What is the Gospel? (Reprinted article June 1993)

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by C. Leonard Allen
June, 1993

In 1932 an Oklahoma preacher named K. C. Moser (1893-1976) published a small book titled The Way of Salvation. The book addressed central New Testament themes: the nature of human sin, the righteousness of God, Christ’s atoning death, justification by faith, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It did not make a big splash, even through G. C. Brewer, reviewing it in the Gospel Advocate, called it “one of the best little books that came from any press in 1932.”

The book began with a methodical exposition of sin and the need for redemption. But it soon became clear that something was troubling Moser. Throughout the book ran a subtle but steady polemic: somebody was misconstruing the saving work of Christ and seriously compromising the gospel.

In the next few years Moser became more pointed and specific. A 1934 article titled “Can the Gospel Be Obeyed?” critiqued and rejected the traditional formulation of the gospel among Churches of Christ (“facts to be believed, commands to be obeyed, and promises to be received”). Then in a 1937 tract called “Are We Preaching the Gospel?” Moser stated flatly that much of the preaching among Churches of Christ could not properly be called gospel preaching.

True gospel preaching, Moser charged, had been eclipsed by what he termed the “plan theory.” In this approach Christ’s death became simply a somewhat arbitrary means to an end – the end being the giving of a divine plan of salvation. Christ’s obedience unto death gave him the authority to set forth a “plan” consisting of four basic stipulations: faith, repentance, confession, and baptism.

Preaching thus focused on the “plan” – on what people must do – not on Christ and his role as sin-bearer. The “plan,” in fact, was not intimately connected to Christ’s death at all; rather, by his death Christ simply gained the authority to institute the plan. In the preaching of this plan, Moser observed, the cross usually “receives little or no emphasis” for it was simply one step in the giving of the “plan.”

The burden of most of Moser’s writing in the years that followed was to set forth the gospel over against the dominant “plan theory.” Time and again he stressed that “Christ brought, not another code, but his precious blood. And by it sinners are redeemed. Our iniquities were laid upon him, and ‘with his stripes we were healed.’” “Christ crucified for sinners,” Moser insisted, “is the divine ‘plan’ of salvation.”

Moser was not alone in his pointed concerns. Another outspoken preacher who shared many of Moser’s concerns was G. C. Brewer (1883-1956). Though Brewer was a controversialist by nature and Moser was not, the two men were good friends. On preaching trips they sometimes stayed in each other’s homes and over the years maintained a high regard for one another.

In his review of Moser’s book, Brewer wrote that many Christians have made the gospel “a system of divine laws for human beings to obey and thus save themselves sans grace, sans mercy, sans everything spiritual and divine – except that the ‘plan’ was in mercy given.”

In the years that followed, Brewer, like Moser, continued to criticize this “plan” theory. “To trust a plan is to expect to save yourself by your own works,” he wrote in 1945. “It is to build according to a blueprint; and if you meet the specifications your building will be approved by the great Inspector! Otherwise you fail to measure up and you are lost!”

“That is all wrong, brethren!” Brewer exclaimed. “We have a Savior who saves us. We throw ourselves upon his mercy, put our case in his hands, and submit gladly and humbly to his will. That is our hope and our only hope.”

Moser and Brewer fully agreed on a basic point: “The whole story of human redemption is comprehended in two words: ‘grace’ and ‘faith.’ It is “not a matter of law.” Brewer wrote, “By making our salvation dependent upon our own perfection, we make void the grace of God. And to make our perfection a matter of legal requirements fully met would make Christ’s death useless.” He added that “We should be careful not to affirm the abrogation of one law and then substitute another law and make salvation dependent upon the same principle.”

Moser’s fullest and most explicit critique of the “plan theory” came in a 1952 pamphlet, Christ Versus a Plan. Here he gave four fundamental reasons for rejecting such an approach.

1) It removes Christ and the cross from first place and puts central emphasis on the “plan.” “Times almost without number,” Moser reported, “I have heard sermons on the conditions of salvation without a single reference to the cross. I have heard preaching in meetings that lasted for three weeks in which the cross of Christ received only a passing reference. But in every sermon a ‘plan’ was preached and sinners urged to do their ‘duty.’ The ‘plan’ was considered the gospel unto salvation.”

Moser found it deeply disturbing that many preachers could spend so little time on the meaning of Jesus’ death and yet so much on obeying the “plan.” How could they virtually omit “the very thing that makes Jesus the Savior and preach the conditions apart from him”?

Moser’s most fundamental complaint was that people were giving emphasis to a “plan of salvation” that belongs to Christ himself. They were “magnifying the conditions of salvation apart from Christ crucified.” Christ did not direct people to a “plan,” Moser insisted, but to himself – the full and final sacrifice for sin. None of the apostles preached a “plan.” But rather Christ crucified. “Peter’s subject on Pentecost was not repentance or baptism,” he said, “but Christ. And it was after preaching Christ as the Messiah that he commanded anyone to do anything.”

