Part of the solution to translating the gospel for today requires a move beyond the simplified versions of the salvation-only gospel.
Four-spiritual laws, the Romans Road, and invitations to pray the “sinners pray” may still be appropriate in certain sectors of society. But not many. With a declining grasp of Christian beliefs and morality in the broader culture, a packaged faith just doesn’t translate well. In a post-Christian culture, people are very suspicious of religious messaging, especially calls for commitment. “What’s the catch?” is a common response to the presentation of the salvation-only gospel. And if we’re on honest, the salvation-only gospel has always had a catch: following Jesus - the whole joining others, living well, loving your neighbor, submitting your whole life (not just your mind) part. Pretty big “catch” if you ask me. It’s not surprising statistics don’t reveal a strong retention of young adults in the church - Christianity is costly (Mt. 10:38-39).
But I think we need more than just recognizing historical and cultural influence, although that helps. And we need more than just a more balanced presentation that is honest about the cost of discipleship. We can’t just tweak the Christian message if the paradigm of the gospel is incomplete. With personal salvation the gospel, the rest of the faith journey becomes secondary (e.g. Step 1: believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour - this is the MOST IMPORTANT step. Step 2 and beyond: follow Jesus and live a Christian life).
On the salvation-only paradigm, NT Wright reflects,
“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say, ‘the gospel.’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.”We need a better paradigm. We need the whole gospel.
Instead of making personal salvation the hub of the Christian gospel or the gateway to discipleship, we need to place personal salvation as a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. An important part, no doubt. But a part.
I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s personal experience of salvation, but the gospel is bigger than you. Or me. And a response to the gospel requires more than my internal agreement or belief.
Jesus’ invitation to “repent and believe” (Mk. 1:15) was not like our ways of agreement or belief - an internal change in attitude. No, Jesus was calling people to a transformed way of life in participation with God and his people in the world (OT - Israel; NT - Church). And this remains the call today. Not only is the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection timeless, but the gospel of Jesus’ invitation is as well: “Come, follow me...” (Mt. 4:19; Mk. 10:21).