V. We come to the last point and that is what happened when the answer to the question was believed. Look at the texts: And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house. Acts 16:32-34
First of all, we read that the Apostles "spake unto him the word of the Lord." They gave them Scriptures upon which to hang their faith. The man was baptized and "rejoiced, believing in God with all his house." There was joy and assurance and the joy was expressed. I have found two great extremes concerning emotions in evangelical circles. I remember when I was first converted I saw both of these extremes in two separate events several days apart.
Two weeks after I went to Bible school I was driving home and saw a sign "Old Fashioned Revival Meeting." The next day, I asked one of the fellows if he wanted to go along with me since it sounded like our kind of thing. He agreed and took his girl friend along. There were eight people, in addition to us three, at the meeting. It was obvious that we were visitors since we were the only ones under seventy-five years old. The preacher was probably eighty. Occasionally he would jump up in the air and click his heels together. It did not help him to preach any better but he seemed to get a kick (no pun intended) out of it, as did the audience. At one point the preacher chased the Devil out the window and locked it so he could not get back in. I did not actually see the Devil go but then I was fairly new at this so I sat there expressionless. The girl who came with us was trying desperately not to look like she was ready to bolt for the door. This was a country church and I was driving or I am sure she would have been long gone before we sang the fifteenth "old time favorite."
I forget at what point in the service this happened but they had a "testimony time." Now he Bible clearly says, "Let the redeemed say so" and Jesus said, "Go and tell what great things God has done for you." I enjoy good testimony meetings. However, this one was different than any other I have ever been a part of. A man got up and said very loudly, "I'm glad I got that old time religion." He stood there waving his hands and everyone was shouting things like "Glory to Jesus," "Hallelujah," "Amen" and things like that. That is all the man said. When he sat down a lady got up and said exactly the same thing, "I'm glad I got that old time religion." Everyone again shouted the same words and phrases as before. When the lady sat down another man got up and the same thing repeated itself. The only difference was the pitch was getting a little higher and bodies were beginning to shake and sway.
It does not take very long for eight people to "testify" when they all have only one line of testimony, actually the same line. When the last of the eight people had finished "testifying" and had sat down, all eyes turned toward the three "visitors." I glanced at the girl my friend had brought and she was turning white, then red, then blue and looking like a frightened deer. After about a minute I stood up and it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. The poor girl was turning white, red, and blue all at one time. My friend was afraid she was going to faint and put his arm around her. I opened my Bible to the text of Scripture we are discussing. Now we had been there almost two hours and no one had yet opened a Bible. I said fairly loudly, "I'm glad I got that old time religion." The place went wild. They were shouting, stamping their feet, waving their arms, and hugging each other. The poor girl was gasping for breath.
I raised my voice and decided to go them one better. I said, "I got that old, OLD time religion." Well my friend, it is not possible to describe what happened. I suppose those dear people would have said, "The Holy Ghost came down." When things calmed down just a bit I said, "I got that old time religion that goes all the back to the Apostle Paul. I got that old time religion that tells poor sinners to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and they would be saved for sure. It did not tell them to go to an altar, to either weep or shout, but to believe in Christ Himself." Would you believe, that meeting went dead as a door nail?
God forbids that I should in any way question the sincerity of those people or make fun of them. They were probably just as sincere as I am as I write this defense of the apostolic Gospel. However, they were grossly misrepresenting the Gospel I love. No matter how much we love or pity people, we dare not allow the pearls of grace to be cast before swine whether they are the swine who are thorough-bred in polite society, domestic-grown on the farm next door, or wild pigs right out of the jungle. Anything that takes the focus away from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is not the Gospel.
Before I continue, let me assure you that I believe that emotions should be involved in our religion. I cannot conceive of a man in death row receiving a pardon from the Governor, walking out of the cell with the pardon in his hands, going out through the final gate with his head swimming, looking back at the place from which he had just been released without having tears of joy running down his face. I know that man would experience an emotion of unbelievable joy. However, I think if you met him ten years later, he would still have some of that joy and would exhibit it as he told you about the grace of the Governor who had pardoned him. If emotions are aroused by truth then they can be expressed in any way consistent with where we are. I preach in some churches where they clap their hands and shout for joy. I sometimes clap my hands and shout with them. In churches where such things "simply are not done" then I do not do them. However, I still get a tremendous emotional lift from good music and biblical preaching.
The following day after my "old time religion experience" I was walking past the largest and most beautiful church building I had ever seen. As I stood there in amazement I heard a voice beside me saying, "Would you like to see indeed the church? I said, "Yes, I would." A youth of about twelve took me around back, through the kitchen door and gave me a guided tour. The only place we were not allowed to go was into the pulpit. That was sacred ground. I asked my guide, "Who is the pastor here?" He said, "the what?" "The preacher?" "The what?" Since I was a new Christian I did not know all the different names for preachers (this group used "Rector") so I said, "Who stands up there where we are not allowed to go and preaches on Sunday. The boy straightened up as stiff as an ironing board and said, "The Right Reverend Doctor R. J. Becker." He then relaxed, smiled, and said, "But I call him Daddy." I realized I had the pastor's son as my tour guide. Thinking back on it I thought of that boy standing there as still and rigid as possible and thought, "I'll bet that is exactly the way he pictures God. So far off that He cannot be known." I thought of the amazing difference between that boy and those eight people the night before. There was a contrast of all emotions or no emotions.
I could not finish this message without pressing
on your conscience, "Are you saved?" I am no fanatic who jumps up in
the air and clicks his heels nor do I run the Devil out the window.
However, I also don't think God is so far off that one cannot know and
experience His personal presence. The question is not at all fanatical.
You must face God, are you ready? You must go into judgment, are your
sins forgiven? Jesus is called "the Savior." A Savior saves people.
Have you ever been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ? The Apostle Peter
once preached, "…there is none other name under heaven given among men,
whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). You do not have to be baptized
but you MUST be saved. You do not have to join a church but you MUST be
saved. You do not have to agree with my theological bent but you MUST
be saved. You get saved by "believing on the Lord Jesus Christ."
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