Have we made the gospel too comfortable? In his new book, Ben Jack explores the simplicity at the heart of the gospel and challenges us to understand it deeply and share it widely. You can read the first chapter below.
The Simple Gospel is available now from message.org.uk/shop for £7.99.
The Simple Gospel
I recently attempted to decorate my living room, an endeavour that ultimately had me asking myself, ‘Why did I bother starting this?’ DIY is not my strong suit, and a job that would probably have taken the average person just a few hours dragged on for several days. It turns out that all those years of playing video games didn’t prepare me for adult life at all.
The main problem was that I overcomplicated the process by not having the necessary tools at my disposal to get the job done as efficiently as possible. I ended up creating an almighty mess that took even longer to clean up and, worst of all, the end result is not as well presented as it might have been. I tried to muddle through and get the job done quickly, whereas good preparation would have equipped me for a far simpler, smoother and more successful experience.
If only overcomplication was limited to the misery of decorating your house (I appreciate that some readers will enjoy decorating, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one). Truth be told, life is complicated, and humanity has a habit of making it even more so. Gandhi famously said, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live,’ yet despite our best efforts to simplify and improve the world through technological advances, the sharing of ideas and the championing of basic human rights, Gandhi’s words seem more relevant today than ever before. Indeed, the world seems to get more complex rather than less so as time goes by, and we see a greater disparity between those who have and those who have not.
I think Gandhi actually stumbled upon something profound about the sharing of the gospel, without realising it. If we were to reword his statement as follows, perhaps it would strike a chord for those of us who are concerned with the proclamation of the good news:
‘Preach simply so that others may simply live.’
The two explanations of the gospel that I hear most often can be summarised fairly simply:
- You have done bad things, you are a sinner and are heading for hell, but in his love and grace God has provided Jesus, who died and rose again, and through faith in him you can be saved and enter heaven.
- Is your life hard? Have you experienced heartbreak and suffering? Do you have low self-esteem? Well, God loves you. Put your trust in him and you will come to know your true identity. He will help you in this life and you can know true happiness.
Perhaps you have shared the gospel in one of these two ways, or in a variation on them. I know I have in the past. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on these basic explanations of the gospel to consider what is good and helpful, and what is lacking.
Neither of these explanations in fact represents the full truth of the good news. They both contain truth about the gospel, but neither is sufficient in expressing who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for humanity. Even the oft-cited scripture from John 3:16, undoubtedly the most famous of all Bible verses and celebrated by Martin Luther as ‘the heart of the Bible, the gospel in miniature,’ is not a sufficient explanation of the gospel in isolation. God does indeed love the world so much that he has provided his only Son to save us from death and give us eternal life, but this is not the complete message of the gospel, and nor is it the good news that Jesus himself announced when he arrived on the preaching scene two thousand years ago, with the words, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Mark 1:14-15). I agree with Luther that John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature, and therefore a great place to start, but more is needed. We should desire to know and articulate the gospel as fully as we can.
‘Preaching simply’ does not mean preaching a watered-down, more palatable message. Paul warns that this will lead to the preaching of no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-9). ‘Preaching simply’ means being able to explain the full gospel in all its power and authority, clearly, to any audience who would have ears to hear.
Gandhi offered profound advice and wisdom in a quest to better the world, but we must not fall into the trap of offering the gospel merely as good advice in the hope of bringing positive social change. The gospel is not good advice, it is the announcement of the good news of the coming kingdom; the invitation to turn from rebellion against the King of the universe and choose submission to his Lordship; the gateway to life in all its fullness, the life for which humanity was created. Good advice can be heeded or ignored, perhaps with little consequence. While the gospel invitation can also be taken up or forgotten, the consequences are both temporally and eternally significant. To preach the gospel is to offer a simple invitation – do you want to live?
And this is a deeply important question, for if the answer is ‘yes’ the gospel declares that there is only one true life: life in the kingdom of God. On the off-chance that the answer is ‘no’ (and with suicide rates in the developed world being so high, this is a tragic possibility), the gospel declares that there is hope for you too. The life you may not want to live is not the life you were created for anyway. Your dissatisfaction at the life you live is shared by the God who created you for more, and who has provided the way by which you can know true life, fulfilled life.
