The Message: The word “gospel” means “good news.” God has good news for man. This news is about salvation from sin and death through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ who is Lord. Apart from this news or message, there is no salvation as there are no alternative plans. Not surprisingly, the doctrines about salvation are prime subjects for false teaching and crippling traditions. Since many have written at length on the message itself, I will limit the first section to a few brief thoughts.
The gospel is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16). Paul never thought of salvation as a narrow word describing only that moment when a person passes from death to life by faith in Christ. Rather he thought of it as a process that begins at conversion (when one becomes a child of God; Acts 16:31), lasts throughout all of life (while one lives in the world as God’s child; Phil. 2:12), and finally becomes complete when united with the Lord (Rom. 13:11). Verses which emphasize the first part of this process (like Rom. 1:16) must be understood in the light of the whole context (e.g., Rom. 16:25) so that the gospel is not limited to good news for sinners only. Sadly, many have never heard that God has good news about salvation for Christians every day! Therefore it must not be supposed that passages like I Cor.15:3,4 which give the basics of the gospel exempt one from further need for God’s good news. It is a subject of life long value and interest for the believer.
The Messengers: Jesus left His followers a commission before he departed to His Father. It is called the Great Commission. In giving this age long assignment to His disciples, Jesus set Himself as the example His people were to follow (John 20:21). He came to where the needy were; he began in His home town and then took the message to other areas; and he alternated between intimate times of fellowship with His disciples “in the house” teaching them, and public times “among men” preaching the good news to them. Once the church began, the disciples followed this pattern, gathering for intimate times of family matters (Acts 2:42), and scattering to work at the commission Jesus had given them. As letters were written and doctrines explained, it became clear that God’s message of good news was proclaimed in two ways: by witnesses and by evangelists. The witness (as in any court of law) was one who responded to a question. The evangelist was one who took the initiative and began to spread the message whether asked or not. Both are legitimate, and both needed. One difference, however, is that not all Christians are evangelists as not all have received that spiritual gift (Eph. 4:11), but all Christians are witnesses as all have a personal story to tell (Acts 1:8).
The Sphere: Where should this good news be proclaimed? Very simply, everywhere! There is no place on earth where good news is not needed, and no one living who is too old to benefit. But it is important when proclaiming the good news to be faithful not only to the content of the message (Gal. 1:8,9) but also to the pattern of the Lord and the early church in the way they presented it. Lost people need to be appealed to as those who are outside of God’s family and who therefore need to be saved (note the literal rendering of II Cor. 5:20). God’s children need to be edified (something like educated) as those who are in the family and who must now learn not only to live by faith each day but also to share the message of God’s love and forgiveness with others. It can be seen immediately that this implies a vast difference between the church and the world. The church is a gathering of the family of faith; the world is a sea of lost souls. Look at the strong words used to make this very point in Acts 5:13, “And of the rest dared no man join himself to them; but the people magnified them.” The surrounding verses document the power and unity of the early church because of this separation, and verse 14 refers to the multitudes that were coming into the church through the new birth.
Now someone will ask: If this message is important for all mankind, why not proclaim it in the same way (i.e., as to lost people) everywhere?” Good question, to which there are some important answers. If you are interested, you can find some suggested answers here. But perhaps the best answer is to say that love for God and His Word constrains us to follow the example and teachings of Christ rather than seeking to find “a better way.” If Jesus and the apostles spoke of the church as something holy, and separate from the world, the Lord’s bride, then to work with it as a mixed company of saved and lost will weaken the church and produce disciples who feel inadequate to share their own story, but feel more comfortable bringing lost friends “to church” so that a skilled professional might preach to them. How many of these we have seen through the years! And how many lampstands (local churches) have dwindled and died out as family matters were neglected, the saints were not fed and the ministry was concentrated on the few visitors. The Lord Jesus never did this, and the early church never did this. So the answer to the question about the gospel and the church will be largely determined by one’s views of the nature of the church. If it is just another segment of the world, then of course the gospel should be preached to all the lost who are present. If the church is rather the gathering together of the family of God, then it ought to attend to family matters so that the saints might be salt and light out in the world.
How then is the gospel to be presented in the church? No better pattern can be found than the ministry of the apostles. There are 10 letters addressed to local churches, and 11 letters addressed to individuals, and all follow a common pattern of addressing the believers as believers. Have you ever considered that the book of Romans was not written to tell lost people in Rome how to be saved, but rather it was written to tell saved people how God saved them? Note the opening address “To all that be in Rome; beloved of God, called saints….” (1:7). It is the same with every succeeding letter. And the content of each bears this out. Consistently the readers are addressed as “brethren” (Rom. 1:13, I Cor. 1:10, II Cor. 1:8, Gal. 1:11 etc.) or similar words of belonging to God’s family. We may do the same thing today without apology. But suppose lost people are present? Doubtless they were in the early church, and they will be present today. Let us not suppose that the apostles were unaware of this. Instead, let us ponder their example as those who had full confidence in the Word of God to meet any need. How often we have seen the conviction of the Spirit upon an unsaved person in the meeting as the good news in all its beautiful power and simplicity is expounded to the believers. When speaking to the church, follow the examples of the apostles. If you are a teacher, then teach the good news. If you prefer the term “preacher” then preach it! But address the saints! There is no basis for speaking to the church as a mixed multitude. Evangelizing Christians is confusing.
Jesus spoke to more than Peter when He said: “Feed my sheep.” (John21:17). The old saying is ever true, If you want more sheep, feed the ones that you have!