December 5, 2020

The New Liturgical Gangstas (1)—On the Gospel

Today, we resume IM’s popular feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion involving representatives from different liturgical traditions who will be answering questions regarding theology and church practice. Lord willing, the Gangstas will appear on the final Monday of each month to share with our IM audience.

Who are the Gangstas?

Today’s Question: THE GOSPEL
On Internet Monk, we try to make the point that the Gospel is not simply a message we proclaim to non-believers but a message that Christians also need every day. In your tradition and church, how do you make sure the Gospel remains central in your preaching and practice?

In this post, we’ll hear from Fr. Ernesto, Wyman, Bill, and Dan.

Fr. Ernesto—
In order to “make sure the Gospel remains central in your preaching and practice,” I must have an inner idea of what the Gospel is in order to know what it is that I wish to maintain central. For me the key Scripture verses that keep my preaching and teaching centered are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

We are called to obey our Lord who said, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” So, I too must “proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,” which includes preaching the Gospel (to the poor), healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and liberty to those who are oppressed.

But, how do I keep myself centered? There are several things I do. The ones familiar to most of us are prayer and Scripture reading. For us Orthodox, it is a helpful aid that we have daily and Sunday lectionaries that take us through vast parts of Scripture. Many churches and para-church groups have developed reading patterns to try to ensure that we do not just read what pleases us and makes us feel good and encourages us, but also read what displeases us, what frightens us, what calls us to account, and what leaves us in the dirt in broken repentance for our many sins and offenses.

But, we Orthodox also have patterns of prayers. These morning and evening prayers tend to keep us focused on God’s goodness, our repentance, our duty to him, and our love relationship with him. But, more than that each day we have a saint (or saints) that we remember and a couple of prayers that remind us of why that person was great. Along with that there is usually a short one paragraph reading that gives us an overview of the saint(s)’s life. This is especially important because it shows us how people in history have interpreted Scripture and Holy Tradition in order to live out their lives in practical obedience to God. The great stream of the Church, properly appraised, gives us the guidance that keeps us from odd or tendentious interpretations and behaviors. A priest is required to maintain the reading and prayer disciplines.

But, let me talk a bit about myself. The previous paragraphs are standard Christian thought. I also read a lot, and I mean a lot. I read Church Fathers; I read people like John Bunyan; I read C.S. Lewis. The more I am willing to read the great Christian writers, the more that I catch a glimpse of that great stream of the Church that helps keep me centered and able to respond appropriately to God. I am more convinced than ever that writers such as G.K Chesterton (Roman Catholic), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Orthodox), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), etc., are correct when they encourage us to read fiction, fantasy, etc., whether or not it is overtly Christian, for I have many times seen the solution to a theological conundrum more clearly in a fiction story than in reading many theological tomes. Sometimes, I have understood more clearly the complaints about Christians by reading secular fiction than by any other mean. I urge you all to read and to read broadly.

Finally, there is something we must all do in order to keep ourselves centered on the Gospel, and I do mean must do. We get too caught up in worrying about whether works will earn our way to Heaven. Please drop that argument. I find that without works I lose my way in realms of theological speculation or in the depths of fictional worlds which have little connection to making sure that I keep the centrality of the Gospel in my preaching and practice. Our Lord came to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. I need to keep my hands dirty if I really wish to keep Gospel centered in my preaching and practice.

Some of my fondest memories are some of my most difficult memories. My work overseas and my work in the inner city kept my hands dirty. I buried toddlers who would have never died in the USA. I worked with indigenous people (in missions) who could barely speak Spanish. I buried teenagers in the USA who were shot in drug violence. I watched teenaged girls in the inner city refuse sound advice and get pregnant. But, I also watched churches grow, a school get started, an orphanage begin, a new indigenous work (and a bishop who rode a mule in blue jeans) with new church plants, teenaged girls who did listen and are now sound married mothers, teenaged boys who grew up and now have sound jobs. People have been baptized, chrismated, and brought into Life. You see, my hands are dirty and my nails are broken, but it is those works that, along with Scripture, lives of the saints, readings from great Christian writers, and even secular readings, help to keep me centered on the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rev. Wm. Cwirla—
I would begin my response concerning the Gospel by quoting the apostle Paul in Romans:  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (Romans 1:16-17).

