“Around the Whole Gospel”: The Four Canons (A Review)

If you stand on the South Korea side of the Demilitarized Zone and look into North Korea, you will see a town. The North Koreans call it “Peace Village.” It was actually constructed in the DMZ by North Korea in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. They say that 200 people live there. It has the fourth tallest flagpole in the world, homes, shops, a tall water tower, a hospital, fields, farm equipment, buildings, and streets. From time to time you can hear music playing, coming seemingly from the homes and businesses. At night, the lights of the town come on.

All in all, “Peace Village” appears to be a vibrant little town.

Except for one problem. It is fake. It is empty. It is an empty façade. Except for a few workers that clean the streets and carry on other tasks, nobody lives there and apparently nobody ever has. The buildings appear not to have actual floors. They are empty shells with lights at the top. Many of the windows, upon close examination, or simply painted onto the walls. The lights are turned on by the state, as is the music. The lights are one but literally no one is home.

The South Koreans refer to “Peace Village” as “Propaganda Village.” It appears to have been built by the North Koreans as a move in psychological warfare. It is intended to communicate to those looking at it from South Korea that North Korea is healthy and prosperous and the people are happy there. It is ostensibly intended to lure defectors to the North from the South.

It has all the appearance of life—the externals are in place, everything looks right, the lights are on, the music is playing—but there just is not actually anything there. There is no life there.

I would like to talk about church.

That which makes the church the church is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

Without if, we are simply “Peace Village”: an empty husk with the lights and music on.

We have committed ourselves to being “an authentic family around the gospel” because we do not want to be an empty shell. We want to be alive. And the gospel alone is what makes us alive!

If the church loses the gospel, it loses that which makes the church the church.

We begin by asking, first of all, what the gospel is. Simply put: The gospel is the good news that though we were dead in our sins, God has come to us in Jesus and offered us forgiveness and life, now and forever, through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and through Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and hell in His resurrection from the dead.

The gospel is the church’s greatest treasure. It is the area of our greatest stewardship. It is our greatest message. It is our greatest hope. And it is our greatest power.

In the first chapter of Mark, Mark makes if abundantly clear just how foundational the gospel is to the existence and character of the church. The very first verse says:

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So the whole story of Jesus, Mark says—of who He is and what He came to do—is gospel, is good news! Then, some verses down, we read:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God

So the gospel is that which Jesus proclaimed. Mark 1:14 marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry and it positions the gospel right in the center of it. In other words: the gospel was the core of what Jesus announced and demonstrated! Then, in the next verse, we read:

15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Here we hear Jesus’ actual sermon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In saying this, Jesus is drawing us into the gospel, inviting us to receive it and to embrace it. The gospel is also bound up with a changed and transformed life: “repent and believe in the gospel.”

So, to recap, in Mark 1:

  • Jesus’ life and ministry and work is His gospel.
  • The gospel was at the heart of what Jesus had to say and to do.
  • The gospel is what we are called to receive.

How on earth, then, can a group of people hope to be a church if they do not hold fast to the gospel! It must be our defining message and character and heart as well! The gospel is the sine qua non of the church, the “without which nothing” of the church!

This fact makes what has happened to one Lutheran church in San Francisco all the more heartbreaking. Originally founded in 1884, this church, that used to be committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, has now changed its name to Herchurch and is “a Goddess-inclusive congregation and ministry.” Its desire, it says, is to “honor the Goddess and Divine Feminine.” It has hired the first openly transgender minister and bishop ordained in the Lutheran church. It has placed “little idols and carvings of gods throughout the church.” One of their ministers is called a “Priestess Witch” who “offers magical gifts” and astrological readings which offer “guidance from the stars.” The denomination has not rebuked or censured this church in the least.[1]

One former member who moved away and recently returned wrote of his anguish at what he encountered in the service. He wrote:

I finally got around to visiting herchurch in San Francisco on Sunday May 20, 2018–Pentecost. What I found there was not Lutheran or Christian in any way. Those who were present that Sunday did not illustrate any knowledge or understanding of the Holy Trinity, sin, forgiveness, salvation, Christ’s resurrection, Christ’s status as the Son of God, any creed, or any element of Christian or Lutheran teachings or worship. If the “smell test” for a Christian church is “Was Jesus present (or even welcome)?,” herchurch failed.[2]

My goodness! How tragic! This whole mess brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s great observation, “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” Indeed!

If we lose the gospel, we lose what makes the church the church.

If the church loses the gospel, it will turn to an inferior gospel.

More than that, if we lose the gospel, an inferior gospel will take its place. Paul makes this abundantly clear in Galatians 1 where he writes:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

You will note Paul’s dismay (1) that the Galatians had abandoned the one true gospel of Jesus Christ and (2) that the Galatians had turned instead to an alternative, false, different gospel. He points out that, in fact, there really is only one true gospel. Even so, the church, in abandoning the one true gospel, will inevitably try to replace it with another.

This is unacceptable. In fact, Paul says in verse 8, all alternative gospels must be rejected, even if it comes from an angel or an apostle. Only the one, true saving gospel of Jesus Christ should be accepted. All other gospels condemn us. What is more, those who peddle false gospels are accursed.

