When the gospel is communicated in preachy, impersonal, intolerant, know-it-all ways, people find it hard to believe. Typically, this style of evangelism is reduced to information. We content ourselves with “name-dropping” Jesus or telling people doctrine, but rarely do we draw near enough to people to know how the gospel applies to their actual lives. People want to know why the gospel is worth believing. In the information age, people are used to seeing through words. Most evangelism offers a sound bite gospel, which is easily screened, distrusted, and dismissed. In order for people to see something of substance in our words, our gospel communication needs depth.
New Creation in Rehab
When I met Ben I was immediately confronted with the need for depth. Ben had been through hell and back as an addict and he was worn out, at the end of his rope, and ready for a new start. Name-dropping Jesus wouldn’t cut it. First, he needed to see and feel the gospel. I desperately wanted to embody the love of Christ and I prayed he would feel and see it. Instead of correcting his life choices, I needed to understand his choices.
Sitting at rehab with him, I asked him questions: “What was your childhood like? When the church rejected you, did you experience rejection from your parents also? How did that make you feel? What was your drug community like? What were you looking for in this journey?” I asked these questions because I cared for Ben. This wasn’t an evangelistic formula; it was a budding relationship with a man in the image of God. He was an addict who was struggling to make sense of his life. I expressed empathy, concern, and compassion. He shared that he was adopted by good parents but struggled with a sense of loneliness and rejection. He began using drugs at age nine. Eventually we got down to the heart of the matter. “Ben, what have you been searching for?” He talked about loneliness and disappointment. I asked him how he thought God could figure into his longings. He wasn’t sure.
There was a strong sense that he was tired of the old life. He wanted to escape the broken, cemetery life. He wanted a new start. He wanted to know that a brighter future was possible. I thought: “What gospel metaphor is most appropriate for Ben’s current challenges?” Ben wasn’t yearning for justification by faith but he was dying to hear the gospel of new creation. Discerning some of his longings, I knew the promise of new creation could make the gospel a little more believable. He needed to know that there was a grace that could run deeper than all his failures and remake him from the inside out.
Remade from the Inside Out
Understandably, a cloud of skepticism still hung over him. At the risk of rejection, I told him something like: “Ben, I know you’re tired and worn out. I know this isn’t what you hoped for your life and I want you to know that God loves you. He wants to make you new. He wants to exile the old life and give you a new life in Jesus. Jesus died to give you this life, to forgive you and shower you with his grace. He wants you to come back home to enjoy his love, acceptance and peace. Instead of trusting in the escape of drugs and the fleeting acceptance of a drug community, he wants you to trust in Christ to become a new creation, to be remade from the inside out.”
He needed to know that his old man could be exiled and a new man could emerge (1 Corinthians 5:17–18; cf. Colossians 3:9–10; Ephesians 4:20–24; Galatians 6:15). If nothing else, I knew the hope of new creation would be desirable and, most of all, I knew it was true. We talked about his struggle to believe it, to believe in God and to trust the person of Christ. I asked if he would be willing to talk to God about it. He said yes. We got him a Bible and prayed.
A shallow gospel wouldn’t cut it with Ben, not with what he’d been through. His addiction ran deep and he needed a deep gospel. Hearing the information of Jesus’s death on the cross would be screened and dismissed. He needed to know how Jesus’s life and death is good news in his life. He needed a believable gospel.
Two years later, Ben stood up in one of our Sunday church gatherings. Healthy, calm, and composed, he kicked the doors off of his private struggles and shared the story of his addiction and recovery. You could hear a pin drop. When asked, “How has God’s grace been generous to you?” Ben responded: “Just being able to start new.” New creation! For Ben, God’s grace equals being new, liberated from the old life to experience an entirely new life in Christ. The old man exiled; the new man arrived! Belief in the gospel of new creation has made Ben new. The hope of new creation resonated with his longings; it pulled him towards Jesus.
There are struggles and hopes, fears and dreams that sit on the surface of people’s stories. If we listen well, with dependence on the Holy Spirit, we can discern which gospel metaphors people need to hear most. We can communicate a believable gospel. Using the gospel for how we share the gospel, we commend five ways forward for believable evangelism:
- To those searching for acceptance in all the wrong places, we can point them to perfect acceptance in the gospel of justification.
- To those searching for fulfilling relationships, we can point them to profound, personal union with Christ.
- To those who struggle with tolerance, we can show them the uniqueness of Christ in the gospel of redemption.
- To those who fear disapproval or demand the applause of others, we can share the gospel of adoption, which offers an enduring approval and produces humble confidence.
- To anyone longing for a new start, there is the hope of new creation.
People need to know how the gospel is good news to them. Will you continue to recite canned presentations and avoid listening? Or will you love people enough to offer them a believable gospel?