After listening to a very riveting sermon recently in which the speaker talked about the love of God and righteousness by faith, a friend came up to me and said, “The sermon was good, but I wonder if it was any different than the evangelical gospel. There was no talk about the sanctuary or sanctification.”
I understood what the friend – who is a very educated student of the Bible – was getting at, but I assured him that I thought the presentation far surpassed the evangelical gospel.
All this got me to thinking: what is the difference between the evangelical gospel and the true gospel? Beyond that, what is the difference not only between the evangelical and the true gospel, but also the true gospel and a more sanctification-heavy Adventist gospel?
My goal, in this post, is to briefly summarize the differences on a few gospel-related issues.
I realize, of course, that the term “evangelical gospel” is a rather broad category and there are nuances within the evangelical world that are important, but for the sake of comparison, I will try to describe a gospel that most evangelicals would basically agree with.
Similarly, the latter category (a more “sanctification-heavy Adventist gospel”) is broad as well, but this category is essentially reflective of an Adventist gospel that places strong emphasis (in an unbalanced way) to obedience, sanctification, and perfection – emphases that have their place, but only within the right context. I will simply label this category the “sanctification gospel.”
(Just as an aside: most Bible-believing Adventists generally subscribe to a modified evangelical-type gospel that is qualitatively the same – with Sabbath-keeping simply an add-on. They also don’t recognize that teachings like the state of the dead are not simply some isolated doctrines but actually inform and enhance the beauty of the gospel.)
Primarily, what I want to compare is how these three “gospels” understand what happened at the Cross, and the role obedience plays in the whole process.
The evangelical gospel: Christ died for all (those who are Calvinists, however, would say that He simply died for the “elect”), but His death does not apply to anyone until he or she accepts the gift. Responding by faith, then, is a decision one makes in order to escape future punishment.
Furthermore, because, according to the evangelical gospel, man is naturally immortal, there is no way of connecting what happened with Christ at the Cross to the second death. Thus, Christ’s sacrifice cannot reach an infinite depth – and cannot reach an infinite power – thus handicapping this version of the gospel.
The evangelical gospel is also handicapped by its misunderstanding of the universal benefits of the Cross that apply to every human being already, whether believer or not. Because the evangelical gospel teaches that one’s subjective actions – faith, repentance, confession, etc. – are necessary pre-requisites for Christ’s death to have any saving benefit, the power lies not in the Cross, but in the decision of the sinner. This makes Christ the debtor – and constrained to further action in response to my faith – rather than the other way around. This is ultimately an impotent view of the Cross.
These are two of the main reasons why obedience is an impossible goal according to the evangelical gospel (if not theoretically, at the very least practically). It’s also why immorality is rampant among evangelicals, despite their heavy emphasis on the “Cross.”
Simply put, the evangelical gospel is impotent and not all that compelling because the depth of the Cross has a “ceiling” (if that is not a contradiction of terms) and because the Cross can only be of benefit to those who first do something.
The sanctified gospel: Much like the evangelical gospel, the sanctified gospel does not talk about the universal benefits of the Cross. While theoretically recognizing some of the benefits, there is very little talk of them. When they are talked about, terminology like “probation” and “second trial” are the chosen points of emphases, thus denoting the temporal nature of Christ’s sacrifice on humanity’s behalf.
Like the evangelical gospel, strong emphasis is placed upon a person’s subjective response via repentance, faith, or confession.
The connection between the second death and the Cross is understood by this gospel, of course, but it is not a huge emphasis – mostly because the Cross is not emphasized very much by this gospel at all.
For the sanctified gospel, the Cross is merely a stop along the path to the sanctuary, where sanctification and perfection are the ultimate goal. Too much Cross-talk – because it is primarily associated with an impotent evangelical view of the Cross – leads to anti-nomianism and cheap grace. Thus, the thinking goes, it would be better to place greater emphasis on “present truth”: the sanctuary and obedience to all of God’s commandments.
