5 Steps Toward Recovering the Gospel at Your Church


For the context of the following blog read "A Letter from Dallas Willardfirst.

Recovering the gospel from the ground up is the “scriptural interpretation and theological reformulation” that Dallas Willard refers to. Preaching gospel to the congregation and teaching them new ways of thinking and following Jesus is the “modification of time-hardened practices.” Inevitably, we will receive pushback when we get to the “radical changes in what we do in the way of ‘church.’” In other words, this will not be easy!

What makes this recover especially difficult is that for so long, pastors and preachers have depended on packaged explanations of the good news. If you are starting from scratch and building your understanding from the Scriptures, you may find yourself challenged and experiencing some discomfort. To help you, let me suggest that you begin with five steps.

1. Study 1 Corinthians 15:1–28

This is the best “skeleton” for understanding the gospel. It covers the story at the heart of the message: Jesus was born; he lived; he preached; he was crucified, died, buried, and raised; and he will come again to establish his kingdom, bring an end to sin, and judge the world. This is the basic story. Remember that it is a story that takes time to tell in context. I’ve added a few extra things into the story above, but more is usually needed for people to fully appreciate the significance of the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ in context.

2. Refine the words in your salvation vocabulary

Be sure that you understand what you mean when you use words like faith, believe, trust, sin, grace, works, repentance, confess, obedience, and conversion. Study how the words are used in the Scriptures and how they are connected to the context.

3. Preach on the apostolic sermons in the Book of Acts

These sermons are the closest you will get to what the apostles thought the gospel was. Considering they had just spent forty days with the resurrected Christ after three years of observation and instruction, these sermons of the apostles are your most reliable source. The sermons are presented primarily in a Jewish context, so connecting the story of Jesus to the story of Israel is crucial to putting the gospel in the full context of redemptive history.

One sermon in Acts is helpful for understanding how to present the gospel in a non-Jewish context. It is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, given to the Athenians recorded in Acts 17:16–34.

4. Preach from the four Gospels

Consider Scot McKnight’s words, “I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about personal salvation, and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making decisions. The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the Gospels.”[1] When you understand the gospel, you know the whole story of humankind, from creation to consummation. The Gospels tell story after story of Jesus, his power, glory, life, and teaching. They help us to put together how and why Jesus came and what he did, and they contain his directions on what his disciples were to do after he was gone.

Augustine explained the Gospels this way: “In the four Gospels, or better in the four books of the one Gospel.”[2] The authors of the Gospels saw themselves not as historians but as witnesses. So read them as witnesses, saturate your mind with the stories, tell them again and again, and then announce to the congregation, “This is the gospel!” The Gospels tell us that Jesus is the promised deliverer of Israel and of his coming, life, death, resurrection, commissioning his followers, promised return, and wisdom about life. It’s all there.

5. Teach your people to recognize the popular “gospels” that are commonly taught

As I presented in chapter 1, at least six common gospels are preached today. It is important that your people learn to see and understand the biblical gospel, not just for what it is, but also for what it is not. So point out to them what each of the other gospels is saying naturally and where each naturally leads. For example if a congregation can see how the consumer gospel will never lead to Christlike disciples, they will better understand how the biblical gospel does.

The process of learning the new, recovered gospel will inevitably create confusion and disorientation, so teaching must be done carefully. There is an old saying, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” Back in the days before microphones, pulpits were set high above the pews to help project the preacher’s voice. If you know anything about fog, you know that it tends to condense in lower regions. So the meaning of the saying is simple: if a preacher is confused, there is no hope for the congregation.

Keep this in mind as you trade out old illustrations and phrases that you’ve used for years and replace them with new ways of communicating that organically connect conversion with discipleship. What you do not want is a rebellion based out of accusations and misunderstandings. Remember what Paul said to Timothy, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25 NLT).

Also remember that we are not necessarily correcting heresies that lie outside the pale of orthodoxy. Much of the time, we are simply adding nuance, pointing out wrong directions in the way people are thinking, and clarifying confusing or misleading assumptions. What we have today is a corruption of the gospel that has greatly hindered our churches, but the gospel has not been lost completely. Correcting these misunderstandings will take kindness, gentleness, and patience—not accusations of heresy.

[1] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 26.

[2] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John 36.1.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Unsplash.