Sarah, a good friend, has stopped attending church. This was not a matter of a loss of faith or a desire to rebel in some way. An intelligent and well informed university graduate in her thirties, the reasons she gave were these. The church in its life, culture and preaching had nothing much to do with the world in which she lived and worked. The church was recurringly telling her to talk to her friends about Jesus as if her friends were objects, a means to an end, rather than real people whose life issues were far from the message she was supposed to present.
She is not alone. Her story is repeating in countless countries and churches including international churches (ICs). Not all searching for relevance leave the church: some stay but disengage. Demotivated, they attend church and maintain their own spiritual life but little more. The Gospel word is alive and active so why this detachment?
At the heart of this disconnect are very different ways of understanding the Gospel. Please be very clear here. I am not talking about the theology of the atonement: the substitutionary death of Christ and the need for faith and repentance is a given truth. But what exactly is the message we have for the world?? Of all the theological truths in Scripture, which ones are to be proclaimed as “The Gospel”? And which message best inspires missional engagement?
There are many legitimate ways of talking about the Gospel. As we shall explore below, the Gospel is not a one-size-fits-all message though obviously, it has a central core in Jesus. Many will be surprised by these comments as for them the Biblical message of the atonement is the Gospel and it has not occurred to them that it could be otherwise. Yet, in the Scriptures, the Gospel has a number of expressions and involves a number of theological and eschatological truths.
A missional church is one in which its people approach everyday life with a missional mindset. A missional IC is likewise except that the IC is rich with a diverse community of believers who are increasingly global in perspective and concern. They function in a wide variety of roles but if they cannot see how the mission of God fits with their occupation, or their life, social and environmental issues, then motivation to be missional will be weak at best
Some critical points to begin with
First. We can only determine the content of the Gospel, the full extent of why this message is such good news, through a comprehensive examination of the whole of Scripture. The Gospel is a theological statement but it must be a whole-of-the-Bible theology and not merely a collection of some proof-texts. This latter approach generates a kind of proof-texts battle: my proof-texts are better than your proof-texts!
When we engage with the whole of Scripture, we certainly find material which states directly what the Gospel is. This we will survey below. But we also find:
The Gospel is a story, the story of Jesus. So, the four Gospels present the Gospel. Each tells the story of Jesus. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The Gospel is the story of Jesus, from promise to conception and incarnation, to birth, baptism and ministry, to sufferings and death, followed by resurrection, ascension and enthronement. And with the expectation of His return. This is a story that builds up an understanding of the divine man who ends up as Lord of heaven and earth.
However, this personal story about Jesus is part of a much larger story of God’s engagement in human history, and the history of the whole earth, in the transition from creation to new creation; from heaven and earth divided by sin to heaven and earth united in Christ in new heaven and new earth. The is the story of the Kingdom of God which Jesus announces as His Gospel. This is an Old Testament expectation inaugurated in the arrival of the Messiah, and anticipating complete fulfillment when Messiah returns permanently. An Old Testament expectation for the transformation of all nations under the rule of the Messiah coming to fruition through the story of Jesus. It is the story of the Kingdom’s King who rules creation with an all-embracing agenda.
These stories really mesh into just one. How best can we tell the story: the big picture story of the Kingdom with its core in the person and work of its Lord? This is blended story is great news! This story brings vision and direction for a new world view, a new way of seeing all reality!
Yet there is more! This story of Jesus and the Kingdom is fundamentally an eschatological story. It has a future focus and hope. It is vision driven. It is the story of our God putting all to right and bringing fulfilment for every promise of blessing to every nation and to all the peoples of the world who have aligned themselves with Christ. This is great news of a new global order of justice and freedom, peace and abundance, holiness and equality. All this becomes the future, our future, because Jesus reigns. We cannot truly tell the story of Jesus and the Kingdom unless we get excited about the vision of new creation, new heaven/earth, and the anticipation of Revelation 21-22.
The Gospel is a breathtaking story that is historical, personal, human and earthy, divine, social, political, theological, eschatological, and visionary
Secondly. The Gospel call to faith is a call to faith in Christ. To believe in Him, to trust Him, and follow Him. It is fundamentally personal. Our faith is in a person. It is not faith in a particular doctrine, or proposition, or a particular event, important as these might be in knowing the person of Jesus. We say we believe in various truths be these doctrines or events, such as justification by faith alone or the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this is good. Of even greater importance is the person of Jesus. Who He is matters hugely. And believing in Jesus is the essence of Christian faith.
The Gospel comes with calls to repentance, and promises of forgiveness and Kingdom life in the Spirit. But the central message remains Jesus not what’s in it for us.
