2020 was a hard year. Yet with the events that have already unfolded in 2021, many church leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering what God is doing globally and, more specifically, in the United States of America. In light of the pandemic, church attendance is declining, and many churches are struggling financially. If the church was fragile before the pandemic in the midst of the secular North American culture, what are we to say now? Will the local church decline even further?
From the outside looking in, it might look like the church is dying a slow and painful death. Yet from God’s eternal and sovereign perspective, the Bride of Christ is exactly where he wants her to be. There is hope for the church in these tumultuous times. This hope has nothing to do with bigger and better evangelistic programs, giving pledges, children’s programs, or more “culturally relevant” song selections, all of which can be good things. This hope comes only through the nature and promise of the gospel.
The Nature of the Gospel: What It Is
Paul writes to the church at Rome, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). The power of God for salvation implies that salvation is not found within the church or brought about by human effort – it is an act of God alone. The good news of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save souls.
This salvation encompasses the active obedience of Christ (his life lived for us) and his passive obedience (his death on the cross for our salvation). Both Christ’s active and passive obedience are imputed to us so that we are considered righteous in the sight of God. We brought nothing to the table. Our best works are as filthy rags in God’s sight (Is. 64:6). Jonathan Edwards says it well, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
God’s gospel goes forth with power to save those who are lost in sin and to draw them to believe in Jesus Christ. Nothing can thwart God’s plan. Isaiah 55:10-11 states, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word cannot and will not return void.
Be encouraged by the nature of the gospel. It cannot be stopped and will accomplish the purpose of God to save his elect.
The Nature of the Gospel: Two Characteristics
The gospel’s power contains two aspects of growth: spiritual growth and numerical growth. Paul says in Colossians 1, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing – as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:5-6).
The term “bear fruit” refers to the spiritual growth of the church. “Increase” denotes both spiritual and numerical growth. The gospel actively causes the church to bear fruit and actively causes the church to increase. Both types of growth are necessary, yet neither is accomplished without the gospel working in individuals’ hearts.
This simple concept brings freedom and joy for the pastor, deacon, bible study leader, and layperson because it allows them to live with confidence in the gospel of God’s grace. We work hard at the calling we’ve been given, but God does the work (Col. 1:28-29). This power does not come from how many programs the church offers or how well pastors preach. It is the gospel they preach that has eternal power. The gospel alone brings about spiritual growth and multiplication. This is wonderful life-altering news, and it gets even better.
In addition to the nature of the gospel, it also comes with a promise.
The Promise of the Gospel
In Matthew 16, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responds by saying, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). It is not upon Peter that Christ will build his church, but upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. The gates of hell will not overcome this reality because the gospel is infinitely stronger than the powers of darkness.
Through the phrase “the gates of hell will not prevail,” we learn that the gates of hell are put on the defensive side of the battle, not the offensive. The gospel promises that there is victory for the Christian as an individual and as a member of the church – both local and universal. Christ has already obtained the victory over darkness for his people on the cross. Christ has won the battle, and we have an eternal hope.
As we look at the state of the church in our American culture, it appears that the church is drowning and being suffocated by the culture. The gospel has the power to redeem and cause spiritual and numerical growth. Even more than this, though, the gospel comes with a promise to prevail over darkness and our sinfulness. As Christians, our hope is fixed and sure because God is on his throne, and Christ is the head of his church. God has his church right where he wants her.
Perhaps all of this seems too hypothetical or impractical. In the next article, we will explore the book of Acts and how the gospel goes forth despite opposition both inside and outside of the church.
Brittany Proffitt lives in southern Ohio and holds a BA in Religion. She is passionate about Scripture and how God’s Word impacts individuals’ hearts and lives.