The 13th reason why we stink at evangelism is simply that people don’t actually know what the gospel is, or if they do know it, they struggle to articulate it in face-to-face conversations with unbelievers. Feeling ill-equipped to explain the gospel, they look for ways to avoid interaction with non-Christians. So what is the gospel?
I was greatly helped by Tim Keller in answering this question, as he identified one of the major mistakes people make in thinking of the gospel. He explained how most Christians live in an “if / then” relationship with God. If I do what is right, then God will love me. If I give extra money to missions, then God will provide me with a raise at work. If I avoid sinful habits, then I will be spared suffering and humiliation, etc. It’s a conditional relationship that is based on the principle of merit.
The gospel calls us to live in a “because / therefore” relationship with the Lord. Because we have been justified by faith in Christ, therefore we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Because Christ died for us, therefore we are forgiven. Because Christ has fulfilled the law in our place, therefore we are set free from its demands and penalty, etc. This is an unconditional relationship that is based on the principle of grace. The difference between these two perspectives is the difference between religion (“if / then”) and the gospel (“because / therefore”). The “religious” life is not the “gospel-centered” life.
So, as we think about our responsibility toward the gospel, let us never forget what it is and what it isn’t. It is the gloriously great good news of what God has done in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to satisfy his own wrath and to secure the forgiveness of sins and perfect righteousness for all who trust in him by faith alone. From this I want to draw the following truths.
(1) The gospel is not what God requires. The gospel is what God provides! Yes, there is an intrinsic demand built into the gospel. The good news that is proclaimed calls for a response of faith and repentance. In fact, if we haven’t pressed upon human hearts the urgency of a response, we have failed in our ministries. But our faith and repentance, though they are the gift of God, are not themselves the gospel.
(2) The gospel is not an imperative, demanding things you must do. The gospel is an indicative, declaring things that God has done. Yes, of course we do things because of the gospel. But our doing things isn’t itself the gospel. To put it in terms more easily grasped, the gospel isn’t a command, it is a statement of fact!
(3) The gospel is not about human action. The gospel is about divine achievement. Yes, there are multiple consequences of the gospel, implications, entailments, results, all of which call in some measure for human action: racial reconciliation, social justice, peace, love, etc. But never confuse the content of the gospel with its consequences. Never confuse the essence of the gospel with its entailments.
(4) The gospel is not a moralistic Do! The gospel is a merciful Done! The gospel is first and foremost about what God, out of the depths of his mercy, has already done, in the past, in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to secure all that is needed for our reconciliation to him and the forgiveness of our sins. Morality most certainly is the fruit of the gospel, but just as certainly not its root.
Thinking of the gospel in these terms helps explain what we see in Acts 20:24 – “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” How do we account for this kind of zeal, this depth of devotion? Perhaps the answer is found in something Paul said later in Acts 20 regarding God’s gracious work for us in Christ Jesus. In Acts 20:28, as part of his exhortation to the Elders in the church at Ephesus, Paul said this: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.”
It strikes many as odd for Paul to speak of “God” the Father obtaining the church with “his own blood,” and rightly so, as the Father did not become incarnate and die on a cross. The Father did not bleed. The Son did. Thus a few manuscripts read, “to care for the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood,” the reference being to Jesus himself rather than to God the Father. But “the church of God” is almost certainly the superior reading and thus has in view the Father, not the Son. But if so, how can it be said that God the Father obtained the church with “his own blood”?
The best rendering of this statement is: “the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own.” The words rendered “his own” would then be a reference to Jesus (such as we find in Romans 8:31), designed to focus on the intimacy that characterizes the love between them. “His own” is the translation of a single word in the Greek text and is likely a term of endearment, portraying a close family relationship, thereby pointing to the affection and love of the Father for the Son. Hence, God the Father bought the church with the blood of “his own” dear Son, Jesus. This is the gospel! This is the good news we proclaim, that God has purchased or redeemed a community of scurrilous sinners by offering up as a ransom for their souls the precious blood of “his own” dear and greatly loved Son!
