I allow to the makers of systems and their followers to invent and use what distinctions they please and to call things by what names they think fit. But I cannot allow to them, or to any man, an authority to make a religion for me or to alter that which God hath revealed. (John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, written in 1695)
Christians are commanded by Jesus Christ to make disciples of all the nations, and to wait patiently for his return (Mt 28:18-20). But in order to make disciples, we need a message to proclaim (Ro 10:14). What is this message? What does the bible say regarding this Gospel (good news) we are to declare? If we are biblical Christians, determining the contents of this message is vital. We must be careful to preach the same message as Jesus and his apostles preached—neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.
Unfortunately men throughout history and in our time develop what they believe are correct theologies, and then point to their system as the Gospel, saying in effect, “This is what the bible teaches. Believe in my theological system and you will be saved.” They suggest that their interpretation, not the bible exclusively, is the “Truth”. They have in effect created an idol—their religious system, another mediator besides Christ — and they claim it has saving power.
Others do the opposite, preaching only part of the Gospel. They tell us that Jesus died for our sins, and that we should repent and accept him as Savior. This is an essential, scriptural teaching, but they don’t tell us about God’s Kingdom and what role Jesus has in it. The fact that this Kingdom will rule over the earth and bring untold blessings from God to mankind is withheld from us. This is surprising considering Jesus preached at length about the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven, an equivalent expression).
The complete Gospel, as recorded in the bible, is a simple yet profound proclamation. Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ, King of God’s Kingdom, who died as a ransom sacrifice for our sins. He was resurrected by God, and now sits at the right hand of his father in heaven. He will one day return in glory to rule over the earth and to judge mankind. His purpose is to reconcile all things back to God his father; to win back what Adam had lost.
This is the essential Gospel, or good news. For salvation, we are only required to believe that Jesus is this promised Messiah, coming to him with a repentant heart, accepting him as our Lord and Savior, and committing ourselves to do God’s will. The bible certainly teaches many other things, but all other scriptural teachings in the New Testament are based on this firm and primary foundation: that Jesus is the Christ. These other things can enhance our understanding and appreciation of God and His purposes, but our salvation does not depend on them.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 3:11)
The Gospel Jesus Preached
Jesus always made the Kingdom of God the focus of his teaching.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15)
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. (Lk 8:1).
… and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. (Lk 9:2)
What is the Kingdom of God? It is the very kingdom that the Jews were waiting for, based on their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures: namely, that God would send them his Son, the Messiah or Christ (equivalent expressions), and he would rule over all the nations in righteousness. The Messiah would usher in a new age of peace, justice and spiritual blessings never before seen on earth. As Jews, Jesus’ first disciples would be familiar with messianic prophecies that described the Kingdom, like the following:
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Ps 2:7-12)
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Is 11:1-9)
These prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, and many more like them, pointed to Christ, who would be a descendant, or a “shoot from the stump of Jesse”, the father of King David. This was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ (Mt 1:6, Lk 3:31). They also described the paradise-like conditions on earth under God’s Kingdom.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ announced that the “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Lk 17:21, NASB, Updated Version). He could say this because he was the king of that kingdom. From Jesus’ time forward, known as the Gospel Age, Christians would be part of that kingdom under Christ (Col 1:13), even though it was not yet established over the earth+. He would “rule in the midst of his enemies” (Ps 110:2), since the world was not yet under the control of God’s Kingdom (2 Cor 4:4). The task of Jesus’ disciples would be to represent him as ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20) and to preach the good news and make disciples (Mt 28:19, 20). They were to remain morally and politically separate from the world (Jn 17:16, 18:36) and wait patiently for the return of their Lord (1 Tim 6:13-16, Mt 24:13). Thus the Kingdom of God would be implemented in two phases: first during the Gospel Age, when Jesus would develop his true disciples, and finally at his return, when the Kingdom would rule over the entire earth, replacing the governments of men (Dan 2:44). At this time his disciples would rule with him (Mt 19:28, Lk 22:30), as the Hebrew Scriptures had prophesied (Dan 7:18).
So this was the biblical Messiah. Sadly, most did not recognize him. Christians, however, do recognize him and gladly yield to his headship. They look forward to his return in glory when he will rule over the entire earth and will judge mankind in justice and righteousness. His model prayer will then finally be fulfilled:
“This, then, is how you should pray: ” ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:9-10)
Jesus also taught that he is the one mediator between God and men.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (Jn 14:6)
However, it would be after his glorification that the fundamental teaching of his ransom sacrifice for sins, and his exclusive role as mediator would be revealed in detail. Jesus Christ would teach us this through his apostles, after first pouring out the Holy Spirit on them at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
The Gospel the Apostles Preached
In the book of Acts we note the disciples, in addition to preaching the Kingdom, make explicit the necessity of accepting Jesus as the Christ where Jesus had left it implicit in the gospels.
But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts 8:12)
They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. (Acts 28:23)
Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:31)
In many cases, the disciples only required their listeners to believe that Jesus was the Christ; that salvation was through his name.
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:36-39)
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 5:42)
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. (Acts 8:5)
Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:22)
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:42,43)
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, ” he said. 4Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. (Acts 17:2-4)
Paul, in his pastoral letters, confirms that the good news has not changed:
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1Cor 1:22-25)
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1Cor 2:1-2)
I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)
As does the Apostle John:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:30, 31)
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1 Jn 3:23)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal 1:6-9)
Other Gospels were already being propounded in Paul’s day. It is no different in our time. Many religions have arisen which preach elements of truth, but either add to or subtract from the Gospel preached by Jesus and his apostles. For example, in the late 1800’s, Charles Russell, founder of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, developed a theology called the Divine Plan of the Ages, which he and his followers refer to as “The Truth”. It is a complex dispensational system complete with a diagrammatic chart to help the reader comprehend it. To many of his followers, his writings came to be seen as authoritative as the bible itself. He even suggested that the Great Pyramid in Egypt was a revelation from God of this “Divine Plan”.