Consequently, this person needs to be known so that faith in Him can be real. The old idea of dividing up Jesus and in our preaching claiming we should know Him as Saviour, and then know Him as Lord, is simply nonsense. To believe in Jesus requires some basic conceptual awareness of His person-hood, His Lordship, however limited this might be at the beginnings of the faith journey. Who is this person who claims to have died for me? Why should His death be so unique? Why should I trust Him? Who is this person who claims such trust and allegiance from me? Who is this man that even the winds and the waves obey Him? What is it about this person that justifies my trust in Him for the future?
The Gospel is a declaration that this Jesus who brings salvation is Lord of Heaven and Earth; the future is in His hands and He will prevail. All authority in Heaven and Earth is His. He is the Son of God (Psalm 2), the Messiah, the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14). Already He is exalted and enthroned far above all powers of any kind, anywhere (Ephesians 1:19-24, Philippians 2:9-11, Revelation 4-5). Through Him, God created all things and through Him God will fill the earth with peace (Colossians 1:15-20).
The more I know who He is, the more He is known as trustworthy and believable. I cannot put my faith in words alone even if they are words like Jesus and Christ. I must know what these words mean for the person they refer to. Faith may begin in the smallest appreciation of who this person is (see the faith responses in John 4:1-30, 9:1-38 and Mark 5:1-34) but I need to know, even at a very basic level, why I can believe that He will deliver on the Gospel promises. The more we know of who this person is when we first come to faith, the better it is. Yet the actual experience of new faith sometimes involves not much more than an intuitive confidence based on very limited understanding. However, as preachers, this does not excuse us from proclaiming the whole person-hood of Jesus.
The more I know who He is, the more my faith can grow. The more I know who He is, the more the Spirit has to work with. The more I know who He is, the more He is someone I can relate to.
Thirdly. The Gospel of the Kingdom has an invitational quality to all who long for a better world, who long for goodness, justice, purity, peace, and freedom from poverty and violence. The promises for radical change in life, society and the creation, as captured in the promises for the Kingdom, provide the basis for such invitations. The merciful, the meek, and those who grieve, are invited to hope because this Kingdom belongs to them. This Kingdom brings hope for the hopeless, healing for untreatable wounds, answers to impossible questions, hope for the those who love God’s creation, and restoration for those who have given up on the church. See the paraphrase of the Beatitudes below for an expression of this invitational quality in the Gospel.
Fourthly. Repentance. Clearly there is great importance in repentance. “Repent and believe in Jesus” is the Gospel call. Without such a response, many will be excluded from the future Kingdom. This facet of the Gospel is well known, even if not uniformly understood, and so I will not explore it here. However, we do need to appreciate that repentance, like everything else, is a journey of learning. Many come into the faith with just a humble choice to believe in Jesus. Repentance may be present in embryonic form but with only growing faith and growing knowledge of Jesus, repentance be better appreciated and practiced. We need to be careful, in our preaching, not to be too prescriptive as to how the Spirit brings people into Christ.
Fifthly. The Roman emperor cult was all pervasive across the Roman empire. News about the emperor was often called “gospel”, and titles such as “son of God” and “lord” were used of him. He was regarded as somewhat divine and highly exalted over all. So, when the Christian Gospel declares that Jesus is Lord, that He is the Son of God, that He has been enthroned above every power there is, the Christian message has profound confrontational political implications. There is always the juxtaposition between two competing stories and political realms. “Jesus is Lord” is about the most provocative political statement anyone can make. And it has far reaching political implications. The Kingdom of God includes a socio-political agenda. We need to stop imagining that we have a Gospel which is apolitical. It is not.
A brief sojourn through the message of the Gospel.
- Old Testament.
In broad general terms the Old Testament looks towards the blessing of God filling the earth following the judgement of God to purge the creation of all sin and evil. Furthermore, to all who come to him, forgiveness of all sin is promised. The Messiah is pivotal to this expectation. The Gospel for such a time is expressed as proclaiming that the Son of God now rules the nations as his possession (Psalm 2:7-9), “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9), “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7), together with announcements of freedom, release, and hope for the poor (Isaiah 49:9, 61:1-3). Psalm 96 surveys the vast splendour of YAHWEH with a call to proclaim His glory to the nations, “Your God reigns!” (Psalm 96:1-13). Isaiah tells us that YAHWEH is coming, Messiah is coming, and the Servant of God is coming, and in the person of Jesus all three come together. The coming of the Messiah brings the Kingdom of mercy and forgiveness, blessing in abundance from the fertile and well watered earth, and harmonious societies. All nations will be caught up in this transformation, as promised to Abraham repeatedly, and all nations will be gathered together in the renewed Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1-4, 60:1-22).
