This is an important question, because it directly affects how you present the Gospel to an unbeliever.
Minimalist & Heavy-Handed Examples
For instance, if you take a minimalist approach then you’ll probably share the “Gospel” like this:
God loves you and wants more for you than you’re experiencing. You need to receive his love and choose to love him back!
But where’s the actual Gospel in there? There’s no Jesus, no cross, no resurrection, and no confession of sin or repentance. There’s very little “knowledge” in there, and I’m afraid that many Christians today share the Gospel far more like the above example than they realize.
On the other hand, if you take a heavy-handed approach the Gospel will probably sound like this:
The Triune God cannot allow sin to go unpunished because he is a holy and just God. But He’s also loving and gracious, therefore He chose to become a man through Jesus Christ, to live a perfect sinless life, to die on the cross as our substitute in order to atone for our sin. When he rose from the grave three days later he rose in victory over sin and death and ascended into Heaven where He now reigns, and one day he will return. The Holy Spirit is now drawing you to God, calling you confess your sin and to admit your need for forgiveness, because you can’t do anything to earn it for yourself. If you become a Christian you are choosing to live as Jesus lived: poured out for others at the expense of persecution for your self. Are you willing to do that?
Even as I wrote that last paragraph, I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, every Christian should know this!” But… and here’s the catch… is it completely necessary for a new convert to understand all of that before they can be considered a Christian?
Think about the Muslim who is being ministered to by a missionary, or someone who has been raised by Atheist parents to resent everything about religion since their childhood. Is it necessary for them to understand the Trinity (obviously, not fully… who does?!) prior to salvation? It is necessary for them to have a robust understanding of the atonement?
Four Important Questions That Must be Answered
I think David Wells gives wise counsel about this in his book Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural:
We need as much knowledge as will bring us to an awareness of ourselves as sinners, sufficient knowledge to understand how Christ will ‘solve’ the problem we are sensing, enough knowledge to see how the world will look from within Christ, and enough knowledge to know what is asked of us as we believe the gospel and what will be required of us after we believe it. (p.86)
To change Wells’ four requirements on their heads just a bit, I want to rephrase them as questions for us to consider as we evangelize and present the Gospel.
- What does it mean for me to be sinful?
- How does Christ ‘solve’ my sinfulness?
- What does a Christian worldview look like?
- What is expected of me if I become a Christian?
We Need a Gospel that Saves
I wonder if so many Christians cling to cheap faith because they believed a cheap gospel and a Jesus who doesn’t make many demands. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote in The Cost of Discipleship,
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son… and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. (p.45)
What’s This Boil Down to?
Personally, I suggest lumping Wells’ third and fourth requirements together under the question, “What is expected of me if I become a Christian?” since that involves as much Christian worldview as I think necessary for a potential convert to understand at the moment. Thus,
- Converts must know they are sinful and have earned the wrath of God.
- Converts must know who Jesus is and what He has done. (This involves a basic understanding of Substitutionary Atonement, basic understanding of Trinity, Salvation is by faith alone, and surely other vital doctrines I’m overlooking.)
- Converts must understand Costly Grace – that the Gospel calls the Christian to live differently.