The Christian Church in every generation has to find timely words in which to express the timeless message of the gospel - God's good news to the human race.
The apostle Paul could state, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1.16 NIV). He goes on to say, "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.' The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…" (vv. 17-18).
God's revelation of himself and his action in Christ to provide salvation are as valid and relevant as ever. They constitute the good news.
Historically, there have, of course, been some different understandings of the gospel. The Calvinist-Arminian debate, for example, has focussed on the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human free-will in salvation. Both sides of that debate have endeavoured to be faithful to Biblical truth, believing that to depart from it is to have no valid gospel at all.
The Church of today feels the enticement and pressure of prevailing opinion to ignore revelation and to adjust the message to the political correctness of our time. The temptation has been to abandon the timeless message and to use "God-words" - Biblical content without Biblical context or meaning - to offer a message which is no longer that gospel in which the Church from earliest times has had complete confidence.
In its original secular setting, the Greek word charis (grace) is "what delights". In later Hellenism it became a term to refer to demonstrations of a ruler's favour and to his "gracious disposition". In the LXX it most often translated the Hebrew word chen meaning "charm, grace" - first found in reference to Noah (Gen. 6.8). Chen was used very broadly - in only a few of the 69 cases did it specifically refer to the Lord who "bestows favour and honour" (Ps. 84.11).
When we come to the New Testament, charis is used overwhelmingly in expounding the nature of the salvation event. Because of the nature of sin and its dire consequences, "grace" is the unmerited favour of God towards sinners. It has become a special word speaking of God's love in action.
(It is striking that, in 1611 when the King James Version was completed, the word "charity" was used for agape in 1 Corinthians 13 - a recognition of the warm and sacrificial self-giving of Christian life, rather than the impersonal, remote "cold-as-charity" implication the word can have for us today.)
In the New Testament God's grace is understood against the backdrop of human sin and God's wrath (note Romans 1.16-18 above). The penalty of disobedience is death, Adam and Eve were told - "you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen. 2.15-17). In fact, physical death didn't occur until many years later. Spiritual death - a break-down in their relationship with the Creator - did happen instantly. But it is at this very point that we begin to see the operation of divine grace. "The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (3.21). An animal sacrifice by God himself made a covering for their guilt and shame.
Later in the Old Testament in the life of the Hebrew people, we see a very complex sacrificial system - all emphasising the seriousness of human sin, our need for God's grace in forgiveness and the cost of forgiveness. No sacrifice offered was final and complete. All needed to be repeated at regular intervals. Grace wasn't cheap.
As the emphasis on grace comes over into the New Testament, the final and complete sacrifice has now been offered in the death of Jesus Christ - an offering made once-for-all (hapax and ephapax are favourite phrases in Hebrews - 7.27; 9.12,26,28; 10.10).
Responding to Grace
Jesus made it clear to his disciples that "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24.47) - not just to Jews. On the day of Pentecost, a largely Jewish audience was called to "repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (2.38).
In Paul's letters strong emphasis is placed on the faith that receives the final and complete work of divine grace in Christ. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2.8-10).
John 3.16 has been called the "gospel in a nutshell" - "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
Here we note that God loves the whole world - his love is totally inclusive. No one is outside the ambit of his love. No one is excluded from the intention of his redemptive activity. Paul insists, for example, that Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5.14-15). Yet there is a clear exclusion clause in God's inclusive offer of grace - "that whoever believes in him…" (John 3.16). "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…" (2 Corinthians 5.17).
Philosopher Bertrand Russell asserted that "There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that he believed in hell" (Why I am not a Christian, 22-24). Russell, an agnostic, believed that modern science had dispelled religious myths such as heaven and hell. It is therefore all the more striking that he grasped the plain teaching of Scripture (yes, and of Jesus himself) that there is hell as well as heaven.
The Church has moved between an exclusive view of divine grace - that only the elect can believe and be saved - and an inclusive view - that all will be saved whether they believe or not.
It is into this latter extreme that our present-day Church is in danger of falling. In the quest for relevance, we are inclined to abandon the Biblical concept and definitions of sin and set up our own parameters for acceptable behaviour. In consequence, we offer "affirmation" (an acceptable word "out there"), because the issue of forgiveness and salvation is now perceived to be meaningless.
Paul pronounced a very severe anathema on those who offered a different gospel which is no gospel (Galatians 1.6-9) - "let him be eternally condemned!" as the NIV strongly puts it.
The old Calvinist-Arminian debate became quite heated at times. Nevertheless it was debate between fellow-Christians. Both sides had a deep respect for Biblical revelation and a deep appreciation for the redeeming acts of a gracious God.
Today we need to be asking at what point preachers and teachers in the church have so departed from Biblical truth and Biblical grace that people are being offered a different gospel which is no gospel - an "inclusive" grace without any call to repentance and faith, without any expectation of a new creation leading to holiness of life. Such modern-day preaching and teaching should be exposed for what it is and severely anathematised.
For the grace of God is both inclusive and exclusive - freely offered and available to all, yet operative only for those who repent and believe the good news. Here alone is true relevance for a needy world.