What’s Wrong With Our Gospel? (Part One)

There’s something wrong with the way we talk about the Gospel. And, it’s a problem that can make a mess out of how people understand and live out their Christian lives.

photo credit: Jenn Vargas (Flickr)

Consider a typical gospel presentation:

God loves you and really wants to have a relationship with you. But, you have sinned. And, since God is a holy God and can’t be around sin, you have separated yourself from him. But fortunately for you, God is gracious and loving. So, he sent his son to die on the cross for your sins. If you believe in him and commit to following him, your sins will be forgiven and you will live with him in heaven forever.

So, the gospel is that you can have your sins forgiven, which is outstandingly good news. And, when we describe the Gospel this way, we’re in good company. That’s exactly how Paul summarized it when he said that the Gospel is “that Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). So, we’re just doing what Paul did, right?

Not exactly.

Look again. Even in Paul’s short summary, he does two things that we often miss when we talk about the Gospel.

In accordance with the Scriptures. Notice that Paul twice emphasizes that what he’s talking about was done “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Paul knows full well that the Gospel only makes sense when we understand it in the context of the broader story of redemption. And, he assumes that his readers know the story and will hear his Gospel summary in that context.

We can’t do that. Or, more accurately, we need to stop doing that. The simple fact is that most people don’t know the story anymore. And, lacking that broader context, they hear our Gospel summaries and think that’s all there is to it. And, that leads to all kinds of problems.

Raised on the third day. I’m surprised how many people refer to Paul’s summary as the best way of explaining the Gospel, without commenting on the fact that he emphasizes the resurrection. Indeed, this passage stands at the beginning of an entire chapter that’s all about the resurrection. And, if you read through the New Testament, you’ll notice that the biblical authors almost always connect the Gospel to the resurrection. Yet, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone talk about the resurrection when sharing their Gospel summary.┬áSurely we’re missing something if our Gospel summaries leave out something that the biblical authors obviously think is so critical to the Gospel.

So, there’s a problem with how we talk about the Gospel. Actually, there are two. First, we often fail to help people understand the whole story. And, as a result, they hear our summary in isolation from God’s broader purposes. And second, we often leave out things that the Bible thinks are central to a proper understanding of the Gospel.

In my next post, I’d like to explore some of the problems that I think we run into because of these two mistakes. But first, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you see the same problems in how we present the Gospel? If so, what problems do you think that these mistakes might lead to?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

27 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Our Gospel? (Part One)

  1. I believe that a major problem in many gospel presentations today is that we don’t make sure the person we are presenting to understands that THEY are a sinner.
    The gospel presentation needs the Law or some way factor that causes the person to see their great need for repentance and a Savior – since they cannot save themselves.
    When they are “being saved” because of God’s wonderful plan for their lives they can easily become discouraged and go on the next thing.
    Robert Lloyd Russell, ABUNDANT LIFE NOW

    1. I definitely agree that you can’t understand salvation fully unless you have a concept of why you need to be saved in the first place! But, I also think that we often tell people about the problem of sin, without giving them a broader understanding of God’s purposes from the very beginning. In other words, I think salvation is even more impressive when you see not only what you’ve been saved from but what you’ve been saved for and how all of this fits together in God’s redemptive plans.

  2. We’re actually going through this very thing in my church. How when we get the gospel wrong we get other important teachings wrong as well. The Corinthians got resurrection wrong (1Cor 15.12). So to correct their doctrine on bodily resurrection, he reminds them of the gospel. Get it right, you’ll get resurrection right. Then getting the resurrection right brings actual benefit to daily life. I’m looking forward to what’s next . . . I’ll likely steal it for use here . . . well . . . borrow. Thanks Dr. Cortez.

    1. Feel free to borrow/steal anything you’d like! And, I’ll look forward to hearing more about how you are working through this at your church.

  3. I don’t know if you’ve read McKnight’s latest book on the Gospel, but one thing I appreciated about his presentation is that he drew the whole death, burial, and resurrection into the person of Jesus. Sometimes we forget that it is about his whole life as the Messiah of God who has been vindicated by the resurrection. Thanks for this post.

    1. I’m actually just about to dive into McKnight’s book. I’m looking forward to seeing how he approaches things. (I’ve actually saved quite a few reviews, but I’m trying not to read too many until I’ve read the book for myself!)

  4. Great post. I’ve been thinking through this for the last 3 years and actually wrote a chapter in Theology and Practice of Mission (see here: http://www.amazon.com/Theology-Practice-Mission-Church-Nations/dp/0805464123/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320111105&sr=1-1). Writing that chapter 3 years ago led to my partnership with Spread Truth Ministries to develop http://www.viewthestory.com and http://www.thestorytraining.com which equips believers to tell the whole story of the gospel from all of scripture. Let me know what you think.

    Ps- I completed my DMiss at Western in 2007

  5. I sometimes hear the “resurrection” argument made about why people shouldn’t use the Campus Crusade tract “4 spiritual laws” (which is now “Knowing God Personally”), which I always think is funny, because it actually includes that exact verse about Christ’s resurrection. It’s like when people review a book without reading it. ha ha ha.

    Having said that, I would love it if people would share any piece of the gospel at all. It seems that increasingly (especially in my experience working with churches and college students) that Christians want to have a “spiritual conversation” and then walk away happy that they mentioned God. If they could give even a limited gospel presentation, that would be superior to my way of thinking.

    1. Absolutely. Sharing the Gospel isn’t just about offering some “warm and fuzzy” thoughts about life. The Gospel has specific content that must be shared.

