Preaching the Gospel

From "Counsel and Encouragement: Discourses on the Conduct of Life"
by Hosea Ballou, 2D., D.D.

"And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:15-16).

I. Our text is naturally divided into two distinct parts: -

1. The first is the commission which our Savior gave his twelve apostles, when he sent them forth on their great work: "He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." That was their commission. The second part of the text, is his declaration to them, of the consequences that would follow their belief of that gospel, on the one hand, or their disbelief of it, on the other hand. If they believed the message, - if they truly believed, it would save them: for the gospel "is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;" "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;" but if they rejected the message, it would be to their condemnation: "He that believeth not, shall be damned," that is, condemned, - for both are one and the same. I would remark, on this place, that there is no difference between these two words, according to the New Testament use of them. The idea in the text is just the same that Christ asserted in another passage, when he said, "He that believeth not is condemned already. "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men choose darkness rather than light," &c. It has been the practice with people in these two words, - to make an immense difference between these two words, - to take it for granted that the word "damned" refers to the future world, while the word "condemned" refers only to the present. I trust you will bear in mind - what every well-informed person knows - that the inspired writers knew no difference at all between these two words, - that they mean the same by the one as by the other; and that, in many cases, both of the English terms are translated from but one single original one. When Christ says here, that "He who believeth not shall be damned," he refers only to the condemnation that would rest on such as might wilfully reject the message he had just given to his apostles.

II. I shall first ask your attention to the former part of our text.

1. When Christ had risen from the dead, early on the first day of the week, he appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden; afterwards, to the two who were going to Emmaus; and at successive times, to others of his disciples. At length, when the time of his finally leaving them, and ascending to heaven, drew near, he appeared to the eleven apostles, as they sat together, and gave them their solemn commission: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." This was the beginning of their ministry, - properly speaking; here it was they received the authority under which they were to act; here the great work of their lives was imposed upon them, - to "preach the gospel," universally; and it is from this charge of their risen Master, that the gospel message has been transmitted down to us, with all its saving influences. We come here, today, my friends, to learn the truths which were contained in that solemn message of Christ to his apostles, and to listen to that same gospel, accordingly as God shall enable us to unfold it, in its several parts.

2. There is nothing on which more is said, in the religious world, than on the gospel; perhaps there is no word so frequently on the lips of Christians, as that one term, "the gospel;" and there seems to be an impression that every body, of course, understands, what it is, - that it is necessary only to name it in order to bring it to mind. And yet, there is nothing on which there is a greater difference of opinion, as we all know, the moment we recollect the mutually conflicting doctrines which are supported under that name. I cannot think it so difficult a problem to determine what the gospel is, at least as to its general character, - if we would approach the question without prejudice. In the first place, the gospel is good news, glad tidings; it always bears that character, for that is what the very term itself signifies, both in our own language, and in the original from which the New Testament was translated. When Christ taught, and when his apostles, in obedience to this commission, went forth to preach, their doctrine was felt to be a message of joy; and if there was any fault found with it, it was only because of the abounding grace, peace, and mercy which it announced. Is it commonly so understood at the present day? Would not that one fact correct a great many misapprehensions? We sometimes hear the preaching of the most terrible idea, called the gospel - the more terrible, the more evangelical it is supposed to be. All the fearful representations of "eternal woe" often pass current under that sacred name. How long will it take people to learn the very first letter in the alphabet of Christ's religion, that to preach the gospel is to preach good news, and that nothing which does not come under this general character, is entitled to the appellation?

3. Again, if you call to mind the manner in which the Scriptures always define the gospel, whenever they use any language that does define it, you will see, at once, how the inspired teachers regarded it. They call it "the gospel of the grace of God," never, "of the wrath of God," - for that would be a contradiction in terms, - it would not be good news, or gospel. They call it, "the gospel of our salvation," never, "of our hopeless damnation," - for the same reason, that such language would be an absurdity in itself. St. Paul says, "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace; and bring glad tidings of good things." Such was the nature of the gospel which the apostle proclaimed, in obedience to his commission from the risen and ascended Master. When our Savior himself began his ministry at Nazareth, the first sermon he ever preached was in these cheering words: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me, to preach the gospel to the poor: He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set a liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord:" and all the people "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth." Such was the sermon with which Christ introduced his own ministry. It was the keynote to all he afterwards taught. And you see, from it, how cheering was that message which he preached as the gospel. You see, too, the effect it had upon those who heard him, "they wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth."

4. We must consider that if the preaching of Christ and his apostles was really a declaration of the glad tidings - if the gospel, as they proclaimed it, was of this nature, - then, the impression it produced on the generality of the people, must have been a joyful one. We know this must have been the case, from the laws of the human mind, and from what we see taking place in our day. Let a preacher - or a body of preachers - come into this village, call the people together, and address them with a message of woe, preach something opposed to the gospel; and if it have any effect at all, you know what it will be; one of painful anxiety. You will soon see terror and sadness in the countenances of the people. Their "heads will be bowed down as a bulrush." But, on the other hand, should you, while passing along, only look in on a congregation listening to a discourse, and see their countenances lighted up with joy, and elevated with hope, you would know what the nature of the topic was, even though you could not hear a single word the preacher was saying; - you would know, from the delight it shed around, that his message was "good tidings of good." Now, what I wish to say is, that this is the very effect which, we are told, the ministry of Christ and his apostles actually produced on the great mass of those who heard them, in their day.

Witness the case we have just mentioned at Nazareth. There was but one class of people who were an exception, and they were the bigoted, self-righteous Scribes and Pharisee. They indeed were angry, at the freeness and impartiality of the Divine grace, which was preached. But we are told, of his ministrations in general, that "the common people heard him gladly." And when the apostles entered into a place, and proclaimed the gospel, we are informed, "there was great joy in that city." How could it be otherwise? How could it fail of producing these joyful impressions? if it was, itself, "glad tidings of great joy."

