If there is no fight in you, you have no faith. The gospel without power is not the gospel. —Samuel S. Goebel
As followers of Christ, we need to know the message of the Good News that Jesus brings. Discipleship cannot occur without encountering Jesus, for this is how we experience this Good News, which is also called the gospel. The gospel is simply the truth that we can have a direct relationship with God because He has sent Jesus to us to take care of the issues that prevented us from doing so. Jesus’s death on the cross and His resurrection gave us forgiveness from sins, and now our God dwells in us through His Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and guides us in our paths to what is best.
This gospel message must be correctly understood and communicated in order to fulfill the call of the Great Commission. Discipleship is helping people understand and live out the deeper relationship with God that is available because of what God has done for us. The gospel does not simply end with Jesus’s death and resurrection that leads us to heaven, as many Christians misunderstand. It is living with Jesus, or discipleship, that God has enabled us to live out.
Unfortunately, since many people have a cheap understanding of the gospel, such as believing that certain acts such as attending church on Sundays or repeating a specific prayer justify us, we have many so-called “almost Christians” who see Christianity as a religious act to appease an angry God. Just as a person needs to continue to mow the yard to prevent an ugly outgrowth, “almost Christians” squeeze religious activities into their lives, activities such as attending church, as a maintenance activity to try to keep themselves “saved.” Their relationship with God is not their highest priority, but rather it is something that is done and accomplished by them in order to stay saved.
Therefore, clarification of the gospel message is necessary. The purpose of salvation brought to us by God is to mend the broken relationship with God so that we may hear Him and walk with Him. Many people recognize the gospel to be this way: God saw the problem of sin that He did not like, so He sent Jesus to die for our sins. This is certainly correct, but the emphasis is on the wrong object.
The gospel cannot end with just the forgiveness. The reason Jesus died was to bridge the broken relationship, not to focus on the sin. The goal was to take away the issue of sin so that our focus would be back on God. Though it is certainly good news that our sin problem has been resolved, that is not the complete reason why God chose to intercede; that is not the gospel.The gospel, the Good News, is that we can have a relationship with God! Through what Jesus has done, we now have the Holy Spirit, who enables us to believe and understand the guidance from God. He does this by first enabling a person to begin to believe. Along the way, He will strengthen their faith so that they would have unwavering faith in Him.[ii]
The variations of the “sinner’s prayer” that has been used by evangelicals during the past few centuries has focused on forgiveness of sins, which has been taught to immediately provide salvation or eternal life.[iii] Though forgiveness of sin plays a part, salvation and eternal life have always been a result of faith or the person’s believing or trusting in God:
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
However, this faith does not come from us. The faith to believe in God comes from Him too. It is not something we start up one day out of our own will. If that were the case, then we could boast that we believed in God on our own, and as a result, we could demand that we are worthy of salvation (see Ephesians 2:8–9).
Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is the evidence of things we cannot see. As opposed to laws of physics, which we can see and verify to believe, faith in the invisible God requires His intervention. When He shows Himself to us, that is when a person can begin to believe. That is why the Bible points to God’s initiation of salvation for those He has chosen:
So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:3
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.
Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.
Therefore, it is important to recognize and communicate to the many people who go to church every week that they might not be going to heaven. Their religious works of attendance do not make them righteous or faithful. The same goes for those who have recited the “sinner’s prayer” in the past. This may also be true for some who have gone forward during altar calls at a revival service. Their salvation would only be recognized by the depth of their relationship with God that begins with faith that comes from God.
Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.
The only way to obtain faith in God is by His grace. To grow in it is to begin with that gift and continue to remain in Him, the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Some believe that the Bible encourages the use of the “sinner’s prayer” based on Romans 10:9–13:
If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
We are made right with God because God gives us the faith to trust in Him.
However, these verses will make sense when they are read through the lens that the faith required to trust in God is a gift that comes from God. Specifically, one can only begin to declare that Jesus is Lord once the person believes, which begins with God. How can one believe in their heart that God raised Jesus, or anyone for that matter, from the dead? God must intervene and demonstrate who He is to the person. We are made right with God because God gives us the faith to trust in Him. Finally, who can call on the Lord? It is someone who has faith in Him and knows Him. This is like a child calling out for his mother or father; the child would not call out “mother” or “father” to a stranger he does not know. So then, without supernatural initiation of our faith, we cannot begin the journey of faith.