This verse is very near and dear to my heart, as it is my confirmation verse, the verse given me on the day I confessed the faith of my Baptism as my own.  I don’t know if the pastor who assigned me this verse was being prescient or prophetic regarding my later calling as a pastor and a preacher, but it remains for me a great summary verse of my vocation as a minister of the Gospel.

The Gospel is a powerful Word; it is “the power of God for salvation.” It is not simply a message to be communicated, nor is it only a piece of news to be conveyed.  It is the very power of God to save, a power contained in words preached and heard, a power released “from faith to faith.” It is the power of God to create faith and the power of God to sustain faith.

The Gospel is a revelatory Word, making known the mystery of the righteousness of God that comes not through our works of the Law, as no one will be declared righteous in the sight of God by works of the Law (Romans 3:20) but through trust in the accomplished work of Jesus Christ, who by His Blood is the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world (Romans 3:21-24).

The Gospel is a forensic Word, justifying the ungodly and declaring the sinner to be righteous before a righteous God, not with his or her own righteousness achieved by works of the Law, but with the perfect righteousness obtained once and for all by the perfect life of Jesus Christ under the Law and His unblemished sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the whole world.  “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”  (Romans 3:28).

The Gospel is a personal Word of salvation, delivering the once and for all work of Christ to the individual.  Christ on the cross is “Christ for all,” embodying all of humanity under the judgment of God, bearing the collective sin of the world in His Flesh.  Christ in the Gospel is “Christ for you,” the hearer.  “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  In the Gospel preached and heard, Christ for all is delivered as Christ for you.  The words “for you” require all hearts to believe; and theses words create and sustain the faith they require.

For this reason, the Gospel properly preached is preached in personal terms: “For you, sinner.”  Not simply “Jesus Christ died for the world” nor “Jesus Christ died for sinners in general” but “Jesus Christ died for you.” This is the power of God for salvation, the Word that reveals and declares that Jesus died for you specifically and personally, that He was put to death for your trespasses and raised for your justification, that were you the only sinner in the world, He would nevertheless have become Man, lived perfectly in your place, and died under His own Law so that in Him you would be saved.

Baptism, as a form of the Gospel, also preaches in personal and individual terms, joining one to the all-atoning death and life of Jesus (Romans 6:4) in a new and spiritual birth “from above” (John 3:5) as does the Lord’s Supper, placing into one’s own mouth the very sacrificial Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ who gave HIs Body and Blood for all on the cross.  Christ for all is Christ for you.  No doubt about it.

Whether poured, eaten and drunk, or preached, the Gospel is the power of God to create and sustain saving, justifying faith.  For this reason, it is to be preached to the unbeliever that he might believe, and to the believer that he might continue to believe. For this reason also, the Gospel must predominate in the Church’s preaching, for it is God’s proper work to justify sinners for Jesus’ sake.

Dr. Wyman Richardson—
I greatly appreciate this question, if for no other reason than to agree with you that the gospel is much more than the introduction to the Christian faith.  Some Christians have a very stunted understanding of the gospel in which they make the words “the gospel” conceptually synonymous with “getting saved” (to use the parlance of my own tradition).  But that’s a bit like saying that the word “love” is conceptually synonymous with the words “the reason two people get married.”

It’s not, of course, that the gospel isn’t inextricably bound up with salvation.  It is!  It’s just that it’s not only that.  Just as love is not only the foundation of a marriage, but also it’s daily fuel, so too the gospel is that great and grand truth which we receive for salvation as well as the daily, sustaining impetus of the Christian life.  The gospel isn’t first grade.  Rather, it’s first grade and a PhD (to push the analogy).  You don’t move past the gospel into “the deeper Christian life.”  Rather, you rest in the gospel and, as you walk with Jesus, grow deeper into it.  The gospel is the arena of the entire Christian life, not merely the doorway into it.

So in our church we’ve tried to create a kind of “gospel culture” by speaking of it faithfully (as opposed to speaking of it merely in the reductionist terminology mentioned above).  For instance, our church is working alongside some other churches to create a Christian food pantry in our community that will minister to the community through ministering to people’s needs.  I’m trying to couch this effort in our own church as a gospel-duty, or a gospel-privilege, rather.  It’s not, in other words, mere “outreach.”  It, and things like it, is really the gospel in action.  All of this was said a long time ago by St. Francis, of course, in his famous dictum, “Preach the gospel all the time and use words only when necessary.”

