I Don’t Know What to Tell Them.
In this series of posts, we’ve been exploring the barriers that hinder us from telling others about Christ (begins here). Last time we talked about how to bring up spiritual matters to begin with, noting that it is helpful to keep in mind what we ultimately want to talk about, which is Christ. In this post, we will consider just what it is about Christ that we ultimately want to tell people.
Over the years I have changed the way I approach telling others about Christ. It is a bit of an oversimplification, but basically I have moved from a “convert them” approach to a “telling them the good news of what God has done in Christ” approach. I still care about whether people are converted, but I’ve noticed that a focus on conversion can cause us to distort the message whereas a focus on telling the gospel is the only thing that will lead to authentic conversion. In addition, telling the gospel is in keeping with our commission (Mark 16:15; and Matthew 28:19 with Acts 14:21), and it is the power that saves (Mark 16:15-16; Romans 1:16). (If you would like to read a summary of the different ways I have taught people over the years, click here, scroll down to Articles, and then click on Clarifying the Gospel to Speak to Non-Christians).
What we ultimately want to tell people, then, is the good news about Christ. This means it is imperative for us to understand the gospel well ourselves. If we want to be prepared (1 Peter 3:15-16), we may well need to spend time studying the Scriptures and clarifying this message. We will find that there are many summaries of the gospel in the New Testament, and also that it is summarized in different ways in different passages (cf. for example 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 with Romans 1:1-4). These are not contradictions but rather differences of emphasis due to the context of each passage and the needs of the particular audience being addressed. For example, when Paul is addressing division in the church at Corinth due to their being enamored with secular wisdom, Paul summarizes the gospel in terms of the sacrificial death of Christ and does not even mention his resurrection (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:2). But when he is addressing their confusion about the resurrection at the end of time, he summarizes the gospel in terms that mention Christ’s death but that place the heaviest emphasis on his resurrection and appearances (1 Corinthians 15:4-6).
We can learn much about the gospel from both of those summaries, even though they were written to address the needs of Christians. For our current purpose, however, It is worthwhile to ask where is the best place to turn to find summaries of the gospel to help us clarify the message that we should communicate to non-Christians. I believe the answer is the records in Acts that tell how the good news was actually spoken to non-Christians in the first century.
There is some variety in these messages, but the key topics included in them are:
- The suffering and death of Jesus at the hands of the Jews
- God’s raising Jesus from the dead
- The identity of Jesus as Lord, Christ (Messiah, King), and Judge
- A call for repentance, faith, and baptism
- The offer of forgiveness, salvation, and the Holy Spirit
The first spokespersons announced the good news that God Jesus fulfilled his promises by sending Jesus. His death and resurrection were according to the Scriptures and show him to be God’s Anointed King (Christ). The strong emphasis on the unique and authoritative identity of Jesus is contained in every message and further supported by other brief summaries of the message in Acts (5:42; 8:5; 9:20, 22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23). As Lord of the universe, Christ can deliver (rescue, save) us from sin, evil, and destruction through his mercy, forgiveness, counsel, Spirit, and power. This is truly good news. Those who repent, put their faith in Jesus and are baptized in his name will be forgiven, saved, and receive the Holy Spirit.
If any of this is different from your current thoughts about the gospel, I commend to you the insightful exercise of studying the actual messages spoken to non-Christians and clarifying what they actually say and do not say (Acts 2:14-41; 3:11-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-48; 13:13-47; 17:16-34). (For more on all this see the article mentioned above in the second paragraph and ten posts on the Good News Told in Acts beginning here.) Whether through these resources or others, we need to get the message clear in our minds so that we could conversationally “tell the good news” to a friend over coffee, if God gives us the opportunity.
As we tell people this good news, we need to take care not to include too much nor too little initially. As for telling them too much, I strongly urge you to be aware and resist throwing in your pet peeves, whatever they may be. We are guided by Scripture, not our pet peeves.
Nor do we have to teach them about the authority of the Scriptures as we announce the good news. The Scriptures are inspired by God, of course, and it is imperative that we teach them this later. But when the spokesmen in Acts addressed people who did not believe in the Scriptures, they did not address that subject. Instead, they simply told the gospel and bolstered it with truths from other sources that their audience considered authoritative (17:28). I would stop short of saying it’s wrong to address the authority of the Scriptures as we tell the gospel, but I make no bones about saying that’s not the way the first spokespersons did it.
Another matter that we can defer until later, surprisingly, is an explanation of the atonement. This may be difficult for some of us to accept, but the summaries of the actual preaching of the gospel in Acts do not explain that Christ died for our sins (Double check the summaries of the message in the passages cited above). They tell of his death, but what they say about it is not that it was for our sins but rather that it was a rejection of the Messiah and was according to the Scriptures. Most often in these messages the death of Christ forms a contrast to God’s greater work of raising him from the dead. I realize the records of the evangelistic messages in Acts are only summaries and that the preachers on those occasions may have explained that Christ died for our sins. Yet, if that were the main point, it seems strange that not even one of the seven passages mention it. If we stick with what the Bible actually says in those passages, instead of speculating about what may have happened, we will not feel compelled to explain the meaning of the atonement as we first announce the good news about Christ.