- Synoptic Gospels
The Gospel is summarized as the Kingdom of God being inaugurated but most of the story draws us to Jesus himself with Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi being the pivotal moment, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story of Jesus is the story of the Kingdom’s presence in Him, in His rule. The “Kingdom of God” is a New Testament phrase that captures the Old Testament hope. The Synoptics present a Gospel of the Gospel story of Jesus, the Gospel of the Kingdom inaugurated, and the Gospel of the person of Jesus who is Lord and Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man. To all who come to him, forgiveness of all sin is promised.
- John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel story of Jesus is different though perfectly consistent. He is less Kingdom oriented but more creation oriented (John 1:1-18). More than anything else, the sovereignty of Jesus as the one sent from the Father is the recurring theme. John has no doubt as to the point of the story, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31). The person-hood or identity of Jesus, with the promise of forgiveness and Spirit life to all who believe in this Jesus, is the essence of the message.
- Acts of the Apostles
Particularly noteworthy is that the message does not change essentially following the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement. The Kingdom in general and the person-hood of Jesus remain the focus of the message. Two collections of material demonstrate this. The first is the summary statements of the Apostles’ Gospel in which the Kingdom is the core message. The second is the primary thrust of the recorded evangelistic sermons in Acts. Depending on the context, various evidence is collated in each sermon to establish the identity of Jesus. “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36). To those who choose to repent and believe in this Jesus, there is the promise of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, and eventually the full inheritance of the Kingdom.
- Paul’s Letters
Paul writes to address particular needs in particular churches even as he also encourages them in the faith and its practice. His theology, consistent with Jesus and the prophets, has a high and central role for Jesus. In various ways, he affirms the reality of Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth who is ruling with God’s Kingdom agenda. His Gospel proclaims the Lordship of Christ. He recognizes that the Gospel builds upon the Kingdom promises of the Old Testament: “God …. announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:8). Paul appreciates that the Gospel is the story of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-28) and argues for the indispensable truth of Jesus’ resurrection for the Gospel. He describes the conversion of the Thessalonians as turning to the “living and true God” in Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
Some of Paul’s readers lost the plot and began to argue for various extras beyond repentance and faith before salvation could be granted. They had failed to appreciate how the forgiveness promised in the Gospel was fully made possible through the cross of Christ. He speaks in very strong terms to rebuke the Galatians and warns the Colossians of the foolishness of practicing worthless extras for salvation. He refers to those who advocate for these extra requirements as dogs whose god is the stomach (Philippians 3). Romans is the letter in which Paul most works through the theology of salvation that comes to all who believe in Christ. He begins by telling us what the Gospel is all about (Romans 1:1-3). However, Romans is not so much an elaborate explanation of the Gospel itself but how it works, more a theological justification for justification by faith alone. Even though both Jew and Gentile are equal recipients of salvation through faith in Jesus, the righteousness of God is upheld because all are equally deserving of judgement, Jesus died in the place of all equally, and God has remained faithful to His promises by not abandoning Israel but rather grafting Gentile believers into the same olive tree that is God’s people.
- Other NT material.
John’s first letter does not use the word “gospel” but he does explain that the core of faith is believing the truth about who Jesus is. He also makes it clear that mere intellectual assent is not true belief. In Hebrews, the same centrality for Jesus is in the long introduction which emphasizes the core and central truth of the person-hood of Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-14). Without this truth, everything else becomes problematic. First Peter begins in a similar way (1 Peter 1:1-13).
Throughout this brief survey, consistently the person-hood of Jesus is the central core. This truth provides the reference point and foundation for everything else. True faith is faith in Him. Because He is Lord of all, the Gospel also has a massive and comprehensive promise of Kingdom transformation, renewal and healing for all things. He has already inaugurated this Kingdom and will bring it to completion when He returns. The blessings of this Kingdom life include full and complete forgiveness because Jesus died the death that should have been ours.
One more observation.
Even a casual read of the Gospels makes it very clear that every encounter Jesus had was unique in the way He spoke or acted. He did not function with a formula nor did he operate in any way that could be described as stereotypical. Each person, or crowd, was exceptional. He said a little or a lot or nothing much at all but never really the same. His actions also cannot be standardized. In other words, He discerned what would be most helpful in that moment for that person. His was certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach.
