by Rick Richardson
When preaching the gospel, many preachers today are talking less about forgiveness and getting to heaven and more about bringing God’s kingdom to earth and changing and healing the world in the here and now.
Is this a good thing?
No and yes. Let me explain.
The gospel is always the gospel of grace, which is about what God has done, and therefore about what we can only receive and never earn. On top of that, in Colossians 4:4, Paul asks the church in Colossae to “pray that I may declare the Gospel clearly, as I should.” Clarity on the proclamation of the gospel is always paramount.
Paul expresses his desire to present the gospel clearly, but also acknowledges that it’s not always easy to do that. My guess is that we can all relate. We all want to be able to clearly explain the gospel, but we’ve also been in conversations where, despite our best efforts, there still seems to be a significant disconnect with those listening to us. How do we move past that?
Changing How We Understand Communicating the Gospel
How do we clearly communicate the gospel in a way that connects to those around us? How do we ensure we really ‘get’ the gospel clearly so we can communicate the gospel clearly?
Although the gospel itself never changes, our understanding of the gospel can change, and the way we communicate it must change with the shifting cultural tides if the world around us is to clearly hear and receive the good news.
For many years, sharing the good news of Jesus for evangelicals meant explaining how his death and resurrection provided for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of heaven. Although forgiveness and heaven are just as true now as they have always been, how we communicate those truths is sometimes packaged in a way that provides answers to questions that people aren’t asking.
As we listen to the heartbeat of our culture, we can discern the culturally resonant places to begin the conversation about the gospel and its impact, and that leads us to shift what we emphasize as we communicate the gospel. Sometimes, it also leads us to recapture dimensions of the good news that we have lost or minimized.
As I take the pulse of the culture around me and seek to communicate the gospel, these are a few questions I’m hearing that the gospel needs to address:
- How can reconciliation and justice in our divided and stratified world win? Maybe even better put, how can reconciliation with justice win?
- How does the always intriguing and provocative life of Jesus have just as much to say to us as his death?
- What does his resurrection mean for life in the here and now?
- How do justification (personal salvation) and justice relate?
Those are just a few of the challenging questions people who hear us preach the gospel ask us today.
The Gospel for All
I would suggest that our changing cultural context, as well as our reexamination of the New Testament, has led us to recover dimensions of the good news of the Kingdom of God that are biblical, powerful, and important. We often explain that Jesus died for the sin of every individual, and that if any individual repents and trusts Christ’s death, that person will have eternal life.
Although all of that is true, we can find ourselves filtering the gospel through the lens of an individualistic and narcissistic culture.
In addition to individual salvation that the gospel promises, we must also communicate a broader vision of the gospel that includes God’s mission to restore the world through his perfect rule. A short summary of this broader vision is that the world has gotten badly off track. Jesus has lived, died, risen, and rules to get the earth and humanity back on track. We can become part of Jesus’ mission if we accept his death and resurrection for us, so that we might be forgiven, given new life, become part of his people, join his mission under his rule, and be with God forever in his kingdom.
This bigger story still includes a clear call to individual salvation, but it does so in the context of God’s broader purpose. At a mission convention some years ago, Roberta Hestenes, former President of Eastern College, nailed it when she said that “although it is true that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, even more importantly, God loves the world and has a wonderful plan for its future.”
This is a plan fulfilled through the life, death, resurrection, and rule of Jesus of Nazareth. That is good news! For our time and every time.
Dr. Rick Richardson, with Dr. Ed Stetzer, leads the Evangelism and Leadership graduate program at Wheaton College, which trains leaders to lead missional churches, ministries, and church plants, always with an evangelistic edge.