If, as we believe, God has in this great mountain of stone caused, to be outlined the Divine Plan of the Ages, it undoubtedly will tell its wonderful story in trumpet tones, “in that day.” What we can appreciate of its teachings in harmony with the Bible we find wonderfully comforting in this day when skepticism is so rife. (The Great Pyramid, A Divine Oracle, by Charles Russell)
Upon the death of Russell, a schism developed between those that had followed Russell and those that followed the new leader, Joseph Rutherford. Over time Rutherford distanced himself from Russell, and developed a new religion which today is known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They continue to make the same mistake as Russell did, thinking they are “God’s Channel” and calling their own brand of theology “The Truth”. They even claim that their organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, was divinely appointed by God, and made belief in this an article of faith, something Russell would have detested.
It is imperative that we strengthen our confidence now. Without confidence in our Christian brothers, in Jehovah’s organization and, above all, in Jehovah himself, survival will be impossible. (Watchtower Magazine, August 15 1998, p.19)
Yes, in all aspects of life, we see God’s people determined to serve loyally with Jehovah’s organization. (Watchtower Magazine, August 1, 1997, p.8)
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have in fact created an idol out of their organization.
The Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, developed a theology remarkably similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Armstrong believed that he was the unique and only apostle of the end times, chosen by Christ himself, and that his theology was essential for salvation.
God’s Church today, as in the first century, receives its teachings from the living Christ, through an apostle [Armstrong], just as in A.D. 31. (Mystery of the Kingdom of God, Chapter 7, Herbert W. Armstrong)
In addition to belief in Christ, the Worldwide Church of God required believers to obey the Ten Commandments and other laws, like tithing. Note what Tomorrow’s World magazine, founded by followers of Armstrong, says on page 26 of their Jan-Feb 2003 issue:
Those who pervert the grace of God are saying by their conduct: “We are free to transgress the Ten Commandments; we don’t need to obey God and keep His commandments!” That is wrong! That form of rebellion is carnality, not conversion! The truth is that keeping God’s commandments show us how to love God.
A Christian certainly would not do wrong by keeping the Ten Commandments, but to require this as an article of faith is adding to the Gospel that Jesus and the apostles preached. Paul showed explicitly that the Law of Moses did not apply to Christians (Col 2:13-14)
The Mormons have outdone these other groups by actually creating their own bible, the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon is another witness that Jesus Christ really lived, that He was and is God’s Son. It contains the writings of ancient prophets. One of these, Lehi, lived in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. God commanded Lehi to lead a small group of people to the American continent. There they became a great civilization. (www.mormon.org – The Church)
The theology of the Mormons bears little resemblance to that taught in the Bible.
You lived with your Heavenly Father as one of His spirit children before you began your life on Earth. You were happy there, but God knew that you could not continue to progress unless you left Him for a time. (www.mormon.org – Purpose of Life)
These fringe religions are not the only ones that preach “another Gospel”. The Catholic Church, with over one billion professed members, also claims to be the one true Church on earth.
“This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” (www.vatican.va – Profession of Faith – The Profession of the Christian Faith)
In addition, Catholicism teaches that the Pope represents Christ on earth, that members should worship the Virgin Mary, pray to their favorite saints, and confess their sins to a priest. None of these things of course were taught by Jesus or his apostles.
Sadly, Protestantism has not been much better. The vast majority of Protestant churches teach that Christians all go to heaven to live in bliss while non-Christians go to hell to be tortured for eternity. They say little or nothing about the Kingdom of God, which was the focus of Jesus’ preaching. It can be easily shown that the doctrine of eternal torment is unscriptural, and in fact is slanderous to God’s good name. See What Say the Scriptures about Hell? published by The Herald Magazine more information. Additionally, Catholics and Protestants alike make belief in the Trinity doctrine a requirement for salvation — the sign of a true Christian. Protestants and Catholics see the Trinity as a fundamental belief that all Christians must accept. A typical definition of the Trinity is as follows:
By the Trinity we mean that there are three eternal distinctions in the one divine essence, known respectively as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three distinctions are three persons, and so we may speak of the tripersonality of God. The Athanasian Creed expresses the Trinitarian belief thus: “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, Henry Clarence Thiessen, p. 135)
Note that this definition is nowhere to be found in scripture. Regarding the nature of God, “Trinity”, “eternal distinctions”, “divine essence”, “tripersonality”, and “substance” are not found in the bible, and in fact are derived from philosophical sources and pagan religions. Even Thiessen admits that the word trinity is not found in the bible, coming into use after the death of the apostles. Historians generally agree that the Trinity doctrine, in its current form, was not formulated by the Church until the fourth or fifth century. It certainly was not taught explicitly by either Jesus or his apostles, so there is no scriptural basis to make it an article of faith. It is a doctrine of men only. It must not be preached as Good News–for this would be adding to the message of of Jesus and his apostles. For further information see Is Jesus God Almighty? Is the Trinity Scriptural?
It is clear from the Scriptures that the good news Christians today should preach is that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, the King of God’s Kingdom, who died as a ransom sacrifice for our sins, was resurrected, and now sits at the right hand of God the father. He will one day return to rule over the earth and judge mankind in righteousness and justice, restoring all that Adam lost. This is the essential message Jesus’ disciples preached, and we are not authorized to add to it or subtract from it. If we believe Jesus is this Christ and repent, accepting him as our Savior and Lord, we will have life. There are no other requirements for salvation.