In an article I wrote about three years ago, I discussed what evangelism is and, just as importantly, what it isn’t. In our definition we noted that our evangelistic efforts must include the evangel—the gospel—or else it isn’t evangelism. We also said that in order to qualify as evangelism, the evangel we share must include specific components. Let’s look at our definition again.
Evangelism is the faithful proclamation of the gospel (i.e., good news) through which we invite unbelievers to repent from their sin and believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, full pardon and justification from God, and entrance into a new life of holiness.
In this article, I am going to examine in some detail every aspect of this definition as it relates to the content of the gospel. I’ve already noted that evangelism must first be verbal proclamation; the question I want to address in this post is what that proclamation includes. Before I delve into the specifics of our definition, however, I must address why it is important that we trouble ourselves with getting the gospel right to begin with.
Why it Matters
First, we address the question of the content of the gospel because we must be Christians before we can share the gospel. In other words, there may be some of you reading this post because you have desire to help others who are “lost” and “far from God.” But you don’t rightly understand your own plight before God and your need for a Savior.
Perhaps you’ve grown up in a Christian home but you’ve never grasped the fullness of the good news. Now that you are a little older, you see the importance of telling people about Jesus, but the reality is that you think telling people about Jesus is mainly about exhorting people to clean up their immoral lives.
This post, then, is for all of us who profess faith in Jesus. We need to make sure that we truly understand what the gospel is for us before we can share it with others. If we attempt to share the gospel before we are Christians, we will be like the blind leading the blind and the result will be, as Jesus noted, that we both fall into a pit (see Luke 6:39).
Second, getting the gospel right is a matter of eternal life and death for those with whom we share. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, the apostle Paul used some of the strongest language he could muster to denounce anyone who taught a false gospel.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.Gal 1:8-9
In this harrowing passage, Paul lays an eternal curse upon anyone who spreads a false gospel. Why such strong words? Isn’t the apostle being unkind and disrespectful? It may be hard for our twenty first century, politically-correct ears to hear, but Paul’s strong words in this passage are actually quite loving. When a person believes a false gospel—something that sounds a lot like the real thing but hedges at vital details—they are in danger of eternal punishment. For Paul to censure without qualification those who promote a false gospel is to protect men and women from eternal harm. Paul’s love for people compelled him to write so strongly against those who might twist and distort the gospel.
Third, and most important: getting the gospel right exalts the glory of Christ. Although we strive to get the gospel right because are deeply concerned about the eternal welfare of our fellow image-bearers, our foremost concern is that our Savior receive all the glory he is due. When we get the gospel right, Christ’s Person is cherished, his work of redemption is honored, and his truth is exalted. When the gospel becomes hidden under a few seemly harmless errors or inaccuracies, the beauty of Jesus is obscured. So, for the good of our own souls, the good of others, and, ultimately, the glory of our Savior, we strive to get the gospel right. So let’s begin.
Getting God Right
The first ingredient of the gospel is God. Without God there is no gospel. While it might be tempting to get right to the solution—Jesus died for your sins—as you talk with your friends, we must first lay adequate groundwork so that the statement “Jesus died for your sins” makes sense to the people with whom we are speaking. In order to rightly understand man, sin, Jesus, and how to respond to the good news (see below), we must first grasp what Scripture teaches about the reality and nature of God.
First, Scripture teaches that God is our Creator (Gen 1:1). For this reason, he is also our Judge (Gen 18:25). Important is the fact that Scripture never attempts to prove the existence of God. Rather, God’s existence is assumed and asserted throughout the Bible as the fundamental reality in the universe. Scripture even tells us that all people know that God exists; we just suppress that truth because of our sin and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-20). As we will see in later posts, this important truth will have a direct impact on how we conduct our evangelistic efforts.
To say that God is our Creator is to also say that he is the one true God (Is 45:5-6, 18, 21-22). There is only one God in this universe, and he is the God of the Bible. He is not the emanation of a supreme deity outside our cosmos or galaxy; he is the only God—not just for our corner of the universe, but for all of reality and all of eternity. God is God, and he is dependent upon no one for his existence (John 5:26; Acts 17:24-25; Rev 1:8).
