Full Gospel Business
by Brian L. Watts
We are proud to say we believe in the full gospel. But how full is the gospel of the modern church? How do we measure fullness? Surely one key component should be the comparison between the gospel we preach and the Gospels that are contained in Scripture.
All studies of the Gospels recognize that each writer presents a different facet of the person of Jesus. G. Campbell Morgan, for example, speaks of Matthew revealing the King, Mark the Priest, Luke the Prophet, while John focuses on Jesus the Person. There are many such categorizations.
But the Gospels are not primarily biographies. They are "gospels" (i.e proclamations of good news). So, surely we should be looking for more than a fully rounded portrait of Jesus. We should also be looking for a full gospel. Just as our portrait of Jesus would be inadequate without the four records, so our proclamation of the gospel will be incomplete unless it includes the full revelation expounded by all four gospel writers.
So how does the gospel of modern evangelicalism match up with the full gospel of Scripture? We should probably start by looking at the gospel which, more than any of the others, has been the basis for most evangelistic preaching in the twentieth century. I refer, of course, to John's Gospel.
I have to admit my bias up front. I've been reading the Bible regularly for more than thirty years. I've studied John's Gospel (in English and Greek) at Bible college - and even passed exams on it. I've taught it in churches and in Bible Schools. But if I'm honest, I still don't really understand it. I think it's wonderful; but much of it remains mysterious. I have often wondered how a non-Christian with no biblical background could make head or tail of it.
Of course the Holy Spirit is masterfully able to take the things of Christ and reveal them to those whom He is drawing to God. But I'm not sure that this was the primary purpose of John's Gospel. John's own stated purpose is that he wrote so that we might believe (Jn 20:31). The stress is on the word "believe" in that verse. Literally it is "that you may go on believing". John is writing to people like Thomas (in the preceding verses) who have believed, but who are in danger of slipping into unbelief.
It seems to me that Mark's is the most explicitly evangelistic gospel. It reaches its climax when the Roman centurion declares "Surely this man was the Son of God" when he saw how he died (Mk 15:39). Mark revolved his whole gospel around the story of the cross. It's full of action - and therefore an easy read. It requires little knowledge of a Jewish background, and there are few abstract theological concepts - in fact very little teaching. But the reader is confronted with the offence of the cross and has to make a decision about who Jesus is. Is He the Son of God - or is he the demonized madman his relatives and the religious leaders think he is (Mk 3:20-22)?
I understand Mark - and I think most non-Christians would. Why then do we prefer to give unbelievers John's mystical Gospel with its long discourses. I suggest it is primarily because it contains the magic words "You must be born again" (Jn 3:7). I say "magic", not because John ever intended them to be magical, but because we tend to use them that way - a simple phrase that we hope (wish?) will precipitate a massive upheaval.
The vocabulary of modern evangelism is drawn largely from John's Gospel. The phrase "born again" does not appear in the other three gospels. Becoming a Christian, we are told, is a matter of believing in Jesus. "To believe in" is found over forty times in John's Gospel; in the synoptic gospels, the only reference to the phrase is in Matthew 18:6. The offer of the gospel, we are told, is the promise of eternal life. Certainly John often tells us that is what Jesus came to give. But the phrase "eternal life " is strangely absent from the other gospels; the rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking how to inherit it, but Jesus talks instead about it being hard to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mk 10:17-25).
What gospel would we preach if we did not have John? Most evangelistic sermons would be devoid of content if the preacher did not have John's vocabulary of being born again, receiving eternal life and believing in Jesus. Yet Matthew, Mark (who was Peter's mouthpiece) and Luke (who was raised on Paul's evangelism) wrote whole gospels without reference to these concepts.
The contrast becomes even more stark when we consider the words these writers used which play little part in John's vocabulary. Their fundamental proclamation of the gospel is "Repent, because the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Mk 1:15). But repentance (as a noun or verb) is never mentioned in John. Is that not strangely like modern evangelicalism: a gospel proclaimed without reference to repentance. Similarly, John is virtually silent on the kingdom (three passing references only). Again, the message of the kingdom as a present reality, of Jesus ruling with authority in time and space, has been absent from much of the modern church.
There are other familiar words that are also notably absent from John's Gospel and from the western Christianity in our day. For example, righteousness - a pre-requisite for entering the kingdom in Matthew (Mt 5:20) is barely mentioned in John. There are no references in John to the radical discipleship that Jesus demands in the Synoptics with His repeated calls to take up our cross and follow him.
Perhaps it is a legacy of a Johannine gospel that leaves us with the current "Lordship controversy". If we take John alone, then becoming a Christian is a question of "only believe"; if we add the Synoptic emphases, Jesus can only be received as both Saviour AND Lord.
Similarly, John has no mention of the word "dunamis" (power or miracle). There are miracles in John, but they are "signs"; the stress is on what they teach rather than on the dramatic manifestation of the kingdom. There are no demons or exorcisms in John - though to the synoptic writers, this conflict is the sure evidence of the coming of the kingdom (Mt 12:28). Again, is it a coincidence that the modern church has until recently lacked the dynamic evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit?
So what are we saying? That John's gospel is erroneous as a foundation for evangelism? No! Merely that it is inadequate as a foundation for evangelism. A full gospel includes all the concepts expounded in all the Gospels. There is no inconsistency between the gospel writers, but the terms they use must be interpreted in light of similar truths in other gospels.
What is the gift that is being offered by the gospel? John says it is eternal life; according to the other gospels it is the Kingdom of God. But when we look at the passages that use both terms (Mk 10:17-24; Jn 3:3-16), they are used almost interchangeably. Maybe there is no such thing as eternal life apart from God's kingdom, living under the government of Jesus?
How do we enter this wonderful prospect? John says by believing in Jesus; according to the Synoptic writers, by taking up our cross and following Jesus. Perhaps that radical discipleship is what John meant by the commitment and trust that is implied in believing in Jesus?
What do we have to do? Putting John and the other Gospels together we must be born again (dealing with the root problem of our sin nature) and we have to repent (dealing with the fruit problem of particular sins). Jesus answered the question of "What must I do to be saved?" in both these ways if we compare John 3:1-21 with Mark 10:17-31.
The gospel we preach is incomplete unless it contains all of the elements included in the four-sided presentation of The Gospel included in Scripture. Any dimension that is missing in our evangelistic proclamation will ultimately be missing in the fabric of the church. Maybe the church is looking rather hollow because its gospel is far from full.