Joe Anderson’s and Tim Nichols’ “Proclaim” is a biblically grounded and richly provocative essay offering great insight into the task of proclamation in our secular age. Given that Westerners have learned to manage life without reference to God, and that Christianity is now often considered implausible, unimaginable, and even reprehensible, our need to understand the task of proclamation takes on a heightened significance. When we proclaim “the gospel” in a secular age, the people to whom we declare likely have little or no understanding of the gospel or its implications.

The authors of “Proclaim” argue that the gospel is best proclaimed when the proclaimer has adopted a stance of “blessing;” that proclamation is a public endeavor involving a public truth; that “sharing the gospel” is not the best overall framework for understanding the work of evangelism; that gospel-driven proclamation properly involves a combination of words and deeds; that proclamation can be accompanied by persuasion but should not be equated with persuasion; that the gospel is inextricably intertwined with the kingdom; and that proclamation must be undergirded by a Spirit-funded boldness.

In response to the essay, I will offer reflections on their definition of the gospel, their claims that proclamation involves both words and deeds, and their emphasis on the stance of blessing. I will conclude with an affirmation of their call for boldness. Let us begin by defining the “gospel.”

Definition of “Gospel”

When discussing the nature of gospel proclamation, it is of first importance to define the gospel that is being proclaimed. The Bible never provides a “dictionary definition” of the gospel but we know, from the lips of Jesus, that the Jesus preached a gospel of the kingdom and describes the gospel as “good news” (Mk 1:14-15). Thus the gospel is a sort of media term: it is the most significant breaking news of all time. And it is good news! We also know that ancient extra-biblical literature uses the term gospel similarly. In the ancient world, gospel was a word that described an announcement of important events that a king had accomplished: the capture of a city, the defeat of an offending army, or the entrance of the king into a region; it is a message or proclamation about something.

But what is the something that we must proclaim? The apostle Paul summarizes this something—the Christian gospel—when writing to the Corinthians. He writes:

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.

According to Paul, therefore, the gospel is an announcement that Paul received from God through Christ, and now passes on to others. Significantly, it is an announcement about Jesus that can be delineated in the following “bullet points”:

            1.         Jesus is the Christ (the promised messiah).

            2.         Jesus died a saving death.

            3.         Jesus died a saving death for sin.

            4.         Jesus died and was buried.

            5.         Jesus was raised from the dead.

            6.         Jesus’s death and resurrection were in line with Scriptural teaching.

            7.         Jesus’s resurrection is a public truth revealed to many witnesses.

The Christian gospel, therefore, declares that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah that God had promised for millennia.

But just who is this Messiah and what are the implications of his reign? In 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, the messiah is the anointed one, the promised Israelite king who would come from the Davidic line. He is the anointed one who will rule the nations (Ps. 2), the one who will atone for the sins of Israel and the nations (Isa. 53:3–10), and the one who will bring renewal to the whole of the created order (Isa. 65). The resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was slaughtered publicly on a cross, is, quite literally, the King over all creation!

As Anderson and Nichols note, evangelicals often reduce the gospel to a private message about an individuals’ personal need to embrace Christ as the forgiver of one’s own sins and the Lord of one’s individual life. This aspect of the gospel—one’s own salvation—is of vital significance and is a profound truth that ought not be neglected. Yet, at the same time, if the gospel is reduced to the realm of private truth and experience, it is distorted beyond recognition.

Indeed, the gospel is a public truth, one with relevance that extends far beyond the individual and with implications for the entire cosmos. It is the announcement that the creator of the universe took on human flesh, died and was resurrected. His kingdom is now breaking into the cosmos as he resurrects individuals through forgiveness of sins and enablement of new life, and as he forms a people—the church—for himself. And he will one day return to cleanse the cosmos of sin and its effects, and to institute a reign of love, peace, and justice.

This announcement flies in the face of our Western secular age. It flies in the face of predominant political thinking, such as the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls’ view that religion is a private matter that should be hidden from mind and hidden from view when debating matters of public significance. It stands in judgment of the view that “science” is the only avenue for gaining true knowledge about the world and should be the only cultural authority for right-thinking people. It opposes the socially and culturally dominant ideology of Expressive Individualism—an ideology averring that the point of life is to be “authentic”; that the way to be authentic as an individual is to conform one’s life to one’s deepest desires; and that the only way to be authentic as a society is to applaud people for conforming to their individual desires.

