Promoting Simplicity, Part One: The Simple Gospel

In part one of the Advance series ‘Promoting Simplicity’, Ben Jack explores ‘The Simple Gospel’.

A complicated life

I attempted to decorate my living room recently, a task that ultimately turned into one of those ‘why did I bother starting this?’ experiences. Truth be told, DIY is not my strong suit – and a job that would probably have taken a normally-skilled man just a few hours has taken me days. It turns out that all those years of playing FIFA didn’t prepare me for adult life at all.[1]

The main problem was that I overcomplicated the process by not having all the right tools at my disposal to get the job done as simply and as efficiently as possible. I ended up creating a lot of mess that took ages to clean up, and worst of all the finished decoration is not as well presented as it might have been. I tried to muddle through and get the job done quickly, when good preparation would have equipped me for a far simpler and more successful experience.

If only over-complication was limited to the misery of decorating your house.[2] Life is complicated and humanity has a habit of further complicating an already over-complicated world. Gandhi famously said, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live’, yet despite our best efforts to simplify and improve the world through technological advances, the sharing of ideas and the championing of basic human rights, Gandhi’s words seem more relevant today than ever before. Indeed, the world seems to get more complex rather than less as time goes by, and we see a greater disparity between those who have and those who do not.

I think Gandhi actually stumbled onto something profound about the preaching of the gospel without realising it with his ‘live simply’ idea. If we were to re-word his statement as follows, perhaps it would strike a chord for those of us who are concerned with the proclamation of the good news:

 ‘Preach simply so that others may simply live.’

The two most common explanations of the gospel I hear can actually be summarised fairly simply:

  1. You have done bad things, you are a sinner and are heading for hell. But God in his love and grace has provided Jesus for you who died and rose again, and through faith in him you can be saved and know eternal life.
  1. Is your life hard? Have you experienced heartbreak and suffering? Do you have a low self esteem? Well God loves you, put your trust in him and you can know your true identity, he will help you in this life and you can know true happiness.

Perhaps you have preached the gospel in one of these two ways, or a variation upon one of them? I know I have in the past. Take a moment to reflect upon these basic explanations of the gospel: what is good about them, and what is lacking?

Neither of these ways of explaining the gospel is actually the full proclamation of the good news. They both contain truth about the gospel, but neither is an accurate way of explaining who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for humanity. Even the oft-used scripture from John 3:16, undoubtedly the most famous of all Bible verses, is not actually a sufficient explanation of the gospel in and of itself.[3] God does indeed love the world so much that he has provided his only son Jesus to save us from death and give us eternal life, but this is not the complete message of the gospel, nor is it the good news that Jesus himself announced when he arrived on the preaching scene two thousand years ago with the words, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.[4]

‘Preaching simply’ does not mean preaching a watered-down, more palatable message. Paul warns that this will lead to no gospel at all being preached![5] ‘Preaching simply’ means being able to explain the full gospel in all its power and authority, clearly to any audience who would have ears to hear.

Good advice?

Gandhi offered profound advice and wisdom in a quest to better the world, but we must not fall into the trap of offering the gospel as merely good advice in the hope of bringing a positive social change.[6] The gospel is not good advice, it is the announcement of  the good news of the coming kingdom, the invitation to turn from rebellion of the king of the universe to choosing to submit to his lordship, the gateway to life in all its fullness – the life humanity was created for. Good advice can be taken or left, perhaps with little consequence. While the gospel invitation can also be taken or left, the consequences are both temporally and eternally significant. To preach the gospel is to offer a simple invitation: do you want to live?

And this is a deeply important question. If the answer is ‘yes’, the gospel declares that there is only one true life, life in the kingdom of God. On the off chance that the answer is ‘no’, (and with suicide rates in the developed world being so high this is a possibility), the gospel declares that there is hope. This life you may not want to live is not the life you were created for anyway. Your dissatisfaction at the life you live is shared by the God who created you for more, and who has provided the way by which you can know that life.

One of my greatest heroes, C.S. Lewis, came to faith in Christ partly because Christianity helped him reconcile a rational understanding of the universe with a satisfying explanation of why we experience longing and desire in this life – something that a rational understanding of the universe does not provide in and of itself. That very idea speaks to the heart of the gospel: not simply that we are sinners who need a saviour to get us to heaven, but that we were created to dwell in the perfect kingdom of our heavenly Father, God. It’s a kingdom that can actually be experienced in this life, before being perfected in what we would call heaven. The reason why we experience longing and desire is because we were created for a kingdom that is not yet fully present, but has been initiated in the work of Christ and will be perfected when he returns. But how many of us actually present the gospel in these terms?

Understanding the gospel

To be able to preach the gospel simply, then, and not to fall into the trap of watering it down or reducing it to greetings card platitudes, we must understand the gospel deeply. This is not just an exercise in theological navel-gazing, but an attempt to understand what the good news really is, how it impacts our lives and how we can share the message with the world. A primary way to figure this all out is to look at what the first preachers of the gospel understood the good news to be, and how it shaped their lives and witness. We could write countless books on this subject of course (and many have been), so for the sake of this blog series we will only explore are a few short reflections in the next three parts. We’ll look at the preaching of Jesus, Peter, and Paul to help us understand the gospel message in such a way that it can be proclaimed clearly, fully and simply today. 

Let’s wrap things up here with a short personal reflection: how much time do you spend simply thinking and praying about the significance of the ministry of Jesus that lead him to the cross? Considering afresh just what it was that caused God to send his one and only son to die for us, why Jesus allowed himself to hang in that place of suffering and experience that awful death, to meditate upon what it really means that Christ is risen, ascended and will one day return?

‘Ultimately God is more interested in developing messengers than messages, and because the Holy Spirit confronts us primarily through the Bible, we must learn to listen to God before speaking for God.’[7]

Reflection of this kind and study of the word is essential as we both try to understand the gospel more deeply for the purposes of proclamation, but more importantly, that we would be driven to awe and worship once more at who God is and what he has done. The gospel has lost none of its power to save. The same gospel Peter preached at Pentecost is still bringing people to life today. To find success in both the visible and verbal aspects of our evangelism then, we must take the time, as the apostles did, to know Jesus and the good news that declares his glory.

In part two we will look at the message of the kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus, and what that might mean for our gospel preaching today. 

Discussion

  • How well do you think you understand what the gospel is?
  • In what ways does the gospel speak into the complexity of this world?
  • How might longing and desire reveal that the temporary and material life is not all there is?
  • What does it really mean to preach the gospel simply?
  • How can we understand the gospel more fully?

Quotes

‘I must preach that should someone hear me only once before he dies, he will have heard not just a part, but the entire way of salvation and in the proper way for it to take root in his heart’ – A.H. Francke[8]

On the efforts of the early church witness…

‘Considerable care was taken to ensure that seekers really knew the gospel for themselves and to see that they were well grounded in the basic content and practices of the faith. This was a slow process, but it was absolutely essential if commitment was to be substantial and long-lasting.’ – William J. Abraham[9]


[1] Except the part of adult life that involves impressing young people. Or if not impressing them, beating them 8-0 to teach them a lesson in humility.

[2] I appreciate that some readers will enjoy decorating, but please accept the fact that you are weird.

[3] Contrary to the ideas of some, you cannot simply state John 3:16 and pat yourself on the back for sharing the gospel. The words of Jesus here are part of a longer conversation about the good news with Nicodemus, who ironically doesn’t seem to get it!

[4] Mark 1:14-15

[5] Galatians 1:6-9

[6] Tom Wright lays out a striking lament of this approach to gospel preaching in Simply Good News (SPCK: London, 2015), p. 4ff.

[7] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1980) p. 9.

[8] As quoted in Thomas P. Johnston, Charts for a Theology of Evangelism, p. 77.

[9] ‘A Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter’ in Chilcote, Paul W., and Laceye C. Warner (eds.), The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.