How Do You Understand and Explain the Gospel?

One of the issues that I perpetually struggle with is: How do we understand the gospel and faithfully articulate it in these times?

Formulaic presentations of the gospel — for example, the much celebrated and maligned Four Spiritual Laws — have never appealed to me. Not because they are wrong (they aren’t) but because they seem so reductionistic. The gospel is a living Word. It is like a beautiful multifaceted jewel that deserves to be examined and reexamined from every possible angle. When preaching of the gospel becomes stale, simplistic, habitual and tired, the spiritual life of a community is sapped and discipleship (if it exists at all) degenerates to rules, principles and practices that no longer capture the essence of what it means to follow a risen Savior.

Dallas Willard is a distinguished Professor of Philosophy at USC and one of the most influential Christian thinkers of our day. In the video clips below, he shares some of his insights into the gospel, the relationship between grace and works/human effort, the role of spiritual disciplines, and so on. Please take the time to watch these clips; you won’t be disappointed.

My question for you is: Has your understanding of the gospel recently been challenged, renewed or refreshed in any significant way? If so, how? If not, why not? And a related question: How does one get truly fresh insight into the gospel? Please don’t say, “Just go back to the Bible” or “Just pray.” We’ve heard those things before. Be more specific.

In recent days, there has been a great deal of discussion on this website about difficult issues and problems within UBF. Although these are important to all of us, it is easy to get so wrapped up in church matters that we lose sight of the big picture of what God has done. If possible, let’s put aside discussions of the rightness or wrongness of UBF teachings and practices for now and focus on the meaning and implications of the gospel message itself.


  1. I like how he said “Grace isn’t opposed to effort, it’s opposed to earning.” And “do the next right thing they knew you ought to do.” One thing I’ve learned recently is to not read the bible EVERY single night before I go to bed IF i can’t put my mind at peace and focus on what I’m reading.   I’m trying to not read the bible just for the sake of reading it. I got a piece of advice from author John Ortberg recently. He said something like “read small bits of passages, don’t try to read a whole chapter. Take the time to meditate on what you’ve read.” Or something like that. I will admit that reading the articles on this webpage and reading books by Christian authors is shaping the way I think about the gospel differently. I try to look at the big picture now instead of reading a passage in isolation.   It sometimes makes me question what I’ll hear from a testimony or a Sunday message. It can make things a bit confusing at times because I don’t always remember everything I’ve read and all of the arguments. That, and I don’t have a background in theology.   I’d say that reading books OTHER than the bible, but of course they are about the bible, has helped me grow in understanding of the bible more than just reading the bible itself.

  2. Nice share, these days I’ve thought about what the Gospel exactly is, and I’m still a bit unclear. I’ve always thought that the Gospel message was: Jesus died for our sins, he resurrected and now we’re saved. However Jesus’ Gospel message wasn’t that he died for our sins, and that he resurrected. Jesus’ Gospel message was that the Kingdom of God was near.
    “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'” (Mark 1:14-15).

    So what’s the Kingdom of God? It’s interesting to hear the above speaker saying that “the Kingdom of God is God in action, and he acts through all of his instrumentalities, but the main thing is that God acts in relation to us”. This is a refreshing view of the Gospel and I’m glad he shared this.

    • David L

      Hi James, you said above, “Jesus’ Gospel message wasn’t that he died for our sins, and that he resurrected. Jesus’ Gospel message was that the Kingdom of God was near.” I disagree that it is either/or here. Certainly, the New Testament is crystal clear the Jesus’ Gospel message was indeed that he came to die for our sins and be resurrected on the third day. Now, that does not mean that the Gospel ends right there. No, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God has been made available to the world. And what follows is that those who have faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection have eternal life now, and reconciliation with God, and Adoption as sons, and Justification, and Sanctification by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and living hope of future Glorification etc. etc.

      The whole Old Testament points to this, (See Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 and many others) that is why Jesus on the road to Emmaus said that Moses and the Prophets spoke about him and what would happen to him. Jesus came to die. He said as much when he said, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many…”

      Paul also testifies that the MOST important thing about the Gospel that he preached, the thing of FIRST importance was that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day (See 1 Cor 15:1-4) Also Paul even goes so far as to say to the church at Corinth, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

      We must never leave the doctrine of the Cross and the Resurrection, for that IS the beginning, middle, and end of the Gospel.