      One of my concerns in trying to get people to think more deeply about the Gospel is that people will end up thinking that it’s too complicated and shy away from saying anything. I think the key is to help people realize that sharing any part of the Gospel is a great place to start, but it’s only a starting point. There’s more work to be done as we try to help everyone (including ourselves) understand the Gospel in all its glory. My frustration is that we often allow the limited Gospel presentation to stand on its own. Lacking a broader context, people can then do all kinds of unfortunate things with it.

      1. I agree completely with this. And while sometimes the Holy Spirit will take the “seed” of the gospel (or poor or even incorrect gospel presentations) and make it grow into something amazing, that’s no excuse for us to be lazy to the point of ignorance in our understanding of the gospel.

    1. No, but to be safe, we set it so that you need to have at least one approved comment before you could skip the moderation stage. So, you should be all set to go now.

  6. “In accordance with Scriptures” is one of the lacking aspects in many gospel summaries I have heard and I see it as one of our most powerful facts in sharing the gospel, especially when it comes to sharing the gospel with Muslims. They believe in many of the same prophets we do and although they have the facts a little skewed and the story changed, when you can show how all the scriptures and prophets prior to Jesus point to Jesus, it is extremely powerful! So I completely agree, not only do we need to not assume that people know the story of the scriptures, we also need to know who we are talking to and not assume that they have the correct version of the story.

    Also, if Paul “reasoned with them form the scriptures” doesn’t this show us how important “in accordance with the scriptures” is. I have begun to rely one this aspect in sharing the gospel more and more lately.

    Without an emphasis of the resurrection it is hard to see how you would connect the gospel to the year 2011. Without a risen and alive Jesus it seems that it would be just an event that took place 2000+ years ago. As I read Acts I found it very interesting how the resurrection is all over the place when people are preaching the gospel.

    By the way, I think this blog is a great idea. Thank you for taking the time to write. As an overseas worker it is a great way to be connected with you all at Western.

    1. Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing. And, connecting/resourcing people who live oversees was a key motivation for getting this blog going. So I’m glad it’s working for you.

  7. Sorry I am late to this party. I just found out about this website. I have thought about the way we share the Gospel a lot in the past year. I haven’t read all of these comments so forgive me if I repeat something someone else has already said. Here is the problem with what you’ve said Dr. Cortez, and it’s not a problem as in I disagree with you, but if you say I must sow the seed of the whole story, then that means I’ve got to dedicate a lot of time to this. First, I’ve got to dedicate time to knowing the story well, and second, I’ve got to unpack the story slowly and patiently. This presents problems for Evangelicals because I believe we have become obsessed with being apart of the harvest and we have neglected to be good sowers. It is as if it is more blessed to reap than to sow. Great post. I’m writing a paper right now on what the Gospel is and what it isn’t so this helps.

  8. I really like the idea of us Christians becoming better versed in the big story. After all, Jesus was the ‘lamb slain from the foundation of the world.’ Why not start there?
    It can seem daunting though. We had a guest speaker at church talk about the meta-narrative and it went over a lot of our heads. He was passionate though and got us thinking, especially about our vocabulary.
    One thing that really helped me is a little book called EPIC by John Eldredge of Ransomed Heart Ministries. He is a reader and a bit of a poet and told the ‘above’ and ‘behind’ story like a true storyteller! I found my heart yearning for more intimacy with God as a result.

  9. Daniel, I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days too. And I think you’re right that we tend too focus too much on the “conversion.” I don’t have anything against conversion per se, but at times that feels like focusing entirely on the wedding to the neglect of everything that leads up to and flows out of it.

  10. Emily, you’ve hit on one of my fears here. If this becomes daunting in the sense of “I can’t do that,” then we’ve misfired somewhere. But if it’s daunting in the sense of “That’s so amazing that I can’t wait to grow and learn more,” then we’re hitting the mark.

    1. Exactly! Lord, stir up your church to say,”That’s so amazing! I will grow and learn more!”

  11. I’m studying the Way of the Master method (Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron) of evangelism right now. With it you use the law (ten commandments) to show the person their need for salvation, and then give them the Gospel. Any thoughts on this method?

    1. I’m not familiar with Comfort and Cameron’s particular approach, but the move from Law to Gospel in evangelism has been around for a very long time. And I’d say that with this as well, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the approach. Understanding the Gospel requires that we understand our sinfulness. So that’s important. But the way I see this approach in action most often, it’s still stripped used in isolation from the broader story. So it still tends to be an approach that focuses exclusively on how to get the individual person to respond to a message about their own salvation, rather than a story about God’s amazing plan for his people in his creation and the good news that Jesus has made a way for that individual to be included in this grand story. It’s the focus on the individual apart from the broader story that I’m concerned about.

  12. Hi
    ologies if this is stightly off-topic, but I’ve thought a lot about the ‘big story’ of the Scripture with respect to Christians themselves, rather than specifically in evangelism. As a by-the-way – I really like the idea of the The Story tract at http://www.ViewTheStory.com. It’s a story that, from the little experience I’ve had, many Christians are hazy about – they’ve heard sermons aplenty, but haven’t, so to speak, ‘had the dots joined up’ into the one Bibical narrative. I gave a series of talks to a local church entitled ‘The Big Journey’ that took folk through the Story, but emphasised at the outset all the various consequences of mankind’s rebellion, and then through the story traced all God had to do to put everything right – through the sacrificial system initially, then Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension, then finally in the new Creation. You may perhaps be interested to see these in written expanded form at http://creationtonewcreation.com – the best one to start with is entitled ‘Charting Our Course’ at http://creationtonewcreation.com/part-1-charting-our-course-2/. I have a plan to downsize and repackage these into a discipleship course that could be given to new Christians, or those seeking God and wanting to know the Gospel story, too.

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