What to Do with a Told Gospel

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, the kind nobody in Minnesota takes for granted. The sun was running strong, the air was happy, the sky had never been more blue. My family and I were finishing up breakfast outside when I opened the Bible for some kid-friendly devotional thoughts.

On this particular morning our four-year-old was digging it. Maybe it was the change of scenery, or maybe the Fruit Loops, but something had her leaning forward, all ears. I was sharing about what it means to be messengers for Jesus in 2 Corinthians 5:20–21. The reason we had moved here, I explained, is because God wants our neighbors to know him. Plain and simple. We have good news, really good news — the kind of news that compels us to tell it. Amen then, and breakfast was over.

Within ten minutes we closed down the cereal and laced up our shoes for a stroll around the block.

Elizabeth (our four-year-old) took one step out the front door and gladly bellowed, "Neighbors! Hey, neighbors! Come out! We're here to tell you about God!"

People heard her.

I've sat on this scene for months because, to be honest, I've not been sure what to do with it. What was she thinking? Was she street-preaching? Doesn't she get the value of relationships? Was she trying to give attractional ministry one last hooray? I've mulled that picture over several times and tried to stamp it as cute but misguided. Admirable, but not serious. Deconstructing the zeal of a four-year-old — I know, it's embarrassing.

But here we are now. I think I get it. The fact of the matter, blaring the loudest that morning, is that a little girl bridged the most necessary application from what I said to how she takes walks. That is, she connected what the Bible teaches to how she really lives (and her dad has a lot to learn).

Believing and Telling

Every Christian knows there is something about the gospel that drives us to tell it. There is some indivisible connection between believing it and making it known. It is good news, after all, and news is just that — news. Perhaps it would help, then, to re-highlight this simplest, most fundamental reason why we speak the gospel to others: because the gospel is essentially a told gospel.

There is good theological rationale here. One could start with what it means that God is a communicative agent. That he speaks and has always spoken in the intra-Trinitarian majesty of the Father and the Son by the Spirit. The knowledge of God's identity has always diffused itself. And undoubtedly, if this principle is found in his eternal essence, it will be detected in the preeminent word of who he is. More could be said here, but let's get to the Bible. Consider two texts.

1 Timothy 3:16,

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (emphasis added)

This is a succinct dose of doctrine, perhaps a creedal formulation from the early church, maybe even a hymn. But whether that's the case or not, it's at least a memorable Pauline expression that distills the identity of Jesus into doxological prose. And essential to this confession of Jesus is that he is proclaimed among the nations. He is a spoken Jesus. A heralded King. One, in fact, who is heard and believed.

Colossians 1:21–23,

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (emphasis added)

Look closely at that phrase "the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven." Here’s one of those rare exceptions where it helps to take a peak at the original language. John Piper explains,

The Greek for the phrase “which has been proclaimed” is tou kēruchthentos). This is a substantival participle which we could render “the proclaimed one” in English. It is in apposition with “the gospel” (tou euangeliou . . . tou kēruchthentos) — “the gospel . . . the proclaimed one.” (Has the Gospel Been Preached to the Whole Creation Already?)

Basically, Paul calls the gospel the "proclaimed-in-all-creation gospel." He refers to the gospel as what it is. The gospel is proclaimed. It is told. We don't get to opt out for a more myopic brand. There’s no less expensive version without that feature. There's not a gospel for social butterflies and then another for introverts. Everyone of us has only ever believed the told gospel, if we’ve believed the real gospel at all.

And the simplest, most natural implication of believing this gospel is that we ourselves tell it. We tell the good news in which we hope because hoping in told good news inevitably compels our telling it, too.

But There's a Problem

So then why don't we? According to a recent survey from Lifeway Research, we Christians don't seem to be telling people about Jesus very much. If we believe a "proclaimed-in-all-creation gospel," but we don’t proclaim it ourselves, what gives?

Training, resources, equipping, examples — all of these are good and important. And we've seen a fair share of them the last twenty years. But what if it's simpler that that? (I’m speaking as a poor evangelist here.) Might it be that we don't tell the gospel because we're missing something in how we understand it? Maybe the lack of our telling it points to a deficiency in our grasp of its inherent toldness? Maybe we've skimmed over the gospel's built-in compulsion to not just believe, but believe and speak. Maybe the real need is not additional components of training, but deeper wonders to mine, depths by which to be overcome — so that the step from gospel to mission is not a moving beyond but a moving further in.

Do you know what God has done?

Remember the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus's feet with her tears. She fell before him in awe, bewildered by his presence and mercy. And no one else got it. "This man isn't a prophet," the Pharisee criticized, "he doesn't know who this woman is!" The disciples may have been baffled, too, until Jesus tells a story.

Two men owed debts, one debt was a day's wage, the other a year's income. The debt of both men were cancelled, and Jesus asks which of these men would love the lender more. Simon responds, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt" (Luke 7:43). Then we begin to see. . . The cluelessness of those bystanders corresponds to their ignorance of mercy. The crowd didn't understand the woman's devotion because they didn't understand what it means to be forgiven. That's why they responded so dumbly, so critical, so jaw-dropped and confused. Here was a reality — a beautiful, holy reality — that they could not wrap their heads around because they haven't tasted the depths of Jesus's grace.

And maybe that's our problem with evangelism. We don't tell the told gospel because we've loss sight of what it means to be forgiven. All this talk of mission might as well be a broken prostitute washing Jesus's feet. It is nonsense to us unless we remember our debt. Unless we're flooded again with the news that it's cancelled — the news that it's cancelled, which we heard, which we were told.

The news that makes us step out the front doors of comfort and civility, and say, "Neighbor! Hey, neighbor! I’m here to tell you about God!"


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God, and is the lead planter of Cities Church in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their four children. He is also the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.