Each age tempts the church with different kinds of false gospels. All of them tempt us away from the true gospel. Let us try to identify the false gospels of our age. It seems to me that four are currently fashionable. They are:

  • The gospel of political messianism (right or left)
  • The gospel of self-affirmation
  • The gospel of legalism
  • The gospel of American materialism

The gospel of political messianism tempts the church to overly-align itself with this or that political figure or this or that political party under the mistaken belief that political alliance with worldly movements can usher in the kingdom. This happens on both the right and the left. I am not speaking here of responsible Christian political involvement. Nor am I saying that this or that plank in this or that party might not overlap with good Christian conviction. But I am talking about the reckless wedding of the church to politicians or political entities under the assumption that earthly powers will ultimately usher in the reign of Christ or bring about a “Christian society.” In this way, politicians become messiahs and political creeds replace the gospel.

The gospel of self-affirmation says that the greatest good and the highest calling of the church is to affirm and celebrate whatever those in the church and in the world think they are and think should be celebrated about them. In this gospel, the concepts of sin and repentance and transformation are abandoned in favor of outright affirmation. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” morphs into the members saying, “Celebrate and affirm, for I am at hand.”

The gospel of legalism is a gospel of rules and customs and arbitrary preferences. This church wants to go back to the law, to the yoke. Control is the order of the day, and inordinate power is usually given to those who make the rules.

And the gospel of American materialism enshrines upward mobility, status, and comfort as the gospel, as the heartbeat of the church. Money becomes the end-all-be-all of the church. This church worships the golden calf of gold itself!

There are countless other false gospels! Beware, church, beware!

The gospel of Jesus saves.

False gospels condemn.

If the church loses the gospel, it abandons that which creates internal cohesion and that which compels us to external witness.

The great tragedy of false gospels is that they cause the church to abandon that which binds believers together in the church and that which the church should be offering to those outside the church!

The Internal Cohesion of the Gospel

In three different letters, Paul makes very interesting comments about how the gospel works in helping the church be the church. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand

The gospel, Paul says, (1) was preached, (2) was received, and (3) is that in which the church “stands.” This idea of “standing” in the gospel is worthy of deep consideration. We do not merely receive it for salvation, we “stand” in the gospel. It is our foundation and our anchor. Our lives together as a church are lived out of and off of the gospel that saves us!

In Galatians 2, Paul writes of confronting Peter when he saw that Peter would not eat with Gentile Christians. Peter had been eating with them until some of the Jewish believers entered the room. Then Peter got up and left the table, communicating that even though these Gentiles were all believers, the Gentile believers were somehow lesser than Jewish believers. It was about this situation that Paul wrote:

14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

This is a powerful image: “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” So the gospel does not merely saveus, it has expectations for us. If you receive the gospel, then your life should demonstrate and manifest the implications of the gospel you receive. If you profess to have receive the crucified and resurrected Christ, then your life should be a crucified and resurrected life and should demonstrate a love for others that reflects the love of Jesus Christ.

Paul says something similar in Philippians 1.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel

Here again, our “manner of life,” how we live, should be “worthy of the gospel.” There is no idea in scripture of a non-transforming gospel, as if the gospel could be received by assent but not allowed to take root, changing who we are.

The External Witness of the Gospel

And the gospel provides the church with the content of its witness. The gospel is what we have to say! In Matthew 24, Jesus says:

14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

We are to “proclaim” the gospel “throughout the whole world”! Again, in Mark 16, Jesus’ instructions are startlingly clear.

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

This is what we have to offer the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ! Yes, also works of love and charity. But this love arises necessarily from the transforming power of the gospel. They are not separate from it! The gospel is the animating core of the church.

It is not surprising, then, that the church was constantly preaching the gospel. Over and over again in the book of Acts, we find the early believers proclaiming the gospel.

they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. (Acts 8:25)

As Philip “passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns…” (Acts 8:40)

and there they continued to preach the gospel. (Acts 14:7)

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples (Acts 14:21)

And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:10)

If we are to be the kind of church that experiences the power of God and sees lives changed now and forevermore, we must proclaim the gospel!

Church, the gospel is our greatest treasure! It is life! It is power! It is good news! All substitute gospels are doomed to fail and to destroy.

We must be—we simply must be—an authentic family around the whole gospel!


[1] https://protestia.com/2024/01/13/lutheran-church-rebrands-itself-herchurch-where-they-celebrate-the-goddess-provide-astrological-readings-and-have-a-resident-witch/

[2] https://www.elcatoday.com/note-to-all-elca-bishopsincluding-presiding-bishop-eaton.html

2 thoughts on ““Around the Whole Gospel”: The Four Canons (A Review)

  1. FOUR canons vs. 4 cannons; mid 19th century U.S. forefathers might very well have lined up a row of might cannons aimed directly at the Peace Village and by the dawn’s early light behold their flag was no longer there as they sang God Bless the King; some of us actually study, pray and absorb your messages like a bone dry spong parked in a puddle of Pure Gospel water that sloshed out of the bronze laver onto the tile flooring. Your gettin better AT “restraining” those off script comments some of which are better than the sermon outlines we get here. The notes & references make for some “interesting” discoveries BUT some of them are pretty shocking. Quotes from GK makes me smile. Go Wym & go CBCNLR; the 4 Canons, me thinks, would work anywhere that He is already working and invites us to join in 🙂

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