Promoting Simplicity, Part Three: The Spiritual Gospel

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

Supernaturally sceptical

My usual routine when I get on a long-haul flight is to put my earphones in and attempt to drift into a world of music-induced sleep for the first couple of hours. On a recent flight though, I broke with convention and once seated I decided to spend some time reading (although I’m not sure scrolling through Instagram really counts as reading).

Eventually the seat next to me was occupied by a young man in his early twenties. He looked nervous (about flying I assumed, rather than because he was sat next to me). As the last passengers were ushered aboard and into their seats, a baby two seats across from us began to wail. I don’t mean cry a little, but full-on wail. Like, ‘I just watched the end of E.T.’ levels of wailing.[1]

This is nothing new for me. God, knowing that I find babies a little irritating at the best of times, routinely likes to seat me near to crying ones in enclosed spaces, no doubt as part of my spiritual refining process.[2] The young man next to me turned his head towards me and with a look of despair in his eyes said, ‘Ugh, looks like we’re in for a long flight.’ I laughed and agreed that the baby wailing situation was unfortunate. Sure enough, a conversation sparked up between us and it wasn’t long before he was asking me deep and searching questions about life, faith and God. Before we knew it, four hours had flown by.

During this time, the conversation took in everything from the evidences for the existence of God, science, the origins of the universe, to moral philosophy and the supremacy of following Christ above all other world-views, religions and philosophies. He was a smart guy and genuinely interested in the dialogue (or ‘debate’ as he kept referring to it), but had some reservations about some of the things I was saying.

In fact, he had one major reservation – something that is common in those I speak to about faith today – namely, scepticism about the supernatural.

Christians are sometimes accused of offering a ‘God of the gaps’. In other words, our reasoning for God is that we don’t have a better way to explain something so we stick God in there. An example of the general criticism could run along the following lines. In the past, we didn’t know how the world was created, and so we simply stated that God made it. But now, science has set us free from the shackles or our imaginations, enlightened our world and made all the sky fairy believers look silly. We don’t need God to fill the gaps of our knowledge any more, they say.

Not only are believers accused of using God to conveniently fill the gaps in our scientific (or other) knowledge, we are often accused of being anti-intellectual, against reason and evidence. But anyone who reads the Bible carefully will see that such accusations run contrary to the type of faith Christians are called to hold,

‘The Bible actually commands us to use reason and evidence. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God… with all your mind.” God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying, “Come now, let us reason together.” Peter urges us to “always be prepared to give an answer.” Paul commands us to “destroy arguments” that are opposed to the truth of Christianity, and he declares that Christianity is false unless the resurrection of Christ is an historical fact. So Christians don’t get brownie points for being stupid or relying on blind faith. They are supposed to know what they believe and why they believe it.’[3]

Christianity is not irrational or anti-intellectual. There are sound reasons as to why the Christian faith holds up to testing, and can be accepted as the truth. Not all will be persuaded by the arguments, and no one was ever argued into the kingdom of God, but reasoned dialogue is a helpful tool for evangelism.

However, no matter how reasoned the arguments may be, once we hit the realm of the supernatural, many non-believers will instantly check out, rejecting the supernatural outright with a predetermined bias against it, not necessarily based on any rational thinking. This is clearly a problem as when dealing with God, it is quite difficult to avoid the supernatural elephant in the room! But I’m not here to make a case for better apologetic and rational arguments for the supernatural (although there are good and helpful ones to be made). I’m actually calling us to press into a supernatural presentation of the gospel – that is, proclamation of the properly understood gospel in the power of the Spirit.[4]

 As we have already seen from parts one and two of this series, a deep understanding of the gospel is important if we are to proclaim it simply and effectively. The third part of our gospel simplicity jigsaw is found not so much in the content of our message – what is proclaimed – but in how it is proclaimed. The preaching of the apostles reveals to us (among other things) the imperative to proclaim the good news in the power of the Spirit.[5]

Preaching Peter

There is much to learn about what the disciples understood the gospel to be from the sermons we find in Acts, and the apostles’ writings in the epistles.[6] One striking element (especially in light of part two of this series) is a shift of focus away from the direct proclamation of the kingdom modelled by Jesus, to preaching Christ himself as the message.[7]

The content of the disciples preaching was never going to be the same as Jesus’, because post cross and resurrection, Jesus’ life and the kingdom message he proclaimed became not merely the model for their preaching, but the content of it. Preaching the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus was preaching the kingdom. The apostles understood this, and we must too.

So, what then was the gospel message of the early church if it wasn’t explicitly expressed in kingdom language?