    • Perhaps James didn’t choose his words as carefully as he should have. I don’t think he or any of us would deny the central place of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ in the gospel message. However, he does correctly point out that the message that Jesus preached most frequently, as recorded in the synoptics, is the message of the kingdom of God. The gospel message doesn’t end with the cross and empty tomb. When Peter preached the gospel on the day of Pentecost, he briefly mentioned the death of Jesus but said a great deal more about his resurrection, ascension and reign at the right hand of the Father, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. Those things are part of the gospel. And Paul’s statement of the gospel in 1 Co 15 doesn’t stop with the resurrection of Christ; the point of that chapter is the implications of the bodily resurrection of Christ for us and the world, and that is surely part of the gospel message too.

    • David L

      Agreed wholeheartedly Joe

  3. I want to write something entitled “What is the Gospel?” But perhaps someone may beat me to it.

    I like what Tim Keller says: “If you think you know the Gospel, you have no idea. But if you think that I hardly know the Gospel, then you’re on your way.” This is a paraphrase. It also doesn’t seem to say much. But it applies equally to someone who has been a Christian for 50 years or for 5 days. It also keeps us humble. So we won’t be reductionistic or simplistic, as though we have the “keys to the kingdom,” or “we have the corner of the market on serving God.”

    No one really can put God or the Gospel in a box. Yet it is real and definable in countless unique and creative ways, as the Spirit works (John 3:8).

    I would say that if the Gospel doesn’t humble us to the very depths, yet makes us bold and confident to the very heights at the same time, the Gospel is “not real” to us Christians.

    The Gospel should ALWAYS humble us to the very dephts because we are sinners.

    Yet the Gospel should ALWAYS make us bold and confident to the very heights because Jesus loves us at great cost to himself.

    But we tend to be humble (and timid) when we are not doing well spiritually.

    Or we are bold and confident (and subtly proud and arrogant) when we think we are doing well spiritually.

    We are either humble and not confident, or confident and not humble.

    Only the Gospel enables us to be humble and confident at the same time.

    Sorry that I haven’t defined or explained the Gospel. I have only explained what the Gospel truly does to us, which we can’t do, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit.

  4. I like what Dallas Willard said that the Saints burns grace like a 747 burns jet fuel. I thought there was a grace period and then there is training. But the gospel is all grace!!! With grace we can serve God and our fellow man, not out of duty and obligation but out of pure love. This year my key verse is 1Corn 15:10, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Joe thanks for the article and video clip. Its good to think about Jesus and the gospel:)

  5. James Kim

    Hi Dr Ben. I like your statement, “The gospel should always humble us to the very depths because we are sinners”. How true it is! The Bible said, “There is no one righteous, not even one;” (Rom 3:10)
    The gospel, the good news, starts from knowing that we are all incorrigible sinners. We are all sinners before the righteous, holy God. This sounds dry and nothing new. Our God is all knowing and all powerful. Let’s say God can put a super tape recorder around our neck that records everything not only what we said, but also what we thought both consciously and unconsciously. And God can play it back before us. Then it would be crystal clear that even in one day or one hour we commit so many terrible sins. Who can stand before this holy God? There is no one who is righteous, not even one. We cannot hide our sins or pretend we are OK before the holy God. We cannot come to God with what we have done.
    Before the holy God, one sin and millions of sins are considered same. Because both fall short of the glory of God. The consequence of sin is same, death penalty. Before the righteous and holy God we cannot stand before him. This is bad news, but the beginning of the good news because we are all in need of his great grace(not just one time, but daily and moment by moment). Without his mercy and grace, we cannot even exist.

  6. Thanks, Dr. James. That “we are (horrible) sinners” is indisputable. In that regard, the apostle Paul and you and I are perfectly equal. Thus, we horrible sinners should always be humble, and never proud or demanding or condescending or dismissive toward anyone.

    But being horrible sinners is only HALF the gospel. The other half is that we sinful humans (who should be eternally condemned) are also the most loved beings in the universe at the cost of Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore, in Christ, we can always be bold, confident and unafraid of anything, not of any man (Prov 29:25), not even of death (Matt 10:28).

