Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Rest is Detail

The gospel is a funny thing.

At least the way we often define it is a bit odd, particularly when we include the word in the phrase “gospel meetings”. You know, those very simple, explicit “Come-to-Jesus” messages promulgated in evangelistic tent meetings and in gospel halls all over North America for the last century or more.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I mean, there isn’t, really. It just isn’t the whole gospel picture, is it?

Platform Evangelism

Evangelistic campaigns are geared toward obtaining professions of faith (that hopefully reflect genuine conversion). Conscious of a limited window of opportunity with any particular audience (sometimes forty minutes or less), they tend to frame the gospel predictably and urgently to maximize the chance of getting an immediate response. Hence the very common “altar call” or its equivalent.

Laurence Justice comments:
“So firmly entrenched has the altar call become in our modern churches that I have had people ask me on several occasions, ‘How can people be saved if you don’t give an invitation?’ Preachers who do not give altar calls are often criticized as not being evangelistic.”
But delivering the good news ought to involve more than simply asking an audience to make a decision about the person of Jesus Christ on the basis of a few pieces of new information delivered persuasively. In fact, I would argue that in today’s world of near-total ignorance of the Bible — a world in which even the term “Christ”, employed so freely in evangelical circles, is not well understood — an altar call or invitation to commit after a forty minute speech is unlikely to result in much more than an emotional response; a response that may or may not be spiritual in nature.

Without an Old Testament context into which to plug the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, many responses are unlikely to be intelligent ones.

More Than an Altar Call

Now while the gospel may certainly be summed up in a few sentences, it is clear that those sentences are only the tip of the iceberg. When Paul talks about “the gospel I preached to you”, it is evident he means a whole lot more than an altar call, and much more than he says in these few verses:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared ...”
The good news Paul has to convey is that the scriptures have been fulfilled in Christ. God has kept thousands of years worth of promises going right back to the Garden of Eden. The Offspring of the woman has bruised the head of the serpent. But it did not come out of nowhere. All this is “in accordance with the scriptures”, a fact Paul seems to feel is important enough to repeat. But then his audiences more often then not had a pretty good idea what scriptures he was referring to.

And Paul’s is not the only gospel.

Multiple Gospels?

We should also remember that Luke says, “One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel …”

Yeah, that’s it. We can stop right there. The cross is future here. The Lord Jesus is still alive and we are told he is “preaching the gospel”.

At this point it would seem to me that we can go one of two ways: On the one hand, we may conclude that there are multiple gospels with content that is not quite identical — multiple occasions where good news of different sorts has been proclaimed. On the other hand, we can attempt to broaden our concept of the word “gospel” to include all these various references to the term.

Phrases like “this gospel of the kingdom” may lead us to opt for the former, since they sound suspiciously like a specific set of good tidings having to do with one particular truth, in this case the kingdom. And yet the very same verse seems to undermine our theory, since it declares that the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then “the end will come”, If you think that additional statement makes the gospel of the kingdom sound like it might be pretty much identical to the gospel preached by the apostle Paul, well so do I.

Alternatively, if we choose the latter option and broaden our concept of the gospel to include as many of its uses in scriptures as possible, attempts to streamline or distill the good news down to a nice simple three, four or five-point summary that uses the words “Christ” and “died” (by John Piper, no less) are not going to give us much satisfaction, since they will present an incomplete picture of the gospel as we understand it and will not use the word in the way we understand scripture to employ it.

The Gospel Concept

“Gospel” is an English translation of a Greek word and therefore a New Testament idea. If we believed the books of the New Testament to be in chronological order, we might look to Matthew for the origins of the concept. But of course they are not.

So who wrote the first reference to “gospel” then? Well, we can rule out John. Every scholar agrees he wrote much later than the other three. But Matthew, Mark and Luke are all alleged to have written their gospels between AD63 and AD69, and there is considerable polite discussion about whose was first. Josh McDowell’s blog debates the question here to no satisfactory conclusion.

