This June, members from Southern Baptist churches around the country will come together for our annual meeting in Dallas, Texas. As many of you know, I have allowed my name to be placed in nomination for president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This is a weighty decision for me and one I take by the counsel of the leaders of The Summit Church and with the encouragement of my wife, Veronica.
As I prepare for this summer’s annual meeting, I have been reflecting on where I believe God is calling us, as a Convention, in the days ahead. The basic passions I expressed when I was nominated for SBC president in 2016 have not changed, and as I have written elsewhere, I am more committed to them than ever.
Chief among my passions for the SBC at this time is that we reinforce our identity as a gospel people, putting the gospel above all. We do not find our unity in worship styles or in views on eschatology or in political positions. We find our unity in the gospel. Whatever preferences we have must be secondary to this unifying standard.
What Is the Gospel?
I know that the word “gospel” has gotten to be so common in some circles that it has become stripped of its rich meaning. But the word was so central to Jesus’ ministry that I simply can’t get away from it. So what, exactly, do we mean when we say “gospel”?
The key word in all the gospel is “substitution.” At the Summit, we say that the gospel in four words is, “Jesus in my place.” Jesus went to the cross, not merely to die for you but to die instead of you. He took your burden of sin so you could put on the mantle of his righteousness. That’s the good news of the gospel: Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death we were condemned to die.
This principle of substitution separates Jesus’ gospel from every other religion. The great religions of the world all teach that you must do something to please God. Go here. Say this. Rub this. Touch that. Do this. Don’t do that. Pray this. Chant that. If you do these things often enough and well enough, God will accept you—or so you hope.
The gospel, on the other hand, is about what Jesus has done for you. In every other religion, the prophet is a teacher that gives you a plan to earn God’s favor. In Christianity, you get the story of a Savior who has earned God’s favor for you and gives it to you as a gift. You can spell religion “D-O.” You can spell the gospel “D-O-N-E.”
The Gospel Is for Christians, Too
Those of us in the church don’t usually deny the gospel. But we do tend to forget it quite a bit. For many of us, the gospel functions solely as the entry rite into Christianity; it is the prayer we pray to begin our relationship with Jesus; the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of the “real” Christian life.
The gospel, however, is not just the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity; it is the pool itself. It is not only the way we begin in Christ; it is the way we grow in Christ. As one pastor puts it, the gospel is not just the ABCs of Christianity, but it is the A-Z. All of the Christian life flows from the good news of what Jesus has done.
That’s why growth in Christ is never going beyond the gospel, but going deeper into the gospel. The purest waters from the spring of life are found by digging deeper, not wider, into the gospel well.
We Southern Baptists have always been a gospel people, and I pray that we will constantly and loudly and unashamedly talk about the gospel. None of our Bible lessons will be complete without it, because without the story of God’s grace the Bible can become instructions to obey without the power to obey. None of our ministry strategies will take off without the gospel, because we aren’t running a business based on pragmatics; we’re responding to God’s lavish grace with open hands. Nothing we do should ever lack a gospel-motivation and a gospel-focus.
We cannot remind ourselves of this truth often enough, because our hearts are hard-wired to run back to works-based righteousness. Grace is not natural to us, and so the gospel remains news even for those of us who have followed Christ for years.
As I often remind the people at my church, this kind of repetition is healthy and necessary. After all, when I’m sick of saying it, my leaders have usually just heard it. And when they’re sick of hearing it, the rest of the church has just become aware of it. That’s the kind of persistence we need when it comes to the message of the gospel.