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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.


I do my best, when the opportunity arises, to present the Christian gospel in a way which is appropriate to the person and the situation, and which is faithful to the Biblical message. I believe it is more Biblical and more complete than most of the gospel presentations you are likely to hear these days.

However, the presentation I use does not contain several ideas which some people feel are essential parts of the gospel message. These details are not actually missing, but because ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’ and similar approaches are so familiar, it can appear that this is the case.

Those who are interested in exploring these ‘missing’ details can read about them below. Much more could be said on each of these points, but this should serve as a reasonable starting point.

One final point: the purpose of a ‘gospel message’ is that the hearer will become a follower of Jesus. This is the starting point of the Christian journey, not the end: the new follower of Jesus will need to understand much more – a Christian disciple will continue to learn their whole life. But some doctrines essential for Christian maturity and healthy Christian living are not required to start the Christian life.


Jesus is God

Let me be clear: I believe that Jesus is God incarnate, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. And I believe that this is clearly taught in the New Testament.

But a gospel message is addressed to people who are not followers of Jesus, people for whom the New Testament is not (yet) authoritative. You can tell them the New Testament says that Jesus is God, but this is probably not going to make much of an impact on them.

And, to be honest, quite a lot of the New Testament is not terribly clear on this point. There is very little explicitly talking about Jesus as God, but plenty of passages which refer to Him as a man, including a number of important ones.

• Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:22-23)

If Peter believed that it was important to believe that Jesus was God, don’t you think that he would have mentioned it in his first evangelistic address?

• For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5)

It would make much more sense for a God-man to be the mediator between God and man – and that is what subsequent theology tends to say. But Paul doesn’t make the obvious connection here. Paul clearly believed that Jesus had a unique connection with God, but the precise nature of that connection was not clear.

The early Church spent around three hundred years arguing about this subject, so for the first few centuries many faithful Christians did not actually believe that Jesus was fully God. It was formally decided in Nicea in 325, but the disagreements did not end then.

The Jews have always believed in one God, so saying Jesus is God is a big deal. And when you start to ask the question, it’s quite hard to explain exactly what we mean when we say that Jesus is God incarnate.

After all, God is omnipresent, but Jesus was just in one place; God is omniscient, but in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t know when He will return. There are answers, but they are not simple or straightforward and, two thousand years later, Christians are still arguing about how we should understand these things.

If we don’t understand what it means to say that Jesus is God, then we really don’t understand the Trinity. We don’t understand how Jesus can be God and his Father can be God, and the Holy Spirit can be God, but there is only one God. The doctrine was formalised at Constantinople in 381, but that doesn’t mean that anyone actually understood it, either then or now. And you really can’t start to talk about Jesus as God without raising the whole question of the Trinity.

Many Christians believe that it is necessary to believe that Jesus is God (and, presumably, to understand it) before they can start to follow Him – even though, for at least three hundred years, many good Christians did not believe it, and even though it is a deep, difficult and intellectually challenging doctrine.

However you look at it, insisting that you cannot become a Christian unless you believe that Jesus is God, is placing an unnecessary barrier in the path of people who are considering whether to follow Jesus.

Jesus died in our place

The atonement is one of the most debated areas of theology. Christians believe that we are reconciled with God through Jesus, and many believe that this was accomplished through His death on the cross, but beyond this it gets rather complicated.

As soon as you ask how we are reconciled with God, almost anyone with some theological training can give you an answer. But there are a good number of possible answers, they are hard to reconcile with each other (some irony there), and all of them suffer from serious objections. Different theories have been popular at different points in Church history, but there have always been multiple competing stories. (See Theories of the Atonement for more details.)

This sometimes comes as a bit of a shock to Christians without theological training, because they can be unaware of alternatives to the current dominant model, often called ‘Penal Substitution’. Depending on how you count them, there are perhaps seven major models of the atonement, and they don’t all focus on the cross.

