Not so long ago a friend of mine told me over the phone from far away: “Christo, I am so tired hearing from the pulpit that we are all forgiven. Again and again I hear we are all God’s children, forgiven for everything, but Christ is rarely mentioned, God’s righteousness is forgotten, the cross is seldom preached, and a clear call to repentance is never heard”. I can sympathize with him. I have heard such preaching from my youth from too many pulpits to mention. And this is only one side of the problem. There is also another: When the Gospel has become a new law. When the poor listeners have to endure an endless string of moral imperatives, or Gospel-lessons, with scarcely any mention of God’s grace for weary sinners, or the power of His Holy Spirit to make us alive, or a call to come to the Saviour for forgiveness and peace.
What has gone wrong? If that’s not enough, Africa is facing the scourge of the Prosperity Gospel, where so-called ‘prophets’ pull the wool over millions of eyes, deceiving their mesmerized crowds with fantastic promises of earthly things in exchange for the little money they might have. What is the Gospel? Though I intend to address the African context here, I trust that this essay may have a far wider appeal.
A Westernized Gospel
Karl Grebe and Wilfred Fon both worked in the Cameroon for many years, in Bible translation and theological education respectively. In their concise but profound little work African Traditional Religion and Christian Counselling they make some bold claims about the “weakness of the Western Gospel in the African context.”
They say the problem of syncretism, which is widespread in African Christianity, was caused in part by the kind of Gospel presented to generations of Africans by many well-meaning missionaries from the West. This “westernized” Gospel addressed a void in African Traditional Religion (ATR) while not really exposing the heart of it.
The two authors claim that this Westernized Gospel provided in the felt need of the African for direct access to a distant God and in assurance of a blessed existence beyond the grave. It failed however to address the heart of the matter; the predominant African worldview steeped in its superstitious fear for an unseen realm.
The Westernized Gospel also provided an opportunity of having one’s sins forgiven and of “going to heaven”, both of which were foreign to ATR. All that was needed was “faith in Jesus” and to “go to church”. Tangible repentance was not really in the picture. Africans readily received that message. For them this Gospel complimented their traditional beliefs.
The problem was that it resulted (as one could expect) in a dual allegiance. As far as daily life was concerned – and especially with regards to its many challenges, set-backs, and uncertainties – the African believer was still dependent on those in his community who had access to the unseen powers of the spiritual world, for good or ill. But, as far as his hope for “salvation” was concerned, he believed on Christ and therefore went to church. In summary: “They look to the Christian faith for final salvation, but look to pagan practices for present help”.  This is a very serious indictment by two seasoned Christian missionaries on the African church.
And yet the root of the problem (according to Grebe and Fon) lay in the Gospel that was so readily believed and proclaimed in the West!
Now before we ask ourselves what that Western Gospel could have sounded like, let me just add that I have no doubt that many missionaries did amazing work in Africa and brought incredible sacrifices. My thoughts go back to one of the pioneer missionaries, Moravian Hans Peter Hallbeck (1784 -1840),  who laboured at Genadendal in the old Cape Colony. Hallbeck’s life and holistic approach still feature in my mind as a kind of benchmark of what mission work is all about. I am also well familiar with the remarkable legacy of Andrew Murray and his missionary posterity. I can hardly believe that they (for instance) would have peddled such a watered-down Gospel. Neither can I believe that of men such as David Livingston, Robert Moffatt, CT Studd and many others. My own recent travels in East Africa made me aware of a man from Wales who worked in Nairobi for forty years, laying the sound foundation for spiritually thriving churches all over the city and beyond.
And yet do we not have a good sense what this Western Gospel sounded like? “Just trust in Jesus as your Saviour, and your sins will be forgiven and you will go to heaven”. In actual fact, reality is even worse than that.
Marsha Witten, a self-confessed atheist, analyzed 47 sermons of Presbyterian Church (USA) and Southern Baptist Convention pastors on the Parable of the Prodigal Son as part of her Ph.D. research project  at Princeton University. She concluded that the bulk of these sermons – though originating from a more liberal leaning denomination on the one hand, and a more conservative one on the other – basically do the same thing. They greatly diminish Protestantism’s view of God, of sin and depravity, as well as of the Biblical scope of salvation, and it all happens under the pressures of secularization. We will return to Witten in a short while.
In fact, none other than Dr. Andrew Murray issued a clarion call in his book The State of the Church – An Urgent Call to Repentance and Prayer, published in response to the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference (which he could not attend for health reasons). Murray did not share the optimism voiced at Edinburgh, that the unreached part of humanity would yet be reached for Christ “in this generation”.  He warned that the state of the church in the West did not warrant such optimism. One concern that he raised was about the Gospel that was so readily preached and received all over the Protestant world. A hundred years later his book reads like the vision of a Hebrew prophet.
Possible Origins of a Westernized Gospel
But where did this other Gospel come from? Is there any book in Scripture that presents us with such a minimalist Gospel? Do we find it anywhere in the Acts of the Apostles or in the Early Church? Is it the message Paul longed to take even to Spain? If not, where did this Gospel come from and why did it deceive us for so long?
It is my humble opinion that it was the unintended consequence of the Reformation’s message of the centrality of justification. No one reading the Genevan Reformer John Calvin would ever arrive at the minimalist Gospel outlined above, but unfortunately, among the protestant clergy and laity, a notion emerged with time after the Reformation that the Gospel is all about “having assurance that I am going to heaven”. That assurance then is to be found in the doctrine of justification, we were told. And since justification is the message “by which the church stands or falls” (Martin Luther) it basically became everything.
Hence, you can have almost everything wrong in your theology and your life, and hardly read your Bible, as long as you get justification right you are okay! Let me illustrate from my own reformed background. Even the famous opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, as the most memorized point of entry into the Biblical message for many, helped nurturing this distortion: God’s passion for us is that we have the comfort that we belong to Jesus. The rest of the Catechism for that matter, may for all practical purposes fade into the background.
My issue is obviously not with the beautiful prelude to the Heidelberg Catechism, but with the fact that that prelude (and especially its emphasis on our “comfort”) has become for so many the essence of the Biblical message. It requires a very short step from taking “my only comfort in life and death” (as the essence of all that God wants to tell me), to making “my own happiness, health and wealth” God’s very plan for my life, even with reference to Jer. 29:13! Living for God’s glory here on earth (also when that will include suffering) and “enjoying Him forever” now and hereafter, would have been a healthier entry point.
And so slowly but surely, as we moved away from the original context of the Catechism, even conservative and well-minded believers often came to believe that our individual comfort and assurance is the crux of the Biblical message. I have personally experienced this in so many ways through three decades of Gospel ministry.
In fact, contemporary Christianity here in North America has taken this diluted Gospel even to further extremes in recent decades. The contemporary grace movement,  seeks to answer every single problem, issue or question in the life of the church (or of the believer) with the doctrine of justification. It equates every mention of obedience to Christ’s lordship to legalism, and views a call to repentance as harsh and unloving. For the contemporary grace movement, it is more or less one’s adherence to the doctrine of justification that puts every single concern in your Christian life to bed.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
So, what is the Gospel? Maybe we should ask, where in the New Testament do we find it summarized in a nutshell? In my humble estimation Luke 24:46-49 must be the place to go, even before I Corinthians 15:1-11. We fond here the most important ingredients of true Gospel preaching within a few verses, as Jesus spoke to his disciples the very night of his resurrection. So, what are those components? I quote Luke from the New King James Version:
“Thus it is written
and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance
and remission of sins
should be preached in His name
to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
And you are witnesses of these things.
Behold, I send the Promise of my Father upon you…
but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”
Notice what is all contained in these words:
- The important witness of the Old Testament to the need for, and the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
- The divine necessity for the Messiah to suffer, which most certainly requires the preaching of his cross.
- The glorious bodily resurrection of our Saviour, which was as necessary for our salvation.
- The preaching of repentance. The Gospel always issues a radical ultimatum to its listeners.
- The promise of forgiveness to those who come to Jesus, encapsulating every blessing from God.
- All of this has to preached in His name, i.e., on the command of a risen and reigning Christ, to whom all power on earth and heaven was given.
- It must be preached to all nations. God is no respecter of persons, but whoever fears him from every nation, and sincerely believes, will be saved.
- Yet none of this will happen without the miracle-working power of the Spirit, to equip the messengers and to awaken their hearers.