The evangelistic sermons in Acts exhibit a similar flexibility. While the climatic focus remains the claim that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, the structure of each sermon, the beginning point of each, and the evidence presented, varies from one to the next. Again, discernment determined what would be most helpful for that particular group and that particular time.
As noted above, the Beatitudes have an invitational quality. That is, they express the Gospel hope for the Kingdom with a realization that the Kingdom brings hope for all who long for what is right and good. This also reflects the diversity of approaches for the Gospel message as we have just noted in the Gospels and in Acts.
So for us, practically speaking, engage with people relationally in their real worlds so as to learn something of their deepest fears and longings. When appropriate, help them see that the Kingdom brings the very things that they long to see, or addresses the needs that they feel deeply. From here, the identity of the King can be discussed, together with the call to believe in Him and the repentance required for this belief to be genuine.
Today, masses of people are longing for equality and justice, for peace, for environmental responsibility, for decency and morality, for freedom from poverty and violence, for security, for healing, for hope and a future. The Gospel is not a naïve and simplistic Jesus-is-the-answer, but a promise that God shares our passion for what is right and good, and through the Kingdom rule and agenda of Jesus, He is working towards new heaven and new earth in which all these things are put to right.
We have so much to talk about!
A Gospel which engages.
The more IC Christians can see how the Gospel has relevance and impact for all the realities and issues of life, the more missional engagement can be stimulated. The more they can see how the promises of the Kingdom apply to the life challenges and dreams of their relatives, friends and colleagues, the more they will be equipped to witness to Christ wherever they go. The more they understand the comprehensive agenda of the Kingdom the more they we see how their studies, work, relationships, and career can be part of this work of God. The more they catch the vision of this exceptionally good news, the more missional passion will grow.
The Gospel is a world view, a theological narrative for the nations, a personal narrative about Jesus, a grand Kingdom vision, a socio-political alternative, a comprehensive collection of profound promises. The Gospel is the story of the reconciliation of all things through the peace of the cross as heaven and earth are united in Christ. It is individual as well as social in its relevance and impact. It is disturbing as well as rich with hope. The Gospel is proclamation, promise, vision, warning, invitation, and hope.
People in ICs need to see how their lives and contexts integrate with the Gospel and its world view. They need to see how the narrative of God’s engagement with human history meshes with the narrative that is unfolding all around them every day. The need to appreciate that God has not abandoned human society to the consequences of the local and global issues dominating our lives.
Too often preaching is more about us than Jesus, more about individual spirituality and benefit than global transformation, more about the present than the future vision, more about our sexual behaviour than God’s plan for all the nations, more about avoiding the issues of the day than promising that the Kingdom has a hope for all of them, more about presumptions supporting narrow political ideology than having political vision shaped by the Kingdom. This neglect is a major factor in the disengagement of IC people from missional vision and practice. It is a neglect that makes it so hard for Christians to see that there is any connection between their faith and the world in which they live and operate.
At its briefest, the Gospel tells us that Jesus is Lord. At its most compressive, it declares that God is engaged in a massive and global work of transformation and reconciliation that will radically affect everything. To be part of this future, repentance and faith are needed. Forgiveness is absolutely essential and it only comes when we believe in and follow Jesus.
The Gospel includes a call to discipleship. Discipleship and mission go hand in glove together: one without the other is not possible. Our preaching must embrace all facets of the Gospel if discipleship and mission are to be taken up by our IC people. Discipleship must always be shaped by the person of Jesus, His example of self-emptying, and His Gospel and Kingdom agenda. Our longing to make disciples needs a comprehensive understanding of the Gospel if we are to be effective.
With our eyes and mission centred on Jesus, who has all authority in heaven and earth, we can learn how our missional word/Gospel and deed/action can be integrated from context to context, and relationship to relationship. There are no formulas but the Spirit works with us as we engage in relationships in diverse contexts and He enables us to blend together our works of love and our words of love.
Let us be IC preachers who have a passion for the whole Gospel, a passion for all the earth and its nations, for the vision of renewed heaven and earth. Let us be preachers who first and foremost lift up Jesus and take time to lay out His Kingdom agenda. Let us be preachers who tell the story of Jesus and the story of His Kingdom, and blend these with the stories and history of our time and our context. Let us be preachers who inspire engagement by letting our people see the vision of the future which promises that all things in all creation with be put to right even as all things are reconciled to God through the cross of Christ.
The Gospel is personal (Jesus), narrative (Gospels, and the Kingdom promised and fulfilled), and vision (renewed creation in new heaven and new earth).
My vision is for ICs across the globe being missional churches who live, breathe, practice, and communicate such a Gospel.
Beatitudes – Matthew 5
Hope – because the Kingdom is coming. 