We also try to flesh this out didactically in and through the teaching ministry of the church. So, for instance, I try to be a gospel preacher in showing how the gospel is the mold for all of scripture and permeates the Bible from beginning to end.  I note as well that our Senior Adult Minister, Horace Keen, has been taking his group through Greg Gilbert’s helpful What is the Gospel?, which is an interesting and good thing to do even for senior adults.

So in this way, and others like it, we’re trying to envision “the gospel” as the hub from which all other ministry efforts emerge.  They simply cannot exist independent of that hub, and their full import cannot be grasped unless the connection between our efforts and the gospel are consistently articulated and stressed.

Rev. Daniel Jepsen—
I remember a wake-up call I got from another pastor a few years ago. He was describing a service he had been a part of, in which he and another pastor, after analyzing it, said it would have been “a good Jewish service”. What he meant by this was not to slam Judaism, but to point out that the worship and songs could have fit right into a religious service that did not recognize Christ’s work on the cross. In other words, it focused on God’s goodness and how to live wisely and virtuously in this world. But it was not centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I call this a “wake-up call” because God used it as something that forced me to evaluate the services I design. As pastor of a non-denominational evangelical church, I find the lack of denominational strictures and forms a very freeing thing, but one that can too easily be mishandled. It is no accident that churches like mine are often the first to follow the trends and fads of the current religious scene, or degenerate into some form of “this is what I like” liturgy.

How, then, do I try to make the gospel central in my preaching and practice? At my best, I do two things.

  • First, as I write the sermon, I actively seek God’s answer to the question, “What difference does the cross make here?” If the answer is, “not much”, then I revise the sermon. My goal is that the cross both inform and transform each sermon.
  • Secondly, I seek to structure the rest of the service around this answer. This means the choice of songs, public scripture readings, special music, or other elements. In our case, I have been moving away from most of the songs being sung before the sermon. I tend to put most of them after the sermon, and to form them as a response to what (hopefully) God said to us in that sermon.

Let me give you an example of this. This summer, I preached through some of the Psalms, and Psalm Eight was on my list. Now, this Psalm is only nine verses long, and could easily form the basis for a sermon on the dignity of man or something like that. I broke it into two weeks.

The first week we focused on the nature of God in relation to man, specifically His kindness to us and ennobling plan for us. The response to this is that we find our true place only in worship and submission to Him. So the first worship song focused first on the goodness and kindness of God. The second focused on the ultimate display of His kindness and goodness to us, the cross. The next song or two then were songs of repentance and commitment, based upon his great love for us. Between the sermon and the songs we had communion, since this seemed the best place to honor it.

The second week, we looked at the Psalm again, but this time focused on Jesus as the only one who fulfilled the role God had in mind for humanity, and how, because of Jesus’ perfect life and vicarious death, we can now be united to Him in fulfilling humanities role as God’s representatives over creation. I think the main song in the time of response was, “In Christ Alone”, though we added one or two others to represent our response to this.

I am not saying this way is perfect. I was saved in a Baptist church, and I know little of how the more “high church” traditions operate (which is one reason I love this website). But as a pastor who finds himself in a non-denominational church with a lot of freedom (too much?) this is how I try to keep the gospel central on Sunday morning.


  1. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    It’s so great to have this series back, even if Fr. Joe wasn’t representing us Anglicans today 😉

  2. Great discussion. However I’d love to see a discussion on what the gospel is. It often appears to me that people us the word gospel summarize their distinctive beliefs (unfortunately often the ones that create and maintain divisions). And often it usually includes a lot of proof texting from the epistles.

    But what ‘gospel’ did Jesus want us to preach?

    Mark 16:15 (NIV):

    He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.

    In the context of the gospel of Mark, I would suggest it was the same good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached from town to town, and that he sent his disciples out preaching.

    There are a lot of parables that describe the good news of the kingdom of God (or kingdom of Heaven) that are worth exploring, and I think Mark 1:14-15 give a hint as to the simplicity of the gospel.
    “And after the delivering up of John, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God,and saying — `Fulfilled hath been the time, and the reign of God hath come nigh, reform ye, and believe in the good news.’ (YLT)

    God’s kingdom is here!

    The reign of God is here!

    Change your life, believe this message!

    Did you know God’s power is available to you? You don’t have to do everything in your own strength and wisdom. If you allow God to rule in your life, instead of your selfish ambitions He will restore your life to what it was intended to be.

