“No human mind could conceive or invent the gospel.” These words comprise the opening line of a little-known prayer included in a collection of Puritan prayers, The Valley of Vision. These words arrested my attention and caused me to reflect again on my own understanding, response, and commitment to the gospel—especially my ineptness, fear, and disinclination to share it with others even after three decades of ministry and multiple evidences of its transforming power.
I have learned that while my soul longs for the gospel, my heart is often indifferent to its effects—and my lips are often silent to its glorious truth. This sad state has become increasingly difficult for me to accept as the status quo. I am convinced that a good bit of my difficulty lies in my failure to reflect regularly and deeply about the true nature and divine purpose of the gospel. Furthermore, I suspect this same failure is why many Christians and evangelical churches fail to engage in sharing the gospel accurately, attractively, and authoritatively with those who desperately need to experience the redemption it offers.
God used Mark Dever’s short, practical, and theologically packed book The Gospel & Personal Evangelism to engage my heart and to correct my thinking. These lines in the opening chapter are particularly helpful to the point I wish to make: “God has established who and how we should evangelize. God himself is at the heart of the evangel—the good news we are spreading. And we should evangelize, ultimately, because of God.” “We should evangelize because of God”—this statement must be the starting and ending point of our theology and methodology of evangelism. Too often, it is not. Regularly, we represent the gospel with man and his need for salvation as the central focus. From that theological starting point we develop methodologies that rely more on human abilities, strategies, and approaches than they do on God’s power and the Spirit’s illuminating influence to draw lost people to see and embrace the truths we are called to proclaim about Jesus Christ and His mission. Said another way, a man-centered gospel results in a man-centered methodology driven more by the needs of man than the purposes of God. The explosion of attractional ministries that present the gospel as the panacea to all our ills and the roadmap to a happy, successful life verifies that man-centered gospel evangelism is alive and well in our day. What the evangelical church needs is the same thing I need—a recovery of a full-orbed, theologically sound understanding of the gospel. Put plainly, if our thinking about the gospel is primarily reduced to going somewhere (Heaven), escaping something (eternal punishment), or taking someone with us (evangelism), we have a truncated view of the gospel. None of these realities are false, but they do not reflect the fullness of the gospel as described in Scripture. If we desire healthy churches with gospel-centered evangelism and discipleship, we must strive to cultivate a fuller and richer view of the gospel in at least six important ways.
1. We must examine the meaning of the gospel.
The root term gospel gets at the concept of good news. This idea is behind Paul’s power-packed paragraph to the Roman believers which explains that the gospel announces a salvation that includes Gentiles as well as Jews (Rom. 10:5–13). However welcome and wonderful this news might be, it will be of no benefit to those who do not hear and respond in obedient belief to the word preached by those whose feet bear this “good news” (Rom. 10:14–17).
We must avoid understanding Paul’s use of “news” through the lens of what we read in our papers, scan on our electronic feeds, or watch on our televisions. The term used by Paul refers to a proclamation or announcement of something otherwise unknown. Additionally, the term also describes the character of this announcement—it is good! So what exactly is this news? And in what sense is it “good”? Most of us have come to understand the good news of the gospel primarily as our own personal salvation from the penalty of sin. But Paul has something far bigger in mind than just the salvation of individual believers.
Paul’s “big news” involves an ancient promise made to Adam, Eve, and Satan in which He announces that Adam’s race would be delivered and Satan would be thoroughly defeated through the work of an appointed, anointed Champion. This Champion would deliver on God’s promise by defeating God’s ancient enemy, reversing a curse almost as old as time itself, and delivering and restoring God’s image bearers to their original place and purpose. Paul’s “good news” was that this long awaited, appointed, anointed Champion had arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is “good news” indeed! Sadly, many Christians have a much-diminished view of this news. For most, the gospel functions as the “ticket” to Heaven. And similar to a ticket to a coveted event, once it has been used, it has little practical value. For Paul, the gospel was the main event, not just the entry ticket. So a robust theology of the gospel must start by examining what Paul and the other New Testament writers had in view.