‘The most regular and basic elements are these: (1) the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus; (2) the call for a response to this proclamation, for repentance and faith in this Jesus; (3) the promise of forgiveness, salvation Spirit to those who so respond… Like the proclamation of Jesus, the kerygma [proclamation] of the Acts sermons issues in a call for repentance and faith… the call is specifically for faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 9:42; 11:17; 14:23; 16:31)’[8] 

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a remarkable account of gospel proclamation (Acts 2:14-41). Although we surely only have a summary of what he said, we can see that he is committed to presenting Christ as crucified and risen, that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that, through a direct invitation for the crowd to repent and put their trust in Jesus as Lord, around three thousand were saved.[9]

‘It is worth reminding ourselves how much store these early Christians set by the plain proclamation of the “Jesus Story”. Whether it was spoken by the first-generation apostles or written by the second-generation evangelists, they expected it to be effective, and it is so still.’[10]

The reason the disciples’ preaching was (and remains) effective is not merely found in the fact that the first evangelists got the necessary elements of the gospel message right, although the fact that there is remarkable consistency in the elements of the proclaimed gospel message through the New Testament shows that content is clearly very important. No, the reason for success is found in the most important aspect of Pentecost itself: The Spirit has arrived, and the Spirit is at work.

As insightful and important as the content of Peter’s sermon is, we are surely to take note above all else from that sermon that his preaching power is found in the work of the Spirit. Even the apostle Peter is powerless to actually save anyone, but when the truth of the Jesus story is presented in the power of the Spirit, people are ‘cut to the heart’ and lives are reconciled to God. Where there was death, there is suddenly life.

This is why the supernatural is so essential to evangelism: it is not just found as an awkward inconvenience in the content of our message (the resurrection; the [super]nature of God, etc), but is the means by which the message comes to life in the heart of the listener – by the Spirit’s power.[11] Rather than running scared from a supernaturally sceptical audience, our task is to press into that which some find objectionable until it reveals itself to be true.

When Peter invites his audience to repent and trust in Jesus, let us not forget he gives each listener the opportunity to put his message to the test. ‘Come, taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). The true test of the authenticity of the supernatural is found in the transformed heart of a believer. I am not the same as I was before I received the gospel, because God’s spirit is at work in me. Put your trust in him and see for yourself.

Preaching Paul

Speaking of transformed hearts, surely there are few more striking examples than that of Paul. What can we learn from his proclamation of the gospel?

Paul tells the believers in Corinth that, When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Here we see Paul stating what we have already seen the apostles do throughout Acts: that he is only interested in preaching the ‘Jesus story’. This story must be proclaimed in the power of the Spirit so it is not merely a set of biographical facts or theological propositions, but a revelation of the way to salvation and the means by which salvation is found. It’s the way to find peace with the king of the universe and all that entails.

‘The form of his gospel is indeed similar to that of the Jerusalem church… nevertheless the dynamic for his preaching, the authorisation for it, the conviction about it, came not from any mere knowledge of the events… but from an encounter with the risen Christ himself’[12]

Paul’s testimony is one of supernatural encounter and radical transformation. While his gospel message is no doubt influenced by and rooted in the Jesus story as told and recorded by his apostle peers (and his understanding of the gospel is second to none), his conviction for its authority and the truth of its content is found in the supernatural encounter that forever changed his life. Indeed, it is the very same Jesus that Paul encountered on the road to Damascus who commands his followers to go into the world as his witnesses ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Acts 1:8).

We will look at Paul’s preaching a little more in part four, specifically to explore what we can learn about contextualisation of the gospel. But based on what we’ve briefly explored here, there are three simple things that we can discern from the first preachers of the gospel that will impact our preaching today (two directly, and one indirectly):

  1. The elements of the gospel message are important: know the Jesus story, know its anchor as the truth about the kingdom of God and learn to express it well to an audience. It was important to those first preachers and it should likewise be important to us today so we do not fall into the trap of preaching a distortion of the true story and turn the gospel into no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7).
  1. Evangelism is impossible without the Spirit’s power: preaching in the power of the Spirit is the only way people will truly move from hearing the facts of the Jesus story to recognising that God is knocking on the door of their heart and calling them home. The gospel is the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16).
  1. Prayer is essential to evangelism: If we want God involved then we must devote ourselves to prayer. Prayer for our own relationship and faith. Prayer for opportunities. Prayer for the preparation of hearts to receive the message. Prayer for boldness. Prayer for salvation. Prayer for healing. Prayer for wisdom, discernment, sensitivity… Prayer is the bedrock of evangelism. Preaching the gospel without prayer is, I believe, the most common reason that our evangelism fails. Prayer doesn’t guarantee success of salvation, but it does guarantee that we’ve put the power in the right hands, and from there, anything is possible. (Matt 9:7-8; Rom 10:1).

Supernaturally strengthened

Back to the story we started with – of the young man on the flight – at the end of our conversation he thanked me for taking the time to answer his questions, and told me that I had helped him think more deeply about the subjects we had discussed. He then revealed something amazing to me, that he was not in fact supposed to be on the flight. He had missed his earlier flight that morning from oversleeping and had needed to re-book onto the one we now shared. Not only that, but having been offered two other seats when he booked, he rejected them both before settling on the one he now sat in, and at the time he had no idea why he didn’t want the first two seats offered and chose the third.

