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Biblical Priorities For the Life of the Church (7) – The Biblical Gospel

The Lord’s Day Morning

January 14, 2007

I Corinthians 15:1-4

“The Biblical Gospel”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

We’re continuing our series in which we are studying the biblical priorities for the life of our church, and we’ve been asking throughout this series what are the qualities, what are the marks, what are the things that characterize a healthy local church?

Now, our desire is not simply to sort of spell out the things that we are most interested in having in our local church, nor to pat ourselves on the back for having these things while other local churches don’t have these things, but our main concern is to know what it is that God says characterizes a healthy local congregation as revealed in His word, and then to ask ourselves the question, “Do these things characterize us? To what extent does this characterize this local fellowship of believers? Is this an area we need to grow in, given that God in His word says that this ought to characterize a local, healthy, thriving congregation of believers of the Lord Jesus Christ assembled as a local church?”

Now we’ve seen six things so far that the Bible says are characteristic of a healthy local congregation.

We started off by saying that a healthy local church understands the times. Believers throughout the Bible are called upon to understand the times that they’re in. That’s so important, because we are called to be godly, not worldly; but if we don’t understand the times, we won’t even understand the way worldliness is impacting us in our own day and time–so how can we walk distinct from the world, how can we be in the world and not of it, if we don’t understand how worldliness operates in our own time?

So at the very beginning we said that a healthy local congregation of believers is going to have an understanding of the times, and we talked about how individualism and relativism and consumerism permeate our culture and even affect Christians and local churches. Local churches and Christians are both unhelpfully influenced in various ways by individualism and relativism and consumerism, and so one thing a healthy church is going to do is recognize the way that worldliness is manifesting itself in its own specific time, so that we can be in the world and not of it, so that we can be in the world ministering in the world, showing love to the people of the world, without buying into the dominant worldview of the people that we’re ministering to, and loving, and showing mercy to, and serving. We want to love the world, in other words, without loving the world. We want to show the love of Christ to everyone without buying into their way of looking at life, and to do that, you have to know something about the times.

But of course, even more than that, you have to understand the word, and so that led us to the second thing that we commented on: that according to the Scriptures, a healthy local church is a local church filled with believers who understand the Bible-importance of the preached word of God. And one of the reasons that we are committed to expository Bible preaching and teaching, and one of the reasons that as a congregation you are committed to the importance of hearing the word of God as it’s preached from the word of God, is because it is absolutely essential to spiritual health that believers attend to that means of grace. So every healthy local church of whatever kind or stripe or variety, if it’s a biblical church it’s going to be committed to the expounding of God’s word, to the explanation of God’s word, to the application of God’s word to the lives of believers. And so we spent some time thinking about what is the mark of biblical preaching, and how do you listen with profit to the Bible preached.

Thirdly, we talked about worship, and we said how important worship was to the health of the local church, and we meant that in at least two ways, because there are two ways you can worship God.

You can worship God in all of life. We are called to glorify and enjoy Him in every part of life, all the time. That’s one biblical definition of worship. But we’re also called to gather together on His day with fellow believers and to give Him the glory due His name. That broader sense of worship (worship in all of life) and that narrower sense of worship (gathered worship) in which we come to praise God, both of those aspects of worship are vital to the health of the local church. If a church does not worship God in all of life, then their praise — no matter now exalted the music may be, no matter how passionate the congregation may be when it gathers to worship God — if that congregation is not worshiping God in all of life, it will be empty worship. It will be vain. It will be formal. It will be appearing on the outside as glorious while it’s empty on the inside. And so worship in all of life is vital to worshiping God truly, and in spirit, when we gather together. And so we talked about the importance of worship, and we said that it was a mark of a healthy local church. In fact, we said that a healthy church is filled with believers who, by God’s grace, have a passion for worship not only in all of life, but in gathered praise. They can’t wait to gather with the saints to praise the living God, but they also love to glorify God in all of life.

