Being Serious About the Gospel
Evangelism, by definition, is the proclamation of Good News. It has the gospel at the very center of its being. In the same way, Christian mission, as defined and understood biblically, has the gospel at its very heart. The mission of the church is the task which God sends His body into the world to accomplish, and that task has the gospel as its foundation, its directive, and its content. It is not possible to think, speak, or write about evangelism or missions in a biblically responsible way without a solid understanding of the gospel. Equally, it is not possible to engage in evangelism or missions in a biblically responsible way without being serious about the content of the gospel and its implications in the life of the believer.
Few evangelical Christians would dispute the seriousness of the gospel. Indeed, it would be hard to categorize someone as an evangelical who did so. However, such a statement leaves open the fundamental question: what does it actually look like to be serious about the gospel? It is possible, after all, to be serious about things in quite a variety of ways. A police detective, for example, should be serious about crime, but that seriousness consists in opposition to crime, not endorsement of it. A stamp collector may be serious about stamps, but that seriousness may extend no further than interest in a hobby which has no impact on the hobbyist’s moral disposition or work life. Similarly, a Muslim apologist may be serious about the gospel because he seriously opposes it, and a professor of religious studies may be serious about the academic study of the gospel without any personal faith at all. Even those who profess evangelical faith may be serious about the content of the gospel without being particularly engaged in its spread to those who have never heard it, or conversely may be serious about
evangelism and missions without being especially concerned about the theological content of the gospel message. The biblical gospel is God’s gospel (Mark 1:14). Believing and embracing the gospel demands that it be taken seriously in every possible way. Those who are serious about the gospel must be serious about its content, about its implications and demands on the life of the believer, about the urgency of its spread, and about the biblical integrity of the manner in which it is spread.
SERIOUS ABOUT THE CONTENT OF THE GOSPEL
Anyone who is serious about the gospel must be serious about its content. The gospel is not a vague message of cosmic benevolence, nor is it open to private interpretation on the part of the receptor.The gospel has a very specific content, and this content is unchanging and binding across time, geography, and cultures. The heart of the gospel is the biblical witness about the saving work of the Triune God in the incarnation, sinless life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. It necessarily presupposes everything that the entire Bible teaches about the nature and character of God, the nature of the world as his good creation, the nature of humanity as created in his image yet now fallen and pervasively corrupted by sin, and the history of God’s dealings with humanity from the Garden of Eden to the end of time. It is immovably situated in the grand biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. Its blessings come to undeserving sinners only through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and those blessings are appropriated only by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It produces the church as the natural and necessary home of those who have tasted its redemption. It understands time as a linear process with a beginning, a story line, and a destination, and it proclaims the certainty of that destination both for individual people and for the entire created order.At its center, the gospel is a message about who God is, who we are, what God has done to redeem us from our sin through Jesus Christ, and how we are to respond.1 For this center to have meaning, however, it requires the specific biblical definition of each of its key terms, and the specific context of the entire biblical message. Anything less is not the biblical gospel, and there is no other gospel (Gal 1:6-9).
Being serious about the gospel, therefore, means being serious about biblical studies. It requires a commitment to knowing the Bible as thoroughly as possible. This certainly includes the practice of inductive Bible study, but it involves far more than that. Knowing the Bible requires a grasp of the whole as the necessary context for understanding its parts. It requires knowing biblical history. It requires an understanding of the biblical theology of the great themes of the Bible, and of the individual books of the Bible, and of the two testaments that comprise the Bible. It requires an understanding of the responsible manner in which the various types of biblical literature should be interpreted.2 In turn, these elements of Bible study are greatly enhanced when Scripture is interpreted in the context of the hermeneutical community of the body of Christ across geography and church history, as each part of the body profits from the gifts and learns from the mistakes of others in different settings.3 It is not possible to be serious about the gospel while being casual about any of the components of Biblical Studies.
