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The gospel and the Gospels

The gospel and the Gospels

What's the difference between the 'gospel' and the four Gospel accounts?

Dear friends

For the second week in a row my conversation partner (this time Phillip) opens up the subject of my new little evangelistic book The Christian Gospel

So much self-promotion is awkward for any Australian, but after chatting about the value and uses of evangelistic books in general (and this one in particular), we move on to the main substance of the episode, which is about how the ‘gospel’ that we proclaim (such as in this new book, or via the Two Ways to Live framework) relates to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The former declares some news, along with its background and implications; the latter tells a story and introduces you to the person of Jesus. Many questions arise: 

  • If there is only one ‘gospel’, how come the way the gospel is preached in Acts seems very different from the lengthy, story-filled narratives that we call ‘the Gospels’? 

  • Is one approach better than the other, or more ‘gospelly’ than the other? 

  • What of how the gospel is summarized and expounded in the Epistles, which is different again in style? 

  • And what does it all mean for our everyday practice of evangelism? 

I hope you enjoy the conversation, and that it spurs you on to share the gospel of Jesus with those around you. 

Your brother


The gospel and the Gospels

PJ: I see that you've produced another book.

TP: Yes, it came out while you're away.

PJ: The Christian Gospel. That sounds like a good idea.

TP: Well, It's not quite as large as your most recent book. 

PJ: No, it’s 81 pages. I think I've written an appendix longer than that one.

TP: Yours is 487 pages or something? 

PJ: Yes. Well, who does most of the talking on this show?

TP: Yes, it is a bit that way…

PJ: But your book is subtitled: “A short account of the momentous news about Jesus Christ”. And I think that for someone who doesn't read much like me, it's great to have a short account.

TP: That’s partly the reason why I wanted to produce this kind of book; it just occurred to me that we didn't have a book that is under 100 pages and explains the gospel of Jesus. It doesn’t have an apologetic angle or lead in. It doesn't try to address a particular issue via the gospel. It's just an explanation of the gospel. 

So yes, it’s deliberately not a weighty tome. And it's for giving away. It’s designed to be that book that either initiates a conversation, or perhaps follows up on a conversation, to which we can say, “Look, we've been talking for a while. But here's what I really believe. If you want to see the guts of it, it's in this little book.” 

And so it's important that it's short. But I think it's also important that it's a book—something for them to take away and pause in their own time and read and think through themselves, and see the arguments and content of the gospel develop from one point to the next. 

PJ: If it’s going to be given away, I presume and hope that we've got a discount for multiple copies. A Christian should read this book, so they know what they're giving away. But then they should buy 5, 10 or 20 copies of it because they are intending to have conversations with people.

TP: Now I'm normally very bad at this Phillip—knowing these details. But for this conversation, because I suspected you might ask me this, I actually went and found out. Apparently, (talking in Australian dollars) it's $9.95 if you just buy one copy, so basically $10. If you buy two or more copies, it immediately drops down to $8. And if you decide you want to be really evangelistic or buy some for your church or just want to get it together with a few friends, it is only $5 for 50 copies. So buy a box of 50 and share them with your friends and give them to people. 

PJ: I don't know whether you do much fishing; I used to but I don't these days. But one of the signs of a true fisherman is that they are optimistic and come prepared—they take something with them to carry the fish home in. Any fisherman who goes without some bag or net or bucket to carry home the fish is not a real fisherman. And so to enter into conversations with people without something that you're going to put in their hands afterwards is like being a pessimistic fisherman. Every clergyman should have half a dozen or more copies of this book just sitting in the study for the conversation they're going to have, but I think lay people should have this book ready to go for the same reason. 

TP: Incredibly, there are around 9.2 million Christian books currently in print the last time I looked, and sadly I think you would find that only 0.001% of them are books that simply and explicitly teach and preach the gospel to a non-Christian person. And so it's one of the reasons I was keen to produce this. 

PJ: We already have a very famous book on that called Two Ways to Live.

TP: I'd say Two Ways to Live is a booklet or pamphlet rather than a book…

PJ: Well how does The Christian Gospel—a short account of the momentous news about Jesus Christ—differ from Two Ways to Live?

TP: Well, it's built onTwo Ways to Live. So it assumes that theTwo Ways to Live summary is a really good summary of the New Testament gospel and uses the framework of those six boxes in Two Ways to Live. As you know the first three boxes (creation, sin and judgment) lay the groundwork and set the biblical context to understand the big announcement, which is Jesus Christ, his death for our sins in his resurrection to be the ruler, and king and judge of the world, requiring response from us of repentance and faith. It’s that simple. And the Two Ways to Live framework of a gospel is basically the framework of the book. It has a little introduction to welcome people to the book and what it is and why they're reading it and why they should read it. And then it's got six chapters that just works through those six points, connecting them together and showing how the gospel flows in that clear logic. 