Fourthly, we talked about doctrine, and we said that a fourth quality of a healthy local church is that there is an understanding of the importance of truth in the Christian life: there is a delight in that truth, and there is a recognition that that truth is for the purpose of discipleship. And so in a healthy local church, we said there is not simply a concern to know about doctrine; there is a delight in doctrine that leads to discipleship, if we can use those three “D’s”…delight in doctrine that leads to discipleship.

In other words, we don’t simply delight in knowing stuff that other people don’t know, so that we can feel smart when we’re around people that don’t know the doctrines that we know. We know that those doctrines are meant to humble us; they’re meant to help us; they’re meant to comfort us; they’re meant to grow us. In other words, those doctrines, those truths, those teachings that we’re learning from Scripture are designed to transform us! Not so that we’ll be prideful and walk around looking down our noses at people who don’t know as much as we do, but so that we’ll be humble and so that we’ll be assured, and so that we’ll be joyful and loving and more Christ-like. And so a healthy local church is characterized by believers who delight in doctrine for discipleship.

We know that truth is for godliness, and therefore we delight to learn the truth…not just so that we’re smarter, although we do hope we’re smarter in the things of God, after we’ve studied the word of God, but so that God will change us and that we’ll be more godly, more Christ-like, more loving of God and of our neighbor. And so we talked about the importance of truth, and we said that’s especially important in our day and age, where truth is at a discount. Everywhere around us, and even in the churches, there are people who are telling us ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth. You have to make it up as you go along. Life is not black and white, it’s just gray, and you have to make your own way out.’ And we said, “No, no, no! God has given us absolute truth, and that absolute truth is absolutely important for a life of faith, for practice, for discipleship, for growth.”

Fifthly, we said, “What ought to characterize a congregation of believers?” and we said we could give a one-word answer to that, and the answer is godliness.

So, a local church is not only characterized by understanding the times, by faithful Bible preaching, by Christ-exalting worship in all of life and in gathered praise, by a concern for truth that leads to godliness, but a healthy local church is also characterized by godliness.

By godliness we mean a loving but reverent awe of God, and an awe of God that leads us to be world-denying and world-serving. And we talked about the importance of godliness and the meaning of godliness, and the impossibility of godliness apart from the grace of God.

And then last week when we were together, we talked about that important question of “How, then, do you convey this godliness to the whole congregation of the next generation?” And we basically had a two part answer: Biblical family life, and the ordinary means of grace.

The way that you convey that godliness to the whole congregation in the next generation is in families and under the means of grace in the local church. And we talked especially about the vital role of family, where Christian life is nurtured by parents who love the Lord and who recognize the importance of gathering with the saints for the nurture of their children and for the whole congregation. In fact, we said there were five things that would revolutionize our nurture of covenant children, if we would put them into practice. We said sitting together at church; loving the Lord’s Day (so that mothers and fathers look to the Lord’s Day not with dread or with apathy, but with delight, and convey that delight to their children); and, thirdly, attending evening worship, because the whole day is the Lord’s and we want to fellowship with the Lord the whole day, and what better way to do that than to begin and end that day in worship of the living God?

And, fourthly, using and memorizing the Catechisms

Well, today we come to the seventh in this series of messages, and to a new topic, and our topic today is vital. In fact, this topic is absolutely essential. The issue that we are going to study today is, ultimately speaking, the only essential question in the world.

And we can ask that question in different ways. We could ask the question, “What in the world is the church supposed to believe? What is absolutely essential for the church to believe?” And the answer is, “The gospel.”

Or I could ask that question a different way…maybe even a better way. I could ask the question, “What in the world is the power that creates the church and grows the church?” and the answer is the same. The answer is, “The gospel.” And so that’s going to be our topic today: “The Gospel.”