The Gospel in Isaiah
The term Good News (from which Gospel is derived) comes from Isaiah. In Isaiah we find a people who are defeated, dejected and distraught because of what God’s righteous judgments have done to them. The Babylonians sacked the city of God in 586 BC, burned it with fire and carried off the majority of Jews into exile. Only a handful remained behind. And so, they wondered: “Has God forgotten us? Will he ever again reign over us?” Until one day a watchman on the city walls saw someone running. It was a messenger with good news! And so, the watchman cried out: “How beautiful are the feet of him who brings Good News, who says to Zion, your God is King!” (see 52:7).
The Good News is: “God has not abandoned us. Yes, we got what we deserved, but He is coming back to comfort us and will yet again reign in Jerusalem, but then He will gather all nations to him”. And so, the bearer of Good News basically tells them: “Your King is coming! And there is none like Him!” His message to his penitent remnant is: “Fear not, because I am with you. I have blotted out your transgressions… therefore look to me all ye ends of the earth, and be ye saved”.
And so, God tells his exiled remnant about that Servant of the Lord that will bring justice to the nations and come to take the sins of his people upon himself (Isaiah 42, 49, 52-53). That is how this Servant will pave the way for the dawn of the Messianic Age at the end of time, when Jerusalem will be established forever and when God will create new heavens and earth (Is. 65-66). The last Biblical prophet prophesied then that the “awesome day of the Lord is coming”, and that Elijah will return to announce it. And then we have a 400-year lull. Dead silence, during the intertestamental period, while Messianic expectations were flourishing everywhere in Judea in great anticipation as the Romans ruled the land.
If we now turn to the New Testament and begin to read it, we get caught up in the phenomenal sweep of its amazing narrative that proclaimed something exceedingly wonderful. It is indeed in every sense of the word euangellion: Good News! At the very center of that Good News stands (of course) the deliverance and salvation of needy sinners by the mighty God of Israel. But for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as for Paul, Peter, James and the others, the appearance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ was also about so much more.
It meant that God’s promise proclaimed by the “mouth of all the prophets” has been fulfilled, that he had sent Someone to restore all things, to crush the serpent’s head and destroy the heavy yoke on his people’s neck, so as to set them free. That was how he was going to fulfill the covenant that they and their fathers had broken, and how he would bring salvation to Israel and then to all nations. That was how he was going to reclaim for us all that our first parents tossed away so recklessly in paradise. So, it is in light of all this that Jesus of Nazareth came about preaching in Galilee saying (Mark 1:15):
The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand;
repent and believe the Gospel.
In him God’s kingdom came to us. Everything that follows in the Gospel, as it was handed down by four evangelists, stand in the light of these words. Likewise, the message which the apostles preached, and which most of them sealed with their own blood in martyrdom, is the Gospel of the Kingdom. A herald of good news’ task was to announce the arrival of the king! That is what the Gospel does. It is the Good News of the arrival of God’s Son ushering in the righteous reign of the living God – the almighty King. Everything Jesus said, did and suffered for, is predicated on this fact. The grace of God in Christ Jesus appeared to such a world, in spite of what we deserved. But that grace is now freely offered to all sinners, who long to have their lives and the world restored through the gift of sins forgiven.
Every ounce of Paul’s strength and emotion poured out in his Gentile mission is predicated on this fact: God’s kingdom is breaking through in Jesus Christ, born, crucified, risen and exalted in glory (I. Cor. 15). In Paul’s Gospel rebels like us are offered amnesty by God’s ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor. 5). We can escape the King’s righteous wrath at the end of time, if we immediately cast down our weapons, surrender in sorrow and kiss his feet in love, to become the Messiahs’ new people on earth.
In his acclaimed work, The Coming of The Kingdom, twentieth century Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos  points to the three indisputable signs that God’s kingdom broke into our sad and sin-soaked world through the ministry of the penniless preacher from Nazareth. These very signs, John once wrote, were so powerful that they compelled those who sought to arrest Jesus to simply turn around (John 7:28-31). And, they were so numerous “that all the books of the world could not contain them” (John 20:30-31, 21:25). Ridderbos says the three “signs” are: (1) his incomparable speaking with heavenly clarity and authority, (2) his mighty miracles of restoration and command over nature, (3) his divine power (which Luke calls “the finger of God”) to cast out demons by a simple word.