III. The subject may be still further illustrated, by showing what are the leading truths that constitute the gospel.

1. We have often had occasion to observe that the whole superstructure of Christianity rests upon this one foundation, truth: viz - "God's universal love; God's love to the whole world, when it was dead in trespasses and sins; his unchangeable love to sinners as well as to saints." Our Savior bases his mission to the world on this ground. He taught the people that all the mercy which he himself showed, all that he performed, and all that he ever will accomplish, was but the outworking of that favor which reigned from eternity in the bosom of the Almighty Father. Now, preach this universal and unchangeable love of God, as Christ preached it, and we know it will be glad tidings, - in other words, it will be the gospel, - and nothing contrary to this can be. Wherever this message is proclaimed and believed, it will kindle the same hope, and diffuse around the same gladness that followed it in the times of the New Testament, - when the host of heaven sang, Glory to God in the highest! on earth peace, good-will towards men." We do not forget, that the love of God to the world is a Father's love; and, of course, faithful to administer punishment as well as joy. It "recompenses every man according to his works." But we must not forget also, that all the judgments it inflicts, in time or eternity, are for good and not for evil, and that they will end in the reformation of the sufferer. "The Lord will not cast off forever; but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies."

2. Time would fail us were we to attempt an enumeration of all the truths that belong to the gospel. Let us mention a very prominent one; "Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world." This fact stands out on the face of the New Testament. In the language of St. John, "We have seen, and do testify, that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world." When Christ came upon earth, he undertook this work; he labored for this purpose; he "gave himself a ransom for all," not for a part; "tasted death for every man;" became "the propitiation for the sins of the whole world." And he declared that he would accomplish what he undertook. He said that if he were "lifted up from the earth, he would draw all men unto him." And it is our duty to believe in the event. If the inspired writers do not often speak of this glorious consummation, I confess myself unable to understand the purport of the plainest language. If St. Paul does not mean this, when he says, It pleased the Father, that in Christ should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself," - if he does not mean a universal reconciliation, at last, I am bold to say that nobody in the world ever knew what he did mean, nor ever will know; and commentators will go on, proposing one explanation after another, and laying them aside, as they always have done, without being long satisfied with any of their interpretations. Jesus Christ, "the one mediator between God and men, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time;" Jesus Christ, who will finally gather all things into himself, and reconcile all things to God; - this is indeed gospel, or, "glad tidings of great joy which shall be unto all people." And wherever it is proclaimed, "in the power and demonstration of the spirit," it will work as it did in those times when "the common people heard it with gladness," and there "was great joy" where the apostles preached.

3. We have now endeavored to give an outline of the gospel; to describe its nature, to state the great truth on which it stands, and to bring into view its ultimate results; - to point out its beginning, and its end. Within this general outline, there are, of course, a thousand particular truths, - such as reward and punishment; human agency and responsibility; the part we are to perform; and the means of accomplishing the whole, - all of them important in their place. But they should be kept in their place, - held in subserviency to the great foundation-principles on which they and everything else are based.

IV. According to our text, this gospel is to be preached to all men: -

1. "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." Whatever be the character or the circumstances of people, this is the message that belongs to them. Rich or poor, sinners or saints, they have a right to it, as much as they have to the free air they breathe. It is committed to the charge of their ministering servants for their use; and we cannot, with justice, withhold it from anyone, - no, not even from the most undeserving. We must say with St. Paul, "We are debtors both to the Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the unwise; so, as much as in us is, we are ready to preach the gospel to you also." "Yea, woe is us, if we preach not the gospel. If we do this willingly, we have a reward; but, if otherwise, still a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto us."

2. There is an over-distrustful fear, with many, that it may not be save to proclaim the glad tidings of free redemption and pardon to all, or rather to bad men. And no doubt, the message may be delivered in such a way as to do harm; for there is no truth that we know of, which may not be perverted to evil purposes. But there certainly is no danger in assuring all men of the love of God, and in preaching the ultimate accomplishment of his gracious counsels in the reconciliation of all things. Is it not plain, that if we would produce love to God, we must do it by enforcing his love to us? for "we love him, because he first loved us." If we would bring men to be heavenly-minded, we must do it by the influence of heaven, and not of hell. Neither good morals nor good religion ever came from the latter source. Let us have faith in the almighty power of goodness to overcome evil, and to reform. The everlasting love of our Father in heaven; his universal grace and salvation, - this is what every sinner in the world needs. As St. Paul says, "The grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men, hath appeared, teaching us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live righteously, and soberly, and godly, in this present world."

3. This is the gospel which I would preach to you, my friends; and to all without distinction. I would always speak to you of God the Father, and of his boundless goodness, of which we are constant partakers. I would never withhold the glad tidings of the gospel because men are sinners; so much the more are they needed; for "this is a saying worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." Let the judgments of the righteous Awarder be kept in view; but let them be such as flow from his love, and are consistent with is gospel. Beyond all infliction, and beyond all condemnation of unbelief, contemplate that world of purity and blessedness, which Jesus Christ has revealed. There, the tears of earth shall be wiped away from all faces; and the whole creation, delivered from the bondage of corruption, shall rejoice in the liberty of the children of God! O that men would believe these truths with all their hearts, and live in the spirit of them! There would be no more unreconciliation to God, nor hatred of one another; no more indifference to religion, nor wanton transgression of the divine laws. "The ransomed of the Lord would return to Zion, with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads, and sorrow and sighing flee away."