    What do you think? Is this the good news we are commanded to share with the whole world?

    Just my 2 cents… thanks for reading. God bless!

    • also: The early church frequently used phrases like “Jesus is Lord” which is pretty much the same as saying Jesus is king, or Jesus reigns.

      Is it possible their gospel message was centered more around who Jesus is in relation to us, and not so much around a theory of how the process of atonement all works.

      Sorry, now that was 3 cents worth…


    • “However I’d love to see a discussion on what the gospel is”
      Pastor Cwirla stated the gospel is “Christ died for you” with is implications for you X,Y,Z.

      • OK, yes that is a Scriptural truth… and it does fit with 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. But do we think that that is the gospel message that Jesus referred to in Mark 16:15, or anywhere else in the ‘gospels’?

        Was this the gospel message that Jesus sent his disciples out preaching in Luke 9:6? Likely not.

      • I guess to clarify how I’m seeing things. There are many great Scriptural truths that are good news stories. God loves you. God has a plan for you. God is trustworthy. God is Holy. Jesus died for us.

        If we need to pick one good news story and elevate it above the rest as “the gospel”, which one do we pick? And why?

        I’d suggest if we are serious about Jesus-shaped spirituality, we’d consider what good news message Jesus and His disciples may have preached.

        OK. But I understand I’m in the minority on this. I’m not sure if I have the backing of any current Christian tradition. (However I think all would agree that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus should reign in our lives)

        And I’m sorry Mike if you see this as a topic hijack… sorry. (But in my defense I think defining the gospel should come before finding ways to make it central.)

        God bless! Thanks.

        • You can go back a read a couple of posts on IM where this has been discussed:

          1. An Evangelical Untouchables discussion from 2009:

          2. My own “Gospel Definition” post:

          • Thanks Mike, I missed out on those posts. I could agree with your definition, it does include references to the good news of the kingdom of God. My only issue is it may be a bit longer than it needs to be. I know our traditions have emphasized the whole atonement piece, and it is interesting to theorize on the mystery of how that all works. But I don’t see that being emphasized as much in the early church. Yes it is part of Christ’s work, but for example if you look at the apostles creed you have a hard time finding the typical gospel message. There is a lot of other good news pieces in the apostles creed, but not the one that is most emphasized today.

            And I come back to the gospel mentioned in Mark 16:15. In the context of other teachings of Christ, what could this gospel message look like?

            Thanks for your time.

            God bless!

            • My “bumper sticker” edition would be: “Jesus the Messiah came to make all things new.” Each of those words is packed with the detail I pointed you to in my earlier post.

              As for Mark 16:15, I have doubts about its authenticity (please, no replies to this here!), so I probably wouldn’t base too much on it. But Romans 1 (1-5, 16-17) is a good place to start, as is 1Cor 15.

          • Mike (and many, many others),

            Thank you so much for the conversation at this site. I just found it recently and it has been a God-send. I’m thankful for the dialogue started by iMonk and continued by his friends.
            I’m a seminary student at an Evangelical seminary (after growing up the son of a Reformed pastor, worked with Young Life for a decade, and am now on staff at a church in a mainline denomination. From what I have read the last month on this site – I am definitely wandering in a post-Evangelical wilderness and trying to figure out some sort of ancient-future faith. I struggle with calling, ordination, and many others.
            Lately, I have been involved in many discussions on the nature of the Gospel and this post has been extremely applicable.
            THANK YOU (sorry to raise my voice) for a definition of the Gospel that includes the good news that Jesus proclaimed. Thank you for a definition that goes beyond my own personal get out of jail free card.
            Thank you to you all for the ongoing conversation…

  3. Thanks for the great insights!

  4. David Cornwell says

    In the church where I am now a member the pastor leads a bible study each Wednesday evening based on the lectionary passage on which his sermon will be based. He jots a few points on the board. We read, listen, and think. Then we discuss the passage, the text, the context, and how it might speak to us now. There are several retired or semi-retired pastors in the group, but also laypersons. The pastor makes every attempt to be true to the text, not reading into it some far fetched launching point for a topical sermon.

    After the study we join with other groups for supper. These groups gather in the church on Wednesday evening for various purposes, such as choir, youth, another study group, etc. The meal and fellowship are good as we sit around tables of about 5 persons each. After the meal prayer concerns are mentioned, and someone leads in a short prayer. I mention this because I consider the gospel to be relevant to every part of life, and especially our gathering together for a meal and sharing with each other. The gospel comes down from the pedestal and into the stream of life.