Penal Substitution says that Jesus died in our place or order to satisfy God’s justice and punish our sin. It’s a strange understanding of justice, which normally involves punishing the right person, and many people feel it portrays God as deeply immoral. All the analogies used to justify it are deeply flawed, and the further you pursue them, the further you move away from anything which makes sense to ordinary people.

Penal Substitution is a fairly recent idea, developed at the time of the Reformation as a variant on Anselm’s account of the atonement as ‘Satisfaction’. This was based on Medieval ideas of honour and dishonour and the problem of restoring the balance when a person of higher rank has been insulted: think of Jesus as your ‘second’ who offers to fight the duel in your place so that God’s honour can be restored.

Anselm developed the Satisfaction model because he didn’t like the Ransom model being taught, which explains that Jesus paid the debt for our sins and bought us back from Satan’s ownership.

Possibly the oldest model is ‘Christus Victor’: this says that Jesus defeated Satan and all the powers of evil (such as sin and death) which formerly had power over us.

You can find passages in the New Testament which point towards all these models of the atonement, and to other models. For an informed and readable summary of the various options, I recommend ‘Did God Kill Jesus?’ by Tony Jones.

Of course, if you feel the need to understand how our redemption works, you are free to believe whichever model makes most sense to you. You can choose to interpret ‘Jesus died for our sins’ as a reference to Penal Substitution, even if the Church did not formulate this model for another 1500 years. But the New Testament does not teach a single consistent model, it does not insist that you must understand the atonement if you wish to follow Jesus, and it certainly does not insist that you understand the atonement in any particular way.

The Bible is the Inspired Word of God

Okay, this is not always an explicit condition, but it is often implied. People outside the Church frequently hear us telling them that they ought to believe something because ‘that is what the Bible says’.

Numerous opponents have gleefully pointed out this absurdity in the gospel message – that is, in the gospel message which enthusiastic Christians have repeatedly tried to convince them to believe. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told this story, or something like it.

“I have a lot of time for Jesus, but I could never be a Christian because they don’t have two brain cells to rub together. Last night, this chap tries to talk to me about Jesus. He says I have to believe that Jesus died for me. I say, ‘Why?’, he says, ‘Because the Bible says it,’ so I say, ‘Why should I believe the Bible?’ and he says, ‘Because it is the inspired Word of God,’ so I ask, ‘Why should I believe that?’ and he says, ‘Because the Bible says it is.’ You couldn’t make it up!”

There is a nice consistency in the evangelical’s insistence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God: that is what we believe about the Bible, and the Bible says a lot of other incredible things, which we believe because they are in the Bible. It all hangs together – it makes sense, as long as you accept the starting point.

But being consistent is not the same as being convincing. I have heard too many Christians argue, in essence, “You have to believe the Bible is all true because it is the inspired Word of God, otherwise the rest of my message doesn’t make sense.” It’s a weak argument. Of course, God can use weak and absurd arguments – He is still a God of miracles – but He does tell us to explain our faith in a reasonable way.

To state the obvious: starting with the Bible is putting the cart before the horse. I have heard a great many testimonies over the years, and nobody – not one – has said that they started by putting their faith in the Bible. People do not decide to follow Jesus because they have come to believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God: they come to believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God because they have chosen to follow Jesus, and they encounter Jesus in the pages of the Bible.

Of course, someone who believes the Bible is a work of pure fiction is unlikely to decide to follow Jesus. But ‘pure fiction’ is a strange and extreme position which takes a great deal of faith and is easily refuted. Anyone desperate enough to make such a claim is probably well on the way to losing their battle with the Holy Spirit.

Nobody would insist that you believe either that newspapers only tell the truth, or that their stories are completely made up. Common sense tells most people – including most Christians – that reality is more complicated than these two extreme positions recognise, and the truth is probably somewhere in between the evangelical’s insistence that the whole Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God and the sceptic’s claim that it is a complete work of fiction.

Most people think the Bible tells us what the early Church believed about Jesus. And, if we want to tell people about Jesus, that is all we need as a starting point.



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