Friday, October 05, 2007

The Hope of the Gospel in Youth Discipleship

by Matthew Hoskinson @

Note: See his other articles on youth ministry: The Primacy of Parents in Youth Discipleship, The Centrality of God in Youth Discipleship and The Role of the Church in Youth Discipleship.

One needs only to turn to the local Christian radio or TV station to recognize that the church is not preaching a single theme. From the gospel of financial prosperity to the gospel of self-esteem, professing believers—and the world around us—endure a cacophony of Christian-sounding messages that are devoid of any genuine good news precisely because theyhoskinson_teen.jpg lead a person to turn to himself or herself as savior.

Even in conservative circles, the dissonance is great. Our churches may not have fallen for the likes of Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer, but the signs of a shift in our preaching is ubiquitous. In our efforts to hedge our people from the evils of the world around us, too many of us have fallen into the trap of preaching a set of moral codes that may themselves be on the right track but are not clearly connected to the person and work of Christ. As Jay Adams argues in Preaching with Purpose, “If you preach a sermon that would be acceptable to the member of a Jewish synagogue or to a Unitarian congregation, there is something radically wrong with it” (p. 147).

What is it that makes the Christian message unique? Not the existence of one true God. Muslims accept this. Not the doctrine of the Trinity, for every good Romanist acknowledges one God who exists eternally in three Persons. Not even a kind of morality that is clearly different from our surrounding culture. One can hear this in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The uniqueness of the Christian message is the person and work of Christ—the message of the gospel—received by faith alone. It is God the Son becoming man, living in perfect obedience to God’s laws, earning righteousness for His people, dying the death that we rebels deserved, rising from the dead, and ever interceding for His people. If we fail to preach the gospel clearly and repeatedly, we are failing to communicate the one thing that makes our message unique. Or, to put it another way, any message that fails to preach Christ is not a Christian message.

In principle, no believer would contend with these statements. The problem may not be one’s adherence to the principle so much as one’s application in practice. To quote Shakespeare, “There’s the rub.” Most of us would define “gospel preaching” in purely evangelistic terms. We conduct attraction-driven events to bring unbelievers to our property. We host a week of meetings for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the lost. We knock on doors, pass out tracts, and invite people to visit our services. In the end, our great hope is that some who do not know Christ will come to believe in Him under the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. This is gospel preaching, the very means by which God is pleased “to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, ESV).

But gospel preaching is not only for the lost. And here is where our problem arises. We are happy to proclaim the gospel clearly, authoritatively, and passionately to unbelievers—and well we should. But our preaching to the people of God is often woefully devoid of the hope of the gospel: the person and work of Christ.

Let me illustrate. A few months ago, I was watching a Christian TV station that broadcast a rally for teenagers. I assume that the event was for believers because of the nature of the message. The preacher, a “charismatic” man in every sense of the term, sought to instill in these young people the importance of maintaining their virginity until marriage—an exhortation that is unquestionably biblical and appropriate. The title of his message, however, was indicative of his philosophy of sanctification: “Keep Your Underwear On.” He thundered forth the necessity of sexual purity, generously packing his address with a number of practical suggestions, the title of his message being his most repeated one. While I grant that I did not hear every word of his sermon, I listened long enough to understand Christian living from his perspective. His method for encouraging Christian young people to pursue holiness was entirely imperative.

Now I am not suggesting that the preaching in our circles is as shallow—let alone crude—as this example. But there is an unsettling parallel. Far too many proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, but when it comes to urging our people to holiness, we cease preaching the person and work of Christ and rely wholly on imperatives. “You must love God. You must trust God. You must fear God. You must show mercy. You must forgive. You must not commit adultery.” And on and on it goes. And at those times when Christ is mentioned, He is identified only as our Chief Example, the One whose pattern we must follow. “You must love God like Christ did. You must forgive as Christ did.” True, Christ is our Example (1 Pet. 2:21). But that’s not all He is. Was that not the dividing line between the true gospel and the social gospel at the turn of the 20th century? Was that not the concern raised by conservative contemporaries of Charles Sheldon when he penned In His Steps? And yet a century later Sheldon’s work is commended by professedly conservative evangelicals as a helpful exhortation to personal holiness. Is this not evidence of the downgrade of our gospel preaching to believers?

The gospel is as relevant for believers as it is for unbelievers. It is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16), not merely for conversion. The apostle used an umbrella term that encompasses every part of God’s redemptive work: past (regeneration and conversion), present (perseverance and preservation), and future (final redemption and glorification). Consequently, preachers must demonstrate the practicality of the gospel in every part of God’s salvific activity, including our ongoing sanctification.

One may wonder how the gospel is practically relevant for believers growing in holiness. That is a fair question, but it also reveals the very disconnect this article is seeking to address. The gospel is practically relevant for our sanctification in that the person and work of Christ applied by the Spirit to the believer is the grounds and hope of his growth in Christlikeness. Jesus’ life of full conformity to God’s moral will earned Him the righteousness that has been imputed to us by faith (Rom. 5:1, 12-19). Jesus’ death on the cross fully satisfied divine wrath that otherwise was destined to fall on us all (Rom. 1:18; 3:21-26). Our union with Christ guarantees that all the benefits Jesus earned belong to those who savingly believe in Him (Eph. 1:3-14). Therefore, Jesus is not merely my Example but also my Substitute, both in His life and in His death. God accepts me because of Jesus, not because of my performance. God welcomes me into His presence because Jesus was sinless, not because I am. My relationship is so secure that God considers me already perfect (Heb. 10:14) and glorified (Rom. 8:30), though practically I am neither. And it is on this ground that the Spirit empowers me to become what I already am in Christ.

To put it another way, the indicative of who I am in Christ is the only grounds on which the imperative of what I am to be may rest. The New Testament epistolary authors often followed a stylistic pattern that demonstrates this point. Notice the following statistical analysis of the verbs within the main divisions of Romans, Ephesians, and Hebrews:






Romans 1-11






Romans 12-16






Ephesians 1-3






Ephesians 4-6






Hebrews 1.1-10.18






Hebrews 10.19-13.25






Each of these books clearly divides into two parts, often referred to as the “doctrine” and the “application” or the “explanation” and the “exhortation.” The analysis above highlights two key points. First, the use of the imperative drastically increases in the second section of each book. Before the author affirmed the obligations of the gospel, he clearly communicated what is already true of God’s children because of the person and work of Christ. This evidence alone should remedy any imperative preaching that is devoid of the indicative of the gospel.

Second, notice that the use of the indicative stays relatively the same throughout a book. The use of the indicative is not inversely proportional to the use of the imperative. That means when the New Testament apostolic authors were writing, they did not cease to communicate the truths of who the readers are in Christ, even when they were commanding them with the things they were to do because of their standing.

Our preaching to believers must follow this pattern of Scripture. We must begin, end, and fill our messages with the hope of the gospel. God’s children should not walk away from our sermons asking, “Where was Christ? We sang of Him, but we did not hear of Him.” Failing to proclaim the good news to God’s children so robs them of the very power that is at work to sanctify them.

Teenagers do not need to hear one more gospel-less message about how they should live. They need to hear of a Savior who lived and died in their place. Christian young people already know what they are supposed to do. What they are ignorant of is “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” to transform us into the image of Christ. May our gracious God “strengthen . . . [His church] according to the gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ” so He might receive “glory forevermore through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 16:25, 27).

hoskinson.jpgMatthew Hoskinson is the pastor of youth and young adults at Heritage Bible Church (Greer, SC). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and occasionally blogs at www.debtortogr

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