Now, let’s look to God’s word in I Corinthians 15, and listen to the Apostle Paul’s outline of the gospel. Before we do it, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Open our eyes to see the gospel, to know the gospel, to understand the gospel, to embrace the gospel, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God’s word:

“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. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The gospel is absolutely essential for a healthy local church. The gospel is absolutely essential to the Christian life. The gospel is absolutely essential if we are going to enjoy everlasting fellowship with God…for which we were created, for which we were made. If we are going to glorify and enjoy God forever, it’s going to depend upon the gospel, and therefore the study of the gospel is the most essential–the only essential–issue in all of life. It is the one needful thing, and we’re going to begin today thinking together about the gospel, because a healthy local congregation of Christians is passionate about the gospel, understands the gospel, is committed to sharing the gospel; and yet, there is great confusion about the gospel in our day and time.

There are many, many Christians who don’t seem to understand the gospel. There are many, many preachers who don’t seem to preach the gospel. And so we need to go back to the basics and think for a few moments about what the gospel is, and to begin we’re going to start in the Old Testament. Turn with me to Isaiah 52:7, because when Jesus comes in the very beginning of the gospel accounts that we’re given (like in Mark 1, or in John 1, or in Matthew) and He begins to preach what is called the gospel, that word was not new to His first Jewish hearers. They understood that word, because it’s an Old Testament word. Turn with me to Isaiah 52:7. Listen to what Isaiah says:

“How lovely on the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news…”

[now that’s the Old Testament term for what the New Testament will most frequently–some 60 times or more–call the gospel. Now listen what he goes on to say…]

“…the feet of him who brings good news,

Who announces peace…” [that’s the Old Testament word shalom]

And brings good news of happiness,

Who announces salvation

And says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

Now, did you notice that Old Testament presentation of the gospel? It’s good news about the reign of the Lord, who brings peace, blessedness, and salvation. It’s Isaiah’s presentation of the good news about the Lord who reigns and who brings peace, blessedness, and salvation; so when Jesus comes along and says ‘I am here to declare the gospel’, He is declaring that which God brings in His lordship: peace, and blessedness, and salvation.

And in the New Testament that content of the gospel is specific and objective and sufficient. Jesus proclaims this gospel, but after Jesus is crucified, dead, buried, raised again on the third day and ascends into heaven, the gospel proclaimed by the apostles focuses on Jesus; so He both proclaims the gospel and He Himself is the focus of the gospel. And in the New Testament it’s made very clear that Jesus’ death and burial and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins is at the very heart of the gospel. Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul is saying in I Corinthians 15? He’s saying ‘Friends, I want to say again to you the gospel. I want to summarize again to you the gospel that I preached to you. This gospel which you received, by which you stand, by which you are saved, is [look at verse 3] that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and was buried and raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ There’s the Apostle Paul’s summary of the gospel.

Now, the New Testament gives us various summaries of the gospel. Romans 1:1-17 gives us one of Paul’s summarizations of the gospel. The sermons that Luke records in the Book of Acts by both Peter and Paul give us summaries of the gospel. But in all of those summaries of the gospel, you will find repeated that the gospel is the glad tidings, or the good news, of God’s redeeming0830833455 lordship in the person and work of Christ, especially in His death, burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.

And so this morning I simply want to remind you of three things: what the gospel is about; what the gospel is in answer to; and, what the gospel is a summons to…what the gospel is about, what the gospel is in answer to, and what the gospel calls you to (or summons you to).

I. What the gospel is about.

First of all, the gospel is about God and the gospel is about Christ. When the Apostle Paul (and you may want to turn and take a peek in Acts 17:24-27)…when the Apostle Paul is preaching on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, and he begins to preach the gospel to these pagan Greeks, he begins with God. He begins that God created us, that God is everywhere, that God made us for Himself. And you understand that that is not a mistake. The gospel is ultimately about God. In Romans 1:1, the Apostle Paul himself has called it “the gospel of God.” The gospel is about God.