It goes without saying that the sanctified gospel’s explanation of the Cross is virtually powerless, chiefly because it is hardly talked about at all – and even when it is, its beauty is rarely dwelt upon and almost mentioned as a formality as an introduction to our need for faith and repentance. The Cross, when talked about, is simply a means to an end.
The true gospel: In distinction from the other two views, the true gospel recognizes – and greatly emphasizes – the realistic benefits of the Cross for every human being. Recognizing that Christ stood as our corporate representative (2 Cor 5:14; Eph 2:4-6), His death took in all of humanity and paid the penalty for every person’s sin, thus already saving every human being from the “wages of sin” (Rom 6:23).
This gives Christ the legal right to treat sinful human beings with love, grace, faith, and justification, instead of condemnation (John 8:11). Because Christ has already taken the penalty for sin upon Himself, He “has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Thus, the only reason any person will ever face future punishment for sin is not because he or she didn’t go to Christ to activate that benefit, but because he or she threw away what Christ had already accomplished on his or her behalf (even though it was already enjoyed for their finite lifespan).
Faith and repentance, then, are not decisions a person makes in order to gain future benefits (ie., escaping future punishment), but a response from the heart as an act of gratitude for what Christ has already accomplished at the Cross on the sinner’s behalf (Rom 2:4).
Furthermore, the true gospel recognizes the important connection between the second death and what happened on the Cross. When Christ cried out in agony “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46), this was an actual cry of desperation, in which Christ actually felt as though He was experiencing eternal separation from His Father. This important insight into the Cross is a strong emphasis in the true gospel.
Because the true gospel recognizes that the only power one can truly have is borne out of the “love of Christ” (2 Cor 5:14-15), and that only “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) is strong enough to produce obedience in a person’s life, the strongest point of emphasis is on the Cross.
The evangelical gospel: Because the evangelical gospel’s view of the Cross is impotent, obedience is a very nebulous and incomplete pursuit. Ironically, however, it is often emphasized just as much as the Cross in much evangelical preaching (just turn on any Christian radio station and you will see what I mean).
Obedience, however, is most often presented apart from the Cross. It is all-too-often man-powered and not Cross-powered. Obedience and the Cross are two distinct and unrelated concepts. Thus, obedience is prescribed and compelled, rather than spoken of as a natural result of one’s appreciation for the Cross and a response to God’s love.
All this means that obedience is always viewed as an incomplete, almost optional, endeavor. Yes, a person should be obedient – simply because it’s a “good idea” – but one’s obedience really has no relevance to anything and is not all that critical in the grand scheme of things, other than that it is basically a good idea to be nice to other people. (It goes without saying that those with the “once-saved-always-saved” mentality really don’t see obedience as relevant to one’s salvation. This doesn’t mean that they don’t think there is a place for obedience; it’s just that it has very little bearing on anything.)
Of course, there are people within this mindset who really do think that obedience is critical but, again, obedience is so often presented apart from the Cross and divorced from the good news of the Gospel, that it is effectively unachievable.
Thus, according to the evangelical gospel, obedience is incomplete and imperfect – at best. The apex of one’s Christian experience is spurts of obedience, with inevitable slipping into sin that requires further repentance and forgiveness. Sin and selfishness, which requires repentance and forgiveness, becomes a never-ending cycle in the evangelical gospel.
But note: this is not necessarily because the evangelical gospel does not place emphasis on the need for obedience – as some in the sanctified gospel camp would propose – but because the very foundation of the evangelical gospel is impotent and ultimately ineffective. Precisely because the evangelical gospel presents an incomplete view of the Cross, they inevitably present an incomplete view of obedience.
Thus, the answer to the evangelical gospel is not emphasizing obedience more, but reframing their understanding of the Cross.
The sanctified gospel: As mentioned above, for the sanctified gospel, the bulk of its emphasis is on obedience, sanctification, and perfection. The Cross is merely a stepping stone to the sanctuary. Great stress is placed upon man’s actions and obedience. In fact, the sanctified gospel even goes so far as to say that obedience is a “condition for salvation.”