2) The “plan theory” views the conditions of salvation as arbitrarily given by God. People who preached the “plan,” according to Moser, tended to say that God could have used some other plan, some other conditions of salvation, but he chose faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. One must not expect to know why, one must simply obey.

When a doctor diagnoses an illness and prescribes a remedy, Moser asked, does the patient not know why he must take the medicine? So with the so-called “conditions of salvation.” Sin is the illness and it requires repentance or turning away from sin. Jesus’ blood supplies the remedy and it calls for faith or trust in him. “It is as naturally required of sinners to have faith in Jesus as it is required of the hungry person to eat food.” And baptism, because it embodies or expresses repentance and trust, is a natural response to the blood of Christ.

3) The “plan theory” makes the “plan” the means of salvation, not Christ crucified. “If we are saved by a ‘plan,’” Moser asked, “does this not make the ‘plan’ our savior? Is there life in a ‘plan’? Is a ‘plan’ redemptive? Jesus thought that he died to save sinners. If he died to give us a ‘plan’ by which to be saved, then it is not his death by which we are saved, but the ‘plan’ given by reason of his death.”

For Moser the crux of the matter was this: “When the saving power is separated from the personal Christ and located in something accomplished by Jesus after his death, he no longer is the Savior. He is only the giver of that which saves.”

4) The “plan theory” misconceives the meaning of saving faith and obedience to Christ. If faith as trust in Christ is distorted, Moser said, so is obedience to him: “When the conditions of salvation are regarded as a ‘plan,’ the obedience required of the sinner is considered merely the response to the authority of Christ.” But obedience to Christ does not simply spring from the fact that Christ is now king and has the right to command. Rather, obedience flows directly out of one’s trust in Christ as the sin-offering. Indeed, such trust, Moser insisted, is obedience.

He made it clear that one certainly should not preach Christ “apart from the conditions of salvation.” But he added, “I do with all my heart condemn preaching the conditions of salvation apart from the cross. I have heard it done a thousand times!” In doing this one failed to preach Christ as Savior – and there could be “no error greater” in preaching than this.

Moser concluded his pamphlet with these words: “What this sinful world needs is not ‘plans’ and ‘schemes’ but Christ. When Christ crucified is not preached one should not preach at all…. Let us preach Christ or nothing.”

Over the years Moser’s writing and teaching brought sharp – and sometimes devastating – opposition. According to one of his daughters, the many attacks he received in the 1930s severely affected his health. Beginning about 1932 he began suffering from what was later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. By 1935 it had grown so severe that his wife felt he was going to die.

His daughter later wrote of these years: “Though I was painfully aware that he was a sick man most of my growing-up years, I didn’t really know why until I was grown and understood the deep, personal wounds that my father had received.”

About 1935 Moser sought help at the famous Mayo Clinic, but was told that only a major change in his life would help. He changed. He quit full-time preaching and began spending most of his time on his farm near Lubbock, Texas. And it so happened that his good friend G. C. Brewer was preaching in Lubbock during those years, and that friendship buoyed his spirits.

By 1940 Moser had recovered sufficiently to return to full-time preaching and served effectively for a number of years. In semi-retirement through the 1950s and ‘60s, he preached by appointment, taught Bible at Lubbock Christian College, and continued his writing.

In 1955 he wrote and published a hymn titled “Glory, Lord, to Thee.” It well captures the central theme of all his writing and preaching.

Lord, before Thy cross I bow,
Human merit disavow;
Trustingly I look to Thee for cleansing pow’r.
Glory, glory, Lord, to Thee,
For redemption full and free;
Glory, honor be to Thee for evermore.

As the years passed the insistent call to focus on Christ rather than a “plan” gradually found a more receptive audience. As Moser, Brewer, and a few others pressed the matter, a growing number of church members began rethinking the traditional formulation of the gospel. Their efforts stand directly behind some of the theological shifts occurring among Churches of Christ today.

This article is adapted from Leonard Allen’s book, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (Abilene Christian University Press, 1993).

For further reading:
Brewer, G. C. “Grace and Salvation,” Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1952. Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1952.

Moser, K. C. “Can the Gospel Be Obeyed?” Firm Foundation 51 (February 6, 1934), 2.

______________. Christ Versus a Plan. Searcy, AR: Harding College Bookstore, 1952.

________________. The Way of Salvation. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1932.

For a more detailed account of K. C. Moser’s life and personality, see Billie Silvey’s article in the November, 1992 issue of 21st Century Christian magazine.

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