Since the gospel is the basis and boundary of Christianity, anyone interested in conserving Christianity ought to be interested in conserving the gospel. A cursory glance at church history shows that the gospel has at times gone into near-eclipse, and this while official Christendom remained prominent. Such historical phenomena show that self-identifying with Christianity does not always mean we will do the work of conserving the gospel. Conservative Christian churches must be deliberate in their efforts to understand, defend and propagate the gospel.
The first and primary way to achieve this in a local church is to continually clarify the meaning of the gospel. I have for some time felt that personal evangelism programs and techniques would probably be redundant if church members were thoroughly drilled in the meaning of the gospel. After all, if you are immersed in an understanding of the gospel, you will find natural ways to work it into conversations. People who know what they’re talking about typically like to talk about what they know.
Pastors can produce that kind of atmosphere with sermons which, in natural and appropriate ways, often summarize or re-state the essentials of the gospel. It needn’t only be in the final words of application. Our sermons can have an evangelistic heart, amidst material meant for Christian discipleship. At the same time, sermon series on the gospel are important. Enough nominal Christian debris exists in the minds of most churchgoers that a fairly regular consideration of the meaning of the gospel can be useful. Here one can take the time to unpack the key texts, consider which doctrines are essential to the gospel, and spend time exclusively tackling the topic of the gospel.
I am also in favor of devoting an entire service to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. With the attention riveted on the Lord’s atonement, there can hardly be a better opportunity to clarify and explain the meaning of the gospel. Well-chosen hymns and songs can preach and explain the gospel in arresting ways. Often one line in a hymn grips the imagination and teaches the essence of the gospel better than many discursive paragraphs could.
Though some may balk at the use of creeds in church, creeds like the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed helpfully state the doctrines essential to the gospel. Whether you read them in a corporate service, or make a study of them in a Bible study, these help the church to understand what constitutes the gospel. (And not merely a parochial 21st-century take on the gospel, but the historic, universal gospel.) The church’s own statement of faith can also become a useful teaching tool.
Along with teaching on the gospel, some teaching on the nature and effects of conversion is equally important. Here a book like 1 John becomes so vital, with its insistence that eternal life has a very present-tense dimension. Teaching through this book will certainly challenge people’s understanding of what the gospel is, and what it does.
A final practical way of encouraging a clear understanding of the gospel within the local church is to require that prospective members or baptismal candidates be able to explain the gospel. When we require a testimony of salvation, we must beware lest we allow the subjective account of personal conversion to drown out the person’s objective profession of the gospel itself. Both are necessary; I fear we who speak often of “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” have perhaps erred on the subjective side.
Understanding the gospel is crucial, but conserving it requires more than that. Churches must also be committed to it in deed, and prepared to defend it. It’s to that we turn next.