God is also perfectly holy and righteous (Ps 78:41; 89:18; Is 6:1-6; 30:15; 40:25). To say that God is holy is to say that he is utterly separate from sinners and separate from sin. He is morally pure and without the faintest hint of evil. To say that God is righteous is to say that God always does what is right (Gen 18:25-26; Ps 11:7; 33:5). Included in this assertion is the truth that God is entirely just. No sin goes unpunished, no injustice is overlooked, no rebellion is not finally and summarily dealt with by our just Creator (Ex 34:7; Ps 24:12; 59:18; Rom 2:6-10).
Each of these attributes are good, wholesome, and beautiful in and of themselves. As we will see, however, both of these attributes—holiness and righteousness—actually cause severe problems for us because we are sinners who deserve justice from the hand of a God who cannot tolerate the slightest shade of sin (Neh 1:13; Rom 3:10-18). However, as will become clear under the heading “Getting Jesus Right,” God is also merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and full of love (see Ps 145:8). It was because of his holiness and his love, his mercy and his righteousness that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to bear his wrath for sin on behalf of sinners (see Rom 3:19-26). All of God’s attributes are displayed at the cross.
Getting Man Right
In order to rightly understand and communicate the good news, we must also have a firm grasp on what the Bible teaches about the nature of humankind. There are two fundamental truths we need to register under this heading. First, all humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26). Out of all the creatures in this world, only man bears the unique and exalted quality of being made in God’s likeness (Ps 8:5-8). What this means precisely is a question that Christian theologians have pondered for centuries. Suffice it to say here that being made in God’s image entails that we have the capacity to have intimate fellowship with our Creator, to know him, obey him, reflect his character, and exercise dominion on the earth.
But the second truth we must discuss at this point is just as important as the first. Although humans are created in God’s image, this image has been grievously marred by our sin. Furthermore, because of Adam’s first sin in the Garden of Eden, all people stand condemned before the bar of God’s justice. Because Adam stood as our representative, we inherit the guilt of his original disobedience (Rom 5:12-21). We also inherit a sinful nature from Adam, which means we also stand guilty before God because of our own sin (1 Kings 8:46; Rom 3:10-18).
Getting Sin Right
Our situation is precarious, to say the least. The Bible teaches that we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1-3), unable to seek God (Rom 3:10), unable to please him (Rom 8:6), and unable to escape eternal judgment. When we are outside of Christ, God’s beautiful, matchless holiness burns against our sin at every moment, yet we are entirely helpless to atone for our lawlessness or awaken ourselves to find a remedy. God’s commandment is that we love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39). Yet, because of our sinful nature, we sin against God every moment of every day.
In and of ourselves, we are unable to put an end to our sin. We are blind to the depth of our depravity, and we are blind to the beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:1-6). We have the natural capacity—we have eyes to see the evidence of God’s existence in creation, ears to hear the gospel, and a mind to ponder its truths—but we don’t have the spiritual capacity to see Christ for who he is. Actually, the reason we reject Jesus is because we continually practice evil, we love our sin, and do not want to come to the light and have our wicked deeds exposed (John 3:19-21).
Sin is an affront to our holy and good Creator. And God’s righteousness requires that he punish that sin. Scripture tells us that God will fulfill his perfect justice against unrepentant sinners for an eternity in hell—a place of unremitting anguish, suffering, and horror (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Mark 9:48; Luke 16:19-31; Rev 20:11-15). If we are scandalized by the biblical teaching about the final judgment, it is only because we have not yet come to terms with the infinite holiness and majesty of God and the depth of our sin against him.
Getting sin right is vital to getting the gospel right because we can only identify the correct remedy when we have an accurate assessment of our desperate situation before God. Although these things may be difficult for some of us to hear, they are issues of eternal importance. If we lessen sin’s seriousness or pervasiveness or depth, we will likely apply an insufficient remedy to our souls and the souls of others. In other words, in order to truly believe in Christ for salvation and instruct others to do so, we must embrace what the Bible teaches about sin. If want to enjoy Christ in this life and for eternity, we have no choice but to reckon fully with sin.
Getting Jesus Right
Now that we have considered God, man, and sin, it is time to turn to the wonderful topic of Jesus Christ, the Savior. In order to come into eternal salvation and lead others into this salvation, we must know and teach the right things about Jesus. Even in the early church there were those who claimed to be Christians who denied foundational truths about Jesus. And today there are those who profess faith in Christ who deny that Jesus was God the Son incarnate, claiming rather that he was an exalted angel or so-called “god.” Some deny that Jesus is fully equal to the Father, or that he was fully a man. The apostles made it clear, however: if you deny essential truths about the person and work of Jesus, you were not a Christian, and you stand before God in your own righteousness, a righteousness that can never save (see 1 John 2:22; 4:3). Getting Jesus right, then, is a matter of first importance.