Indeed, the gospel announces that the gospel is a public truth with public import. It declares that divine revelation is an avenue for accessing truth about the world and that divine revelation is the only genuine cultural authority for the West. And it declares that the Savior of the world is also the King of the world; that an individual or a society’s authenticity depends on conforming one’s life to the King’s will for his life and that society will truly flourish only when it conforms its life to the King’s will.

Word and Deed

How, therefore, should God’s people go about the task of “sharing” the gospel? That is quite a good question, and one that has been debated over the centuries, and at no time more contested than in our secular age. When I (Bruce) was in college, struggling to find my feet as a Christian witness, I studied Scripture and realized that there are many approaches toward “sharing” the good news about Jesus. I realized I did not have to fit into any one mold but could allow the Lord to guide me based on context, personality, or other factors. Some of the biblical examples of gospel “sharing” include:

  1. The confrontational approach. For example, Peter. From Acts 2:14–40 and other passages, it is clear that Peter was a preacher who did not mince words. He was convinced of the gospel’s truth, and he communicated his gospel convictions boldly and directly.
  2. The intellectual approach. For example, Paul. In Acts 17:16–34, Paul gives a reasoned and culturally informed presentation of the gospel. Maybe we could imagine his approach being similar to that of a professor.
  3. The testimonial approach. For example, the blind man. In John 9:1–34, the blind man shares his faith by giving his testimony. Particularly encouraging in his story is the simplicity of his message. When challenged theologically, he admits his ignorance. “I don’t know about all your theological categories,” he says, “but I do know this: Yesterday I couldn’t see. Today I can.”
  4. The hospitality approach. For example, Matthew the tax collector. In Luke 5:27–31, we learn that a converted Matthew threw a big party at his house, to which he invites all his tax collector and “sinner” friends. This approach is especially helpful in our secular age because it communicates a stance of “blessing” and “love,” as Anderson and Nichols aver in their essay.
  5. The invitational approach. For example, the Samaritan woman. John 4:1–42 tells the story of the Samaritan woman coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah. Immediately after her conversion, she gathers a group of people and brings them back to Jesus so they can encounter him for themselves.
  6. The service approach. For example, Dorcas. From Acts 9:36–42, we learn that Dorcas’s life was marked by good works, especially helping the poor. She dies prematurely, but Jesus raises her from the dead in order to put her back on the job embodying Christ’s love for the world. When loving Christian service is combined with loving gospel words, the result is a compelling witness.
  7. The parabolic approach. For example, Jesus. Throughout the gospels, Jesus told stories that were memorable and seemed simple on the surface but that revealed deep truths about the gospel and the Christian life. The messages conveyed were deep and central to Jesus’ message. It seems to me that the parabolic approach is especially helpful in a skeptical age, as it causes the listener to work hard to understand the truths conveyed.
  8. The overarching narrative approach. For example, Jesus. In his appearance to Cleopas and another disciples, Jesus drew upon the Bible’s overarching narrative—the true story of the whole world—to explain the crucifixion and resurrection and to teach his own role as cosmic King and Savior. This type of narrative approach is especially helpful in a secular age because it provides the context within which secular people can begin to understand the way Christians use words such as, for example, “God,” “Jesus,” “love,” “image of God,” “sin,” “salvation,” and “gospel.”

Not every Christian has a charismatic personality or is a gifted speaker, but every Christian can and should “share” the gospel. God spoke a word that brought humanity into existence and taught us how to flourish under his benevolent reign However, via the serpent, Satan spoke a word against God’s word, and the first couple ignored God’s word and embraced the serpent’s, thus precipitating humanity’s fall. And, significantly, God through the Son proclaimed a word—the gospel—that would reconcile humanity back to God.

The eight “approaches” outlined above live in an interdependent and reciprocal relationship with one another, thus helping us to understand the need for so-called “word-based” and “deed-based” ministries. The early church engaged enthusiastically in both type of ministries. And indeed, still today, the Christian mission goes forward on the back of both types of ministries. We can compare the relationship between words and deeds to the relationship between a wheel’s rim (deeds) and its hub (words). In order for a wheel to move forward, it needs both. Without the hub (gospel words), the wheel will collapse. Without the rim (gospel-centered actions), the hub will have great difficulty moving forward.

