What do we mean by ‘gospel work’ and what is the gospel? Points from a robust discussion

I got into a bit of a discussion on Twitter last night. It was in response to my latest blog post, which you can read here. The main point of that article was to tackle the oft-cited view that we should target the influential and significant in our evangelism. It just so happened that the vehicle upon which I placed that point was a comment from a friend about rural ministry. I, as a side issue, noted a view about rural ministry. One or two people in rural ministry mistook this for the entire point of the post. Not that I don’t stand by my view of rural ministry there – and it should be taken as the mere opinion it is, not a conscience-binding scriptural imperative – it just wasn’t the main issue.

I thought I would share some of that discussion because there are two points I wanted to pick up on. So, here are some edited highlights:

These should give you the gist. I wanted to spend a bit of time exploring why the conversation went this way. I think there are two reasons.

First, we were talking at cross purposes about the work of the church. My interlocutor made it clear that she believed much was going on in these villages because ‘God is at work out there in the community, calling people we don’t yet know about’. Essentially, she was arguing, gospel work was happening because God was working supernaturally even if we couldn’t perceive it and weren’t seeing any obvious fruit.

Now, I don’t think any Bible-believing Christian would doubt that. Of course, God is working, often without reference to us and even when we aren’t seeing great fruit for the kingdom. But that wasn’t essentially what we were talking about when we say that no gospel work was going on. The reason that should have been obvious is because the work of God she referred to would be happening in equal measure if there was no church in those villages at all. The Spirit blows where he wills whether there is a church in the vicinity or not. God can be working to call a people to himself in that way whether we are there or not.

What we were talking about was not what God was doing without any reference to the church – work he could be doing whether a church exists in that place or not – but rather what God was doing in and through the church. That was what prompted my answer of ‘not much’ in those villages. Although we believe in a God who can work without reference to us, and who alone does draw people to himself, we also believe in a God who sovereignly works through means.

That is why Paul says, ‘How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?’ (Rom 10:14f). In the ordinary course of things, Paul expected the need for active gospel work by the people of God to take place if anyone is to be saved. That in no way undercuts Paul’s theology of God’s sovereignty nor the view that it is the Lord alone who calls and saves; I believe in irresistible grace too. But, like Paul, I believe God works through means. If the church is not actively proclaiming the gospel, even though God may be working in the local community to draw people to himself as yet unknown, Paul’s question is, how will they hear and thus respond?

The second point of difficulty in the conversation – though I must admit this is more of a suspicion than something coming clearly out of our brief conversation – is a different understanding of what the gospel actually is and, to a lesser extent, how it goes out. Knowing the four villages we were talking about as I do, I am aware that they have small Church of England buildings in their midst. But I suspect our different views of what the gospel actually is and how it is proclaimed caused the problem here.

Without denigrating any of these particular things, I do not think that ‘doing good’ is, of itself, the gospel. I do not think holding church services is the gospel. I do not think praying for the local community is the gospel. I do not think reading scriptures or running through the format of the prayer book is the gospel. I do not think rolling off the creeds on a Sunday is the gospel. I do not think sermons are the gospel. Most of these are great things, but all can be done without any reference to the gospel at all. Doing them, of themselves, is neither the gospel itself nor to necessarily proclaim the gospel.

The gospel, essentially, is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We are separated from God because of our sin and through it we stand under God’s righteous judgement. Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection obeyed the demands of the law that we couldn’t, died the death that we deserved to die in our place and rose again for our justification showing that the Father vindicated his sacrifice on our behalf. Now, all who repent of their sin and believe by faith in Jesus may have a restored relationship with God, receive eternal life and enjoy him forever. That, dear friends, is the gospel.

To press on from that, gospel work is anything that actively makes that message known. It, at some point, necessarily involved telling people about their lost estate, telling people about sin and judgement and telling them about the offer of salvation found only in Christ. God, in his sovereignty, has ordained the church to be his heralds in the world so that he might work in and through them to grow his people to maturity and save a people for himself. God remains sovereign in gospel work – we can only proclaim while the Lord must empower his people to go and is the only one able to effect hearts and draw people to himself – but it does require us to go. We go when the Lord sovereignly moves us to go in the power of his Spirit. Nonetheless, go and proclaim we must. That is the Great Commission (along with a bunch of other bits of scripture saying the same).

When I said not much was going on, this was what I was talking about. In my view, there is not much of that happening in those villages. Little was happening to proclaim the truth of the gospel that involves God’s people sovereignly going and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have never heard of him. I have no doubt there are services taking place and no doubt some good works are being done. But these are not the gospel and are not, in essence, gospel works. They could be gospel works but only if they are carried out with the expressed aim of intentionally sharing the gospel message, in some measure, with those who come.

I think it was those two things that led to our crossed wires. It also means, when we are talking about planting churches and doing gospel work in an area, we need to be clear on what we are talking about. If there is no active proclamation of the gospel and there is no effort by the church to do as Christ commanded and take the gospel out to the world – a functional hyper-Calvinism or an ingrained apathy with a hand-waving justification that God is sovereign – then we can rightly say there is no gospel work in that area and to suggest a church plant would seem entirely right.