Who is Jesus? In short, Jesus Christ is God the Son (John 1:1), the Creator of all reality (John 1:3; Col 1:16) and sustainer of all that exists (Heb 1:3). He is equal to God the Father in his essence (John 10:30; Heb 1:3) and worthy of the same worship and honor and glory as the Father (John 5:23; 20:28; Heb 1:14; Rev 5:11-14). Jesus is the one true God, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).
Yet Jesus is also fully man (John 1:14). He was born of a virgin (Luke 1:26-35), grew from a child to a young man and into an adult (Luke 2:52). As a man, Jesus endured the same temptations we face, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). He would become hungry (Matt 4:4), thirsty (John 4:7), and tired (Luke 8:23). He expressed human emotions: love (Mark 10:21), joy (Luke 10:21), sorrow (Is 53:3), anger (Mark 3:5), and grief (Mark 3:5). However, because Jesus was fully God, he was able to fulfill all the requirements of God’s law. Jesus, at every moment of every day of his life, loved God with his entire heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loved his neighbor as himself. In other words, He always did what pleased the Father (John 8:29) as he walked in perfect obedience (Rom 5:19; Phil 2:5-11).
Jesus’ perfect obedience led him finally to a cross where he bore the wrath of God for all the sins of those who would believe in Him (Rom 3:21-26; Col 2:13-14). Two-thousand years ago, on the Roman instrument of execution, atop a hill called Calvary, Jesus was punished by his Father in the place of sinners—the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus died upon this Roman cross, he was buried, and he rose again from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-6) so that all who believe in him might be justified—declared fully righteous (Rom 3:26)—and resurrected in Christ’s likeness at the end of the age (John 5:25-29).
Getting Our Response Right
Now that we have discussed, God, man, sin, and Jesus, it is now time to consider what kind of response Scripture commands in light of this glorious good news. I say “command” because that’s exactly what the Scripture does. God has not left it up to us to decide what’s best for our eternity. No, he commands us to find salvation in Christ and embrace the riches of joy that are found in knowing Him.
It’s important to discuss our response to the gospel because the Bible also indicates that it is possible to have a response to Jesus that is less-than-saving. For example, we see in the Gospel of John that one might exercise some sort of belief in Jesus, yet still remain his enemy and dead in sin (see John 8:30-59). We might have a superficial belief in Jesus—a kind of vague admiration and appreciation—that has come short of true saving faith. It should be our soul’s priority, therefore, to make sure that we have saving faith in Christ and that we are accurately describing to others the appropriate response to the gospel.
So, how are we to respond to the gospel? There are two related elements of a saving response to the gospel, both of which are essential. Jesus said it like this: “The time has come, the kingdom is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In order to be saved from our sins and from eternal judgment, we must (1) repent; and (2) believe.
You Must Repent
What does it mean to repent? Biblically, it means that we turn wholeheartedly from our sin, our self, and our wills, and turn wholeheartedly to God and his will. Repentance is not a series of acts that we complete before we believe in Christ. Rather, it is a turning of the entire self to God in a change of heart concerning our sin and the holiness of God. We deny ourselves and follow after Christ (Luke 9:23). However, although repentance is distinct from faith, it cannot be separated from it. That is, in order to truly turn from one’s sin, a person must believe that he will find pardon in Christ, otherwise repentance becomes a legalistic work that we do in order to earn God’s favor.
True repentance includes a change of desires. Salvation entails an inward change at the most fundamental aspect of our personhood: our hearts. When God promised by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel to provide his people with a New Covenant, he promised that the newness of the covenant would be found in the reality that his people would receive new hearts. Through Jeremiah God said he would put his “law within them” and “write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). Through Ezekiel he declared, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze 36:26 ESV).
These descriptions of the New Covenant—the covenant into which we enter when we trust in Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant (see Luke 22:20)—tell us that salvation, when it is wrought by the Spirit of God, is a salvation that changes us at the deepest level of who we are. Where once loved sin, self, and despised the things of God (or were merely indifferent to them) we now love Christ, have a taste for Scripture, and enjoy God above all earthly pleasures.