One of my great heroes, C.S. Lewis, came to faith in Christ partly because Christianity helped him to reconcile a rational understanding of the universe with a satisfying explanation of why we experience longing and desire in this life. That very idea speaks into the heart of the gospel: not simply that we are sinners who need a saviour to get us to heaven, but that we were created to dwell in the perfect kingdom of our heavenly Father God, a kingdom that can actually be experienced in this life, before being perfected in what we would call heaven. The reason we experience longing and desire is because we were created for a kingdom that is not yet fully present, but that has been initiated in the work of Christ and will be perfected when he returns. But how many of us actually present the gospel in these terms? Then again, how many of us even want to?
The Bad News
If the good news of Jesus Christ is the hope for the world, and if we have already received it ourselves, why have so many lost the drive, desire, or confidence to share it? There are likely more reasons than we have time to explore here, but six stand out as especially problematic.
1. THE ME-CENTRED PROBLEM
When the gospel is presented as more-or-less exclusively the answer to my existential crisis – ‘Who am I?’ – then the application of the gospel to my life is in danger of becoming more-or-less exclusively self-centred. This is not helped by overly consumerist approaches to church that promote personal satisfaction as key to the worship experience, rather than personal sacrifice as key to the worshipful life. It is easy to point the finger disapprovingly at the younger generations for the narcissism that seems to run rife within their ranks, but the truth is that the preaching of an almost exclusively existential gospel (whilst not wrong in its assertion of the gospel as the key to your true identity) has contributed to narcissism, self-centredness and self-righteousness being all too present among the people of God. For the person who thinks the gospel is all about them, there is little incentive to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of others.
2. THE HYPER-GRACE PROBLEM
God is so gracious that people don’t really need to seek his forgiveness; surely his grace will cover all. This idea leads us down the road of two hugely problematic beliefs. The first, antinomianism, is the idea that we can essentially abuse God’s grace with no consequence. God will forgive us, whatever happens, so continuing to sin is not really a problem. Taken to its fullest outworking, antinomianism doesn’t actively seek forgiveness for sin, it merely asserts that all sin will be forgiven by virtue of God’s grace.
This leads to the next big problem: universalism. This is the idea that, on judgement day, God will save everyone and none will perish. As much as I would love to believe that none will spend an eternity separated from God, neither of these beliefs reflects what the Bible actually teaches (we will explore this further in Chapter Six); ultimately, they make a mockery of the gospel and the actions of Christ upon the cross. In antinomian and universalist thinking, there can be little incentive to share the gospel for the salvation of souls, as sin needs no true repentance and all will spend eternity with God, whatever happens in this life.
3. THE BORN-WRONG PROBLEM
John Wimber lamented that preaching a faulty gospel produces faulty Christians. The born-wrong problem occurs when listeners hear a weak presentation of the gospel and so are ‘born wrong’ into their new Christian faith. The outworking of this for evangelism can be the adoption of false ideas, such as antinomianism and universalism, or that some Christians simply do not know that personal witness and evangelism are part of the Christian life. These believers are particularly likely to view evangelism as the job of the professional (the pastor, the missionary), rather than a responsibility and calling upon all believers.
4. THE FEAR OF MAN PROBLEM
There are many Christians who have a strong desire to share their faith but are paralysed by fear. As the western world, in particular, becomes increasingly pluralistic and obsessed with ‘political correctness’, the Christian claim of the exclusivity of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life seems less and less publicly acceptable. I’m sure we can all empathise with this problem on some level. As a Christian of twenty-five years, with more than fifteen years’ experience as an evangelist, I can assure you that I have my fair share of stories where I ‘bottled it’ because of the fear of man, and yet the Bible calls us to be bold, trusting in the Lord to help us, whatever persecution may come. We are to be an unashamed people, confident in the saving power of God (Rom. 1:16).
5. THE FIT-FOR-PURPOSE PROBLEM
Related to the fear of man problem is the question, ‘How could God use little ol’ me, with all my weaknesses, flaws and failings?’ There is much to be said about what qualifies a person for kingdom service, but for focus in this book we will reflect mainly on knowing the truth of the gospel deeply, so that we are able to live it well and explain it simply at any given opportunity. Wonderfully, God is in the business of taking people who think they can’t, and turning them into people who do; taking our weakness, and making his power perfect through it (2 Cor. 12:9).
6. THE HOW PROBLEM
Finally, there are those who have a desire to share but don’t know how to explain the gospel to those they talk to. The knowledge of what the gospel is and an ability to explain it clearly to others is lacking, and so they do not have the confidence to enter into Jesus-centred conversations. In many respects this is the easiest of the problems to fix, requiring only a better understanding of the Jesus story and perhaps a few basic conversational techniques.