    May I suggest that if we overemphasize how sinful we are (which is true), we could produce scared, fearful, timid Christians who are like mice, and who lack confidence, and who are afriad of taking risks or speaking up for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

    Perhaps, UBFriends is encouraging timid UBF Christians to boldly and confidently speak up with a spirit of humility that comes from the Gospel.

    “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” “Hell is paved with good intentions.”

    As Brian confessed in a previous post, I think we need to do this more and more, and not bury or hide the wrongs that were done in the past, which anyone can now find and read on the Internet. We can do so only in the gospel: with boldness, and with humility and tears.

  7. Brian Karcher

    Amen, Ben!

    I’ve been wondering how we answer this question (How do you understand and explain the gospel?) after May 21st?

    No one knows the day or the hour of Jesus’ return, yet we Christians do believe Jesus will return. What if it was today? Perhaps a good answer to Joe’s question is this: The gospel is the good news that we can plan for our whole life and live as though Jesus was returning tomorrow. Any day could indeed be Jesus’ return.

    If God’s choice is not 5/21/2011, then what day is it? On 5/22/2011, how do we explain the gospel? I’ve read so much mocking and disdain for Christian beliefs. Harold Camping may or may not have the date correct, but much of his beliefs (at least the ones I’ve read about) are Christian beliefs. Will we still claim to be Christian on Monday? Will we still proclaim Jesus’ second coming with joy and hope?

  8. Brian Karcher

    Excellent quote from the clip above: The gospel is “how to get into heaven before you die”.

  9. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Joe, your questions are compelling. And honoring your appeal, I will refrain from criticizing UBF, and stick to answer the questions you have raised.

    Has your understanding of the gospel recently been challenged, renewed or refreshed in any significant way? Yes, my understanding of the gospel was challenged, renewed and refreshed about a year back and it still continues in very significant ways. It was significant in three ways. 1) I had to reevaluate and amend the understanding I had held for more than a decade, which was obvious. 2) I had to make radical changes in my life direction to hold onto and make known the new understanding. 3) In the process, I made enemies of those who thought I was over zealous or had been influenced by some bad Christian group. When my zeal for what I believe to be the gospel was suppressed and discouraged to a point I could not take anymore, I decided to leave the ministry. Although it was not the only reason for leaving, to me it was primary. As someone said, the gospel is worthy living, then shouldn’t it also be worth dying for? I lost some old friends but also got many new friends, started a new ministry and am moving ahead.

    If so, how? Like many others I had this understanding that the gospel is the gospel of salvation. And by “salvation” I meant justification only. So my definition of the gospel used to be 1Co 15:3,4. It was not because Paul defined the gospel that way, but mostly because of poor observation of the whole chapter (1Cor 15) and also poor observation of the Bible as a whole. In line with the evangelical mindset, I was happy as long as I had the assurance that I was saved from punishment and hell and as long as I could be used to help a few to escape hell through Jesus. Yes, this understanding is of first importance, but first does not mean “only important.” Just as the cross and resurrection of Jesus are central to our justification, so is Jesus central to our sanctification and glorification in other ways. What are those ways? The role of the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. And the need for understanding of and preparation for the unique dynamics of the end time events. There will be yet many more Harold Campings, but that does not mean the Bible is wrong or the events of the end time are to be explained away only symbolically. So, the two things that challenged me were central role of the Holy Spirit in life of every individual believers and as well as the signs of the times. Although I had come to saving faith in Jesus, within a decade my life had been boring, back sliding and the good news of the gospel was stale. I could not think of giving up inferior pleasures without the experience of the superior pleasure that the Holy Spirit brings into our life. I could not find motivation to work hard without the hope of spending eternity with Jesus face to face and reigning together with eternal rewards for things done in this life. The motivation of recognition by people in raising a few disciples or a raising up a ministry was not really good enough. It had to be replaced with a truthful and superior motivation. When people complain about my zeal for end time, my simple question to them is “what is your hope?” If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1Co 15:19). Some of those under whom I grew up spiritualy have been complaining of “bad theology” in my life. But I want to tell them that I am not laboring for “escapalogy,” I do believe in “eschatology,” and I consider it worth living and giving my life for.