Finally, repentance, when it is fueled and motivated by a real sense of one’s sin and the beauty of the gospel, will not be a mere passing phase of one’s life; it will be the life-long pursuit of the true disciple as we “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). The heart of the true disciple has been changed through faith in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Now the heart has a fundamentally different view toward sin than it did prior to faith in Christ. Along the journey from first conversion to heaven, therefore, the true believer will be exercising repentance as we turn from our sin trust the full atoning work of Jesus Christ. The apostle John puts it this way: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
You Must Believe
So, we must not only repent, we must also believe. Believe what? We must believe in Jesus Christ and his work of atonement on the cross. We must believe that Jesus—the Jesus we described above—paid for our sins in full on the day he died outside Jerusalem. We must believe that Jesus rose again from the dead and that by God’s grace alone through faith alone apart from any of our works we are forgiven of our sins and justified in God’s sight. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
To believe in Christ, therefore, is to reject any and all attempts to be saved by our works. We cannot hold onto any of our good deeds in the hope that they will set us right with God. Our philanthropic or humanitarian efforts, our church ministry, our attempts at generosity and kindness, and even our evangelism will only damn us if we hold onto these things out of the hope that they will save us. “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justified the ungodly, to him it is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). We must be like Paul who was cast aside all of his supposed righteous deeds in order to have the righteousness of Christ (see Phil 3:3-11).
In summary: to believe in Christ also means that we are simultaneously looking to Christ and his atonement as the grounds of our forgiveness while turning wholeheartedly from our sin to God. As we have seen, true repentance is always motivated by faith; and true faith is always characterized by repentance.
The Gift of God: Security in Christ
Out of an extravagant, matchless, holy love, God the Father sent His Son to live and die in the place of wicked, rebellious, blind sinners. Those who respond to Jesus Christ with saving faith enjoy a full pardon and forgiveness of all their sins. Christ’s perfect obedience—his righteousness—is credited to the believer’s account, and the believer is justified (declared righteous) before God. Implied in the nature of this gift and declared explicitly throughout the New Testament is that salvation in Christ cannot be lost. The moment a sinner exercises saving faith in Christ they are given a legal standing that cannot be changed. God has justified and adopted the sinner into his family. Furthermore, an ontological change has occurred (a change in the sinner’s very being): they have received a new nature and been brought from death to life. Reversal of either the sinner’s legal or ontological status is impossible. Consider these excellent promises from Christ himself concerning the believer’s security in him:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.John 5:24
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.John 10:27-30
The apostle Paul makes complimentary statements about the security of the believer throughout his letters. The most grand of these statements is found in Romans.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:31-9:1)Romans 8:31-39
In each of these passages we see that salvation, once it is acquired, cannot be lost. Indeed, it is God who ensures that his child cannot be lost, even though everything around us threatens to undo our faith. Does this mean that a Christian can simply “believe in Christ” and then do whatever he wants, even deny Christ altogether and walk away from the Christian faith? No. The very nature of saving faith and repentance, as we saw above, precludes such a possibility. Also, it is important to remember how it is that God keeps us secure in Christ. We came to Christ by faith, and we will be kept by faith. Consider this word from the apostle Peter:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.1 Peter 1:3-7
Here Peter promises the Christians to whom he is writing that they will surely receive their anticipated inheritance because God himself is guarding it by his very power. How is he guarding their inheritance? Through faith. In order for these Christians to receive the promised inheritance, they must continue to believe in Christ. To walk away from Christ would mean that they have forfeited their inheritance and would instead face eternal judgment. Is there any question they will continue to believe in Christ and fail to receive the inheritance? No, Peter says that their heavenly inheritance is “kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (vv. 4-5). In other words, God is protecting their heavenly inheritance by protecting their faith. A true believer will continue to exercise faith and repentance until they enter into their final salvation because God will not, like Jesus and Paul said, let them go. This is the good news.
As we’ve seen in this article, in order to fulfill Christ’s call to evangelize the lost, we need to first make sure we believe the true gospel. Have we come face-to-face with our depravity, understood our plight before God, repented of our sin and embraced God’s glorious gift of grace in Jesus Christ? If not, then this is the first step we must take in our endeavor to evangelize others.
Second, we must make sure that we are preaching the gospel to others, not some plausible-sounding but otherwise counterfeit version of the original. The easiest way to make sure we communicate the basics of the gospel is by remembering the four categories we outlined above: God, man, Christ, response. If we get these categories right, we will get the gospel right. And when we get the gospel right, we provide our friends and family members with a genuine opportunity to be saved from their sin and eternal judgment.