What is the Gospel?
If you venture out to your local christian bookstore you will discover volumes of books who’s titles proclaim to expound the “true” gospel. Endless titles abound from authors who seek to once again repackage the “law-court” scenario for another 200-pages, including some stories of how westerners are finding freedom from this message. Anecdotes of note that they will likely recycle at the next conference they speak as to awe the attenders. Frankly, I find the majority of them to be unsettling incomplete and I am talking about what seems to be the majority of those who write books on an “explicit” gospel message that bears witness to nothing more than a reducto-gospel, arguing primarily from Paul. All the while quoting strands of scripture from the gospels that essentially westernize Jesus so that He sounds nothing like a Jew and more like a German of the 16th century, who is concerned with the abuse of power the Pope has over the lack of relational equity people think they have with God.
This version of the gospel puts the entire world into two categories:
Those who have received grace and those who are attempting to work for it.
These two categories present a false dichotomy. We don’t always receive truth from God, even if you are on the “good” side, but it does not mean you are out. The scriptures are replete of examples of folks getting saved for various reasons that never were intended to fit in the clean box of the western evangelicalism:
-Prostitute saved for washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair (Luke 7:38)
-Tax collector is saved from giving half of his possessions to the poor and giving back all the money he had stolen (Luke 19:8)
-Paraplegic saved just from the faith of his friends (Matthew 9:2)
-The thief on the cross who, with his last breathe, is saved for asking Jesus if he would remember him (Luke 23:42-43)
Are you telling me, that you can get “saved” without saying a sinner’s prayer created in the 19th century?
Let us continue…
In the end, the gospel is presented as a book-ends narrative, holding the in-between stuff we have conveniently stopped believing in because the guys that wrote it no longer live. The birth of Christ happened and then we head straight for the crucifixion, which is where we end up spending a majority of the time beating our bibles and treating it like God himself penned every word, which is scary to any reasonable person, but here is the tough truth: the bible is not the koran. “God-inspired” is not equal to God-approved action or liberty. Just because something is in the bible, whether it is an action or something factual, does not lend any authority for us as teachers to tell people that those actions and words (specifically the violent ones) are to apply to your life as transformative truth. What of the violent images in the old testament where “men of God” are encouraged by the prophets to rape, pillage and destroy? They are commanded to do things clearly against the Kingdom of God, whose gates will never be shut (Revelation 22). They simply happened because when God interacts with humanity, things are messy just like our lives and that is okay. We must be forever emancipated from the idea that Jesus died so we could have a new category of people from which others can be excluded from.
Imagine that Jesus rises from the dead, comes strolling through Bethany and declares, “Hey guys, I am doing a totally new thing, but really it is the same old thing you are used to: in and out groups, exclusivism and polemics. Aren’t you so happy about that? Now, I am going to be gone for at least 2,000 years. In the meantime, immerse yourself in christian apologetics and voting people just like you into political office.”
I was recently preaching at a public school and when I asked the students to tell me what Jesus did in the gospels, the majority could only say, “Oh, he died!” Out of 600 attentive students, this was the only answer given to me. Truly this is important to the story, but perhaps this has been inflated because we don’t actually believe in the power of the story? Western thought is consumed with getting to the point and clever propositions, whereas the scriptures are consumed with narrative and the power of story. The story that God has invited us into.
We so easily forget that the gospel was proclaimed by the apostles long before the cross. For many, Justification or atonement theory is the Gospel and this unfortunately makes the partial the whole. This is not something to bring others into, nor is it an experience to be had in the moment of their revealing. The Gospel is Jesus, and the story of how He became and remains King. Along with this there is no event that transforms me as much as believing in the literal death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Training in Christianity, states the following: “Are the consequences of Christ’s life more important than His life? No, by no means, quite the contrary–if this were so, Christ was merely a man (p. 26).” It is important to note that none of the apostolic letters are the entire Gospel, with the exception of one abstract definition given in 1 Corinthians 15. Outside of that, if you want to preach Jesus you must be knowledgeable of the narrative of His life, your own personal experience and how to bring the lost person into an encounter with Christ. I must admit, it doesn’t take much content before a person is qualified to see people turned to Jesus.
All that the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda knew about Jesus was that He was a healer. Actually, it was even more than that because Jesus had just strolled into the pagan healing pool of the god serapes and healed a guy who never thought it possible. Thus, Jesus was proving himself to have a better story of God everywhere he went. What a way to recruit disciples! Jesus walked around confronting idol after idol, not by tearing them down with violence, but with restoration to the broken and comfort to the lonely.
Anyways, back to the story…
All the former cripple needed to know about Jesus before he followed him was that he was a Healer! All that blind Bartimaeus knew of Jesus was that He opened blind eyes, and this was enough to cause Bart to follow Him.
Jesus will only be who the lost person needs Him to be in the moment when they first meet Him.
Scot McKnight defines the Gospel like this (from a lecture he gave at Truett Theological Seminary): “That gospel is the narration of the Story of Jesus as Messiah (and Lord over all) as that Story that completes or fulfills the Story of Israel, and brings that Story to its goal. That Story is about Jesus, who is Savior, saves through what he did — his life, his death, his burial, and his resurrection.”
I had gotten so lost in telling the story that I had not noticed that tears began to well up in his eyes. Only a few minutes of conversation and he gave his life to The Lord.
