Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A New Way to Present a Timeless Truth

I’ve been training students in evangelism for several years now, and one of the things that we teach them is a simple illustration that helps explain the basics of the Gospel to a non-Christian. The bridge diagram is a classic evangelism tool, and very useful because it visually shows the need of all people to have the gap between us and God “bridged” by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But last month I was having lunch with some pastors in Charlotte, and we began to talk about what people really need to believe or understand in terms of salvation. And what it boiled down to is that Christians usually explain the Gospel in terms of people’s need for forgiveness of sin. The main problem that we present is that sin has separated us from God, and that Jesus died on the cross to fix that sin problem. We also present the Gospel as a one-time transaction, a decision that we make to accept God’s forgiveness and “cross the bridge.”

However, I do not believe that sin is the main problem that God came to address in Jesus Christ. Rather, the main problem with all people is that because of the Fall (Genesis 1-3), we are born dead in our spirits, and we need life. Therefore, we sin because we are grabbing life from any place we can get it, except for depending on God. I do not believe that people become sinners because they sin. I believe that people who are not in Christ sin because they are sinners – they are spirit-dead and lifeless in their core. (Incidentally, Christians sin for much the same reason - we are grabbing life from sources other than God. The main difference is that Christians have free and instant access to God's Life at all times, giving us the choice to depend on Him as our hope and life rather than try and produce it on our own.) Jesus said, "I have come that you may have life, and life abundant," and He told Nicodemus in John chapter 3 that the way to see the kingdom of God is to be born again, i.e. to be born with new life in our spirit.

If this is a more faithful statement of the main problem, the bridge diagram is not the most faithful illustration of God’s solution or even His end-goal for all people, because it’s main focus is on the sin of the unbeliever and posits the purpose of the cross as simply forgiving our sins and that God's goal is for us to accept His forgiveness. We have a Life problem, and Jesus’ death on the cross cleared the barrier of sin so that God might give us what we really need- His life.

And I while I do believe that there is one specific moment of salvation (rebirth) at which the Believer becomes a permanent member of God’s family, believing and experiencing the Gospel is an ongoing process in our lives. Believing the Gospel is not simply a one-time assent to the truth of the work of Christ, but it is a daily, moment-by-moment belief in our need for the Life of God to fill us, lead us, and move through us as we depend on Him for our acceptance, worth, and purpose – really, depend on Him for all things. Again, the bridge diagram would lead us to believe that belief in the Gospel is something we do one time.

While the bridge diagram is simply that, a diagram, it points to some fundamental flaws in traditional methods and beliefs about evangelism, and I think that those hampered Christians’ ability to articulate the Gospel to others. These flaws have also severely limited the depth and scope of our own understanding of our need for Christ and the ongoing work of His Spirit in our lives. Thus we try to give away in evangelism what we ourselves are not receiving. So, I have endeavored to come up with a simple illustration that Christians might use to show the Gospel to someone who does not know Christ, being faithful to the main problem of spiritual death and how the cross and resurrection of Christ give us what we really need, forgiveness which paves the way to life. In the next day or so, I hope to draw this out and post a video here of what that might look like.


Jeff said...

Marshall, I appreciate your comments. You and your pastor buds are not the only ones to feel this way about the bridge diagram. James Chuong is working on an IVP book with a more holistic approach that integrates the redemption of the earth as well as people. See a brief video here:

I hope more and more people start thinking about this.

Marshall Benbow said...

While I appreciate what James is doing and can see his heart behind it, I find the approach a little bit too wholistic and earth-focused; perhaps useful in certain contexts but overall I think it does not have enough emphasis on sin and its interpersonal costs and the costs on our lives and overemphasizes care of creation, though I know that this is done to reach a broader audience who are more and more concerned about stewardship of the planet (as am I). Perhaps I am just a bit behind the curve on this. I would be curious to see what other readers think (and also very interested in feedback on places where my thoughts seem to fall short in my proposed diagram.)

B-U-R-L-Y said...

I've found Tim Keller's approach to presenting the gospel to be a compelling way to do it - first and foremost, because I've seen my life change by applying it to my own life.

An article on his approach is here:

And an excerpt is here (sorry in advance for the length of the post ... and that I did not take the time to "distill" it into my own words). Here's the Rev. Dr. Keller:

"I ordinarily begin speaking about sin to a young, urban, non-Christian like this:

Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry.

Why is this a good path to take?

First, this definition of sin includes a group of people that postmodern people are acutely aware of. Postmodern people rightly believe that much harm has been done by self-righteous religious people. If we say “sin is breaking God’s law” without a great deal of further explanation, it appears that the Pharisaical people they have known are ‘in’ and most other people are ‘out.’ Pharisees, of course, are quite fastidious in their keeping of the moral law, and therefore (to the hearer) they seem to be the very essence of what a Christian should be. An emphasis on idolatry avoids this problem. As Luther points out, Pharisees, while not bowing to literal idols, were looking to themselves and their moral goodness for their justification, and therefore they were actually breaking the first commandment. Their morality was self-justifying motivation and therefore spiritually pathological. At the bottom of all their law-keeping they were actually breaking the most fundamental law of all. When we give definitions and descriptions of sin to postmodern people, we must do so in a way that not only challenges prostitutes to change but also Pharisees."

And that's where I fit in: I'm a Pharisee at heart much of the time and need to be challenged in this way.

What do you think?

B-U-R-L-Y said...

look what I found: