What Happens When We Turn The Good News Into Bad News?

The word “Gospel” is so familiar and frequently used that it is possible to lose sight of its genuine meaning, “good news.”This question is vital as we face a series of movements within our churches which seek to redefine the meaning of the Gospel. In each case we are being offered “another Gospel” (Gal 1:6). The Good News of Christ faces a threat on the order of that faced by the Galatian Christians. The fathers in the early church spoke the Gospel, but their concerns tended to focus on apologetics, the Trinity, Christology, the canon of Scripture and the church. As often as not the “Gospel” message among the early fathers was that Christ had come, and salvation is available to those who trust Christ and behave themselves. This was not good news for sinners. By the thirteenth century the Gospel of grace was understood as a progressive transformation of a person’s moral life. The gospel equaled sanctification. People were thought to be morally sick and in need of an injection of a medicinal substance called grace. In this scheme, one is as justified as he is sanctified, and sanctification comes by cooperating with this medicine (grace) received in the sacraments. Their Gospel exclaimed: “salvation is available for those who cooperate with grace and obey the Law.” This was more bad news for sinners. Instead of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us, we were left with a partial righteousness worked in us. In contrast, Martin Luther and John Calvin believed the Bible contained “two words”: Law and Gospel.(1) “Law” describes anything in Scripture which says, “Do this and live” (Luke 10:28), while “Gospel” describes anything which says, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

…Some argue that the Gospel is not that we have been declared right before God, but that we are members of the church. They argue that the role of faith in justification is not simply to receive Christ and rest in His righteousness, but to cooperate actively with grace to keep what we have already been given in baptism. They argue that the Bible teaches a justification which can be lost if we do not keep the law. Read more»

R. Scott Clark, “When The Good News Becomes Bad,” Evangelium (2010)

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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7 comments

  1. “By the thirteenth century the Gospel of grace was understood as a progressive transformation of a person’s moral life.”

    Well, clearly not everyone understood it that way.

    “”Lord, Thou dost summon me to Thyself, and I am coming to Thee, not by my own merits, but solely through Thy mercy, which mercy I crave from Thee in virtue of Thy Blood.” – the dying words of St. Catherine of Siena, 1380 A.D.

    • Julian,

      Catherine’s sentence is compatible with the dominant 13th cent view. The merits (eg condign) were said to be Spirit-wrought. What was needed was a recognition that the merits by which we stand before God are alien to us and proper to Christ and imputed to us.

  2. Thank you Scott for posting Kim Riddlebarger’s compelling article. I am an Aussie who knows little of church life in OC, although casually familiar with Schuller and Warren. I say compelling because it gives me good reason to pause and think carefully given that a few of us, “unchurched Church” believers, [maybe de-churched Church] who first met today, are considering how we can re engage for edifice-free worship and fellowship, without all the distracting and meaningless trappings of the evangelical culture, all the while remaining true to our Father, his Spirit and the Word.
    Thank you.
    Aussie Pete. 65 y.o.

    (Scott, may I send you a brief two-page paper for your consideration and comment, at your pleasure, concerning the circumstances under which a group of believers can legitimately be identified as the ecclesia in situ; somewhat contra to mainstream evangelicalism.)

  3. But I think, that we also always must remember some another important details. I mean this:

    “Moreover, as hatred of sin, which is the beginning of repentance, first gives us access to the knowledge of Christ, who manifests himself to none but miserable and afflicted sinners, groaning, laboring, burdened, hungry, and thirsty, pining away with grief and wretchedness, so if we would stand in Christ, we must aim at repentance, cultivate it during our whole lives, and continue it to the last. Christ came to call sinners, but to call them to repentance.” (Institutes, III.3.20)

    Also:

    “if we have true fellowship in his death, our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin becomes dead, so that the corruption of our original nature is never again in full vigor (Rom. 6:5, 6). If we are partakers in his resurrection, we are raised up by means of it to newness of life, which conforms us to the righteousness of God”. (Institutes, III.3.9).

    And, of course that

    “man is justified freely by faith alone, and yet that holiness of life, real holiness, as it is called, is inseparable from the free imputation of righteousness” (Institutes, III.3.1). “We dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor of a justification which can exist without them: the only difference is, that while we acknowledge that faith and works are necessarily connected, we, however, place justification in faith, not in works” (III.16.1).

    I heard that some of puritans hold the teaching, named “preparationism”. May be, this has a sence, especially in nowadays.

    • Ihor,

      There is not “but” necessary here. An “and” might be appropriate but my intent, in this article, is to remind the reader of an essential Reformed truth, which had become obscured by ignorance and error. One cannot say everything one brief essay nor should one try.

      Calvin was NOT a preparations. He was simply describing the consequences of the regenerating and justifying grace of God. It is those whom God freely justifies whom he also freely sanctifies. As we come to faith, the first thing we ordinarily come to know is the greatness of our sin and misery. This is why he speaks of the beginning of repentance, which is is always inchoate in this life. New life and true faith, through which the Spirit unites to Christ, leads to progressive (if incomplete) sanctification in this life.

      Preparationism, i.e., the Romanist notion that the sinner can prepare himself for grace is Pelagian and to be repudiated utterly.

  4. Thank you, dr. Clark, I understand.

    It seems, that “preparationism” was a puritan invention against the antinomianism, as I can understand. Wikipedia says, that among preparationists were such good authors as Hooker, Shepard, Perkins, Ames, Sibbes.

    I’m impressed, how general public can misuse and misunderstood our doctrines of grace (Jude 1:4), and this lead them to antinomianism and etc. I see what circumstances brought “preparationism” to life.

    • Ihor,

      Rome invented preparationism. Some of the English Reformed have been accused of appropriating a version of it. Some may have done but we should be careful about charing “the Puritans” with being preparationists.

      The solution to antinomianism and neonomianism is the same: know the greatness of one’s sin and misery, how we are redeemed from all our sins and misery (by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone), and how we ought to live in light of the grace of God in Christ.

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