That is vitally important that we understand, because there are many people who are gravely mistaken about this today. They think that the gospel is about “me.” The gospel is not about me or you: it’s about God. It’s good news about God, about who He is and what He has done for us, about His initiative in salvation. It’s not about me, it’s about God. Now, it entails glorious blessings for me and for a multitude that no man can number, but it starts with God. It’s a declaration about God, not about me. And Paul makes that clear in Acts 17.

But the gospel is also about Christ. It’s especially about Christ. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul make that clear here in I Corinthians 15, especially in verses 3 and 4? He makes it clear that when he’s going to reduce the gospel to its absolutely essential content–he’s going to give you the irreducible substance of the gospel–what does it involve? That Christ died for our sins and was buried and raised according to the Scriptures. So, the gospel is about Christ [His person…He is the Messiah]; He died [His work] for our sins.

The gospel is set in the context of our need for forgiveness. Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. The gospel is about the fulfillment of God’s words of promise, and Christ was buried, He was truly incarnate and raised again from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is always a part of authentic gospel proclamation. Christianity that says that Christ’s resurrection doesn’t matter isn’t Christianity. So there’s the Apostle Paul saying you can’t exclude any of these components from what the essence of the gospel is.

Now, friends, I want to ask you a question. If somebody came to you and said, “I’m dying. Could you tell me the gospel in a minute?” how would you do it? It’s very important for you to understand there is not just one way to summarize the gospel. The Apostle Paul himself will summarize it in different ways, but there are more wrong ways to summarize the gospel than there are right ways. One of the things that we need to learn is to summarize the gospel faithfully. It will help us. If we’re going to be a church passionate about the gospel, growing in the gospel, about the business of the gospel, we need to be able to summarize the gospel quickly, helpfully, biblically. And that’s what the Apostle Paul is doing for us in this passage, but above all we see that the gospel is about God, and the gospel is about Christ. It’s no wonder, is it, that in the New Testament the gospel is called the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the grace of God, the glorious gospel…it’s about God! His glory, His grace! It’s about Christ–His salvation!

So that’s what the gospel is about. But what is the gospel in answer to?


II. What the gospel is in answer to.

Well, again the Apostle Paul has already told you (I Corinthians 15). Why did Christ die? Three words: for our sins. The gospel makes no sense, the good news makes no sense, unless you understand the bad news. And the bad news is first: our sin. The gospel is in answer to sin. Our sin. And it is an answer to God’s judgment.

What is one of the first verses we memorize as children in Sunday School, at home, or in Vacation Bible School? It’s John 3:16. And what does John 3:16 say?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him…”

[what are the next words?]

“Shall not perish.”

What’s that verse about? It’s about the judgment of God for sin. Perish for what? For sin. It’s about the judgment of God. And the gospel is in answer to our sin and to the just judgment of God.

III. What the gospel summons us to.

But the gospel also summons us to faith and repentance. The gospel calls on us to believe God, to believe on Jesus Christ, to receive Him, to embrace His person and His work. It calls us, in other words, to exercise faith; and, it calls us to repent–to turn from our sin and to God. The gospel always entails a summons — a call, an exhortation — to us to have faith and to repent.


IV. The gospel can be ruined.

Now, my friends, the sad thing is that the gospel can be ruined. The gospel can be ruined by substitution. You know, some people think they’re preaching the gospel when they’re not. Some people think “your best life now” is the gospel. But that’s not the gospel. Some people say “I don’t want to talk about sin. People aren’t interested in talking about sin.” Then you can’t talk about the gospel.

No, the gospel has specific content. It’s rooted in an announcement about God, about Christ, about His person, about His work in response to our need, which is ultimately and irreducibly the need for the forgiveness of sin. And the biblical gospel always answers to that.

The gospel can be spoiled by addition, as well. You know, whenever you add to the gospel you take away from it. Christ plus anything else is not the gospel, because the gospel is sufficient. The work of Christ is sufficient. And if I say you will be saved by Christ plus anything else, I have just ruined the gospel by addition.

