Salvation is by grace through faith and not of works (Eph. 2:8-9); therefore, it is easy to conclude that the Christian life is utterly passive. There is a true “simplicity of the Gospel” and thus, some conclude that no effort should be extended in pursuing and understanding the things of God. That is false.
I certainly do not mean to imply that (1) one can ever perform sufficient work such that God will be obliged to convey salvation; or (2) that right standing before God is the result of native intelligence.
However, the “simplicity of the Gospel” does not mean that we are excused to be slothful in our approach to the things of God. Unfortunately, all too many Christians think that any effort in the understanding of the Bible or the pursuit of God is somehow a sin or a false religion.
Spurgeon rightly speaks of the “simplicity of the Gospel” in his sermon “Soul-Satisfying Bread”:
But now, speaking to those to whom the Lord has given to understand his meaning, let me say, our Savior uses very simple figures. Think of his calling himself bread! How condescending, that the commonest article upon the table should be the fullest type of Christ! Think of his calling our faith an eating and a drinking of himself! Nothing could be more instructive; at the same time nothing could better set forth his gentleness and humility of spirit, that he does not object to speak thus of our receiving him. God be thanked for the simplicity of the gospel. The longer I live the more I bless God that we have not received a classical gospel, or a mathematical gospel, or a metaphysical gospel; it is not a gospel confined to scholars and men of genius, but a poor man’s gospel, a ploughman’s gospel; for that is the kind of gospel which we can live upon and die upon. It is to us not the luxury of refinement, but the staple food of life. We want no fine words when the heart is heavy, neither do we need deep problems when we are lying upon the verge of eternity, weak in body and tempted in mind. At such times we magnify the blessed simplicity of the gospel. Jesus in the flesh made manifest becomes our soul’s bread. Jesus bleeding on the cross, a substitute for sinners, is our soul’s drink. This is the gospel for babes, and strong men want no more. (Charles H. Spurgeon, vol. 19, Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 19, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Spurgeon’s Sermons (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998).)
Yet, before we run with his statement, we need to understand his point – which has made clear immediately before the quoted paragraph:
The Savior spake in symbols, that the proud might hear in vain, that hearing they might not hear, and seeing they might not perceive, executing upon that self-conceited generation which rejected him the judicial sentence of the Lord, for their hearts were waxen gross, their ears were dull of hearing, and their eyes had they closed.
The true perception is the Gospel is not a thing which comes by extraordinary intellectual abilities: Rather, the right sight of God in Jesus Christ is a gift.
An analogy might help here: Imagine two people each read a single letter. The letter is written by soldier to his wife. The letter is read by a literature professor at a great university and by the man’s wife – a woman who barely made it through high school English. The professor may understand every aspect of the language – including the errors. He might know where certain expressions were originally coined. He could place this letter into a history of the English language. However, that professor could never understand the love and loss conveyed by the letter in the same way that the wife will. She may not understand the grammar, but she understands the meaning in a manner that no one else ever can.
The plain text of this letter is unlikely to require a dictionary or vast knowledge to understand. This wife will know her husband’s meaning. Yet, does the simplicity of the language mean that the wife should not or would not expend effort to understand the letter? What would it say of her love, if this letter were the only word had received in months – and she were to spend no effort in bringing the words into her hear. Would she not pour over this letter and seek to understand every syllable? Would the letter not inflame love in her heart?
You see, the simplicity of the letter does not excuse her from the work of reading and thinking and understanding.
And, she has the gift of loving and being loved by her husband; thus, she can understand the letter in a way that no one else ever can. The professor cannot penetrate into that love by examining the text.
That is Spurgeon’s meaning: Those who are adopted by God in Jesus Christ can understand the letter of the Bible in a way that those who do not know God cannot do. The love conveyed does not reveal itself to outsiders (if you will), any more than the professor can feel the love of the wife by reading the letter. He may see it, and imagine it, but he can never know it.
The difficulty in the approach to God in the Gospel is not a difficulty imposed by complex language, but a difficulty imposed by faith and love and a spiritual sight of God. The basic story of the Gospel can be understood by all who can hear and read with a heart of true faith:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1:15 (ESV)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (ESV)