I would add and say that when I share my faith with unbelievers, I preach this through the lens of the Kingdom of God. Immersing myself in the parables and the Kingdom stories is the first part, and getting my hands on the sick, hurting and possessed is the second part. Perhaps it may be true in the opposite way because that path would find validation in the story of the disciples of Jesus who saw Jesus “do” before they heard Him teach. We do not want people to encounter my intellect, we want them to encounter the living Christ. Apologetics and Polemics are great but I find that they are the worst way to “gospel” because it presupposes that the persons greatest problem is intellectual, when in nearly all cases it is experiential. Do you know any famous men of apologetics winning Muslims to Christ? I don’t. It’s usually the guys who speak with authority in whom they do know to be King, and the people flock to that message, but never to the message of how wrong they are.
There are only 7 Gospel presentations in the New Testament primarily found in the book of Acts, chapters 2,3,4, 10-11, 13, 14, 17.
Everybody likes Jesus! They may not like “church,” but who cares?! The church exists because of Jesus. He is interesting, and I don’t fault people for not finding the church interesting. Just talk about Jesus, and lay off defending the church. Those who learn to love the Bridegroom will eventually learn to love the Bride. Normally I would throw in a few stories about the life of Jesus while He was on earth to educate the lost person. The Holy Spirit will illuminate to you which stories to tell that will help the person you are speaking with come into a place of encounter, but until you are well versed in all the stories it is good to start with a couple (perhaps you may start with the story of Blind Bartimaeus and Jesus on the boat calming the sea).
I remember being at a bookstore with my wife, and the cashier wanted to know why so many people bought C.S. Lewis’ books. I asked him if he had every heard the Gospel before? He said no and I proceeded to explain the Gospel to him through the narrative of The Chronicles of Narnia. It was the strangest thing; as the Spirit began to move on this guy when I expounded on the grip of sin to be the same as the endless winter of Narnia and how Aslan showed up to change the world around them, and little by little the snow began to melt. This was like Jesus going around healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, cleansing the lepers. Slowly, the grip of sin began to break off of the world as Jesus did these Kingdom objectives. Finally, Aslan laid down his life in place of Edmund, just as Jesus laid down his life in our place, and then Aslan rose again as did Jesus because the very act of self-sacrifice reverses the process of death itself, procuring victory over this fallen life of sin, death and shame for all who receive Him. I had gotten so lost in telling the story that I had not noticed that tears began to well up in his eyes. Only a few minutes of conversation and he gave his life to The Lord.
Believer, we are doing more than giving people a chance to escape hell and have a personal relationship with their Creator; when we witness we are extending the Kingdom and inviting all who desire to be a part of God’s plan of Cosmic Redemption so that everything will change. In fact, everything must change.
The message of the Kingdom allows christians to come away from hanging halfway out of the proverbial birth canal, and be fully released into the eternal life in the here and now, not just when they die. We should care, not only for afterlife complexities, but also for fair trade, equality, immigration and loving our neighbors. All of these issues have their place in the Kingdom of God.
When I encounter a skeptic, he or she will use hundreds, maybe thousands, of reasons to not intellectually buy in to what I am trying to present to him. Jesus says to everyone, “come to me! I will give you rest.” Interestingly we have interpreted that this means, “come to my event,” but it actually means we have to be able to invite people into an experience in the moment of their lostness. We think an invitation is radical, but how about inviting people into the life we possess already…that is dangerous and radical, and it is radical because the reality of what we actually have is measured and revealed in the moment we try to give it away. For if heaven coming to earth is the goal of Matthew 6, which is the goal of Jesus, what is the point at which heaven meets earth? Is it Jerusalem, Washington D.C., or Houston? None of those. Heaven collides with earth in us.
It was not long ago and another young person from our ministry, who I have known for years, was telling me about a guy she was interested in. I was excited for her, as we had done many mission trips together and I saw her as a sister, but as any good brother would do I asked if he was a wholly devoted follower of Jesus. She looked at me sheepishly and replied, “Well, no, not really. I think he wants to know more about God but he is on the fence. Oh, and by the way, he is coming to visit me this weekend from his home in Louisiana…” I tried desperately to not show disapproval on my face. I do not believe in missionary dating! For some reason though, I found myself saying the opposite of what I felt: “Lets have a double date over some coffee. Bring him to the Starbucks off Market Street this Sunday night and Lauren and I will meet with you guys.”
Heaven collides with earth in us.
We met up and just began to have peer to peer conversation. Honestly, I liked the guy! Although I could tell he was slightly nervous I enjoyed his company. After about a half hour I told him my reason for going to different countries and sharing meals with homeless children in Trinidad and Guyana: “I do these things because I believe in the Kingdom of God.” He seemed stunned. “I have heard of Jesus but I have never heard of the Kingdom before,” he said. “Let me explain it to you.” I gathered a napkin and doodled out the timeline of History from creation, the fall, Abraham, Moses, Malachi, the silence, John the Baptist, the inauguration of the Kingdom, Jesus’ appearance, life, death, burial, resurrection, current age and His hopeful return. After I finished he looked at me and said, “Nobody has ever explained it to me this way before.” We all hugged and that was it.
The next day I got a text from Lindsey stating that he had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and desired to be baptized that night. So, that is exactly what we did, and I have recently found out that he is on fire, wanting to tell all of his friends about the Jesus of Nazareth He encountered on the road to Houston.
When an earthquake takes place, scientists look for the point on the earths surface directly above the point within the earths surface that caused the earthquake to take place. This is called the Epicenter. Everyone would feel the rumbling but not know where the first ripple occurred until the epicenter was discovered. Likewise, as followers of Jesus we are to be Epicenters of the Kingdom of God, becoming the visible representations of what is taking place in the invisible which even the lost sinner feels…the rumblings of his heart.
You never know the impact that witnessing could have on your life, not just on the life of the unbeliever. I leave you with these final words: Evangelism to me is life, but not mine, the Life of another.
I am able to take questions. Don’t be shy!