The bare minimum gospel?

Posted on August 26, 2012

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I’ve been involved in a discussion recently, connected to the excellent Evangelical Alliance Confidence in the Gospel campaign, which raised, amongst other issues, the question ‘what is essential to a gospel presentation?’ I understood the reason the question was on the table – are their certain things that, if they are not included, make an account of the Christian gospel simply inadequate – a ‘bare minimum gospel’? – and I sympathise with the concern: of course there are ways of calling people to faith that are so misleading, or just so anaemic, that they need to be criticised. That said, this way of presenting the question was one I struggled with.

The good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ His Son, the gospel, changes absolutely everything, or so I believe. There is no human possibility left untransformed, no human story that does not now have different possible endings. Sometimes we will not be able to see immediately how the gospel is transformative of this or that reality; sometimes we will honestly disagree about the nature of transformation brought by the gospel, but I cannot begin to conceive of an adequately Christian presentation of the gospel that does not hold out such far-reaching consequences, at least potentially.

Now of course, some of these consequences will be more central than others. We might disagree on how the gospel transforms our diet (Rom. 14:13-21) without that being a major problem; disagreeing, however, on how the gospel transforms our attitude to the ancient covenant practice of circumcision is, or at least once was, extremely serious (Gal. 5:2-6). There are some truths of the gospel that are more central, some truths indeed that are absolutely central: the triunity of God; the true humanity and true deity – and the true Lordship – of our Lord Jesus Christ; the sinfulness of humanity; salvation available only by God’s grace, through Christ’s sacrifice; the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit; the privilege and responsibility of adoption into God’s family; …

In a proper process of Christian initiation, one would want to insist that each of these points is covered, and also that other points, perhaps less central to the gospel, but important for Christian initiation, are dealt with – I am here thinking of local practices of discipleship and being church: homegroups are not central to the gospel, for example, but if they are the primary mode of caring for and discipling believers in the particular church fellowship that a new convert is joining, they become a matter of importance; equally, for someone joining a Baptist (or other congregationalist) fellowship, explaining the practice of church meeting is very important, but hardly central to the gospel.

This, however, is an account of what must be covered in a process of Christian initiation; a gospel presentation is not, of itself, a process of Christian initiation, or at least not necessarily. A gospel presentation can be an invitation to a journey to find out more; as such its content needs to be true and worthwhile, but can be really very partial, and certainly does not have any required content.

I can see three possible rejoinders to this. The first I will call the ‘elevator pitch‘ question: ‘But if you only had 30 seconds to explain the gospel to someone, what would you say? – that’s the essential truth of the gospel, the “bare minimum”!’ The second we can call the ‘moment of conversion’ question: ‘Yes, you might interest people in all sorts of ways, and there is much truth you want them to believe – but what makes the difference between death and rebirth? What is the one thing that must be believed for someone to be truly converted –  that’s the essential truth of the gospel, the “bare minimum”!’ The third might be described as the ‘power of the Spirit’ issue: ‘The Holy Spirit empowers true gospel preaching; what is the thing that must be said to be confident that the Holy Spirit will be at work? that’s the essential truth of the gospel, the “bare minimum”!’

It seems to me the ‘elevator pitch’ is a non-question, except in a very particular circumstance (described later). If you only have a minute or two to speak to someone about following Jesus you should do exactly what you would do if you had an hour or a day: find how the promises of Jesus relate to the most pressing felt need in her life, and press that so that she will want to find out more. There is no ‘bare minimum gospel’ on this telling, just a responsibility to be wise (and to seek the Spirit’s guidance) in applying the claims and promises of Christ to every particular human situation one encounters.

I’m not sure that the ‘moment of conversion’ question is any more real, in that neither I, nor any other Christian, ever has a need to answer it. Thankfully, God decides who gets to sit down at His Son’s wedding feast, not me; my job is to publish the invitation – and the dress code (Mt. 22:11) – as widely as possible; before I baptise someone, I want to be convinced of the reality of the Spirit’s gracious salvific work in their life, but I am not called to say ‘it happened at 8.04pm last Tuesday’. For many of us – I include myself, converted under the preaching of John Chapman at a Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union mission meeting – there will be, if not a moment, at least a fairly well defined short period of time we can point to and say ‘it was then that God brought new life into my cold dead soul!’; but that will not be the case for all, and the pastor’s task is to recognise that new life has begun, not to define its precise moment of beginning.

The ‘power of the Spirit’ argument is equally spurious, I think. I rely utterly on the power of the Spirit whenever I preach – surely we all do? – and, whilst I think there are, under God’s sovereignty, genuine aids and blocks to knowing that (my prayerfulness and humility; a seriousness in confessing sin in my own life; a humble submission of my ideas to the message of the text; the prayers of my people; …), I do not regard the mention, perhaps in passing, of one idea (whatever it might be) that might not be at all relevant to the text as one such aid.

(The extreme case of the ‘elevator pitch’? The elevator, say in the Shard, where the elevator is a ‘lift’, has failed. We are plummeting towards the base of the shaft at terminal velocity, which will be, well, terminal. What does the responsible evangelist say to his/her fellows? Assuming the unlikely case that I, or anyone else, had the calmness to say something other than ‘*@$%!’ (or possibly ‘Mummy!’) repeatedly; what is the 30-second gospel presentation that one presents to those on the verge of certain death? Something similar happened just once in Scripture; the prayer that was then adequate to salvation was ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom’; so the best answer would seem to be to encourage them in such a prayer…)

So, I do not believe that there is any ‘bare minimum’ gospel. The riches of the gospel are just too wonderful to be reduced like this, and the possibilities of transformation the gospel holds out are too varied. Of course I want to insist on the centrality of forgiveness of sin available only through the gracious gift of God in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus; but we can’t reduce the gospel to that single message without making it too thin, too narrow, unworthy of the riches of God’s grace.

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