I have heard the gospel countless times, thousands of times. I imagine you have too. Most of the people who read this blog already claim to be believers. I typically write to the choir here. More than hear it, I have spoken the gospel countless times. I have preached the gospel. I have taught the gospel. I have shared the gospel with people. Perhaps you have too.
But I am concerned that too often we stop short in our words about the gospel. I believe a misunderstanding of the gospel preached causes a misappropriation of the gospel in community. It is a misunderstanding that fits the ethos of our day. It slides snuggly into place next to other pieces of our culture that we do not see. In fact, Steve Timmis points to this lack in our gospel presentations in a sermon several years back titled, “A Community-centered Gospel.” I would highly encourage you to take the time to listen to it.
In the sermon, Timmis points out a foundational assumption that undergirds most of our gospel speech in evangelical circles. It drives the way we proclaim it and the way we apply it. This assumption is that the recipient of the gospel is the individual believer. In other, that the gospel is for me.
Now, you may have just said, “What’s wrong with that?” In one sense, the answer is nothing. The gospel is for me, and it is for you. Salvation is a personal salvation, and the Holy Spirit changes the hearts of individual believers. This much is true. The gospel is certainly not less than personal; however, it is also a whole lot more. The gospel tells a bigger story than personal salvation, and the end product is more than personal relief from sin and suffering or even a personal relationship with God.
We are saved from sin.
This is the familiar part of the story, and this is the one we tell loudly. From death to life, from blindness to sight, from sin to righteousness, the good news of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross is that God forgives those under his wrath and substitutes Christ for their punishment. As Spafford said in his famous hymn, “My sin — oh the bliss of this glorious thought — my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!”
The curse of the fall has affected each and every human to walk the face of this earth, save one. And that one, fully man and also fully God, suffered for my sin and your sin so that we may have life. That is a reason to rejoice, but there is more to the story.
We are saved into a community.
In Ephesians, Paul outlines the grand scope of the gospel. Here, we see that believers are not only saved out of sin, but they are saved into a community. In Ephesians 1, Paul is clear that the gospel is the good news of an exalted Christ. Timmis points out that this Christ-centered gospel is also a community-centered gospel. In Ephesians, this Christ is the head of the church, the gathered assembly of believers who have been saved out of sin. Ephesians 2 makes this explicit as it talks about the conversion that takes place in the believer saying, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). That’s a big deal, and rarely is it mentioned when we proclaim the gospel.
The gospel does not just remove us from our current problem. It is more than spiritual therapy. It removes us from one location, but it places us in another, the church of Jesus Christ. Built into the very core of the gospel message is the fact that I am now part of something bigger than myself. This has huge ramifications on how we live. I no longer go it alone, whether I want to or not. It is an understatement to say that many American Christians have a low view of the church and understand little about being a true church member. Perhaps this is due to an anemic understanding of the gospel, one that focuses on being saved from sin while paying little attention to the resulting community that is created.
Furthermore, we live in a society that is gradually realizing how bad it is at community. The gospel is the unique solution to a deep felt need in our culture today. A full-orbed proclamation of the gospel will not only focus on the good news of the remedy for sin (which it is), but will also point out the good news of resulting community.
We are saved for a mission.
Finally, Ephesians 3 tells us that it is this assembly, this household of God, this church, that will make known the mysteries of God to rulers and authorities on earth and in heaven. The gospel saves us from sin, it saves us into community, but it also saves us for mission. By being brought out of our sin and into this church, we are enlisted in the task given to those who call on the name of Jesus. Ephesians tells us this was the plan all along, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Eph 3:11). The eternal purpose of the church is to testify to the glory of Christ. The church will testify to Christ’s glory for all eternity, but that doesn’t mean we wait until the next age to do it.
Understanding the gospel fully means we realize that no one gets a pass on the Great Commission. Gospel proclamation is a team sport, one done by the community for the community, but it is one where no one gets to sit on the bench. When we stop short with our proclamation of the gospel and only focus on what it does for us, we fail to see what it calls us to do for others.