It was a long haul flight and he had slept, read the magazine, eaten his supper and watched the movie. At 2:00am he picked up his Bible for some in-flight edification. Suddenly the aircraft experienced complete engine failure and the pilot announced that there was nothing he could do. Passengers and crew had only minutes left to live. The burly fellow next to him promptly turned to him: ‘You with the Bible – how do I make peace with God?’
I often use this hypothetical scenario with students to challenge them how they would explain the gospel in under 2 minutes. No one yet has suggested they would use the escape hatch to selflessly try and repair the engines. No one has thought creatively about using the in-flight entertainment system to play a NOOMA video or lead the whole flight in a prayer of repentance over the loudspeaker. No one really thinks outside the box at all.
In this unlikely and unfair exercise, my students are forced to verbalize their bottom line understanding of the essentials of the gospel message. The answers I get are quite consistent and pretty predictable. Although there is variation in the degree of technical jargon, the core message is usually something like:
Acknowledge you have rebelled against a loving God.
Thank Jesus for dealing with your sin on the cross.
Trust him for forgiveness and eternal life.
This simple gospel message has become part of our evangelical psyche and I am sure that this has been due to the fantastic success of Gospel outlines such as the Bridge to Life, the Four Spiritual Laws and the Evangelism Explosion initiatives. Many of us have either become Christians ourselves this way, have learned this from an evangelism training session, or heard it tacked on to the end of a sermon.
It is difficult to think outside the box, and especially when the box is so neat and handy. It is memorable. It gives us confidence that we could articulate the gospel if asked. It is easy to adapt for visual learners or various other audiences. It is – doubtless – a useful evangelistic tool with a great track record.
However, like any tool it can be used well or poorly. At best it can be the scaffolding to structure a discussion about the way sin has consequences for a person’s relationship with God and how the cross can help us find reconciliation. But at worst it can become the sum total of the gospel message. Whatever outline we prefer, whether it lurks at the back of our brain, or whether we have it ready on our fingertips, it should come with a health warning: the gospel is bigger than you think.
The danger is that we may have domesticated the gospel in the process of trying to simplify and mass-communicate it. Far from summarizing the depth and breadth of the gospel, it can end up dismissing 99% of God’s Word.
This domestication reduces the gospel to a message that fits with our consumer culture. The gospel becomes a product that offers the ultimate bargain; exchanging spiritual poverty for eternal riches, with bonus features: free hope, happiness and eternal life.
But the gospel is bigger than this. Becoming a Christian should involve radical change in us. However listening to my students the concept of repentance is rarely present. The nature of Christ’s lordship is also missing. This dismisses that huge proportion of the Bible, which exists to illustrate the massive difference becoming a Christian should make – nothing is the same any more.
This domestication also reduces the gospel to a message that fits with our individualistic culture. Entering a personal relationship with God is vital, but if it is taught in isolation then the danger is that Christianity becomes privatized.
But the gospel is bigger than this. Becoming a Christian should have an impact on those around us. When Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant, it was how the servant acted in his relationships that marked whether he had understood and appropriated the forgiveness he had received. If we teach an individualistic approach to the gospel we preach less than half of the gospel.
We can so easily box the gospel in the prevailing paradigm of our culture. The problem with our gospel summaries is not what they teach but what they omit: the Holy Spirit, the Church, persecution, obedience, reconciliation and a thousand other things. David Bosch describes the two equal and opposite dangers of this travesty: an emaciated gospel and a diluted gospel.
An emaciated gospel has the life sucked out of it. Like the tragic scene of bodies ravaged by famine – limp and lifeless – we can present a skeletal structural outline of the gospel as the whole gospel itself. The key organs may be there, but the health and vitality is gone. Some main points are covered, but the richness of the biblical gospel is reduced to a formula. Christianity becomes repulsive or pitiful.
A diluted gospel lacks impact and flavor. We would never consider offering a dinner guest diluted wine. Its distinctive flavors and aroma would disappear and the entire dining experience would be ruined. Yet if we consistently present an unappetizing gospel we are more likely of offending people than attracting them.
When God sent us the gospel, it was not a list of bullet points to memorize, a contract to sign or even a book to read. He sent his fully-fleshed Son to spend 30 years on earth living out the gospel. The magnificence of his incarnation, the radical nature of his teaching, the perfection of his love for those around him and the selfless sacrifice of his death are incredibly difficult to summarize at all. In God’s wisdom there is not one, but four biographical accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, put in the context of 62 other books that span history itself.
The gospel is bigger than we think. We need to offer something more substantial in our seminaries, in our sermons, and in our socializing. We need to revisit how Jesus embodied the gospel and begin to rediscover the gospel as it is presented on every page of our Bibles. We need to rise to the challenge of presenting the age old gospel in fresh new ways for our culture, simply but not simplistically. A gospel that is bigger than we think is good news: we have much to teach and much more to learn.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the Executive Director for Churches in Mission at the Evangelical Alliance UK, Author of Destiny: What’s Life All About? (Monarch, 2008) This article was originally published by Catalyst in 2008.