Being serious about the gospel also means being serious about theology. All believers are theologians. All of them engage in the process of synthesizing biblical teaching on issues that are central to the teaching of the Bible and on issues that are important in their own cultural context. Those who profess disinterest in theology simply guarantee that they will engage in that process carelessly. However, God is the God of truth ( John 17:17). Scripture consistently demonstrates a deep concern for the pattern of sound words (2 Tim 1:13) and a decided intolerance for false teaching (2 Tim 4:1-4; 2 Pet 2:1-3). The history of the Christological controversy of the fourth century demonstrated that the integrity of the gospel could rise or fall on a diphthong.4 In every age and in every culture, the wisdom of the world will seek to distort the great theological themes of the gospel. Those who would take the gospel seriously must take theology seriously. They must share God’s passion for the truth and never dismiss theological carefulness as a distraction from the practices of the faith. As Paul clearly demonstrates in the very pattern of his letters, theology is the essential foundation for life and practice. The integrity of the gospel and the integrity of the Christian life are dependent on an accurate understanding of the great doctrines of God, and his word, and creation, and humanity, and sin, and the person and work of Christ, and salvation in all its components, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the church and its mission, and the consummation of history. There can be no separation between evangelist and theologian or missiologist and theologian.
Being serious about the gospel should also lead to a serious concern for church history. We do not study the Bible and its theology in a vacuum. In the history of the church we have the story of believers in a variety of different settings wrestling with issues in the light of the word of God. We benefit from their gifts and learn from their insights. We also see the consequences of bad theology and bad practice worked out over the course of years. We gain encouragement from the advances of the gospel and warnings from its setbacks. It would be foolish and irresponsible to go down the same roads of heresy
or ineffectiveness as occurred in the past, or to fail to benefit from truths learned and victories won by our spiritual ancestors, simply because we neglect to learn our family history. Seriousness about the gospel should lead to seriousness about the study of the history of God’s people.
In short, the gospel has content that is specific, detailed and non-negotiable. It is not possible to be serious about the gospel without being serious about that content – serious about knowing it and serious about preserving it in all its integrity. The person who takes the gospel seriously must ipso facto be a serious student of the classical theological disciplines of Scripture, theology and history. No amount of zeal can make up for indifference to
SERIOUS ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE GOSPEL
The call of the gospel is a call to discipleship. It is a call to repent from sin and to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ with a faith that issues in a transformed life. In the Great Commission, Jesus defined discipleship as including obedience to everything he commanded. Paul expressed the goal of his apostleship to be the obedience of faith, making it clear that saving faith is a faith that obeys and works (Rom 1:5, Gal 5:6). Being serious about the gospel requires seriousness about its content, but biblical knowledge and theological precision by themselves are not enough. The person who is serious about the gospel must also be serious about its demands and implications.
This means that seriousness about the gospel must entail seriousness about personal holiness. The Book of Hebrews says quite bluntly that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Biblical holiness has both a negative and a positive component. Negatively, it involves putting off everything that is displeasing to God; positively, it involves putting on the character of Christ (Col 3:1–17). Both are essential. A person who is serious about the gospel will strive to put sin to death in all its forms, from sexual immorality, to greed, to dishonest or slanderous speech, to anger, to pride, or to anything else which is inconsistent with the character of God. At the same time, true holiness has an attractive quality, as the redeemed sinner puts on the fruit of the Spirit which reflect the image of Christ. A person who is serious about the gospel can neither be a libertine nor a Pharisee. Such a person must be passionate about living a life that is worthy of the gospel, a life that is pleasing to Christ.
Seriousness about the gospel also requires seriousness about using the means God has given his people for growing as disciples of Jesus. Supremely, these are His word, prayer, fasting, and the church and its ordinances. Neglect of these necessarily means neglect of the demands and implications of the gospel in the life of the believer. The expectant use of these means is God’s appointed way for knowing him, for appropriating the blessings of the gospel, and for growing in holiness in conformity to the image of Christ. A life that is serious about the gospel is a life characterized by the consistent exercise of private spiritual disciplines and by corporate worship and fellowship as a committed member of a local church.