The gospel can be spoiled by disproportion. We can focus on many, many good things in the life of the church, but if our focus on those things is to the detriment of our appropriate focus on the gospel, the gospel can be spoiled by disproportion–replacing the best with the good; focusing on the less important, rather than the more important; focusing on the lesser things rather than the weightier things.

And of course the gospel can be ruined by confusion…people who mix the gospel up with other things and thus confuse the people as to what the gospel is.

My friends, if we’re going to be a gospel church we need to understand the gospel and embrace the gospel, and we need to be able to speak the gospel and explain the gospel. Let’s commit to doing that together. We’ll come back to the gospel again.

But now, let’s prepare to come to the gospel table. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for the truth. Thank You for the gospel. Grant that we would know it and believe it, and embrace it and live it, in Jesus’ name.


Let’s take our hymnals in hand and turn to No. 247, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.

[Congregation sings.]

Please be seated.

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper


As we come to the Lord’s table today, let’s give our attention to the words of institution of this ordinance, this sacrament, spoken to us from the Apostle Paul as he was instructed by the Lord Jesus Christ:

“For this I received from the Lord, that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly.”

Amen. This is God’s word.

The Apostle Paul in this passage makes it clear to us that this table is a gospel table. It is a table for all those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. It is a table to remind them of the gospel. This is why they are to do this “in remembrance” of Him. It is a table which proclaims the central event of the gospel: the death of the Lord on the cross. This is why Jesus told the Apostle Paul that in coming to this table you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes.

It’s a table for assurance, because believers are sinners, and we need grace today as surely as the first day that we came to know Jesus Christ. And this gospel meal is meant to remind us of the provision of God, of that grace through His own dear Son.

And so from beginning to end, this is a gospel table. So, if you have not embraced the gospel, don’t come to this table. If you haven’t trusted in Christ, don’t come to the table. If you haven’t been united to the body of the Lord’s people, don’t come to the table. No, wait, and reflect and meditate, and repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. And then when we gather again for this gospel meal, come as a brother or a sister of ours, of Christ’s, and feast on the gospel which has saved your life.

Let’s now pray and set aside these common elements for a holy use.

[The Reverend Brad Mercer:] Almighty God, heavenly Father, in Your tender mercy You gave Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to suffer death on a cross for our redemption. And so, responding to Your call and Your command, we gather at Your table today. Make these common elements to serve as Your means of grace to us, Your people; and grant that we would receive them by faith, and so taste of heavenly mercies bestowed by the Spirit, until that day when we hunger and thirst no more, and sit with the Lord Jesus at His heavenly feast. In His name we pray, Amen.

Let us affirm together the truth upon which we stand, using The Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

Born of the virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He rose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven,

And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church;

The communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins;

The resurrection of the body;

And the life everlasting.


You’ll find on the back of the bulletin there before you The Ten Commandments, and we’ll recite these together, again remembering that the Law convicts us of our sins — shows us our sin — but it also points us, leads us, drives us, to the Lord Jesus Christ.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not worship them or serve them.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet.

[Dr. Duncan:] Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and He broke it and He gave it to His disciples, as I now ministering in His name, give it to you. And He said to them,

“This is My body, which is given for you. Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

[Bread served]

[Reverend Mercer:] After the same manner, He also took the cup, and having given thanks, He gave it to His disciples, saying,

“This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Drink from it, all of you.”

[Wine served]

Pray with me.

Lord God, once again we thank You and we praise You for Your grace and mercy. We thank You that we have been privileged to come again to Your table. We remember that many who once sat here now sit in mansions of glory, and we praise You for them. We praise You for their remembrance, for their lives. We pray that You would give us grace by Your Spirit; that You’d protect us from the evil one; that You’d make us to be faithful to the vows that we made when we first communed with Your church. Give us grace to walk with the Savior and His people in unity and truth. Receive our thanks and our praise, and our worship. We pray that You would be glorified, and we pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let us now stand and sing together, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. We’ll sing stanzas 1 through 3, and we’ll stand as we sing.

[Congregation sings.]

[Dr. Duncan:] Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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