So then is it Matthew (“the poor have good news preached to them”), or Mark (“proclaiming the gospel of God”) or even Luke (“I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news”) that technically came first? I don’t suppose it matters much: each uses the word “gospel” (or “good news”) long before the Lord Jesus actually died, most in quoting the Lord Jesus himself. Every one of them consistently implies the idea of “gospel” is broader than the way we often use it today.

A Working Definition

Does our definition of the good news need to be much more specific than the revelation that God wants mankind to be reconciled to him, and that he has made that very thing possible? If so, every blessing in the Christian life logically flows from it. Of course there is a lot more detail involved in explaining it fully, depending on particular circumstances, including most importantly the revelation of the Person through whom God has accomplished this reconciliation. That gives us a lot of room in evangelism to apply God’s word in a way that may meet the most immediate needs of any specific audience we might encounter.

An aside here: technically speaking, the third and fourth of John Piper’s five “gospel” points — that we have all sinned, and all deserve eternal punishment — are not exactly good news, are they? With many of the unsaved they may be unnecessary to belabor. It is, after all, the sick that need a doctor. The truth about sin and its consequences are not so much “the gospel” as they are a foundational realization of personal inadequacy that precedes it.

The Gospel Was Preached ...

When we use the word “gospel”, we must be careful not to limit its scope to a few systematic theological principles that we can carry around in our heads in point form. The Bible doesn’t use it that way. The writers of the gospels did not use it that way. If we simply rattle off points 1-3 (or points 1-4, or even points 1-5) in the interest of discharging our duty as witnesses, we have failed to do the gospel justice.

Sometimes the writers of the epistles even used the word “gospel” in ways we might not think conventional. Peter, for instance, says “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”. One writer explains it this way:
“If we begin reading in 1 Peter 3:18, we see Peter explaining that the Holy Spirit, speaking the words of Christ, preached the gospel to sinners in the time of Noah before the flood, to give them a chance to repent.”
Whether or not that explanation is the best one, it is clear that “gospel” in this context is not a five-point message explicitly about the death of Christ. It was the news that God had provided a way out of judgment. In Noah’s day that was the ark. Today, it is the Lord Jesus.

In Summary

The potential audience for the truth of the gospel encompasses every era of human history and every latitudinal and longitudinal point on the entire globe. In that sense, the “good news” is universal. There’s something lovely about that.

And we must make the best use of every opportunity the Lord brings our way to share our knowledge of his Son. In one sense the gospel is huge, and that can be intimidating to those who realize how little of it we are able to get across when we proclaim. Yet I would be reluctant to see Christians holding back the truth at any point because they fear not having enough time to really expound the gospel in all its fullness. Some till the ground, some plant seeds, some of us water them and some get to see the harvest. So let’s not hold back on any part of the process in which we may be able to be involved.

However we may frame it, the news is good. The rest is detail.


  1. Thanks Tom. For me, what comes to mind biblically concerning the gospel and its tremendous scope mentioned and/or referred to throughout the whole of the Bible, is the book of Romans. It includes creation, the old testament, Jesus Christ. It includes practical living with other believers and with the sinners and governments of this earthly plain that we share for now. The fullness of the gospel in Romans includes the workings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we want a shortened course of the Bible concerning the gospel, its in this book of Romans. A "short hand" of the book of Romans can be found in the rhetorical questions that are brought up and answered by Author through Paul. Know those questions and the answers given and that will give one a rich appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Don't stop at the end of that study of course but continue on from there with the rest of the book of Romans (the more detail of Abraham, the first Adam, the Last Adam, the spiritual gifts given to Christians to be used to edify your local Church and more besides.

  2. I can't think of a better book to start with, especially from a Gentile perspective.

  3. Read a biography of David Brainerd, and you will see a man who wrestled with God over salvation before finally and truly being saved, all without an altar call.