PJ: It's six logical propositions that are laid out for us to use. It's the logic of the gospel. But how does that relate to the Gospels themselves—to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

TP: Which is a very good question. We sometimes get confused between the gospel and the Gospels. (In fact, we spell one with a small ‘g’ and one with a capital ‘G’ to indicate that there’s a difference.). But you're right, the Gospels with a capital ‘G’ tell a narrative, a story, a history of Jesus—why he came, who he is, what he did, what he taught and how people reacted to him. And they culminate in his death and resurrection. But the point of them as a whole is to proclaim Jesus as the Christ. So it's very interesting that you have to get to the end of John's Gospel (John 20:30-31) before he gives away the reason he’s writing it: that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and by believing have life in his name. 

But as we read the Gospels in an evangelistic relationship with someone, it unfolds and develops as you go through it, and you don't get the whole story until you've heard the whole story.

PJ: Well, it does introduce you to the real person of Jesus. If you only have a Two Ways to Live view of Jesus, he's like a product. It says he's a man but it doesn't really tell you much about him as a person. But in the Gospel of Mark, it's easy to read through with people and just keep asking the question, “Who is this man?” (which chapters 1-8 spells out); and then “Why has he come?” (in chapters 9-16). And so in a sense, you can derive the gospel from it. 

But it's interesting when you come to the book of Acts, you get accounts of people preaching the gospel. But they don't go through the narrative very much; they speak of Jesus having died and having risen, but they don't actually give you the historical accounts of him wandering in Galilee or crossing the sea. 

TP: They don't tell parables. They don't tell stories. They don't expound a Gospel episode in order to preach the gospel when they preach the gospel. It’s interesting, isn't it?

PJ: It is interesting. And when you come to the letters, they give a theological understanding. So for example there's almost nothing about the atonement in the book of Acts. And yet in 1 Corinthians and Romans, there's a lot about the atonement in explaining the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are hints of it in the Gospel accounts (such as the famous Mark 10:45 “to give his life as a ransom for many”) but we read back from the epistles to understand more clearly and fully what that means. 

So this book that you’ve written is not like the Gospel’s gospel. 

TP: It’s more like the gospel that is preached in the Acts of the Apostles. 

PJ: Yes, that's right. It's more how they presented the great news of Jesus.

TP: And New Testament scholarship for a long time has noted that the framework of the gospel they preached in Acts bears a striking resemblance to the structure of the Gospels—to Jesus having come, and been shown as a great man of God through his amazing works, and having died and risen from the dead. So the trajectory of the story is there. But they don't preach or explain what the momentous news is by telling you the story. They just tell you what the momentous news is—that Jesus is the Christ. 

PJ: Yes, and you wonder how much the narrative events were known. I mean, the early part of Acts, when they're preaching in Jerusalem, well, they knew about what had happened. But when Paul was going through Athens or Corinth, you can't expect the people there to know what had happened. And yet we still don't have a record of him telling them the events of Jesus that were in the Gospels. 

The Gospels are not biography—or if they are, they're not a modern biography. Modern biography tells you a lot about the family background, about the birth, about early trauma in your life, about the whole socio-cultural context in which you grew up. Whereas the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus point to the Old Testament context. If you want to understand the gospel in the Gospels, go to the Old Testament, because that's the context that makes sense of what happens with Jesus. 

So take the passage you mentioned, in John 20, about how it shows that Jesus is the Christ. If you don't know who the Christ is, that doesn't help you in the slightest. And you know about the Christ from the Old Testament. And so Mark's Gospel begins with: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…” It immediately quotes the Old Testament because if you're going to understand Jesus, you’ve got to understand the Old Testament. So your context for the gospel—which here in your book The Christian Gospel is the creation, sin, judgment—as well as the context in the Gospels’ accounts, are all from the Old Testament and the expectations of the coming of the kingdom of God and the expectations of the Christ. 

TP: So as you're reading one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) with someone week by week, chapter by chapter, or as you're preaching it chapter by chapter, following the narrative of the story, how do you relate it to the gospel as a whole? And how do you help someone understand what the gospel announcement is from these different stories? Because no one story or chapter or parable contains the ‘gospel’ (as its proclaimed in Acts). It's part of a long narrative that tells the whole story of Jesus' life and death. How do you preach or explain the gospel through the Gospels? 

PJ: In part, we do it by overlaying the narrative with systematic theology, but also you've got to get through the whole of it. That's in part why I prefer to go through Mark because it's the shortest. You see, a third of the Gospel occurs in the last night of the life of Jesus. And so the way that the Gospels have been written is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus. To understand the death and resurrection of Jesus, you need to hear enough of the life of Jesus to see why the death and resurrection of Jesus is the conquest of the Christ who marvelously conquered sin and Satan.

TP: So whenever we read or preach on any particular chapter or episode in the Gospels, we do it with our own prior knowledge of the whole; we know the whole story, we know how it ends, and we tend to read or preach with the whole in mind. But some parts are trickier to relate to the whole, like the parables, which perform a particular function in the ministry of Jesus. How do you read or preach a parable with somebody, and relate it to the gospel?