I’m not an alarmist by nature. I’m inclined to dismiss those who cry wolf or tell us that the sky is falling, and I’m especially impatient with last days fanaticism that insists the second coming of Christ is just around the corner (although, in the case of this latter prediction, I hope and pray they are right!). But I am alarmed and greatly concerned by something in our day and I am quite fanatical about alerting the body of Christ to what is happening. I’m talking about what has often been described as the morphing and muting of the gospel. By the “morphing” of the gospel I simply mean the many ways in which it is changing and being re-defined and re-cast in a way, so we are told, that is more compatible with the post-modern world in which we live. By the “muting” of the gospel I simply mean the tragic silence when it comes to proclaiming the gospel to a lost and dying world.
Let me focus here on a couple of ways in which the gospel is morphing in our day. I have in mind the tendency either to shrink the gospel or to expand it, both of which, by the way, are typically done in reaction to the other. Often people are tempted to shrink the gospel by paring off its rough and potentially offensive edges, thereby adapting it to the particular cultural context in which they live and minister. I’m all for contextualization. In fact, it’s largely unavoidable. But this does not require that the gospel itself be reconfigured or redefined so radically that it ceases to be concerned with the redemptive and saving activity of God in Christ.
On the other hand, many do damage to the gospel by expanding it to encompass virtually everything. In other words, if we make the gospel mean everything, it ends up meaning nothing. If the gospel means everything, one can no longer differentiate it from its counterfeits. We must distinguish between what the gospel is and what are its inevitable or intended consequences. For example, the gospel is the work of Christ in reconciling us to God, but the intended consequence is that we also be reconciled to one another. The gospel is redemption of body, soul, and spirit through faith in Jesus, but the intended consequence is that this redemption extend to the natural creation and the deliverance of creation from the curse. The gospel is justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but the intended consequence is that it lead to the alleviation of poverty and suffering and homelessness.
Loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind and my neighbor as myself is of critical importance: but that isn’t the gospel. Taking note of Martin Luther King Day each year and being both aware of and actively engaged in the pursuit of civil rights is essential for all Christians: but that is not the gospel. Acknowledging Right to Life Sunday and actively working on behalf of the unborn is crucial: but it is not the gospel. Sharing your personal testimony of a radically changed life is something all of us should do: but that is not the gospel. In other words, the gospel must not be confused with what it produces. The content of the gospel is one thing; its consequences are another. As noted earlier, there is a difference between essence and entailment.
I conclude, then, that the gospel is not moral behavior; the gospel is not social action; the gospel is not raising money to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa; the gospel is not care for creation, interpersonal reconciliation, good deeds, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or housing the homeless. All these things are of crucial importance and Christian men and women should be encouraged to give of their time and money and energy to support these activities. Please do not think that by listing them in this way that I’m minimizing their value. But these activities are not the gospel. The gospel is God’s activity, not ours. The gospel is his action, his work in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to secure the forgiveness of sins of those who repent and trust in what he has done.
We celebrate and proclaim and protect this gospel because the gospel can accomplish what education cannot. Yes, education broadens the mind and enlightens the understanding and captivates the imagination, but it is powerless to convert the soul and renew the spirit and fill the heart with joy in Jesus!
The gospel can accomplish what science cannot. Yes, science can improve the quality of our lives on earth and protect us from infectious diseases and create devices that improve our communication. But it cannot redeem us from sin or impart forgiveness or give us hope in the face of death.
The gospel can accomplish what technology cannot. I’m grateful for technology, for the airline industry that enables me to travel, for the laptop computer on which I do my work and write my books, for the heating systems that keep us warm and the air conditioning systems that keep us cool. But technology cannot regenerate our hearts or bring us into the true knowledge of God.
Praise God for nuclear energy and economic development and the entertainment industry and athletics and the international banking system. But for all their good, they cannot do what only the gospel can. They cannot give us God. But the gospel can!