Learning how to preach the gospel to unbelievers is easier than you may think. You don’t have to have a seminary degree, understand Greek and Hebrew, and know your Bible inside and out (although all of those things would be helpful, of course). You just have to have a willing heart, a boldness about you, a desire to speak the truth to those far from God. So how do you do it?
What Does the Word Gospel Mean?
The Greek word for gospel is euangelion. According to BDAG, the top two definitions for this word, which you probably already know, are:
1. God’s good news to humans, good news as proclamation.
2. Details relating to the life and ministry of Jesus, the good news of Jesus.
The good news is the response to the bad news. The bad news is that humans are born as sinners by nature and by choice. As a result, we deserve eternal condemnation. But God, in his great love for his people, has made a way for humans to have a right relationship with him through his son Jesus who lived a perfect life, died on the cross in our place and for our sins, and rose from the dead. If you turn from your sin and place your faith in Jesus Christ and receive him as Lord and Savior, God removes all of your sins, grants you the righteousness of Christ, and you have a right relationship with God forever. Being right with God is good news indeed.
This is a short version of presenting the gospel, which is probably most succinctly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. There are, however, more details to parse when drawing out the themes of the gospel, something often referred to as the metanarrative of Scripture.
The Metanarrative of Scripture
One widely used way to preach the gospel to unbelievers is by something often referred to as the metanarrative of Scripture. This means tracking the major themes of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Those themes usually fall under the following categories: creation, rebellion, redemption, consummation.
The good news doesn’t start in the New Testament. It starts in Genesis.
In the first book of the Bible, we learn that God created a perfect world. The first two human beings were Adam and Eve. They lived in utter perfection with God. God placed them in this majestic garden called the Garden of Eden to work it. Literally speaking, they had a perfect life.
God gave Adam and Eve reasonable rules to follow, but had one restriction: “. . . You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). What happens next is tragic, and changes the course of human history.
The Serpent, the devil, the evil one, approaches Eve and asks: “. . .Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”(Genesis 3:2). Eve engages in a dialogue with the evil one while Adam passively stands by. Eve reassures the enemy what God told her. But the enemy replies: “’You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:4-6).
Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commands in the Garden of Eden. Theologians call this fall. Adam and Eve, our first parents, served as our representative in the Garden of Eden. The grade they got, you get. They failed — and this is passed on to you. This is what Paul teaches in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—.” As a result, now the rest of us, save one, are born as sinners by nature and choice. And although it is commonplace to refer to this doctrine as “the fall,” I join one of my systemic professors in seminary (I believe it was Dr. Michael D. Williams) and prefer the word “rebellion” for the simple reason: Adam and Eve did not fall in the Garden of Eden; they willingly rebelled.
In his book, Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines sin as follows: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” Acts: stealing, lying, murder. Attitude: unrighteous anger, lust, envy, selfishness. Nature: our inherited sinful flesh. Theologians tend to speak about sins of commission (wrongs you commit) and sins of omission (rights that you should do, but you neglect to do). So sin is not just the wrong things you do, but the good stuff you’re supposed to be doing but you’re not. I believe it was Martin Luther who said you are responsible for what you say, but also what you do not say. And it was the half brother of Jesus, James, who reminds us: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Sin is more heinous and complex than we often think.
Building and borrowing from the work of Augustine who refers to sin as a disorder of love, Tim Keller says that sin is building your life on anything besides God. It’s loving anything more than God. Keller says, “. . . if we love our reputation more than the truth, it’s likely that we’ll lie. Or if we love making money more than our family, we will neglect our children for our career. Disordered love always leads to misery and breakdown. The only way to ‘reorder’ our loves is to love God supremely.” It’s not that we love other things less, per se, as much as we should love God more than anything else. But often, we don’t.
And when does this sinning begin? At birth. King David, for example, says: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5). You don’t have to teach children how to sin; they just figure it out.
We not only sin willfully and voluntarily on a regular basis, but our very nature is corrupt (Ephesians 2:1-3). In Romans 3, furthermore, Paul says nobody is righteous, not a single person and no one seeks God (Romans 3:11). Apart from God, humans are totally depraved. We are incapable of choosing God or doing good apart from his grace.