As conservative New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie wrote:
It may be wondered why the Acts account of early Christian preaching provides so little information about the atoning significance of Christ’s death. It must be supposed that the proclamation of the cross and resurrection was regarded as a sufficient basis for the message of forgiveness, without the necessity, on the initial preaching of the gospel, to give the rationaleNew Testament Theology, pp. 462-463
Clearly Christ did die for our sins, and I would not object to someone including that in their first telling of the gospel. And we definitely must teach this great truth at some point. I’m only saying that if we allow ourselves to be guided by what is actually recorded in the messages to non-Christians in Acts, we won’t feel like we have to explain how atonement works initially.
On the other hand, we can also tell too little when we speak the good news. My own primary concern about this is that we sometimes narrowly summarize the gospel merely in terms of the grace that forgives us for the guilt of sin but neglect to tell them about the Lordship of Christ. It appears to me that Jesus’ unique and authoritative identity as Lord and Christ is actually the central point of the messages they spoke (see passages above). It is as such that he can save.
Related to this, we also need to communicate that salvation is more than forgiveness and going to heaven when we die. Salvation also includes being “delivered from the domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13-14). Because of the power of Christ and his Spirit we can and should be (increasingly) rescued from the power and practice of sin. We cannot merely be justified from guilt and then neglect our salvation (Hebrews 2:1-4). Instead, we we need to work out our salvation in our lives and relationships (Philippians 2:12-13) and grow up in our salvation (1 Peter 2:1-3). In other words, salvation is not merely a “get out of jail free” card. Rather, it includes authentically embracing Jesus as Lord and Christ, and this will change the way we live. This is not to say we earn forgiveness and salvation by embracing Jesus as Lord. Christ is still the Savior, and salvation would be impossible apart from what God did through him. Still, authentically trusting him and embracing him as Lord will change the way we live. This leads to another matter that is too often neglected.
Some people fail to tell others that they will receive the Holy Spirit when they come to Christ. This was a key aspect of God’s promises (Ezekiel 36:27) and is included in the messages in Acts (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32; 10:44-48). It is also related to the previous paragraph because the Spirit is indispensable for our living the life we are called to (Romans 7:6; 8:5-8; Galatians 5:16-26). He helps deliver us from the power and practice of sin.
This leads to another way we can tell too little. The only response to Christ that some of us mention to people is faith. Sometimes we also talk about faith more as the proper principle of how to be saved than a humble trust that Jesus really is the Christ and the one who is able to save us. Perhaps we do these things out of our concern about the false teaching that says we can be good enough to save ourselves. Still, it is not the way the message was proclaimed to non-Christians in Acts. In fact, both Jesus and the early spokespersons in Acts told not only about the necessity of authentically believing in Christ (John 8:24; Acts 10:43) but also called for people to respond to him in repentance (Luke 13:1-5; Acts 3:19) and baptism (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38). This matches what we find elsewhere in Scripture too, where faith (Romans 10:9), repentance (2 Peter 3:9) and baptism (1 Peter 3:21) are all associated with forgiveness and salvation. Acts also mentions “calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:22; 22:16), which may be the same as confessing Jesus as Lord and Christ that is mentioned elsewhere (Romans 10:9-10; 1 Timothy 6:12-13). The first proclaimers of the good news called for faith but more.
This does not mean we save ourselves by any of these responses, including faith. Christ is still the Savior! Though Scripture says these are the responses God wants us to make, they are nevertheless responses—responses to Christ and to God’s work in Christ. Nor are these responses mere arbitrary tests that determine whether God will grant salvation. Rather, they are to be sincere responses, and they are a part of how God empowers us to live the new life he wants for us (John 10:10). We believe what Christ says is true and right, so we follow it (Romans 1:5). We repent of our sins and our neglect of God and back up that inward change with a matching change of deeds (Acts 26:20). In baptism we die to our old lives and are raised up to live new lives with Christ (Romans 6:4).
I encourage you to clarify the central message of the gospel and be alert to the danger of telling too much or too little. As it gets clearer to you, I also encourage you to say it out loud to yourself or to a Christian friend. This will help prepare you to tell others the most important thing about Christ—the gospel.
Once you have done this, it may lead to questions or further discussion. It may lead to getting together with people again to read and discuss Scripture. You may need to show and clarify the identity of Jesus as Lord and Christ or other specific aspects of the good news. But following the divine guidance of the Scriptures, I’m convinced we need to prepare ourselves to announce the central good news first of all. That is goal to which we are headed as we speak to others about Christ.