That’s what we used to say in college when a preacher laid on us his “pet peeve” or “hobby horse” but did not give the Gospel. The conversation might have gone something like: “Was there Gospel in that sermon?” One person might have answered, “Oh, he assumed you knew the Gospel. He just had something else he needed to bring us this morning.” Perhaps it was sophomoric of us, from that hypercritical attitude you sometimes find in students or even pastors. But it’s still true – “the Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.” 

Assuming the Gospel is actually the height of arrogance. It is as if we were saying, “We all know what God has done for us in Jesus, so we can go on to more important things now.” St. Paul covered many points in his Corinthian letters. But he also insisted, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). What did he mean? No matter what Paul had to say, the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation are the center, the essence, the focus of all Christian preaching. Justification or sanctification, it all comes back to the cross. No preaching, no Christian teaching is complete unless it brings us back to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ on the cross. Every doctrine of Scripture is designed by God ultimately to bring the comfort of sins forgiven and eternal life in Christ to the broken sinner.

Lutherans wholeheartedly agree. We confess we are saved by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone, through faith alone. We insist that God works faith in us through Word and Sacrament, His means of grace (Augsburg Confession IV & V). We are known as law and Gospel preachers. We understand the law does God’s “alien” work to show us our need for God’s proper work in the Gospel. Surely we have it right. How could we Lutherans ever be guilty of “assuming the Gospel”?

You find it when a pastor believes his hearers know the Gospel thoroughly already. Perhaps very creatively he urges them to share that Gospel with others, but then forgets that the Gospel itself is the power and motivation for its own proclamation. More blatantly, pastors may think because they have talked about the Gospel, they have also preached the Gospel. Or the pastor may have determined to emphasize “practical issues” of Christian living to the point there simply wasn’t time enough for God’s action.

How do you tell? Are there any warning signs you are in danger of “assuming the Gospel”? Have you ever begun your preparation, formulated your theme, and then realized that the Gospel is auxiliary to the thrust of your sermon? You have a “message” you want to bring to the people; for example, you want them to understand the Biblical ideals concerning marriage. As you finish writing, you realize, “I should get some Gospel in here somewhere. Let’s see, where does it fit?” The Gospel has become auxiliary to your “message.” Perhaps you have listened to a sermon and then thought, “Pastor gave us a lot of good advice for living but there wasn’t much Jesus.” The preacher has assumed, and therefore denied, the Gospel, I would suggest, if Christ and His cross and God’s saving action are adjunct to what the preacher really wanted to say.

The Gospel is assumed (and therefore denied) when we prepare a liturgy where the central focus is on us, how we feel, what we do, or our response. Instead, the golden thread that needs to run through our worship is God’s service to us in Jesus Christ. The ultimate question, the answer to which ought to shape everything, is this:  Does the language we use actually deliver God’s gifts or merely talk about them or hint at what they are? Is the central thought God’s work in Christ, God’s gifts in Jesus, or preoccupied with our work?

When the Gospel is assumed, all that is left is law. Of course, as long as the law is not presented too strongly, harshly, or pointedly, our sinful flesh feels at home with the law and counts it an ally. That is why it is so natural to talk about our own actions even when we assume we are proclaiming the Gospel. Because our sinful flesh readily understands the law, we are very comfortable talking about God’s work as though it were our work. For instance, we may say, we come to God, we believe, we preach, we worship, we baptize, we forgive sins, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we do works of service, we witness for Christ. Yes, from a human point of view, we do those things. But if that is all we say, we are still under the law. If we urge these activities apart from God’s work, we have assumed (and therefore denied) the Gospel. Remember, all these actions are actually God’s work. God comes to us in Jesus Christ even though we, in our sin, could never come to Him. The message of the cross has power in itself to create faith. It is God’s doing and God’s gift. Our messages have no power without the Word of God. Jesus Himself speaks through His Word we proclaim. Paul assured the Corinthians, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

The Spirit uses the means of grace to gather us for worship, because in those means Jesus Himself comes to serve us with His forgiveness. When someone is baptized, we see the water and hear the Word the pastor speaks, but God is there baptizing, uniting that person with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (“We were buried with Him by baptism into death…” [Romans 6:4] It’s passive. God did it to us.) When penitent sinners are absolved, it is Jesus Himself speaking the Word of forgiveness (John 20:21ff). He gathers us around His table, at His command and promise, because He is the host, serving us His own body and blood. Our works of service are really the works of Christ through us. He gives us His Spirit to produce His fruit. Our witness is also the work of His Spirit, who continually bears witness to Jesus. As our confession puts it, “without the grace, help, and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making himself acceptable to God, of fearing God and believing in God with his whole heart, or of expelling inborn evil lusts from his heart. This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who is given through the Word of God…” (Augsburg Confession XVIII, 2-3).

Here is a simple test for evaluating a sermon, Bible Study, or liturgy to see whether you are merely urging people to do something themselves or announcing Jesus’ work and proclaiming His gifts – in other words, whether you are assuming the Gospel or proclaiming the Gospel. After you have prepared your text, go back and underline all of the action words. Find the subject of each verb. Ask, who is doing these verbs? If we are doing the action, then no matter how much it might otherwise sound like Gospel, it’s still the law. The law is concerned with what we do or don’t do. When the Gospel is assumed, the law alone will make us hard-hearted and self-righteous, but then drive us to despair. The Gospel, on the other hand, is concerned with everything God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ for our salvation, to forgive our sins, to give us new life. On the inside of the pulpit at the parish I last served, placed where only the preacher could see it or feel it, was a small crucifix. Yes, that cross was law reminding me of the necessity to preach the Gospel, as St. Paul writes: “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied!

But that little crucifix was an even more powerful and necessary comfort for me in proclaiming what God has done and is doing for us in Christ. Again, St. Paul writes: “All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). All this is from God. I am not just “flapping my gums” proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen. God Himself is there to bring His reconciliation to me and to the people. God Himself is shining through the Gospel:  “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For it is God who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).

Though we are never up to this tremendous task, though you and I falter, God is always faithful. He will use His faithful Word to keep us faithful. “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us;  our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code [the law!] kills, but the Spirit [by the Gospel!] gives life”  (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The law does not simply advise us or show us God’s way. The purpose of the law is to kill us so that God by His Word can raise us to life with Jesus. The law strips us of any pretense of life on our own, but the Gospel fills us with the life of Christ crucified and raised from the dead.

Again, who does the verbs? God gives life. God shines. God makes us competent. God saves. God forgives. God raises the dead. God heals. God comes to us in Jesus. God speaks in His Word. God creates faith. God gathers His church. God baptizes. God feeds us the body and blood of His Son. God gives His gifts, all for you. Jesus says to His preachers, “He who hears you, hears me.” His Word on our lips is alive with His life, to give life.

+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice-President