The gospel is a rich, multifaceted gem—like a priceless diamond. We dare not reduce it to just one facet of its complexity. To be sure, the gospel can be presented concisely and quickly. But we must eschew the reductionism of our day by implying that’s all there is to it.
Several writers have explored the various terms used in the New Testament to express different dimensions of God’s saving work. They observe that Paul, for example, spoke of justification, redemption, reconciliation, and other words when writing about the cross. He and others used references to covenant, sacrifice, Passover, and other Old Testament truths to help us see how full God’s atoning work was and is. One of the best books to help us “grow in the grace and knowledge” of the gospel is Leon Morris’ The Atonement, a very accessible and readable rendition of his more scholarly work The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.
Consider just the three words mentioned above—justification, redemption, and reconciliation. The first is a legal term pointing to our forgiveness and a right standing before a holy God. The second is an economic term that speaks of a rescue that returns us to a former status. The third is a relational term that brings us back together with God from whom we once were alienated.
The students I interviewed all eventually had to come to an understanding of their need for forgiveness. That is the irreducible core of the gospel, the non-negotiable hub that joins all the other spokes of the wheel. Please hear me clearly: we cannot present the gospel without a strong emphasis on Christ’s propitiating work on the cross. (see In My Place Condemned He Stood as both a worshipful appreciation of substitutionary atonement and a warning about straying away from that truth, as others have done in the past and are doing so again in our day).
Here is my point: While all the recent converts had to arrive at the center of the gospel’s message of atonement for sin, they began at various other starting points, all of which are part of the New Testament’s message of salvation.
Some students spoke of wanting to make sense of the world and their life in it. The presentation of the gospel that made sense to them was one that explained the overview of the Bible’s story line. Some felt alienated from God and responded to messages about a prodigal son coming home. Some felt hungry for purpose in life and delighted to hear of the woman at the well who was promised “a well of water springing up to eternal life.” A few felt empty inside and responded to Jesus who is “the bread of life.”
Four students spoke of the need to get cleansed from sin and responded to a sermon from Ezekiel 16. (Look it up and try to remember if you’ve ever heard a sermon on this graphically disturbing and yet beautifully redemptive message). They told me how convicted they felt as “spiritual adulterers.” Others spoke of their shame and how the gospel showed them how valued they were by God. Shame and guilt are close but not identical.
Again, I come to the place where I see there is no “one size fits all” approach to sharing the gospel. Yes, the core of our message is the same, but the route we take in proclaiming it can be as varied as the passages of scripture we explore or as diverse as the images and events in all of scripture.
If Jesus could speak of water, bread, the wind, a shepherd, the resurrection, a new birth, and many other ways to help us see “how great a salvation” he provides, so can we.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.