The first and last Beatitudes refer to the Kingdom in general while all the ones in between are some of the great realities of the Kingdom.
For all in the Kingdom, there is great blessing, great joy.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For all broken by poverty and by life’s cruelties, turn to Jesus because His Kingdom will be all you long for.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
For all who grieve over the state of our world, and their own failings, follow Jesus because His kingdom brings freedom from all sorrow.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
For those who live with humility and gentleness, be humble before Jesus because His Kingdom brings the whole earth as the possession of His people.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
For those who ache day by day for justice, for what is right, for freedom from oppression and discrimination, look to Jesus because He likewise has passion for such things and will bring fulfilment for those who dream of all that is right.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
For those who extend grace, kindness and mercy to others, hold onto Jesus because His Kingdom brings this same mercy to all.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
For all who strive for purity, for sincerity, for authenticity, for freedom from sin, put your hope in Jesus because in His Kingdom there is the gift of being face-to-face before God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
For all who work for peace, whose passion is for harmony, for wholeness, whose vision for all the earth is reconciliation, have no doubt that Jesus likewise is a peacemaker and His Kingdom will bring peace to all the earth.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For all who stand up for what is just and right and yet are attacked for doing so, never forget that Jesus Kingdom is for such as you.
Turn to Him, follow Him, put your hope in Him, be humble before Him, hold onto Him, believe in Him, and trust in Him: be filled with joy because His kingdom one day will fill the earth with the very best of everything that is good.
 Note the way that the Creeds are story-like even as they follow the standard Trinitarian structure.
 John 3:16, 3:18, 3:36, 6:35. 6:40, 7:38-39, 8:30, 9:35-36, 11:25-27, 12:44-46, 20:31, Acts 4:12, 24:24, Romans 3:22, Galatians 2:16, 2:20, 3:26, Philippians 3:9, Colossians 1:4, 2:5, 1 Timothy 3:13, 2 Timothy 3:15, I john 3:23,
 In the past Christendom world in which nominal belief and basic knowledge were common, one could get away with such approaches as many had some basic concept of who Jesus is. This is no longer the case. Fortunately, the false dichotomy now is far less common.
 These questions reflect the exhortation of Jesus in Luke 14:28-33 to count the cost before taking up discipleship. We have too often seen the consequences of “easy believism” and “cheap grace”.
 Not surprisingly, over the past century and into today, we continue to hear similar extremist and grandiose language used of totalitarian rulers, actual and wannabes, in many countries. The Gospel must always be a refutation of such claims.
 Isaiah 33:17, 22, 40:1-11, 43:15, 44:6, 45:15, 21, 60:16, cf. 51:16
 Isaiah 4:2-6, 9:1-7, 11:1-16, 16:4-5, 19:20 (cf. 16-25), 28:16, 32:1-5, 15-20, 55:3-5, 59:20, 61:1-11.
 Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12.
 Matthew 4:17, 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:43, 8:1, 9:11. Similar summaries are found for the mission of the 12 and the 70, and for the apostles in Acts.
 Acts 8:12, 14:22, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 28:31.
 Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:2-53, 10:34-43, 13:16-41, 14:14-17, 17:22-31.
 It as an interesting exercise to think through what Paul is assumes his readers already know. Like Peter and Hebrews, Paul often refers to the Gospel without explanation. Presumably these writers thought that their readers knew what they were referring to.
 Romans 1:1-4, 9, 10:9, 15:19, 16:25-27, 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, 9:13, 10:14, Philippians 1:27, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 2 Timothy 2:8.
 1 John 1:1-3, 4:2, 4:15, 5:1, 5:5, 5:20.
 This is not to suggest that the Kingdom is merely a wish-fulfilment exercise. All our longings are re-shaped and our needs met in ways that we probably had not previously considered.
 There is no Biblical warrant for the idea that we must start with labouring how much we are all guilty and sin-laden and our only hope is Jesus’ forgiveness through the cross. Sooner rather than later these realities must be appreciated but they make far more sense when in the context of a grand vision for the Kingdom fulfilled under the Lord of heaven and earth. Of course, if sin and guilt are the burdens of some, then we start with these.
 Link to “Which World View” article.
 Link to “Which Theology” article.
 Link to “Which Reconciliation” article.
 Link to “Which Discipleship” article.
 Unfortunately, many use the Beatitudes to preach moralistic sermons in which the joy of the Kingdom is subdued under much instruction as to how we should live. This fundamentally misses the point. There are helpful ideals here towards which we should aspire. But this is a statement of promise to those already longing for all that is good.