Seriousness about the gospel requires obedience to everything Christ commanded, and it therefore entails loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). The person who is serious about the gospel will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, care for the sick, and visit those in prison (Matt 25:31-40). He or she will respond to need, even if the needy person is a traditional enemy (Luke 10:25-37). He or she will take care of widows and orphans even while striving to remain unstained by the world ( Jas 1:27). These are simply things that disciples of Jesus do, and it constitutes no dilution
of the mission of the church, which is primarily to make disciples of all peoples, to assert that those disciples will then be people who love their neighbors in radical, self-sacrificial ways.
People who are serious about the gospel turn their backs on the values and methods of the world (1 John 2:15-17). They do not engage in dishonesty, manipulation, or worldly political maneuvering (2 Cor 2:17, 4:2). They do not seek power or status, nor do they value title or position (Matt 23:1-12). They understand leadership as service, not self-promotion or self-assertion (Matt 20:20-28). They are not domineering, angry, or argumentative in dealing with others, especially in the exercise of leadership (2 Tim 2:22-26, Jas 1:19-20, 1 Pet 5:3). They are more concerned with the condition of the heart than with outward appearance (1 Sam 16:7). Their hearts are not set on material possessions or comforts (Matt 6:19-21), nor do they value physical safety over obedience to Christ and the spread of His gospel (Matt 16:25, Phil 1:20-23, 2 Tim 1:8). People whose lives reflect the values of this world or whose methods and style reflect the manner of this world demonstrate that they do not take the gospel seriously.
In short, being serious about the gospel means being serious about reflecting the character of Christ in every area of life. It combines knowledge, devotion, holiness of life, Christlikeness of character, active love toward others, and a deliberate renunciation of worldly values and methods. Just as it is not possible to be serious about the gospel without being serious about its content, it is not possible to be serious about the gospel without being serious about conformity to the image of Christ and obedience to the commands of Christ.
SERIOUS ABOUT THE URGENCY OF ITS SPREAD
Those who are serious about the gospel have a strong sense of urgency about its spread to all of those who have never heard it. Anyone who is not motivated to share the gospel with unbelievers does not really take the gospel seriously, and the same is true with anyone who is not passionate about global missions. This follows from the very nature of the gospel. The gospel message explicitly presupposes the universality of sin and the inevitability of divine judgment. Other than Jesus Christ, every person who has ever lived has been guilty of rebellion against God and has justly deserved condemnation and hell. The gospel proclaims that the only solution to this fatal condition is the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and that the benefits of his sacrifice can only be appropriated by repentance and faith. The 10th chapter of Romans makes it clear that salvation requires faith that faith requires hearing the gospel, and that no one will hear the gospel unless someone proclaims it to them. The biblical message of the gospel rules out any form of religious pluralism or inclusivism, leaving the
entire human race dependent on the spread of the gospel for their eternal destiny.5 It is hard to imagine a believer who does not have unbelievers around them, and those unbelievers will spend eternity in hell unless they hear the gospel, repent of their sins, and put their trust in Jesus. The same is true of the billions of people in thousands of unreached people groups around the world that have no witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. For a Christian to be indifferent to the fate of the lost is unconscionable. It means that they either don’t take judgment and hell seriously, they don’t really believe in the exclusivity of the gospel, or they don’t love their neighbor as themselves. The reality of judgment and hell and the exclusivity of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone are integral components of the gospel. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a necessary consequence of embracing it. Any professing believer who lacks any of these things possesses an inadequate grasp of the gospel.
