The central thought in salvation is that it is salvation from sin. This does not mean merely that we are forgiven of our sins, though that is true. More fundamentally, it means we are saved from our sins and sinfulness. We are sinners at heart, which is to say we are born sinners so that as we grow from infancy to childhood to adulthood we sin continually. Our natural inclination is not to seek God and obey him. It is the opposite - to rebel against him and despise his holy commandments. (Romans 3:10-18; Psalms 14 & 53)
An aspect of our sinful state is that not only do we not do good, but we are utterly unable to do good. Much is said (pro and con) about the total depravity of man, but little about the total inability.
"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." Romans 8:7, 8.It is not a lack of proper motivation, good counsel, intellectual insight, or sheer will that the sinner does not do good. It is because he is incapable of doing good. He has no motivation, insight or will to do good. All such counsel to do what is good is foolishness and looked upon as strange (1 Peter 4:4).
Granted, even the worst of sinners do things that are outwardly commendable (Hitler had a heart for children), and that is because the law of God is written on the heart convicting and excusing men (Romans 2:14, 15). But the unbelieving sinner’s doing the commendable thing does not come out of an attitude like David’s:
“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You,”David kept God’s law because he loved God and his commandments (Psalm 119:97; see also I John 5:3), and he grieved when he disobeyed them. The unbelieving sinner does the “right thing” out of an innate (God-given) sense of right and wrong, which he agrees with, but not out of a love for God and his holy will.
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight,”
“I said, 'LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.'" (Psalms 119:11; 51:4; 41:4 respectively).
The gospel, the good news of salvation from our sins and sinfulness, should be at the core of all preaching, not only to the unbeliever, but also to the believer. The repentant sinner begins in humility by renouncing anything he can do or offer God, and turning to Christ by faith for everything he needs: forgiveness, justification, sanctification. The mature believer must do the same. He has no power in and of himself by which he follows and serves Christ. He had no innate ability to do that when he first came to Christ for salvation, and he has none after. Constantly aware of his tendency toward sin, the believer must always look to the cross and Christ for grace to persevere and overcome his sin.
Recently I listened, with my son, to some messages delivered by a local youth pastor to a group of young people in his congregation. The series of messages were advertised as the “I Will” messages. The overwhelming emphasis was that the hearer must choose to follow and serve Christ. An occasional reference to repentance, the sin nature, and sin itself was made, but it was mentioned in passing, as though it were of secondary importance. Now, I hope that the mention of these in such a peripheral way does not mean that the youth pastor thinks of them as secondary. I doubt very much that he thinks that way. But the point is that regardless of his personal estimation of those things, or even more broadly, the official doctrinal position of the local church he serves in, the 'I Will' messages do not lay a proper emphasis on our sin and sinfulness.
The youth were constantly pressed to make a choice to follow Christ because God gave (offered) them that choice. In fact, they were told that they should be glad that God gave them that choice, the implication being (I suspect) that God does not make us choose one way or the other; he has given us the free will to choose and will not force his will upon us. We are not automatons.
If the messages were based on a free will theology (the choice to believe or serve is completely in the hands of the sinner and saint), I can see why the references to sin, sinfulness, and repentance were on the periphery. If the choice is ultimately contingent on our innate ability to choose, then why not emphasize it? If in spite of our sinful hearts we have the power to choose to follow and serve, then that is what our message must focus on.
But that is not the gospel way. The gospel way is to point sinner and saint alike to Christ in his death and resurrection. Christ suffered the penalty of sin and rose in power over it. The condemned sinner is led to Christ and the cross to be saved and turned from his sins. The believer is led to Christ to acknowledge humbly that without the work of God in his heart (won by the victory of Christ over sin through the cross and resurrection), there is no serving, no choosing.
"We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them," Ephesians 2:10.By sanctification, purchased for us through the cross, and imparted to us by the risen Saviour through his Spirit, do we humbly obey the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a mustering of our natural ability to chose to serve. We have no such ability. We are sinners at heart and must always look to the grace of God in Christ and his cross to overcome our rebellious will.
This was the way of Paul who predicated the imperative on the indicative. When he urged, beseeched, or commanded obedience, he did so always looking back to the finished work of the cross and resurrection as our deliverance from our sin.
Paul exhorts the Romans to yield their bodily members as instruments of righteousness [imperative] (Romans 6:12, 13) because they are in union with Christ who was raised in newness of life; as sin no longer had dominion over Christ, neither did it any longer have dominion over them, they are no longer slaves to it, they have been freed from the power of sin through their union with Christ in his death and resurrection [indicative] (Romans 6:2-11, 14):
He urged the Philippians to work out their salvation [imperative] because it was God who was at work in them both to will and do his good pleasure [indicative]. This work of God in them was predicated on God's exaltation of the Saviour by resurrection, ascension, and session at his right hand with the ultimate effect of his universal lordship acknowledged by all (every knee shall bow), (Philippians 2:9-13).
He beseeched the Ephesians to walk worthy of their calling [imperative] (Ephesians 4:1) because God’s Spirit strengthens his people in the inner man, and God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think because of the power (i.e., the power of his Spirit) that works in us, the same power he worked when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand [indicative] (Ephesians1:19, 20; 3:20).
Left to ourselves, we Christians would go astray and leave our God. Unless he works in us by his Spirit to be strengthened to resist and overcome the sinfulness of our hearts, we would leave him. For that reason, we must always look to Christ and his work (death and resurrection) to defeat our sin - its penalty, power, and someday its presence.
To the degree that a message or sermon ignores our sinfulness (even as Christians) and the need to rely upon the Spirit of God for the power to follow Christ, to that degree the message is based on a false gospel. The false gospel is this, that spiritual blessing and the ability to serve Christ comes through the power of our choice and not the power of the cross of Christ and his Spirit. To press upon one to choose to follow Christ on the basis that he has the innate ability to choose and serve Christ, is pressing that one to perform a self-generated work whose goal is to obtain a sanctification that can only be produced by a God-generated work, through the Spirit, who strengthens us to keep us from going astray.
Our message to our youth and adults should not be to declare brazenly, 'I will chose to serve,' but to humble ourselves like David who sang:
Direct my steps by your word! Do not let any sin dominate me!
Create for me a pure heart, O God! Renew a resolute spirit within me!
Do not reject me! Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance! Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways, and sinners will turn to you.