Why Must We Define the Gospel Today?
“As egg-headed as it may sound, our basic problem is our theology. The problem is our doctrine of salvation.” —Dallas Willard
Why must we define the gospel today? Let’s start with a common scene that takes place in the counseling chambers of hundreds of pastors every day. Someone comes to the leader’s office and says, “I’m divorcing my mate. I’ve fallen in love with someone else, and I’m no longer happy. I need to do this.”
The pastor protests, “You can’t do that—it’s wrong! You don’t have a good, biblical reason to divorce. If you follow through, you’re committing adultery, and whomever you marry will become an adulterer as well.”
The person looks at the pastor, almost whimsically, and says, “Of course I can. You’ve been teaching for years that God will forgive all my sins—that was handled on the cross. All my sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. I’m going to heaven when I die anyway, so no one can snatch me out of the Father’s hand. I am secure in Christ because it’s all about grace.”
This is an excerpt from The Discipleship Gospel, available in eBook and paperback formats. Order by clicking here and get a discount when you use code TBP at checkout.
At this juncture, it’s “game, set, match” for many church leaders. We’ve found ourselves in this situation, just as you may have in one way or another. At this point, we don’t have much to say because the person is merely repeating to us what we have taught them. They are misconstruing our teaching, of course, but the damage has already been done. We could try to protest and say, “No, God won’t forgive you (at least anytime soon)! That is, unless you repent of your sin, which includes turning away from this new relationship.”
But that doesn’t work.
Another option is that we could give a convincing presentation about, “reaping what you sow,” or about how God’s discipline will bear upon them one day, and they will have a long, hard life if they continue on this path. Chances are, though, they will ignore our advice, divorce their spouse, and marry the new person. In a few years though, they’ll be serving, teaching, and leading people at another congregation like nothing happened.
You know what happens next, don’t you? They ask God to forgive them for the wrong they’ve done, glorying in the fact that, “God worked all things together for the good.” They rejoice in how much happier everyone is—both them and their ex-spouse—and how the children are “just fine.”
In my (Bill’s) many years of pastoral experience, this scenario is all too common.
That kind of rationalization is possible though because the primary gospel preached in America today, by default, is the “forgiveness-only gospel,” which is almost exclusively focused on sin and atonement.1 The forgiveness-only gospel is connected to the idea of saying a magic prayer that gets you into heaven one day. It’s a sort of transaction between the one praying and God, where the person gets a salvation ticket. Behavior in this “gospel” is in no way connected to this initial transaction. As long as your barcode is correct—beep—you’re allowed into heaven.
This kind of teaching leads people to think they believe the gospel because that’s what they’ve been taught. Over time, the truth is revealed that they did not believe at all; they had simply agreed with a religious proposition. It’s an innocent error though because emphasizing forgiveness is part of the full gospel. The problem is that they don’t really believe Christ; they only profess faith in Christ. It is a grave error to equate profession of faith with belief. That’s why it’s important to set the record straight, rebuild our understanding of the gospel, and crack the code of the gospel that Jesus preached—what we’re calling the “discipleship gospel.”
Our purpose in this project is twofold. First, we introduce the problem with preaching non-discipleship gospels that don’t call people to be disciples. As such, these false gospels don’t lead people to make disciples. Second, we show that the New Testament gospel writers made very clear to their audience seven essential elements of the gospel Jesus preached. Jesus’ gospel led his disciples to make disciples. Please keep in mind that the seven elements do not comprise a definition of the gospel. They do, however, provide the critical framework for defining the gospel, which we explore in this book, too. We must be sure to preach Jesus’ gospel, which is a gospel of discipleship. The longer we preach non-discipleship gospels, the more we delay the fulfillment of Christ’s great commission.
As you read this book, we offer you a clear definition of Jesus’ discipleship gospel. This definition of the gospel, we believe, will help you and those in your church gain crystal clarity on the nature of the gospel so that you can be fully equipped to answer in our day the question, “What is the gospel?”
Toward the end, we’ll discuss how Jesus’ discipleship gospel can incite a discipleship revolution in your life and create a disciple-making movement in your church and in your world.
 Bill has written on this topic extensively in Conversion and Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).