1. Referring Rather than Declaring
It’s one thing to say “the gospel is central to all we do.” It’s another thing to declare that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose again. It’s yet another thing to integrate the gospel into how we look at every part of ministry. Note the difference between these statements:
Statement 1: We have a children’s ministry to further the gospel in the lives of children
Statement 2: We have a children’s ministry because we all come into this world as sinners in need of rescue by a living, sinless Savior. It’s never too soon to start learning this freeing truth (Matt. 19:14, John 8:32).
Statement 3: God’s gracious plan is to transform bearers of guilt and shame into genuinely holy bearers of His name. Our church exists as a tool of God for that gospel purpose, and our children’s ministry exists to fully extend the church’s efforts to the youngest among us.
Statement 1 merely refers. Statement 2 declares. Statement 3 integrates. “Children’s ministry” can be replaced with any number of local church efforts, with details adjusted. The point is that we too often settle for reference when we ought to go all the way to integration.
2. Not Going There at All
Of course, an even greater problem is failure to get to the gospel even by reference. I’ve seen this happen even on occasions when an audience very likely to include multiple unbelievers is sitting right there ready to hear! I can’t begin to comprehend why a believer would pass up an opportunity like that. Romans 1:16?
3. “By the Way…”
More commonly, I have seen the gospel tacked on to the end of messages on occasions where it ought to have been the topic because the audience consisted mostly of the religious-but-confused.
Funerals are a typical case. It isn’t the time for homilies on the uncertainties of life, with an “Oh by the way, Jesus died for sinners,” in there somewhere. Most nursing home or assisted-living facility services are in this category as well. By all means, wrap the essentials of the gospel in a theme that has broad appeal, but we should devote the bulk to explaining and illustrating the gospel point by point.
It’s been my experience that believers never tire of this sort of preaching either. I can’t tell you how many times in 13 years of full time pastoral ministry I saw mature Christian audiences come alive visibly while some corner of my mind reflected, “I’m just preaching the gospel … again!”
4. Using Inaccurate Language
I probably cringe visibly every time I hear any variant of “ask Jesus into your heart.” The slightly more adult “invite Christ into your life” is really no better, nor is “make a commitment to Christ.”
It may be overstatement to say users of these terms are teaching a false gospel—but not by much. The Scriptures are clear that unbelievers do not become Christians by asking Jesus to relocate in some way. Nor do we pass from death to life by means of “a commitment.”
Yes, humans use language imprecisely. Genuine conversions take place in response to sloppy gospel appeals and people who are truly in Christ often express their faith in incomplete and inaccurate terms. They are no less accepted in the Beloved for all that.
But people who love the gospel and are leaders in preaching and teaching it can do better than to use sloppy language.
5. Isolating It from Its Implications
There is a kind of gospel reductionism that plagues many ministries. While they are good about including the essential core principles of the gospel (sin, judgment, Christ’s provision, the response of repentant faith), they are not equally good about asking “why?” and “so what?”
Why? God’s purpose in saving isn’t just to relieve a few from the consequences of Adam’s sin and their own. His purpose is to transform (Eph. 2:8-10, Rom. 8:3-4, 18-19). A transformed life here and now (yes, even a “victorious life,” in a manner of speaking) is a necessary implication of the gospel.
So what? That being the case, no ministry is sufficiently gospel-honoring if it doesn’t aim to grow disciples who are increasingly distinct from the lost. The result is a strong expectation of change, not ministry that encourages believers to bask in the blessings of the gospel without heeding the demands of the gospel.
6. Overuse of Jargon
Well-meaning gospel preachers often overuse terms only familiar to experienced believers. “Are you saved?” doesn’t mean a thing to many of those most in need of the gospel message. “Do you have a clear testimony?” sounds like courtroom proceedings. And “You don’t know Jesus,” sounds like a truism—how can anybody know a person who died thousands of years ago?
And “personal Savior”? I suppose the idea is that we don’t get to heaven by being in a crowd of people who claim the faith. There must be personal faith, and Jesus saves one sinner at a time. But the shorthand … I don’t think it works.
Arguably, all of these terms have their place, but there are other biblical (often more biblical) ways of referring to the basic need of the natural man, the solution God offers, and the necessary response. And pretty much any terms we use need illustrating and explaining, not just repeating.
7. Solving the Wrong Problem
This one is a cousin to “inaccurate language” above. The famous evangelical evangelists of the last several decades preach a “gospel” that solves the wrong problems. Rather than presenting human beings as fallen creatures who have offended a holy and just God, and who cannot fix that problem on their own, these pulpiteers present human beings as depressed, aimless, hurting from the misdeeds of others, grieving terrible losses, etc. These are all real human problems, but Jesus didn’t primarily die “for those tears.”
God became flesh, endured temptation, suffered at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, bore the wrath of the Father, rose from the dead victorious, and ascended to glory to solve the problem of sin and no other.
Yes, other things being equal, life is more “effective” and purposeful for believers, but these are secondary benefits to being reconciled to God. Let’s not confuse a subset of results of redemption with redemption itself. Jesus didn’t tell the woman at the well He was the answer to her difficulty forming lasting relationships, nor did Paul tell the Philippian jailer that Jesus was the answer to his out-of-control job stress.
I wish I could say this problem is unique to popular evangelical evangelists, but I’ve also heard many a fundamentalist preach a “gospel” that solves the wrong problem.
8. Neglecting Repentance
It probably goes without saying that so-called gospel preaching that aims at having “your best life now” tends to omit any kind of call to repentance. When you’re invited to “make a commitment to Christ” so you won’t be so sad anymore what could you possibly repent of?
But a sense of conviction that we have indeed done wrong—and are people of the sort who do wrong, even by our own standards (much more so by God’s)—is integral to conversion. Hence, the calls to repentance that we find in gospel preaching in Scripture (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22, 17:30, 26:20).
9. Too Little Worldview
Increasingly, we can’t assume people possess foundational ideas. These were already in place in the predominantly Jewish, first-century gospel audience and continued in the culturally-Christian audience that used to be the majority in the West—but they are often not in place in audiences today.
It’s possible to take the whole “back to Genesis” concept too far, but the trend is that teaching the gospel will require us to at least clarify Who we mean when we say “God,” and what sort of being we’re talking about when we refer to “Jesus Christ.” The savior concept requires understanding first that there is a holy God we will all answer to and that He is entitled to judge us.
The consequences of rejecting Christ are eternal, and those who believe are indeed called to seek to persuade human beings to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:11, Acts 18:4), but in the power balance, God has more than enough to draw and convert and we have none at all. We shouldn’t resort to trying to shout the gospel message (literally or metaphorically) to folks who are not listening, much less manipulate them into a response through dramatic stories or high-pressure tactics.
The Calvinist Jonathan Edwards famously preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But he did so because He believed it was his responsibility to declare the truth vividly and emphatically (and logically) not because he believed the sinners were somehow actually in his own hands.