What’s the big deal with sin, anyway? A lot. One big issue is our sin in relation to God’s holiness. The Bible teaches that the human race’s biggest problem is not self-esteem, social status, or personal health, but sin in light of God’s holiness. Holy means to be set apart. God is holy and intensely abhors sin. Because of our guilt incurred and corruption in the light of God’s holiness, the Bible teaches sin deserves the just punishment of eternal condemnation. God is loving but is also a God of wrath who must punish all sin in order to be consistent with his being. Letting sin go would undermine his character.
Left on our own, we are doomed for the eternal wrath of God. All people everywhere are in need of a Savior.
Thankfully, God doesn’t leave his people hanging, but he himself provides the remedy for this sin problem.
Genesis 3:15 is often referred to as the “Protoevangelium,” which means the first announcement of the gospel: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Here, right after Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden in Eden, God promises the defeat of the enemy. Stated differently, this verse is pointing forward to the defeat of Satan through Jesus. Despite the realness and severity of sin, God already provides the remedy. But Jesus doesn’t come right away. God’s timing and ours are rarely, if ever, the same.
Throughout the entire Old Testament, the people of God would have lived with this promise — that at some point the Messiah, which means Savior, would come to deliver God’s people from their sins. But they had to wait patiently for hundreds of years as they traveled through the wilderness and listened to the teaching of prophets and lived as the people of God, eagerly awaiting the day when the promises of a Savior would be fulfilled through Jesus. In fact, the time between the last Old Testament book and the first New Testament book was 400 years. The people of God waited and waited and waited.
And finally, Jesus arrives: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
Jesus leaves the comforts of heaven, the perfect fellowship with the other members of the Trinity, the Father and Spirit, to be born in a manager. He adds humanity to his divinity, or to say it more profoundly:
Q: “Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?”
A: “The only Redeemer of God’s elect, is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21).
An oft-overlooked aspect of the gospel is something called “active obedience,” which points us to Christ’s perfect life. Yes, his death and resurrection are paramount, but his perfect life is essential to the gospel too, for to be made right with God is not just about the forgiveness of sins alone, but also possessing perfect righteousness and, amazingly, that is attributed to all who trust in Christ. Adam and Eve failed and we got their “F,” but Christ lived perfectly and those who trust in him get his “A.” We get credit for the work we didn’t do.
In predicting that the Messiah would suffer and take on the sin of God’s people, Isaiah writes: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Christ bore the wrath of God as he died on the cross for the sins of God’s people. This shows God to be both just (makes a way for sin to be removed) and justifier (is the one who removes the sin).
Here are some things that do not save you:
- Being baptized as a baby or as an adult doesn’t save you.
- The church confirmation class doesn’t save you.
- Having the wonderful privilege of being born into a Christian family doesn’t save you.
- Going to church every once in a while doesn’t save you.
- You thinking that you are a good person doesn’t save you.
The only way to be saved, to have a right relationship with God, is to turn from your sin and place the entirety of your faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
You must respond to the gospel. How? When Paul and Silas were in prison praying and singing to God, a great earthquake suddenly occurred, fastening open the jail doors and bonds (Acts 16:25). And then a jailer asked an important question: “. . . Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). The reply: “. . . Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . “ (Acts 16:31).
When presenting the gospel, it’s helpful to encourage your listeners to respond. I don’t think this means an alter call or inviting people to come forward to pray a prayer (although this may be appropriate in some contexts), but instead is a challenge to your hearers to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that the Holy Spirit will do the work of regeneration in someone’s heart (or in the hearts of many) if it is God’s will to do so.
Where is this going? Back to the beginning, back to Paradise. This is where God will right every wrong, make all things new, and come down to dwell with his people forever in the new heavens and new earth in utter perfection where there will be no more sin or suffering. So right now we sin and stray and suffer because of this post-Genesis three world, but this life, which is a vapor, will soon pass by, and all the people of God will dwell with him forever.
So that’s one way to preach the gospel to an unbeliever.
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