  5. Fr. Ernesto— “We get too caught up in worrying about whether works will earn our way to Heaven. Please drop that argument.”

    I agree with you 100 percent.

    This is how I see grace and works.

    My salvation is due to grace alone.

    I started this journey with only the tiniest bit of faith. Whatever happened to change the course of my life could not possibly be due to anything other than grace.

    My faith grew and I came to realize that I truly love Christ.

    Christ asked us to love one another and to care for one another. If I walk past a thirsty man and fail to offer a cup of cool water, I am no less saved. But I certainly have passed up a great opportunity to say, “My Savior, I love you.”

    So to me works are not about what Christ is going to do for us. It is a response to loving Him. That it enriches the relationship in so many unaccepted ways is merely the nature of being in a living, loving relationship.

    • “If I walk past a thirsty man and fail to offer a cup of cool water, I am no less saved. But I certainly have passed up a great opportunity to say, ‘My Savior, I love you.'”

      Wow. What a great way to look at it!!!! Thanks, Sarah.

    • Our works should always be a loving response to both God and our neighbor. However, my concern is for those who do not do anything is they do not FEEL that they are doing it with the right attitude. Let me give you an example. When our children were young, it did not matter whether we FELT like changing a diaper. It did not matter if it was a loving response to our baby’s need to be cleansed. It did not matter whether a diaper was being changed with the right attitude or not. The bottom line is that the diaper had to be changed and the baby cleansed.

      All too often we need to do “works” whether or not we feel like it or whether or not it feels like we are doing it out of love. We get too concerned about whether a work done out of a bad attitude is really a good work. Let me put it this way. If a person is hungry and you give him/her food, they may not like your attitude (if it is too obvious) but they will certainly be grateful for the food.

      • Fr. Ernesto

        “However, my concern is for those who do not do anything is they do not FEEL that they are doing it with the right attitude.”

        Well, my personal story is that for far too long I was a member of a church in which the leaders were constantly reminding us that if we “do not do anything (for God)” we should check our spiritual health — and this drove me nuts and eventually out from this church to the wilderness.

        My problem is how we define those who do not do anything (for God)? I know that there are a lot of places in the Bible where Jesus says “if you do not do XYZ, you cannot be my disciple”. But does Jesus really want us to feel guilty for not doing enough for him or does he rather prefer our joy for Him removing all condemnation from our shoulders? Even the condemnation for not doing anything.

        I hope you do not get the impression that I am advocating not doing anything, but if you could explain little bit who these people actually are and whether you think that Jesus wants them to feel guilty.

        Peace, Martin

        • In Proverbs is says that fear is the beginning of wisdom. Because of our modern psychologized society, we try to do away with any “fears” that people have. But, a little guilt is a good thing and can be the goad that drives one back to the Lord and to the right path. This is why Saint Paul argued that the Law was good and holy, but that its job was only to be a schoolteacher to drive us to Christ. Appropriate guilt can drive us back to Christ. There was a reason why Saint Paul told the Corinthians to turn over that man to Satan so that his soul might be saved. May I mention that this is certainly an old-fashioned fear inducing punishment?

          The funny part is that as we are re-united with Christ, we sigh in relief and we do find that love does cast out fear.

          I know that there are obsessive personalities who go around feeling guilty all the time. But, frankly, they are much more rare than your average fundamentalist would like one to believe. I sigh whenever I read those comments by converted liturgical folk who speak about living their life in fear of going to hell until they chucked that belief and went over to “once saved always saved.” Their testimony always seems to want to make everyone else in those liturgical churches be full of cowering fear. Sadly, as any priest or pastor can tell you, we have very few people who are even very concerned about what God thinks of their actions.

  6. This is The Good News to me.

    Our Savior lives and relentlessly seeks every lost lamb.

    No matter who we think we are in our own eyes, we, every one of us, are lost lambs.

    In our lostness we develop a really bad habit of thinking mirages are desirable paths.

    Unfortunately this generally leads deeper into the briers and brambles.

    He calls to us. Not because we deserve such kindness, but because His capacity to love us is more astonishing than I can comprehend.

    Grace truly is amazing.

  7. So glad to see this series back again!

  8. So, no female liturgical gangstas?