Likewise, anyone who fails to be serious about the urgency of the spread of the gospel demonstrates that they do not take the exaltation of the God of the gospel with sufficient seriousness. The gospel message itself has the character and deeds of God as its content. The task of evangelism and missions is the task of declaring his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples (Ps 96:3). It is the act of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9). John Piper has correctly named worship as both the fuel of missions and as the goal of missions.6 Worship is also the nature of the act of evangelism itself, as God is exalted in the declaration of his holy hatred of sin, his merciful love for sinners, his amazing grace in the sacrifice of his Son, and his almighty power over sin and death. Simply put, the gospel of God’s grace glorifies the God of the gospel, both in its proclamation and in its fruit. Indifference to the spread of the gospel is indifference to the glory of God.
It is not possible, then, to be serious about the gospel without being serious about the urgency of its spread. An intellectual commitment to the integrity of its content and a personal commitment to the full range of its implications are necessary, but not sufficient. Both the contents and the implications of the gospel demand a passion to see it proclaimed
and believed to the ends of the earth.
SERIOUS ABOUT HOW IT IS SPREAD
Finally, a person who is serious about the gospel must be serious about how that gospel is spread. Evangelistic and missionary methods are not matters of indifference. The Apostle Paul reflected this conviction in his second letter to the church at Corinth. He contrasted his methods with those of contemporary salesmen when he said, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor 2:17). Far from utilizing the most effective marketing techniques of his day, he intentionally turned his back on them, recognizing that such methods would impugn the integrity of the message. Later in the same letter, Paul reflected on his approach to ministry when he wrote, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2). He refused to engage in any form of dishonesty. He would not use manipulative means, and he refused to tamper with the content of his message to make it more palatable to his audience (The purpose of contextualization is clarity, not comfort). He refused to adapt his style to that of the popular speakers of his day (who were consistently successful in drawing large numbers to hear them), precisely because he was convinced that such methods emptied the cross of Christ of its power (1 Cor 1:17) and grounded the faith of new believers in the wisdom of men rather than in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-4). Paul also went out of his way to maintain transparent integrity in his use of finances (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:16-21). His point in all of this was to conduct his ministry in a manner consistent with the gospel and in a manner that adorned it rather than distorting or
Modern evangelists and missionaries can be no less thoughtful and careful about the methods they use. The point is not to sustain a large crowd, but to make disciples. Jesus himself spoke in a way that drove away the casual, the uncommitted, and the carnally motivated. The method used must be one that points solidly to a life of discipleship, not merely to countable decisions. Evangelistic methods must never distort the message to make it somehow consistent with current conventional wisdom or popular culture. They also must never downplay the cost of discipleship or sidestep the demand for repentance. They must not blur the distinction between biblical Christianity and all non-Christian religions, philosophies or ideologies. Those who are serious about the gospel must submit their methods and strategies to the scrutiny and control of the Word of God, recognizing that God cares deeply about how we do what he calls us to do, and that he has not left us in the hands of secular marketing or the social sciences to figure out our strategies. His Word is sufficient for the how as well as the what.
This is the inaugural issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Missions and Evangelism. Our aim in publishing this journal is to spur Christians and churches to greater faithfulness in fulfilling the Great Commission, and also to provide resources that will enable those believers and churches to do so more faithfully and more effectively. We intend to take the gospel seriously. This means that we will be serious about its content, serious about its implications in the life of the believer, serious about the urgency of its spread, and serious about how it is spread. We are openly confessional in our editorial stance, evaluating everything we publish in light of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and The Abstract of Principles of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We regard missiology as a subset and application of Christian theology, and we look to the classical theological disciplines to shape and control our missiological methods. Simultaneously, we are passionate about the pursuit of Christlikeness as a non-negotiable component of any biblical missiology, and we are passionate about the urgency of the Great Commission task. Our prayer is that God would be glorified, his church would be encouraged and equipped, and the spread of his gospel would be accelerated by this journal.
1 For a clear and concise description of the content of the gospel, see Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel (Wheaton:Crossway, 2010).
2 Robert Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 101–102.
3 Bruce J. Nicholls, Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing,2003), 51–52.
4 David Wells, The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), 95–96.
5 For a helpful discussion of this issue, see Todd Miles, A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010).
6 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 17.