Over my years as a Christian, I have heard the phrase, “a simple gospel message,” used quite a number of times. People have expressed their appreciation for preachers who have preached such a message. Those training others for ministry have exhorted their students to preach such messages. Interestingly, I do not recall ever having anyone explain how the Scripture teaches us to preach such a message or what exactly constitutes such a message.
Because of the seemingly widespread use of this phrase and the desire for ministers to preach such messages, we would do well to consider how we would answer the question, “Does Scripture teach us to preach a simple gospel message?” To try to answer this question, we will consider several points.
“Simple” and “Simplicity” Do Not Teach Us to Preach “A Simple Gospel Message”
The phrase, “a simple gospel message,” does not occur anywhere in Scripture. The adjective, “simple,” is not found anywhere in explicit teaching concerning the gospel.
The noun, “simplicity,” is found three times in the NT (Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 1:12 and 11:3). The first occurrence is not relevant because it concerns the manner of our giving. The second is in a general statement about conducting our lives in the world and does not directly pertain to what we are to preach.
The third occurrence is in Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 11 and does concern proper preaching. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote that he feared, “lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (11:3). He then explained his concern by saying,
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostle. But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge; but we have been thoroughly made manifest among you in all things. Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely? I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service (11:4-7).
Three occurrences of two keys verb for preaching and two references concerning the gospel show that this is an important passage concerning our preaching the gospel. Paul’s references to the serpent’s beguiling Eve and to the preaching of another Jesus show that he is concerned about the preaching of a false Jesus and a false gospel by false apostles (cf. 11:12-15). In that connection, he mentions his being “rude in speech” in contrast from the false apostles who touted their speaking abilities in their attempt to draw away the Corinthians from Paul.
He did not mention his lack of eloquence in preaching, however, to teach that gospel preaching should be characteristically simple concerning the content of what is to be preached. As we will see below, Luke’s records of key instances of the preaching of the gospel display considerable complexity and depth in the content of the evangelistic messages by the apostles.
In Paul’s latter reference to the preaching of the gospel (11:7ff.), Paul contrasts himself with the false apostles when he speaks of his foregoing remuneration for preaching the gospel. Neither concern in this context has anything to do directly with the content of his preaching the true gospel being simple.
The Gospel Messages at Pentecost and Gentecost Were Not “Simple”
An examination of the two premier apostolic evangelistic occasions, Pentecost and Gentecost, verifies this interpretation. Peter’s Pentecost message contains statements that interpreters struggle to explain fully even today (Acts 2:16-21). Peter’s abundant testimony to both the Father and the Son along with several references to the Holy Spirit (2:17, 18, 33, 38) show that he evangelized his hearers with a message that was highly Trinitarian and not simply preaching about Jesus Himself and the events that He experienced.
Moreover, Peter’s explicit statements about God’s approving Jesus (2:22), doing miracles through Him (2:22), raising Him (2:24, 32), exalting Him (2:33), giving Him the Holy Spirit (2:33), and making Him both Lord and Christ (2:36) intensely challenged the hearers with content concerning Jesus as God’s agent; Peter’s focus was not solely or even primarily on the deity of Jesus. He thus forced his hearers to have to reckon with Jesus’ humanity in relation to His deity as well as His agency in relation to His deity.
Peter’s message of the gospel at Pentecost was not a message that was concerned with testifying to Jesus alone with a primary focus on His deity. The Church thus began with his message that was not “a simple gospel message” with respect to its content.
Peter’s message at Gentecost similarly was not a “simple gospel message” about Jesus alone as deity. As he did at Pentecost, Peter preached a Trinitarian message that abundantly referred to both God and Jesus, including an explicit statement of how the Father anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power (10:38a). He also forced his hearers to have to reckon with the existence of evil in the supernatural realm by proclaiming Jesus’ healing all who were oppressed by the devil (10:38b). Moreover, instead of focusing on Jesus’ miraculous works as proof of His deity, Peter emphasized God’s empowering Him (10:38a) and accompanying Him (10:38c).
As he did at Pentecost, Peter strongly emphasized Jesus’ agency (10:36, 38), including a unique explicit statement about Jesus as the God-appointed Judge (10:42) that does not easily fit in with many contemporary perspectives about evangelism and missions. This statement presents other challenges to interpreters as well, including the precise nature of its relation to the next verse concerning the forgiveness of sins through believing in His name (10:43).
These two preeminent evangelistic messages in church history do not line up with the notion of preaching of “a simple gospel message” either with reference to its content overall or with reference to a focus solely on Jesus and His deity. Should we then hold that the Scripture teaches us to preach “a simple gospel message”?
Possible Response: Acts 8:35 and 16:31 Support Preaching “A Simple Gospel Message”
In response to this line of reasoning, some may point to the evangelistic accounts about the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and of the Philippian jailor (16:25-34) as evidence that supports the preaching of “a simple gospel message.” Although Luke does provide fairly lengthy overall records of these evangelistic encounters, he does not provide much information about what was actually testified to the lost people.
In future articles, I plan to look carefully at these accounts to see if they support an approach that does not make the Pentecost and Gentecost accounts (along with 1 Cor. 15:3-5) the primary models for our learning to preach the gospel. For now, I say that it is highly improbable that these very brief summary statements (Acts 8:35; 16:31) of what were undoubtedly much longer messages are intended to be normative for our evangelism in preference above the records of the premier evangelistic messages for both Jews and Gentiles that are recorded in Scripture.
There does not seem to be any clear scriptural teaching that teaches us to preach “a simple gospel message” in the sense discussed above. Hence, we would do well to adjust what we say to one another in this respect, especially in our discipleship activities that are geared toward training ministers and personal workers in evangelism.
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