I smiled at him and said, ‘You know, if you believed in the supernatural you might be inclined to believe this is not a coincidence, maybe God is telling you something.’ He laughed. I happened to have a new copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity with me and felt prompted to give it to him along with my contact information so he could keep in touch via email if he desired. He was genuinely touched by this gesture and said to me as we parted ways, ‘When I get home I’m going to read this book, and I’m going to pray and ask God if he is really there.’ I told him I would be praying for him, and I have been.

I don’t know whether he did go home and seek God, but I know that God was beginning to speak to him on that flight. I could see that in his attitude and demeanour over the course of the conversation. I was praying constantly during our time that God would minister to his heart and help him to move beyond his scepticism. Hopefully my answers to his questions were sound and went some way to clearing a pathway to the cross through his objections, but it is the spirit of God that will move him to a place of true repentance, who will minister to him day in day out if he chooses to truly live for the king.

Many in the world may be anti-supernatural, but our preaching and sharing of the gospel must not be. When we proclaim the Jesus story in the power of the spirit, even the most sceptical heart can be opened up to the glory of God. The same gospel Peter proclaimed at Pentecost has lost none of its power to save, to move hearts and to change preconceptions. The same Spirit who empowered Peter and Paul to proclaim the Jesus story two thousand years ago is at work empowering you for the task you have been called to today.

The beautiful irony for preachers faced with a supernaturally sceptical audience is that the hope of success is found in the supernatural – proclamation of the glorious good news in the power of the Spirit. It is beautifully simple, and nothing else will do.

In part four we will explore how to approach contextualisation of the gospel message to help listeners connect the truth of what they hear to the reality of their life experience and understanding. 

Discussion

  • Why might contemporary audiences struggle with the supernatural element of our faith?
  • What does it mean to share the gospel in the power of the spirit?
  • Why might the preaching of Peter and Paul differ in some ways to that of Jesus?
  • How important is prayer to the task of preaching the gospel?
  • What does your own prayer life look like in relation to your evangelism and preaching?

Quotes

‘The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consist of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul.’  C.H. Spurgeon.

‘Jesus proclaimed the kingdom. The sermons in Acts proclaim Jesus. Jesus has become the content of the message; the proclaimer has become the proclaimed.’[13] James Dunn.


[1] If you can watch the end of E.T. without wailing, you are dead inside and I cannot help you.

[2] At the risk of sounding like a baby-hating maniac, I just don’t generally find babies to be particularly cute. They’re like less useful and more needy adults. I’ve learned over the years that this line of thinking is more offensive to people than pretty much anything else I could confess to, but now you know. And I know that you are quietly judging me as you read this.

[3] Frank Turek, Stealing From God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014) pp. 216-217.

[4] It is worth reflecting here that if apologetics can sometimes be guilty of relying too heavily on reason rather than the Holy Spirit’s power to bring hearts to life, overly emotive preaching can sometimes fall into the trap of being manipulative, once again putting too much stock in our ability to win people for Christ, rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to work through our simple proclamation. Food for thought on both ends of the spectrum.

[5] We could also explore the role of signs and wonders in evangelism. I will keep the focus on preaching in the power of the spirit here, and follow up on signs and wonders in a future post.

[6] Attempts to find a uniform message have proved somewhat divisive but there is much to recommend C.H. Dodd’s exploration of the early church Kerygma (Greek: proclamation; Dodd and others also use the term to mean the content of the gospel message) in The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (1936) which lays out a six-point summary of the content of the Apostolic preaching. Any good New Testament theology or dictionary will have a summary included, along with some discussion of its detractors, strengths and weaknesses.

[7] ‘the focus [in Acts] shifts from announcement of the dawning reality, which is not denied in any way, to the basis, the grounds or the agency that makes the new reality a possibility. What the kingdom depends on has become the good news’ – Donald A. Hagner, The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) pp 311-313. Hagner also offers three basic reasons as to why the disciples may have moved away from direct kingdom language in their preaching:

  1. Talk of a kingdom other than the Roman Empire could be misunderstood as treasonous.
  2. The concept of the kingdom had Jewish roots and would not be easily understood by Gentile audience.
  3. As the church began to understand what Jesus had done, a new language was able to be employed that focused on the fruit of the kingdom in the present age – the effects of Christ.

[8] James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1977) pp 20-21.

[9] ‘…we may with some confidence accept the sermons in Acts, not indeed as a transcript of what was said, nor even as a summary of the addresses… but as a reliable sample of the way in which the earliest Christians set about convincing the first Jews of Jerusalem… of the truth of the Christian proclamation.’ – Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (London: Hodder, 1970) p 69.

[10] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke, p 27.

[11] The resurrection is apparently awkward for many believers too, as it was recently reported that a staggering 23% of British ‘Christians’ (from a survey of 2,010 British adults) do not believe the resurrection was a real event! Cultural Christianity rather than true relationship is the pathway to this kind of conclusion. Faith in Jesus Christ is rendered meaningless without the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:14). For survey results see, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-39153121

[12] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (London: Hodder, 1970) pp 54-55.

[13] Dunn, Unity and Diversity, p.17.