In his book Licensed to Kill (a book about the mortification of sin), author Brian Hedges notes:
One of the reasons some people fail to benefit from their study of Scripture is that they interpret it in gospel-ignoring, Christ-neglecting ways.
Too many never overcome sin because they never benefit from the Bible because they have ignored the reality of the gospel. In other words, the gospel has implications beyond the moment of justification. The gospel informs how one will grow in Christ and live for Christ. And that means we must be careful to articulate the gospel correctly, because a misstatement about the content of the gospel will result in a misapplication of the gospel and a trajectory of life that is incongruous to the gospel.
The gospel is intended to draw us to Christ and change our lives to be like Him. A gospel that ignores that component is both ineffective and perverted.
An example: a young couple comes for counseling. She is distraught over the change in their relationship and particularly her husband, who has transformed dramatically from a tender and affectionate man to one who is cold and distant. Time together is rare and when they are together, it is inevitably contentious. This was not what she imagined life would be like married to a Christian man.
On the other hand, he admits that he has changed for the worse, but sees no problem with it. His wife is too demanding and while he was “nicer” when they were dating and first married, that really wasn’t him — “this is who I am and I just see no reason I should change. After all, God loves me just the way I am…”
A little probing reveals that while the young man has been exposed repeatedly to the gospel since his youth, most of his pastors have articulated belief in God this way: “believing is simply being convinced. It is not a change of heart and a change of lifestyle.” And he has interpreted that to mean that he can believe in Jesus and not have to be concerned about his lifestyle and decisions. The gospel has “gotten me to heaven and that’s all I need.”
Try to communicate a gospel that produces repentance to this man and you will be faced with much resistance: “I already believe that…you don’t need to tell me that…I’ve been saved…I know I’m a Christian…I’m okay, I know God loves me…”
What has happened (and this scenario is quite common) is that the young man has accepted a perversion of the gospel that says the value of the gospel is that it provides justification but nothing else — the gospel gets you to heaven but the gospel has no further implications for how one is to live. And the result is that his “spiritual life” was begun inadequately or ineffectually and thus he has continued on that same trajectory. The gospel that should have produced transformation in his heart has produced no change; he is the same man after Christ that he was before Christ.
This kind of presentation of the gospel is very real. Particularly in the southern United States and in Texas a gospel for salvation from hell but not from sin is perhaps the most commonly communicated gospel. And the tragedy is that while many who defend such a gospel are attempting to preserve a “grace alone” salvation, in the process they have produced a gospel without any transformative power.
A gospel that says that belief in Christ is not a change of heart and a change of lifestyle implies (if not explicitly says) that one can come to Christ for forgiveness without having any desire of leaving sin behind. And the two-fold result of that theology is that if there is no leaving of the sin behind there can be no genuine salvation, since Christ died to redeem us from the penalty and the power of sin and to move us from darkness to light. Secondly, if there is no leaving of sin in the gospel, then there also is no compulsion to leave sin in sanctification. Why should this man repent of his sinful attitudes towards his wife — he has his gospel (he thinks), he has been assured of his salvation, why should he change?
There are definite implications for the gospel to sanctification. However you articulate the gospel will provide the foundation for how you call people to sanctification. A counselor cannot offer a gospel of “free grace” (i.e., no repentance) and then expect be able to call husbands to repentance when they willfully sin against their wives; the gospel he has been selling precludes him from ever calling anyone to repent of sin.
Thus, the way we define the gospel for salvation will be the way we live the gospel in sanctification. Further, a gospel without repentance (a desire to leave sin behind) for salvation will become a gospel without repentance for sanctification. But conversely, a gospel of repentance dependent on God’s grace for salvation (a desire for God to forgive our sins and also free us from the bondage and power of sin) will become a gospel of repentance dependent on God’s grace for salvation.
So be bold with the gospel to those who are unregenerate. And realize that however you communicate that gospel will also be the way in which that person will grow in the gospel. Tell them that yes, God died for our sin, and that means that we are freed both from God’s judgment and from sin’s power. And because of that reality, we are to live in two kinds of freedom — joyful that God is no longer our enemy and joyful that we no longer have to sin.