To guard the gospel means to uphold it as true and defend it against whatever is contrary. The very thought confronts one of our deepest cultural values: individualism.
This value makes us feel that “I” am the final authority on what I believe and do. It passes as inclusivism, but it is really just individualism. Far from promoting community, it promotes autonomy and surface relationships.
This value has shaped our view of church as well. Christians love concepts like “organic church,” and we say things like: “When I am with my friends serving people, that is church.” I continue to hear church leaders say that we need to stop talking about what we believe and start focusing on doing what we believe. Such sentiments reflect our individualistic desire to define church and spirituality on our own terms. When someone is confronted by a pastor with regard to his doctrine or conduct, he is likely to hear it as good advice from a respected friend, but not as admonishment from godly authority. His “right” is to proceed however he wants because the individual is the final authority.
So this is an important question for our day. What does it mean that the church guards the gospel? I’ll give you the big picture answer, and then four particulars.
The big picture: The church (locally) is a community of God’s people in a specific place who are lead by biblically qualified elders (1 Tim 1:3). That community, and especially the elders, is charged to teach sound doctrine and confront any different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3). By doing so, they guard the gospel by concerning themselves primarily with the redemptive plan of God that has to do with faith in Christ (1 Tim 1:4).
The particulars: I see four things from 1 Timothy 1:1-11 that are involved in guarding the gospel. Content, Conflict, Care, Correction.
A “different doctrine” implies a standard from which to deviate. In this letter, we see an agreed upon, settled body of truth that has been passed down from the Apostles to their disciples and to the first churches. It is “the faith” … “sound doctrine” … “the deposit” … “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” … “the glorious gospel of our blessed God”.
When a church emphasizes the implications of the gospel without understanding how they are related to the message of the gospel, she gets off track. People start to do things in the name of Jesus, but they cannot explain who Jesus is and what He has done, nor are they concerned to do so. Similarly, when a church does not define the gospel and establish its truth thoroughly, she loses it. As it has been said: one generation knows, the next assumes, and the third forgets. A church that loses the gospel ceases to be a distinctly Christian church.
If you know what the gospel does for you, but you do not know what the gospel is, then you are on a slippery slope that slides from gospel centrality to spiritual sentimentality.
People will always disagree, but the real reason we have false teachers and conflict in the church is because there is a spiritual battle. Paul tells Timothy to “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim 1:18). Peter, in the context of telling elders to shepherd the flock, warns that our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Paul also says that false teachers have been “captured by the devil to do his will” (2 Tim 2:26).
Every gospel-preaching church will have conflict. There will be people in her midst who get sidetracked and lead people astray. We think it won’t happen to us because we can’t imagine anyone we know doing that. But can you imagine our adversary the devil doing that? He will come, and he will not make it obvious. False teachers do not usually set out to be false teachers. Often they do not even know they are false teachers. When they look in the mirror, they see a sheep too, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves (Matt 7:15).
Guarding the gospel is about loving people and people loving God. Paul says, “The charge of our aim is love, which issues from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4). We fight for truth because we believe that it really does set people free. We defend and declare the gospel because we really do believe that it changes everything, that it saves us, heals us, and transforms our lives!
If you are strictly an intellectual and do not have the aim of love – that is, you just want to be right about what is true, but you do not have regard for what that truth means for people — then you are not much better than the false teachers because you have deviated from the aim of the gospel. On the other hand, if you don’t want to ruffle any feathers – you don’t want to confront anyone or say that something is true for everyone – then you need to see that your aim is not love, but comfort.
In Ephesus, the false teachers apparently flipped the indicatives and the imperatives of the gospel. They held up the moral law and drew people’s attention to it as the means of righteousness. It was a burdensome teaching, which is why Paul brought nuanced correction to the issue: “The law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim 1:8). The law and the gospel are both concerned with a righteous life. The former depicts it and thus condemns. The latter saves and then enables it.
When we say, “I don’t care about doctrine, I just want to know how to follow Jesus,” we are saying, “Give me the law! Give me the law!” When we say we just want to get practical, we are saying, “Give me the law! Give me the law!” Paul is saying, “No, you don’t want the law. It only leads to death!”
That’s the good news: Jesus was obedient to the law on our behalf, took upon himself the wrath reserved for lawbreakers, and then rose from the dead so that the law might be accomplished not only for us, but also through us, by the power of his Spirit (Rom 8:1-5). That is sound doctrine that is “in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11).