Definitions: Gospel and Persuade
In evangelism, we have a very specific bull’s-eye to our aim: we want to persuade people to become followers of Jesus. We want them to convert.
But Paul says we persuade others to follow Jesus (2 Cor. 5:11). I find the word persuade helpful, as it guards us from error: we persuade, but we do not manipulate; we persuade, but we are not the ones who bring about repentance or conversion. Of course, we long to see people converted because we understand that conversion is required for them to become Christians. But true conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Conversion is the point of Christian faith that is most often misunderstood. It’s also a word that’s not particularly in favor with the modern world. No surprise. It was confusing when Jesus taught it to a religious leader of his day (John 3), and it is confusing to Christians and non-Christians today. So it’s good to spend some time explaining it.
In the Muslim context where I live, many people from other faith backgrounds find it disorienting to hear me preach that no one is born a Christian, that all Christians are converts. Even those from Christian backgrounds are confused about conversion, because many come from traditions that emphasize that a person is a Christian because of external reasons. But the Bible clearly teaches that conversion is not a function of your parents’ religion, of which church you join, or of what your passport says. It’s not based on your academic achievements, even if they are from a religious institution. Conversion comes from true, conscious, genuine faith in Jesus.
But just as we cannot produce conversion, neither can we produce genuine faith. This also is the Holy Spirit’s territory.
Of course, when we teach the gospel with the aim to persuade we must know the gospel well enough to be able to teach it. When we share our faith, we center on the message that leads to salvation. It’s important to note that when the Bible uses the word gospel, in the Old Testament as well as the New, it always does so in relationship to salvation.
Here’s a good working definition:
The gospel is the joyful message from God that leads us to salvation.
This is another definition that appears to be underwhelming because we must ask, “What, then, is the message of salvation?”
The gospel message answers four big questions: Who is God? Why are we in such a mess? What did Christ do? And how can we get back to God? There are no more important questions to deal with in the world, and the answers are summarized in this outline: God, Man, Christ, Response (see the appendix for various Scripture passages that support this outline):
God is our Creator. He is loving, holy, and just. One day he will execute perfect justice against all sin.
People are made in the image of God. We are beautiful and amazing creatures with dignity, worth, and value. But through our willful, sinful rebellion against God, we have turned from being his children to his enemies. Still, all people have the capacity to be in a restored loving relationship with the living God.
Christ is the Son of God, whose sinless life gave him the ability to become the perfect sacrifice. Through his death on the cross, he ransomed sinful people. Christ’s death paid for the sins of all who come to him in faith. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the ultimate vindication of the truth of these claims.
The response God requires from us is to acknowledge our sin, repent, and believe in Christ. So we turn from sin, especially the sin of unbelief, and turn to God in faith, with the understanding that we will follow him the rest of our days.
Another way to tell the same story is in an outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. There are many other good summaries of the gospel. The particular outline you use doesn’t matter as long as you teach the message people must know to be reconciled with God.
The hope in evangelism is that we so steep ourselves in gospel truth and gospel living, and so apply ourselves to gospel study, that the gospel can’t help but come out of us.
Editor’s note: This article is a lightly adapted excerpt from Mack’s most recent book from the Building Healthy Churches series: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2013). It’s the second of four excerpts. (The first, “How Should We Define Evangelism?”, can be found here.)