PJ: That's a good illustration to pick up on. For example, take Mark 4, which is a series of parables, starting with the parable of the sower—which is the explanation as to why Israel is not embracing Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 6 and showing that Israel’s rejection of Jesus was the plan of God. And in fact, Jesus is speaking in parables not to make his message simple and easy for people to understand, but really so as to divide his audience and particularly to keep the country from repenting and being saved from God. For the Lord Jesus came into Israel to be condemned, to die for our sins, to be rejected by the people. 

But there's other things that the parables do. They are riddles and their aim is to divide the audience, between the insiders to whom everything is explained and the outsiders to whom everything is in riddles. But they are also to challenge you to listen, to think. And so Jesus constantly says this little phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” because they confront you with, “Who do you think Jesus is? What do you think the kingdom of God is? How do you relate to Jesus and the kingdom of God?” To those who are not actually thinking, the parables are interesting stories, memorable stories, but you walk away thinking, “Well, he's a good storyteller.” But to those who are pressing in on the kingdom, for those who are desperate to come to salvation, as you press further into the parable, the parable presses into you. The riddle, actually, is you. It forces you to confront the Lord Jesus Christ, to confront God, to confront your own sinfulness. And so the parables are a profound existential experience for people.

TP: It's interesting how often we are after the silver bullet for evangelism—the magic method that's really going to work at last, the one way of presenting the gospel that is going to finally connect with people and really make the difference. But it's fascinating how with Jesus and with evangelism more generally, it's often a long or drawn out process of people searching, looking, thinking, conversing, asking, being challenged, being confused, or pressing further. And in the reality of our conversations with people, that's how it usually goes. It's usually a matter of having ongoing conversations and questions and explanations. And that’s why reading a Gospel with someone week by week is such a powerful thing to do—letting them confront Jesus and read these parables that are challenging and confounding, and having to talk through them, puzzle over them, so that the whole message is revealed in this unfolding way as you read this account of who Jesus is and what he did. And certainly in writing a book like the one I've written and saying what a useful resource it is, it doesn't at all counteract the value of that long term, ongoing relational conversation or Bible-reading evangelism that's so important. Having a book to use is a helpful resource, when you get to the point of drawing it together and saying, “Well, this is a summary and implications of everything we've been reading for the last 15 weeks together.”

PJ: Yes, I think there is this desire for the silver bullet. And I know what the silver bullet is actually—I heard it described in church last night in two words about Paul and his conversion: it talked about him being confronted by Jesus and claimed by Jesus. We get converted when Jesus claims us through the pouring out of his Spirit regenerating us. And that can happen in a moment. But you're right, it can happen in a moment after six months of struggling with ideas. After two years of going to church and listening to the Bible. It can happen in the first conversation I have about the Lord Jesus, but that is fairly unusual. But the instant element of our conversion is when Christ claims us as his own.

TP: It reminds me of what someone (I can’t remember who) once said about bankruptcy. Bankruptcy happens gradually, and then suddenly. And conversion often happens that way as well. In the end, it's the work of God when the penny drops, as all the lights go on. 

It's interesting that we use this phrase “silver bullet"—it has just occurred to me that a silver bullet is how you kill a vampire (or is it a werewolf?). That's where the illustration comes from. It's the special kind of bullet that kills the evil creature. And in a sense, it’s an apt illustration, because it's the bullet that finally kills us. It's that point where the old self finally dies, and we come to a whole new life. 

PJ: We probably should not push this vampire illustration too far. 

TP: No, we should not. 

PJ: But you see, some people use other things—like if we do the right apologetics, we'll see people converted. Or if we use narratives, if we just tell stories, people will get converted. The one storyteller in the Gospels is Jesus. And he tells stories so that people won't get converted. There's no one method by which people get converted, because ultimately, the method is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit regenerating people. And so what we must do is just faithfully keep telling people about the Lord Jesus, either using the narrative accounts of the Gospels, or the kind of preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, or the theological discussions that you get in the epistles as the Christian life is applied. But I still like what you've done in The Christian Gospel, because this book is the one that I'd be handing out to people after I've had the conversation with them. I don't know whether it's a book to work through with them. It seems too small to be a workbook. 

TP: It's not meant to be a workbook; it's meant to be that particular resource (within the whole suite of things you might use) that you give to someone to read on their own, for them to think through and confront the gospel of Jesus for themselves. And it's a short enough form for most people, even people who aren't great readers, to be able to do that. And it's that kind of resource that you want in the quiver of evangelistic arrows.

PJ: Tony, thanks for producing it and Matthias Media thanks for producing it, because I can see that it will be terrifically useful. 


Here’s what this new magnum opus looks like: 

It’s available from Matthias Media (Australia and US), and from 10ofThose in the UK. 

Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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