    Dallas said that we must get into heaven before we die. I agree 100%. What I mean is the quality of life and power of the kingdom of God is available here and now. To borrow a line from John Wimber “I was fed up with only LISTENING to how Jesus and the apostles healed and did many great works. I WANT TO DO THE STUFF!” The raw power of the kingdom of God is available even before we get into heaven. I was fed up listening so much of so many good things that others did. I want to do the stuff myself. India is a country of multi-million gods and a vacuum cleaner like theology to suck up every kind of teaching. They are fed up with listening. They need experience. It is not which god is better. It has to be which one is Living and True with demonstration of the raw power of the kingdom of God. This challenged me greatly and I am working on this. Nowadays, when my family members get sick I do not go to doctors and ambulance rightaway, I declare the name of Jesus for their healing and to my own surprise it works!

    How does one get truly fresh insight into the gospel? First, the frog must have a possibility in its mind to think that there could possibly be more than just a well it has lived for so long. Only then the desire comes to go beyond the well. And God helps those who have at least a sense of possibility (desire) in their thinking for openness and hunger for truth beyond what have been already learned. I had to read some books and chapters of the Bible that had never made any perfect sense to me. God also connects me to people in whom I can trust.

  10. Brian Karcher

    Well said, Abraham. I am come to a similar, if not identical, realization in this past year. I realized that for about 23 years, my Christian life, although valid, has been focused on the Son and the Father. My understanding of God was only 2/3 complete at most. I was missing the entire 3rd person of God–the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.

    Your comment above is excellent:
    “Yes, this understanding is of first importance, but first does not mean “only important.””

  11. David Bychkov

    During long time I preached the Gospel like this
    “Jesus Christ died for all men’s sins, therefore he died for yours as well. Therefor believe that Christ died for your sins”.
    But then, after deep thinkig of election doctrine, I became doubt if the Gospel could be preached in such way. And then I became to think like:
    “Jesus Christ died for sins of some people, and possibly not for yours”
    This kind of thinking confused me, how then I could preach the Gospel
    And once I read the J.I. Parker’s book “Evangelism and The Sovereignity of God” I was refreshed to believe in Chbrist as Living Savior. So Parker encoraged me to believe and preach the Gospel like this:
    “Jesus Christ died for men’s sins. Trust in him and the power of his death and you will be saved”.

  12. David Lee

    I think the gospel is that we can be like him (in his likenss) and loving persons who can love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable. I also believe that the reason our Lord Christ Jesus died for our sins and buried and resurrected from the dead is for us (believers) to live and have a life of incomparable riches of Christ. Being a Christian is a fantastic thing in anyone’s life, because Christians are Christ men and women and all the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is disclosed to them clearly and plainly. It is a kind of life empowered by the resurrection power and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

    Apostle Paul disclosed a long hidden mystery in Colossians Chapter 1.

    “…the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:26-27)

    “Christ in you.” I believe that’s the key to understand what the gospel is. We, Chrisitans, should be perfect and holy and blameless as God is holy. How could we achieve this goal? Well, Jesus Christ our Lord is the example who overcome the world. He came down to the earth as a human being just like us. Yet, he lived a life of holiness (wholeness) and righteousness, a Spirit-filled life. “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10) Jesus lived a life of manifestation of the Father God. His diety and his authority and his power is manifest of the Father. I believe that the incarnated Jesus Christ showed the example life of Christ belivers who can cope with any situations, panic proof life, revealing living Christ in the midst of stress, pressures.

    God demands us to meet the law of Christ, “love one another,” and he also provides us the resources to keep the law. It’s because we cannot keep the law with our own might of natural man. It is sin which prevails our desire to do good and henceforth always do evil. That’s why Christ Jesus our Lord died for our sins and buried (baptism–cut off from the old). He also resurrected from the dead and gave us a new life available to all believers. “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” What we are living is not our lives but his life in us. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19b-20a)

    Jesus says, “He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12b) It’s possible because he dwells in us and do all things when we deny ourselves and submit to him (selfless life). I think that the gospel is to be a loving person and a reflection of his love and joy and peace in the midst of all the stresses and pressures of life.