What is the Gospel? What elements are essential? What criteria do you use to identify a “good gospel message?”
Recently, I took a look at the gospel presentations in the book of Acts to discover how the Bible might answer these questions. I went to Acts because it gives us the record of the initial thrust of the Gospel, when the Holy Spirit drove a wedge into human culture through the preaching of the apostles.
The early presentations of the Gospel were extremely Christo-centric. Besides clearly identifying Jesus as both man and God, the apostles put His death and resurrection front and centre. Acts 4:33 tells us “…with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (ESV) This suggests to me that God endorsed this emphasis.
People were confronted with the fact of their sin and the need for forgiveness, but nowhere did I find the apostles trying to drum up feelings of guilt. They simply stated sin as a fact and got on with calling their hearers to believe in Jesus and repent. Repentance surfaces as an important theme of the gospel in Acts.
None of these things surprised me a great deal, but a few points did grab my attention. I could not find any reference to the love of God, or His mercy. Grace got several mentions, but not in the presentations of the gospel. Mostly, grace is referenced as a post-salvation work as in Acts 20:32 “…I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
What really rocked me was the absence of warnings concerning hell or the wrath of God. There’s nothing to say about them; they just aren’t there. Paul did mention judgment when he was talking to Felix, but this is the only occurrence. So much for the idea “If you haven’t preached hell, you haven’t preached the gospel.”
The other shocker was that the apostles offered no inducements to believe. They didn’t extend promises of personal fulfillment, of peace and joy, of help with your relationships or finances, of freedom or purpose, not even of heaven. It was all about recognizing who Jesus is and the fact that through his death and resurrection he had made divine forgiveness possible.This may strike 21st Century Christians as not a “big enough deal.”
But think about it:
- By believing, their thinking had been properly aligned with reality, as they recognized who Jesus was and what He had done for them
- They had repented—abandoning a complicated life focussed on sin and the law, and embracing a simple one focussed on grace and righteousness
- They had been baptized, publicly identifying themselves with the One who had turned their mourning into dancing. (No wonder they “ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” – Acts 2:46)
Three closing points:
- I’m not saying we must limit our presentations of the Gospel to what we find in Acts, but I do think that it would be good to have the same emphasis.
- There is no room in this simple message for human eloquence, with its frightening descriptions of eternal punishment, or glowing descriptions of the bliss of heaven (and, much less, offers of personal benefits).
- I suspect that the reason the gospel was so powerful in the book of Acts was that it was all about Jesus — who He is and what He has done.