The Place of the Gospel

“I declare unto you the gospel…by which ye are saved if you keep in memory what I have preached unto you.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

What is the difference between Primitive Baptists and other Baptists?” I’m sure that like me, a number of you have heard this question several times through the years. Early in my experience, I tended to answer the question in terms of church “practice”. These days, however, I frame the distinction in theological terms: “The Primitive Baptist view of the utility and purpose of the gospel is the primary distinguishing feature between them and other groups. Unlike many other Christians who believe that the gospel is the means of eternal salvation, we believe that the gospel is the instrument of discipleship, not sonship.”

This practice of distinguishing between sonship and discipleship—between union and communion, or relationship and fellowship—is the indubitable hallmark of Primitive Baptist doctrine. It makes for consistency in Biblical interpretation, allowing the Bible student to reconcile apparently contradictory affirmations of fact. To discount the discipline of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) is to confound reason. The very fact that Scripture testifies in one place that salvation does not depend on what man does (2 Tim. 1:9) and in another that it does depend on what man does (1 Tim. 4:16) argues for the need to distinguish between eternal salvation (i.e. deliverance with eternal consequence) and time salvation (i.e. deliverances that do not have eternal consequence).

Now the Bible teaches that regeneration—that is, the quickening of sinners who are dead in trespasses and sins—is an immediate work. That means that it occurs without the use of media, or instrumentality. The one and only Mediator of eternal salvation is the Lord Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:5). According to John 5:25, Christ speaks directly to the unregenerate heart, not by means of the preacher, soul winner, personal worker, brother, sister, neighbor, or friend: “The hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.”

Just as His creative fiat (or command) spoke the universe into existence in the morning of time (Ps. 33:6), so His Divine imperative creates spiritual life in the soul of His elect (1 Pet. 1:23). He employs no “external means of grace” such as the word or sacrament in communicating life to the dead. The gospel is not the instrument by which sinners are born again, for “the preaching of the cross is unto them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18; cf. 2:14).

But though the gospel is not the means of regeneration, it is instrumental in discipleship. In fact, apart from exposure to, and understanding and implementation of the gospel message, the heaven-born soul will not grow in grace or progress in holiness. So while the gospel is not the instrument in the impartation of spiritual life (2 Tim. 1:9), it is the instrument that illuminates and manifests that life (2 Tim. 1:10). The manifestation and progress of that life, consequently, does not occur automatically with regeneration, but depends on gospel instrumentality.

Let’s consider the importance of the gospel to the life of Christian discipleship. The Bible emphasizes at least four areas in which the instrumentality of the gospel is crucial to Christian living. First, the gospel is the means of…

Believing in Jesus Christ
Consider the language of the Lord Jesus in John 17:20: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.” In terms that cannot be mistaken, our Lord indicates that belief in Him – an informed gospel faith, if you please – comes by means of the preached word.

Paul confirms this truth in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “Who then is Paul, or who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” Again, it is clear that the Corinthian’s belief came by means of the ministry of the word. Apart from that word, there would be no gospel church at Corinth confessing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In John 14:1, Jesus distinguishes between what we might call the grace of faith and an evangelical, or gospel, faith: “Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” Of course, God gives to every one of his elect the grace of faith, that is, a God-ward impulse below the level of consciousness, in regeneration (Rom. 12:3). Every born again person, therefore, believes in God. Note that the first clause in John 14:1 is a declarative statement. The second clause, however, is an imperative statement: “…believe also in me”. This antecedent faith that is imparted to the soul in the new birth needs to be informed and drawn out by the gospel (see Rom. 10:17 where the verb “cometh” means “to come forth”, not “to come into existence”). According to John 14:1, the gift of faith needs gospel information before a person may believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Further, John 20:31 teaches that belief in Christ comes through the word: “…but these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through His name.” The verse plainly indicates that believing in Jesus as the Son of God comes by means of the things that are “written”. The purpose of the gospel, therefore, might be defined as follows: The gospel is the means by which a regenerate individual is brought to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Repentance and Conversion
Secondly, the gospel is the instrument of repentance and conversion. Repentance and conversion do not occur automatically at regeneration, but depend upon exposure and response to the gospel.

In 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of their early Christian experience: “For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Ths. 1:9). They turned both from idols (repentance) and to God (conversion). It was a remarkable reversal of direction.

It is important to notice, however, why they made such a radical shift in paradigms: “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power…And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word…” (vs. 5a, 6a). It was Paul’s preaching of the gospel—his “entering in unto” them—that proved instrumental in their repentance and conversion to true worship.

Practical Sanctification
Thirdly, the gospel is instrumental in practical sanctification, or daily growth in grace. Just as physical growth and development depends on proper nutrition and where such is lacking, growth is stunted, so spiritual growth and progress in holiness depends on the external means of the word.

Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (Jno. 17:17). Obviously, if language means anything, this verse indicates that sanctification (contextually the sense is separation from the world) occurs by means of God’s word.

Peter taught that it is through the “sincere milk of the word” that the newborn babe in Christ “grows” (1 Pet. 2:2). Practical sanctification, that is, daily growth in grace, then, is not guaranteed as a Divine decree. It is significant that Paul does not list practical sanctification among the five certainties of Romans 8:29. To claim that every heir of grace will grow in grace compels one to concede that every heir of grace will hear and obey the gospel, for Scripture asserts that growth in grace is by means of, exposure to, and implementation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Philippians 1:6 is frequently employed to teach that every regenerate person will be automatically and progressively sanctified: “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” But the verb epiteleo translated “will perform” does not mean “will continue to work”, but literally “will bring to completion”. The same root verb (telos) is translated “finished” in John 19:30: “It is finished”. Did the Lord Jesus intend to suggest by that statement that the work of redemption would continue, or that it was completed? Obviously, he intended the latter. Similarly, “will perform” does not mean “will continue” but “will complete”. Philippians 1:6, then, is an eternal security text, not a text to argue for the Reformed idea that every truly regenerate person will persevere in faith and holiness. Paul is simply affirming that the God who quickened them into Divine life will finish the work by giving them glorified bodies to match their regenerate souls when Jesus Christ comes again.  

Temporal Salvation
Finally, the gospel is instrumental in delivering God’s children from error to the truth, despair to hope, temptation to victory, worldliness to godliness, and fear to trust in God. The New Testament calls such deliverances “salvation”. Primitive Baptists characteristically refer to those verses that use the verb “to save” in this sense as “time salvation”. This expression is not employed to speak of an aspect of eternal salvation that occurs in time (e. g. redemption, regeneration), but of deliverances that God’s people experience that have only temporal, not eternal, ramifications.

First Corinthians 15:1-2 uses the verb “to save” in this temporal and conditional sense: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved if ye keep in memory what I have preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” The “salvation” in this verse is unquestionably conditional. It is not guaranteed to all the elect; rather, it is contingent on their retention of the gospel message.

Further, this salvation is by means of the gospel, indicating that only those who have access to the gospel enjoy and experience this deliverance. Apart from the instrumentality of the gospel message, therefore, and a cognitive retention of that glorious message, an individual will not experience this “salvation”.

Do all of God’s elect people hear and receive the gospel—that is to say, do they all embrace the good news of Jesus Christ and Him crucified? Obviously, Lot was a child of God (cf. 2 Pet. 2:7-8), as were numerous people mentioned in the Old Testament, but they did not hear the proclamation of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, for Mark 1:1 speaks of “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”.  

The fact is that the New Testament word “gospel” ordinarily speaks of a message consisting of very well-defined, cognitive truths, the content of which is the Person and Work of Christ (1 Cor. 1:23a; 2:2). It is a propositional message, i.e. an idea proposed to another for consideration, appealing to the minds of men, not some mystical communication that bypasses the intellect. Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” and “opened and alleged that Jesus is the Christ”—both of which expressions suggest the communication of propositional truth.

Anything short of the message declaring that Christ finished the work of redemption, that He is a successful Savior, and that salvation is by grace alone, is not the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, those sincere Christian people who embrace general atonement and a free-will system of eternal salvation do not believe the gospel of Christ, but a different “gospel” (cf. Gal. 1:6-7). Does that indicate that they are not among God’s children? No. It does mean, however, that they do not enjoy gospel salvation. The freedom and peace enjoyed by those who hear and know the good news of Christ and Him crucified is a benefit enjoyed by only some of God’s children here.

How that privilege, then, should prompt us to want to save some by circulating this glorious gospel! Paul’s great longing was that his kindred might experience the same kind of gospel deliverance from ignorance to truth that he had experienced (Rom. 10:1). May his “heart’s desire” be ours as well.

The foregoing passages of Scripture indicate that Christian discipleship depends on the use of gospel means. Again, sonship, i.e. eternal salvation, does not depend on the use of external means or instruments. God works directly and immediately in making a person one of His children.

If, then, sonship is immediate but discipleship is mediated by the gospel, can we not conclude that the new birth does not automatically guarantee that a person will believe in Jesus Christ (for, as the texts indicate, belief in Jesus Christ comes by means of the gospel), repent and be converted, grow toward spiritual maturity, or enjoy the gospel benefits of deliverance from error? 

How important, then, is the gospel! It is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). May we never be guilty of either overstating the importance of the gospel by making it the instrument of eternal life, or of minimizing its importance by the suggestion that belief in Christ, repentance, and spiritual growth automatically occur as a result of regeneration.