Obedience is thus prescribed and presented apart from any motivating power of the Cross.
What is missed in this paradigm is that when obedience is prescribed, it is actually powerless and, in reality, no better than the evangelical gospel. The power to actually accomplish obedience – in all its full-orbed and limitless beauty – comes not from dwelling upon obedience itself, but from the motivating power of the Cross.
This is, perhaps, the irony of all ironies. Focusing chiefly upon obedience actually undermines the possibility of its very accomplishment.
The true gospel: The true gospel sees the far-reaching importance of obedience. Obedience, according to the true gospel, is not optional – nor is it incomplete. It is, in fact, limitless, knowing no ceiling. But obedience is not that which is chiefly dwelt upon. In this regard, it stands in distinction from both the evangelical gospel and the sanctified gospel.
With the true gospel, obedience is described – in other words, mentioned as a natural result of embracing the Cross. Though this doesn’t exclude a prescribed obedience, the true gospel recognizes that the power to obey comes not from dwelling upon obedience itself, but dwelling upon the Cross.
This is why Paul, in descriptive words (rather than prescriptive words), makes his bold assertion in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” In the Greek, there is not a single imperative in the two verses. It simply describes the reality of a sanctified life for the person who is compelled by the love of Christ – a love that is compelling precisely because “all died” in Him when He went to the Cross.
This is also an irony: when obedience is prescribed, it is powerless; when obedience is described, it is limitless. And this is what we see with the true gospel that makes it unique: describing obedience as a natural result of responding to the Cross is enough to make it so. Those who subscribe to the true gospel do not deny the idea of full obedience, full maturity, full perfection. They simply refuse to put the cart before the horse, recognizing that there is actual power in the simple acknowledgement of what naturally occurs in response to the Cross.
This is why Ellen White would say stuff like, “Let the law take care of itself” (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 557). She knew that when Christ’s love, righteousness, and Cross were dwelt upon, and when she freely acknowledged that it would take care of itself, then the law would, indeed, take care of itself. It’s why others say, “When we focus on God’s love and the Cross, obedience will come along.” The evangelical gospel, though talking about obedience, would never put it in these terms. (It is obvious that the sanctified gospel would never put it in these terms, either.)
Thus, the true gospel does not diminish obedience when it chooses merely to describe it as a natural result of faith; it actually legitimizes obedience and makes it all the more likely.
For a while, I didn’t grasp this subtle nuance. I did have reservations about the true gospel, thinking that obedience had to be prescribed more, talked about more, in order to distinguish it from the evangelical gospel. But then I realized that the evangelical gospel always, itself, prescribed the gospel, and never maintained that it could ever be fully realized. The true gospel, however, does declare that full obedience is possible – and, in fact, is inevitable. And the simple fact that it is fully described and declared as an inevitability is enough to make it so. This is critical to realize.
In the end, the true gospel knows no rivals – and is, in fact, the only gospel. It places an infinite value upon the Cross, which produces an infinite gratitude in the heart, which results in a limitless obedience. It is no wonder that Ellen White encouraged:
It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit (The Desire of Ages, p. 83).
She also brought out this same emphasis in Steps to Christ, which is her fullest and most systematic explanation of salvation. Curiously, she never mentions the sanctuary or the investigative judgment (at least to my reckoning) in the whole book. Could it be because she recognized that when the truth of the Cross is fully restored, then the experience of the Most Holy Place will be fully realized? I think that might be the case – which is a lesson for us:
We must gather about the cross. Christ and Him crucified should be the theme of contemplation, of conversation, and of our most joyful emotion. We should keep in our thoughts every blessing we receive from God, and when we realize His great love we should be willing to trust everything to the hand that was nailed to the cross for us (pp. 103-104).
Thus, the antidote for all that ails us is the Cross, the Cross, the Cross.