These signs tell us plainly: “The King is here!” Jesus himself said to the Jews who would not believe: “…the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). Again in John 10:37-38 Jesus said to them at another occasion: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me, but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”.
In other words, he was appealing to their plain common sense, but sadly even that was greatly warped by sin.
He is Coming Again to Make all Things New
The Good News is that Jesus of Nazareth is that long-expected Messiah that has come to establish God’s reign of justice, truth, love and peace again on earth again. He came to usher in that endless Messianic epoch of which we read in Isaiah 2:1-4, 11:6-9, 35:1-10 and 65:17-25, which will one day fully dawn when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9b NIV). At his first coming he came to announce that the “zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this”. At his second coming Jesus will come to publicly judge all nations and people in righteousness, before ushering in his new creation where no-one will ever again “harm or destroy on all his holy mountain” (Is. 11:9a). For the first time ever, sin and death wont even have the possibility to enter the scene and spoil God’s universe.
To put it in the words of New Testament scholar NT Wright: “We say that the present world is the real one, and that it is in bad shape but expecting to be repaired. We tell… the story (of) the good Creator longing to put the world back into the good order for which it was designed. We tell the story of a God who does the two things which, some of the time at least, we know we all want and need: a God who completes what he has begun, a God who comes to rescue those who seem lost and enslaved in the world the way it now is” 
It is in light of that glorious day that we sing with such deep emotion and expectation that Gospel song “Is he Worthy” by Andrew Peterson
Do you feel the world is broken?
The choir responds:
And so it goes on…
Do you feel the shadows deepen?
But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through?
Do you wish that you could see it all made new?
Is all creation groaning?
Is a new creation coming?
Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst?
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?
Is anyone worthy? Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll?
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave,
He’s David’s root and the Lamb who died to ransom the slave
Is He worthy?
Is He worthy of all blessing and honour and glory?
Is He worthy of this?
Does the Father truly love us?
Does the Spirit move among us?
And does Jesus our Messiah, hold forever those he loves?
Does our God intend to dwell again with us?
From every people and tribe, every nation and tongue,
He has made us a kingdom and priests to our God,
To reign with the Son…
Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
He is worthy of all blessing and honour and glory,
He is worthy of this,
He is! He is! He is!
The Gospel of the Kingdom is utterly unique in that it presents us with a two-creation worldview. The creation which now is and which is groaning in birth pains, eagerly waiting for its final redemption from this age of suffering and sin (Rom. 8:22-23). And the creation which is coming, which will be this one completely renovated and restored, where there will no longer be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb in the midst of it, with God’s face shining upon his people day and night (Rev. 22:3-4).
To put it simply… Jesus has come “to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of his God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever amen” (Gal. 1:4).
So the whole purpose of the Gospel is to transform us into the image of Christ through the Holy Spirit, as the irrefutable signs of his new creation. As such we are the divine proof in this world of a new creation coming. We must now resemble our oldest brother (whom we will yet adore for eternity) so as to point the world to a better future. No, the Gospel is not a “fire escape policy”. Neither is it simply an intellectual assent to the truth. It is above anything else the truth about an ongoing liberating encounter with God’s saving power and grace in Christ, rescuing our fallen world. But in closing, we still have to answer the question: What is that faith and repentance Jesus and his apostles called for?
Faith and Repentance
When Jesus told the crowds “the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it” (Luke 16:16) he could have meant only one thing: “holy violence” is needed to enter in. That is what faith and repentance are all about. It’s the only way by which one can “force your way” into the kingdom, only to realize afterwards it was God grace that enabled you!
But what is faith? Faith simply means receiving the apostolic Gospel as God’s truth about himself, the world, myself and the future. It is secondly all about embracing Jesus as he is freely offered to a sinner like me in that gospel. For the early church faith meant nothing less than swearing total allegiance to Jesus Christ as the only Saviour and Lord of one’s life. It implied a radical choice, between those who were against him (or still undecided), and those who are now decidedly and openly for him and following him.
It implies absolute loyalty in turn for absolute protection. From now on your life will happily be “bound up in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord” (as Abigail told David in I Samuel 25:29). Or it is “hidden with Christ in God”, as Paul wrote to the Colossians in Col. 3:2. You have thrown in your lot with the Messiah and his people and there is no turning back. Where Jesus is, there his servant will be also. Life from now is all about having fellowship with the crucified Lord and his crucified people in the Holy Spirit. Everything else is secondary.