Whatever our reasons for failing to share the good news, God desires to equip and empower us – you! – to be his messengers in this world and to share in the joy of the rescue mission he has initiated. He does not use you begrudgingly, but delights in partnering with you to see the hope you have received, lived and proclaimed for all to see and hear. The best way to discover (or rediscover) a passion for evangelism is to return to the wonder of the gospel itself.
Understanding The Gospel
‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’
This quote is often accredited to Albert Einstein, and variations of it have been linked with other great thinkers and intellects over the years. Fortunately, we don’t need to have Einstein levels of genius to understand the gospel. The good news is not merely an academic subject to be studied, but a past, present and future reality to be received. However, we should put in the effort to understand the gospel as deeply as we possibly can, for a deep understanding of the gospel will help us to take what we have received and share it simply with the world.
This depth of study and reflection is not just an exercise in theological navel-gazing, but an attempt to understand what the good news truly is, how it impacts our lives, and how we can share the message with the world. A primary way to figure this out is to look at what the first preachers of the gospel understood the good news to be, and how it shaped their lives and witness. In the next couple of chapters we will do just that, but at this point it is worth posing an important question: How much time do you spend simply thinking and praying about the significance of the ministry of Jesus that led him to the cross? Considering afresh just what it was that caused God to send his one and only Son to die for us, and why Jesus allowed himself to hang in that place of suffering and experience that awful death? Meditating upon what it really means that Christ is risen, ascended and will one day return?
‘Context is king’ is a mantra that I often repeat when teaching on how to study the Bible. In Chapter Four we will think about the context (culture) into which we take the gospel, and how to make the most of the culture around us for gospel opportunity. However, to truly understand the gospel we must be prepared to intentionally engage with God’s holy word, understanding it in its biblical context before we can apply it in our present context. To understand the Bible then, alongside submission to the Spirit’s power for the task, we must engage with two basic questions:
WHAT DID THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR INTEND TO SAY TO HIS AUDIENCE?
As shocking as it may seem, the biblical writers didn’t specifically have you in mind when they were crafting their work; they wrote for a specific audience. Understanding what the author was saying to his intended audience is essential if we are to make sense of the Bible.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR US TODAY?
God had us all in mind when the Bible was written. His holy word is still the primary way by which he speaks today, and our means for understanding who he is. If the Bible is just a collection of old stories and theological ideas that were only relevant to the original intended audience, all is lost. Jesus died for human beings, not just theologians, and it is in the application of God’s Word today that we truly become his followers.
We can’t grapple with the second question until we’ve come to some understanding of the first, so no skipping ahead! To start with, we’re going to need some context, as we can never hope to understand what the original author intended to say without at least a little understanding of the context in which (and to which) the passage was written.
And here’s why I’m such a stickler for context (and why you should be, too) because, taken out of context, we can pretty much make the Bible say whatever we want and use it to justify any belief. After all, the Bible says at one point that there is no God! At best, this is a naive and misguided approach to God’s Word that will lead to an incorrect understanding of what it teaches and its application to our lives. At worst, the Bible becomes deliberately subverted and used to justify horrendous acts in the name of God. Many of the objections I face in my evangelism are over things the Bible teaches. Some of these are just misunderstandings and can be corrected. Others are indeed true biblical teaching, but I can only help others to understand the context of that teaching – its validity, relevance and application today – if I have taken the time to consider these things myself.
A deeper understanding of the truth, discovered through a commitment to exploring the context in which and to which it was written, will help us to become more effective messengers. Likewise, an awareness of the context (culture) for our evangelism is important if we are to understand how best to deliver the message of the gospel to any given audience. Ultimately, the task of reading and understanding the Bible, and the task of bringing the message of the gospel to any culture, hinges on one crucial thing above all else – submission to and reliance upon the Spirit of God to enlighten and empower. As the theologian Haddon Robinson said:
Ultimately God is more interested in developing messengers than messages, and because the Holy Spirit confronts us primarily through the Bible, we must learn to listen to God before speaking for God.
Reflection and study of the Word are essential as we try to understand the gospel more deeply, both for the purposes of proclamation and, importantly, to move us once more to a place of awe and worship of who God is and what he has done. The gospel has lost none of its power to save. The same gospel Peter preached at Pentecost is still bringing people to life today. To find success in both the visible and verbal aspects of our evangelism we must take the time, as the apostles did, to know Jesus and the good news that declares his glory. So let us do exactly that now, as we explore the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus.
The Simple Gospel is available now from message.org.uk/shop for £7.99.