There is a question that is normally a part of the application process of ministry positions:
“Give us a clear and concise definition of the gospel in your own words.”
It could be, however, that unless you have applied for a position in ministry, you may have never actually done this before. I have been a Christian for a long time. I grew up in church. I’ve read hosts of books that dedicate a section to unpacking the Creation – Fall – Redemption – Restoration themes of Scripture, and I often feel the temptation to just skim through them, as if “I already know that stuff.” I may feel I know it, but how effective am I at communicating it, especially with clarity and consistency?
I haven’t had someone come up to me out of the blue and ask me, “Give me a clear definition of the gospel.” But if I did, what would I say? What if I only had one minute in an elevator with this person? What if I had five minutes? What if I had thirty minutes? Peter admonishes us, “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). Are we prepared?
I am convinced that we (that’s including me) are oftentimes not. We almost view personal evangelism as this idealized, unrealistic phenomenon. We have heard amazing stories of personal evangelism, but we often do not experience it ourselves. Sermons challenge us to go reach our neighbors, and in small groups we share about opportunities for showing Christ to co-workers or friends. But are these conversations actually happening? And if not, how can we improve?
What if part of the reason you and I seem to participate in so little personal evangelism is due to our un-preparedness in gospel proclamation?
This is where writing out the gospel comes in. I know you know it. I know that seems “elementary” to you. But if you are like me, when you put that pen to a blank piece of paper, you may be surprised at how tough it is to do effectively.
Divide your paper(s) up into three sections. Summarize the gospel, in your own words, in one minute, or a few sentences. Then five or ten minutes. Then thirty. Part of our need in speaking the truths of Jesus to those around us is learning to adapt to our environment. We’re not going to be able to take everyone to a coffee session to do this important work.
What are the benefits to writing out the gospel? First of all, it improves the clarity of our message. There are many traps of getting caught up in complex topics of discussion, so-called theological “rabbit trails.” What people need more than a healthy understanding of unconditional election or eschatology is a healthy understanding that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners. Also, many unbelievers have a preconceived definition of “Christian” and “church” and “Bible,” and whether or not it is an accurate one, we should be people who are willing to define clearly what we mean. Preach Christ crucified, and preach it clearly.
Secondly, a side effect of writing out the gospel for the sake of others is that it embeds that same message in our own hearts. Learning to preach the gospel to ourselves is a very important practice. Having God’s Word hidden in our heart is ammunition against sin (Ps 119:11), and a lamp unto our feet (Ps 119:105).
Here are some respected pastors and theologians who have aimed to summarize the gospel clearly and concisely. Don’t just copy them, but use their help:
Mark Dever: “God has made promises to bring His people to Himself and He is fulfilling them all through Christ.”
Zack Eswine: “Apprenticing with Jesus to become human again.”
Paul House: “The movement in history from creation to new creation through the redemptive work of Father, Son, and Spirit who saves and changes corrupted people and places for his glory and their good.”
You can find more of these one-sentence summaries here.
Greg Beale: “The OT storyline appears best to be summarized as: the historical story of God who progressively reestablishes his new creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to extend that new creation rule and resulting in judgment for the unfaithful (defeat and exile), all of which issues into his glory; the NT storyline can be summarized as: Jesus’ life of covenantal obedience, trials, judgmental death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit has launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-and-not-yet promised new creation reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to extend this new creation rule and resulting in judgment for the unfaithful, unto God’s glory.”
You may think methods for this kind of thing are hokey, and feel awkward and robotic when presented to another. Maybe that’s true. But God spoke through a donkey (Num 22:28), and He can do the same in our prepared, amateur gospel proclamation. Let’s not allow our awkwardness to sound the death knell for unbelievers.
I know it is time-consuming. You may need to practice first. But having a sense of readiness to make the good news known to needy sinners should drive us, whether that’s a moment by the copier or over dinner. Ultimately, it’s the Spirit’s work to convict hearts. Paul describes the gospel as “the power of God for salvation,” and we like him should be unashamed of its goodness (Rom 1:16). Better to think, study, practice, and rehearse than to miss when an opportunity comes.