Repentance as the flip side of the coin, can only issue forth from faith. It is because the treasure in the field is so incomparably wonderful, that the merchant goes in joy and sells all that he has, in order to buy that field (Matt. 13:44). The love and glory of Christ in the Gospel, freely offered to sinners, is what prompts sincere repentance. Repentance may never become the pre-condition to faith, for our poor hearts could simply never produce it. 
Repentance then is nothing else but a leaving behind of everything that cannot be carried along through the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13). It is a leaving behind of every pattern, every attitude, every custom, habit, thought or action that is not worthy of the Saviour and his Father’s Kingdom. Above all it encompasses the denial of self; of sin in all its forms; of the world in its powerful allure; and of all the dark secrets of Satan. It is the result of having a new direction and purpose in life, of no longer living for ourselves but for him who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). Its ultimate goal can never be merely “to stay out of trouble”, but to be changed into Christ’s likeness and to bear fruit to the Father’s glory. It is a passion from now on to be regulated by the royal commandment of love, for whatever is not of love, is sin.
Faith and repentance, however, can only spring forth from the miraculous new birth (John 3 and Ephesians 2) as the singular gift of the Holy Spirit. All of life after the new birth continues to be a journey (and sometimes a struggle) of growing in grace through trusting and obeying our Lord, as we live in fellowship with his cross and with his crucified community by his grace.
I recall a time here in Canada when some Christians would often end an argument with the words: “But that is not a salvation issue”. By a salvation-issue they meant, something that would prevent you from “going to heaven”. Anything that was not a “salvation issue” was considered not important to fuss about. And that was quite a bit! For instance, throwing your plastic water bottle out of your car-window, won’t jeopardize your “salvation” in any real sense. Nor may my habit of avoiding my next-door neighbour prevent me from “going to heaven” perhaps. And what about our reluctance to work closer together with the struggling little evangelical church down the road? Or what about always arguing with someone instead of speaking words of encouragement? Or what if I choose simply to obey “orders from higher up” when they go against the words of my Lord? Would these sort of things jeopardize my salvation, or not? Are they salvation issues or not?
The great mission-scholar Dr. J.H. Bavinck gave us the answer, writing back in 1948.  The Bible tells us “when Jesus Christ is acknowledged the King of our hearts, He will not rest until He has laid His hand upon every province of our being, and has subdued all things to His holy will”. Praise God! For then the Gospel is truly saving us from this “present evil age”. And if that is not happening, then something has gone gravely wrong.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers, he said to them: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of heart” (Ephes. 4:17).
Why not Paul, we may ask? He would answer: “…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…” (Ephes. 5:8-9). Paul’s whole mission among the Gentiles, as Christ told him in a heavenly vision in Damascus at his conversion was: “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive the forgiveness of sins, and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
The Gospel faithfully preached and believed, would have nothing less than that in mind. May a new generation arise, all over the world, on fire and passionate for this Gospel, even though it might cost us our very lives.
 Karl Grebe & Wilfred Fon, African Traditional Religion and Christian Counselling (Oasis International Ltd, 2006), 25.
 I was introduced to this amazing man by a friend’s Ph.D. dissertation. See Pieter Gerrit Boon, Hans Peter Hallbeck and the Cradle of Missions in South Africa, (Bloemfontein: Ph.D. Dissertation at the University of the Free State, 2015)
 Marsha Witten, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
 Andrew Murray, The State of the Church: An Urgent call to Repentance and Prayer (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publication, 1983), 13-17.
 God Knows My Name, Good News Tracts, Crossway.
 John Thornbury, “David Brainerd, Missionary to the Red Indians of North America” in Five Pioneer Missionaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, London) 71-72.
 P. Sorokin, A Long Journey (New Haven: College and University Press, 1963), 272.
 Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar at St. George’s in Baghdad until 2014, when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered his evacuation due to security concerns.
 All Bible quotations are from the ESV, unless mentioned otherwise.
 See “The Gospel of Permissive Grace” in Erwin. W. Lutzer, The Church in Babylon: Heeding the Call to be a Light in the Darkness (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018), 192-198.
 Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), Preface.
 Herman N. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1962), 61-81.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 46.
 See Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).
 J.H. Bavinck, The Impact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1948), 47.