Just as a wheel moves forward because its hub and rim are working together, so the Christian mission moves forward through a combination of gospel words and gospel-shaped actions. Without gospel words, the Christian mission collapses. Without deeds, it has difficulty getting traction. Although not every word will be accompanied by a deed, or vice versa, Christians should be looking to witness and obey with words and deeds at all times. The Christian mission, then, is holistic in its scope.

But in what way is the gospel a public truth? Through the gospel, God is announcing that every square inch of the created world is his and will be restored by him. In the beginning, he spoke a word and called forth something from nothing; then, he spoke words that shaped the something he had created into a world fit for his imagers. By his creative word, man and woman came into being. By his craftsmanship, the animate and inanimate world took shape. Through his spoken word, the moral law was implanted in humanity and into the very structures of the created world. God’s spoken creative word can be viewed as his “thesis” for the world, his pronouncement that “it was good.”

Yet, at the Fall, the Evil One spoke a word against God’s word, calling into question the truth of God’s word, the goodness of his created order, and the righteousness of his character. Satan’s destructive word can be viewed as his “antithesis” for the world. Even today, the Evil One’s antithesis remains. It cuts across every human heart, tempting men and women to worship anything other than the one true and living God. It cuts across every sector of society and sphere of culture, corrupting and misdirecting entire societies and cultural institutions.

Thus, the gospel is an announcement in which God reasserts his claim on every individual, society, and cultural institution. It announces that, through the risen Christ, God offers salvation from sin to those persons who will embrace him in faith; that, from those persons who embrace him, God is creating a people—the Church—who will be a light to the nations; and that, one day, Christ will return to restore his good creation, cleansing it of sin and its effects, and instituting a reign in which justice will roll down like the water and God’s creation will again flourish as he intended.

In the meantime, in this era between Christ’s ascension and soon return, God calls his people to “share” the gospel by consciously seeking to be a preview of his coming kingdom. In our personal lives, we open ourselves to God’s grace so that the antithesis will not rule our hearts. In our corporate life as the people of God, we gather weekly to celebrate the fact that Jesus is Lord and to announce his reign over all of creation. In our social and cultural lives, we direct our intentions and words and deeds toward the risen Christ. 

A Stance of Blessing

At the beginning of their essay, Anderson and Nichols cite Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, “When you go into a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest upon it; if not, it will return to you.” This instruction is symbolic, they argue, Jesus is instructing us to seek out people that might very well be willing to receive blessing, encouraging us to start with a spoken blessing just as God created the world with a word of blessing and just as he announces his inbreaking kingdom as a blessing to those who believe.

This is a wise move on the part of the authors. Although there is nothing wrong—and everything right—with announcing the good news to people who are predisposed against the gospel, there is something profoundly fruitful about operating from a stance of blessing toward those who may very well be receptive. I regret that, throughout the course of my career as a theologian, I have not emphasized the imperative to operate from a stance of blessing. To proclaim the gospel from a stance of blessing transforms our souls (and often our reputations) and motivates us to conform our lives to the gospel such that not only our words but also our deeds are a preview of God’s kingdom and a foretaste of the banquet that is to come.

Boldness in a Secular Age

In our secular age, an era in which God’s Word is increasingly viewed as implausible, unimaginable, and even reprehensible, we must undertake our gospel proclamation with a boldness that can only be funded by God himself. As the risen Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). When thus commissioning his disciples, Jesus showed them the holes in his hands and his side, implying that they, also, would be persecuted for because of their public announcement of the good news. Just as Jesus spoke the truth to power, so would they. Just as Jesus lived sacrificially, so would they. Just as Jesus proclaimed the gospel boldly so would they.

For this reason, let us proclaim the gospel boldly, through word and deed. Like Jesus, we will do so confidently, knowing that his Spirit empowers us as we do, and knowing that he will return one day to set the world to rights. We will also do so humbly, knowing that it is he—rather than we—who will usher the kingdom in. We have the honor of participating in the Kingdom through our proclamation, but he alone gets the glory for its in-breaking and consummation.

Bruce Ashford is a writer and theologian.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.