2. We must understand the nature of the gospel.
The gospel is more than just an announcement; it is God breaking into the affairs of His Creation. The Old Testament prophets referred to this time as “the day of the Lord.” The gospel is about God visiting His people to deliver them from their sin (Matt. 1:21–23), to restore them to their place in His Kingdom (Acts 1:6), and to fulfill all His promises and purposes (2 Cor. 1:20; Eph. 1:9–10). Put differently, the gospel is God at work in the affairs of His Creation to restore all things to their proper place through the cross-work of His Son, Jesus Christ. This work is based on the plan and purpose of the Father (Eph. 1:3–6); accomplished through the willing, obedient work of the Son (Eph. 1:7–12); and applied, validated, and preserved by the work of the Spirit (Eph. 1:13–14). The gospel is based on truth, exercised in righteousness, manifested through mercy, energized by grace; and it results in the divine deliverance, reconciliation, and restoration of God’s people. Any understanding of the gospel that falls short of this glorious description is truncated.
3. We must recognize the focal point of the gospel.
Any full theology of the gospel starts and ends with God. God is both the originator and the accomplisher of the work announced in the gospel. He is the beginning, the center, and the end of the gospel. From start to finish, God is the focus of the gospel. Four concepts help us recognize this reality.
First, the primary objective of the gospel is the glory of God. Ephesians 1:3–14 is one of the earliest gospel hymns (if not the earliest), and it illumines this truth about this gospel. Paul arranges this hymn in three stanzas that celebrate the gospel from various perspectives. One perspective celebrates the distinct work carried out in the gospel by each member of the Trinity through the three successive stanzas. Another perspective set forth in the hymn is a temporal view of God’s salvation—the first stanza speaks of the Father’s work from eternity past, the second anticipates Christ’s future work of reconciling all things to God, and the final stanza celebrates the Spirit’s present work in those being saved. Between the stanzas is a chorus that points to the gospel’s ultimate focus—“to the praise of His glory.” Through the gospel we see the glory of God set forth in matchless splendor.
A second concept revealed in the gospel is truth. Whatever God does through the gospel must reflect His righteous character. It must accord with ultimate reality and truth from God’s perspective rather than our own limited perspective and our own warped views of what constitutes truth and righteousness. The gospel tells the truth. It tells us the truth about God, sin, the world, and each of us. And what we discover does not initially sound remotely like good news. The gospel reveals we are sinners who sin by nature and by choice. Not only are we sinners, we are full of sin (sinful)! And this matters because God is totally sinless. His righteousness demands that He deal with us truthfully in a manner that corresponds to our sinfulness and His holiness. Consequently, we are condemned to a horrific penalty that places each of us on death row. Apart from God intervening, we have been sentenced and are merely waiting for the day of execution when our just sentence will be carried out and we will face eternal death. However, the gospel proclaims an amazing announcement: God has found a way to intervene without compromising either His righteousness or minimizing the truth about our sinfulness. Paul describes this amazing intervention in Romans 3:19–31 as he declares that God is making unrighteous people righteous without compromising His own righteousness. This is amazing news!
Such righteousness comes to us totally unmerited—by the sheer mercy of God, the third concept. Paul spoke of God being rich in a mercy sourced in His love for even His enemies (Eph. 2:4). Although God does not have to save anyone, He wants to save sinners! And this desire is expressed in abundant, inexhaustible rivers of mercy fed by the ocean of His immeasurable, unfathomable love.
All these benefits come to sinners by the fourth concept—grace. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Grace begins with favor God grants to unworthy sinners who are willing to believe what He has said about His Son, repent from their sins, and entrust themselves fully and completely to Christ’s work on their behalf as the sole hope of their salvation. That is what faith involves. And Paul describes this sort of faith as a gift from God because of grace (Eph. 2:8).
Many theologians have rightly articulated truth when they state, “God is the gospel.” He is its originator as well as its executor; He is the subject as well as the object of the gospel. This perspective runs counter to an evangelical environment that makes man the center, the object, and the goal of the gospel.
(Next: the accomplishment, display, and proclamation of the gospel.)
Sam Horn (PhD, Bob Jones University; DMin, The Master’s Seminary) is executive vice president for enrollment and ministerial advancement and dean of the school of religion and the seminary at Bob Jones University.