I recently had the opportunity to get a copy of Jonathan Dodson’s new book “The Unbelievable Gospel.” It is a good read and you should definitely pick up a copy. Jonathan is the lead pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas and you can find out more about his ministry at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.com.
“The Unbelievable Gospel” diagnoses the evangelistic paralysis of the modern church, pinpointing the reasons people don’t share their faith today. It follows up with a desperately needed solution. Using the metaphors found in the Bible, Jonathan weaves together the principles and practices of communicating the gospel. Rather than just a plug-and-play tactic, it is a book that helps readers connect the gospel to the real-life issues that people face each day. You’ll find the book to be filled with stories that reveal the long road of relational evangelism and guidance on how to listen to others well. It is a book that you will both enjoy and find a great deal of benefit from reading.
After a bit of interaction with him, I asked Jonathan to visit with me and answer a few questions about the book and his work in the ministry.
1. Why is our evangelism so unbelievable?
Think about the last time you tried to share the gospel. What was going through your head? Were you angling to find an opening to mention Jesus? Or perhaps you were more intentional, looking for an opportunity to lay out a “gospel presentation” over lunch or coffee? This kind of evangelism focuses on what we have to say, not on what others are saying.
This can make our evangelism unbelievable.
All too often we look to download gospel information instead of considering people’s objections. If we’re honest, we are often content with “name dropping” Jesus in a conversation because our evangelism is more about us and less about them. Saying Jesus’ name to a non-Christian gets us a √. Saying what Jesus did in the first century, on a cross, gets us a √+. This kind of evangelism is more about clearing our evangelical conscience than compassionately sharing the good news with fellow sinners.
This evangelism is unbelievable because it is motivated by unbelief in the gospel. Our hidden belief is that doing evangelism makes us better with God.
2. Does the way we share the gospel really matter?
The Lord certainly uses defective evangelism (Phil. 1:15-18), but that doesn’t mean we should promote it. In fact, the Bible repeatedly exhorts us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), watch our life and speech (1 Tim. 4:16), walk with wisdom toward outsiders (Col. 3:4-5), and live with others in a understanding way (Rom. 12:17-18). These texts all add up to tell us how we share the gospel matters.
The gospel can be easily dismissed because of the self-righteous manner of our gospel communication. When I was in college, I often felt guilty if days went by without sharing my faith. I was driven by performance. As a result, I’d end up sharing the righteousness of Christ with others in a self-righteous way. I would think to myself, “If I share the gospel, God will think better of me.” But that actually contradicts the gospel. God thinks perfectly of us, not because of our right performance, but because of Jesus’ righteousness performance! When we are caught in the performance act, we may come off wooden or uncaring. People need to not only “hear” the gospel but also “feel” it in our speech. Good evangelism results in gospel stereo—Christ-shaped speech and actions.
The gospel can also be dismissed due to the sheepish manner of our evangelism. Sometimes we are indifferent to evangelism because we don’t want to come off as preachy. I was sitting in a Starbucks when a gentlemen asked me what I was doing. I said, “Working on a sermon.” He replied by waving his hands back and forth, across one another, saying “Don’t preach to me, don’t preach to me!” Accompanied by a nervous chuckle. I responded by saying, “You don’t have to worry about that.” Really?! I left the poor man with the wrong impression of gospel preaching—that it mounds up not relieves guilt. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus absorbs our guilt and sets us free. That’s just what he needed to hear, just not in a “preachy” way.
People interpret the gospel by how we say things not just what we say.
However, it is not enough to critique self-righteous evangelism. We must reconstruct a biblically faithful, culturally sensitive, and personally meaningful way of sharing the gospel. I propose something that appears throughout the Scriptures and figures prominently in the ministries of Jesus and Paul—Gospel Metaphors.
3. Isn’t there just one Gospel to share?
The most succinct statement of the gospel is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Everything we need is packed into Jesus as the Christ—Redeemer—and Jesus as Lord—King. Everyone needs to know how to respond to him. So while there is one, eternal unchanging gospel, there are also many gospel metaphors that reveal various aspects of the good news to humanity. These metaphors communicate profound things to listeners.
Gospel metaphors stretch across the breadth of the Bible communicating God’s saving grace. They collect in the epistles as: justification, redemption, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ. These graces are not metaphors in the sense that they are symbolic of some deeper reality. Rather, each gospel metaphor actually represents a facet of the gospel. Here are three examples.
a) Seeking Acceptance: One of the greatest needs people have today is to be accepted, to know that they are welcome and won’t be rejected. Though we may try to deny or hide it, we all carry with us a sense of shame, a fear that we will be found out, rejected, and judged when people learn who we really are.
When we explain that, through justification, the holy God offers perfect acceptance through his unique Son, Jesus Christ, it can bring tremendous relief and joy to those seeking acceptance.
b) Seeking Hope: The metaphor of new creation can be especially compelling for people who are longing for a new start in life. People whose lives have been littered with failure, scarred by abuse, humbled through suffering, darkened by depression, or ruined by addiction need the hope of becoming a new creation.
When we explain that, through new creation, their old life can be exiled and that God welcomes them into a new life in Christ, it can shed a bright ray of hope into the lives of the hopeless.
c) Seeking Intimacy: Our search for intimacy is in relationships seems to never end. Even the best friendship or marriage inst enough for our insatiable demand to be noticed, loved, and cared for. We all want a place where we can be ourselves and know that we are accepted. We want relationships that are secure, where we feel safe to share our innermost thoughts and darkest struggles.
When we explain that, through union with Christ, people can enter into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable, fulfilling relationship known to humanity, it can bring deep healing and joy to those seeking intimacy.
In order to share a believable gospel, we need to listen to others so well that we can discern which gospel metaphor to bring into their lives. If we know their hopes, fears, dreams, and concerns, we can lovingly show them how the good news is better than their best and worst news. To the beat-up, worn out drug addict, we can share the hope of new creation. To the guilt-ridden, shame-carrying mother, we can share the hope of sin-forgiving, shame-absorbing redemption. To the skeptical urbanite, we can communicate an authentic gospel that resonates with personal, intimate union with Christ.