What does sharing the gospel mean to you? It’s an important question, and our answer will determine how we view mission.
The Western church is renowned for falling into one of three versions of the diminished gospel, but every church and every person in this world will have a tendency towards one or another. A holistic view of the gospel is hard to hang on to, and harder to live out.
1. The Gospel is Something to be Outsourced to Professionals
The first view is the most common. The gospel is that good news which we hire professionals to do. We may not know exactly what the gospels means, but we don’t really know how our phones or computers work either. So we hire people that do. The gospel is just another service that people are happy to pay others to do for them. This is not a surprising development in a service-oriented economy. It is also the easiest to disprove by any number of arguments. For our purposes, James 4:17 will suffice. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” You can’t pay someone else to love your wife or your kids, or your enemies, and you can’t outsource your gospel sharing responsibilities to someone else. By all means, let’s sponsor full-time workers. But paying a babysitter doesn’t get you off the hook for taking care of your kids. Nor does sponsoring full-time workers obviate your identity as an ambassador of the ministry of reconciliation.
2. The Gospel is a Speech
There are serious debates about what words the script should composed of. Should it be purely Scriptural, like the Romans Road? Should it be primarily conceptual like the 4 spiritual laws? Should it be narratival like sharing the stories of the Old Testament prophets? These methods have meaningful differences, but there is an underlying unity. The spread of the gospel is the spread of a set of words.
That is a very important truth! After all the evangelion is “the good news”! However, if we take the examples of the New Testament seriously, we see that a gospel that is only words is incomplete.
Jesus often preceded a message of the kingdom by a demonstration of power or of compassion. James was bold enough to say “show me your faith without deeds and I’ll show you my faith BY my deeds”, directly condemning a words-only gospel. Paul, so often placed in opposition to both James and Jesus, stands in full agreement. “because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake”. A gospel that of words alone is just a lot of hot air. Anybody can talk the talk. Just check the news for stories of all the fraudulent television evangelists. They sound good. They talk about forgiveness and mercy and charity and mercy and grace and faith. These words are powerful. But James is going to say, “Those words are pretty. Now, prove that you believe them.” Then there will be silence. There are lots of messages being preached out there, lots of goods for sale in the marketplace of ideas. The gospel has always been a message embodied in the lives and actions of its proclaimers. A gospel of only words is a diminished gospel.
Words without deeds are dead, meaningless things.
3. The Gospel is Action
In contrast, Millennials and activists look at the works of Jesus and his followers and find them sufficient. The gospel is caring for the poor, healing the sick, spending time with people. The deed itself is sufficient to share the message of God: that He loves you. This is a beautiful thing to see. It is the St. Francis of Assisi model of spreading the gospel.
But, if we take the New Testament seriously, this view is also deficient. Deeds are not sufficient. Now matter how kind you are, no matter how compassionate, no matter how much you give to the poor and needy, it will never be enough. Why? Because every culture, every people group, every person has a category and an explanation for people who do good things that fits in their worldview. A psychologist might see “excessive” good works as an attempt to overcompensate for a lack of praise in early childhood. A Hindu might see it as an attempt to accrue good karma. A cynic might see it as an attempt to curry favor. Good deeds are not limited to Christians.
We see this clearly in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas heal a man in Lystra. Healing is the epitome of a good deed, but the Lystrans interpreted that as-yet-wordless deed according to their own worldview: Paul and Barnabas are gods! Paul’s reaction is eye-opening
“The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news,”
The first thing Paul and Barnabas do is mourn. Their actions have been seen, rejoicing has set in, but the absolutely wrong conclusion has been drawn. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes, and then they ran to fill the air with words. Every good deed is open to interpretation and, to misinterpretation. We must provide the interpretation. “I’m buying your lunch because of Jesus Christ.” “I do this because I love you … because of Jesus Christ!” Or again, in Romans 10:14 “How can they believe in someone they have never heard of?”
Deeds without words are mute, useless for sharing good news.
A Holistic Gospel
To define the gospel is beyond my abilities. It may well have been beyond the capacities of the writers of the New Testament. But I can make some affirmations. The good news must flow out of the transformation in the life and being of the proclaimer. Sharing the gospel requires words and deeds, together, always. That gospel is the true one, the power of God for those who are being redeemed. There are appropriate and inappropriate situations to share the news of the gospel, but as long as words exist without deeds or deeds exist without words, the person has not yet witnessed the full gospel. That is not a problem. Most of the time, we are only given the opportunity to share a part of the gospel, to plant a seed which we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring to fruition. But we must recognize that fact, and pray for the chance to share more and more fully.
This implies that the gospel is best shared in relationships.
In the end, we want the people to whom we witness to proclaim with John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” That is the gospel that we are entrusted with sharing. And receiving the gospel implies sharing it with others!
You and Your Church
Is your church following a model of evangelism that includes words and deeds? Is spreading the good news the acknowledged responsibility of every believer? Or is it something else, something less than that?
How about your own personal practice of spreading the good news? Are your deeds rendered speechless by your fear of rejection or disagreement or confrontation? Are your words rendered powerless by the absence of compassionate action?
We all fall far short here as in so many other areas. But we must acknowledge that we fall short, and, with the power of the Holy Spirit, aim for the spread of a gospel that is undiminished.