Very often we confuse the gospel itself, this wonderful and glorious good news about our salvation being totally and completely by grace alone, and in Christ alone, with various doctrines and arguments that properly surround the defense of the gospel itself. By this mistake we turn the knowing of certain doctrines into the gospel. Don’t misunderstand me. If doctrine is teaching, and biblically this is what the word doctrine means, then the gospel is a message that must be taught, and that message can be rightly or wrongly taught.
This is the very point Paul makes in Galatians. I was reminded of all of this Sunday evening while listening to several sermons from Galatians 1 given this month by my friend John Wood, pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. (John is one of the finest preachers I know. You should check out his sermons at www.cspc.net.)
My point here is actually not complex. What is important to know about the gospel, if we would defend it from serious error and misunderstandings, is the gospel itself. Here is how John Wood puts this in his sermon on Galatians 1:4-10:
I would invite you to be clear about the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, about what it teaches and what it does not teach, and to internalize this life-saving, life-transforming good news so that you can preach it to your own heart every day of your life. It is, as Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Some Reformed Christian polemicists seem to think that an ability to state certain doctrinal points accurately is equal to understanding and living the gospel. This mistake is a type of Protestant Gnosticism, suggesting as it does that knowing certain truths, and having the ability to state them argumentatively, equals knowing and loving Christ and the good news. If someone is wrong about a debated point (e.g., imputation, the active and/or passive obedience of Christ, the precise nature of saving faith, etc.) then they are in reality denying the gospel. And those who know these truths are those who preach and live the gospel, not those who are wrong on these points. Often, by this way of putting it, the error of the Galatian heretics is seen as precisely the same error held by fellow evangelical and Reformed Christians today. By this logic such teachers can then assert their anathemas, with great certitude, against all other evangelical Christian teachers. John Wood clearly understands this precise problem of incipient Gnosticism. In this particular sermon he made a passing comment about it that is well worth hearing if you want to listen to a marvelous sermon in which the gospel is wonderfully declared by the power of the Holy Spirit.