People can think they are Christians, and even hold church positions, but not be saved.
Even John Wesley once professed that he “felt [his] heart strangely warmed.” He wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[iv] Luther Oconer, assistant professor of United Methodist Studies at United Theological Seminary, wrote to me in an email that this was Wesley’s experience of “justifying faith.” After realizing that it was what was missing in his life, Wesley embarked on a two-year quest to experience it, until finally he experienced it in a religious society meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. This faith, as Wesley’s experience has shown, is something that may be acquired over time, and the approach of leading a seeker through the “sinner’s prayer” may prove to be insufficient for a person to truly believe in God.[v] Additionally, Wesley probably considered himself as a Christian since he even held the title of a pastor and spoke about God in front of congregations. This shows that many people can think they are Christians, and even hold church positions, but not be saved.In the same email mentioned above, Professor Oconer, responding to my question about whether the sinner’s prayer was acceptable in the Wesleyan’s view of salvation, replied:
Your concern about the sinner’s prayer is actually the very thing I’m trying to address because it cheapens the gospel. The sinner’s prayer (as well as altar call) is an American invention brought about by the prevalent “short cut” approach in American evangelical culture during the nineteenth century. During Wesley’s time, they didn’t have that. That came later during the second great awakening in America with the introduction of the mourner’s bench (like a form of altar call).
During Wesley’s time, people gained saving faith in Jesus mostly in the context of discipleship, and not as a result of a one-off encounter or a 10-minute conversation. Also, Wesley did not teach repentance as a requirement for justification or eternal life. There is only one requirement for him—it’s saving faith in Jesus, or what we call justification by faith, or justifying faith (Romans 5:1). If repentance is the requirement, then salvation depends on us and not God. That is why it is by faith alone. This faith is not our doing; it is God’s grace. It is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8). But how do we know we have saving faith or justifying faith? We can know through the witness of the Spirit (Romans 8:16). Saving faith is not simply gained by reciting some magic formula. Because faith, according to Wesley, is not simply an assent or agreeing to something. It involves the heart or our whole affection.
So then, what is the biblical way a person can be saved if tracts that include the “sinner’s prayer” are not the answer? The answer lies back in Jesus’s Great Commission in Matthew 28: it is the command to make disciples.
Discipleship requires commitment from individuals to be together over a period of time. The problem in the twenty-first century is the trend of busyness—something that people believe is something to be proud of.[vi] With social media in a hyper-connected society, kids even at the age of five are preoccupied and want to be left alone with their electronics.[vii] With teens constantly having to check their updates on Facebook, Twitter, emails, and chat applications, it is no wonder why people no longer have time for anything else.
Pastor Sam Hwang from Christ Life Church gave a presentation at the Ambassador’s Conference 2017 stating that pastors are ineffective because they do not have margin on time.[viii] He was pointing to the fact that ministry to individuals, which is how discipleship works, requires time; however, because there are apparently so many things that take up the pastors’ time, they cannot tend to their original focus of shepherding people.
True evangelism requires people to relate, life-on-life, based on a mutual commitment to grow.
This is why discipleship is no longer a term used in today’s churches. It is no longer understood. That is also the reason why many churches are in decline and struggling. Evangelism, or discipleship, seems to now be a lost art. True evangelism requires people to relate, life-on-life, based on a mutual commitment to grow. A Christian must model a life for others to follow, and they must help those who desire to grow to follow, not from afar, but in close proximity, while giving time to the learner as needed.Discipleship Requires Relationships That Are Dependent on the Learner
Discipleship is a relationship between individuals that is cultivated over time with the intent to know God more. This definition applies both to people who do not know God but are interested in learning about Him, as well as those who know God and desire to grow deeper in Him by knowing Him more.
The mistake many Christians make about evangelism is establishing activities and their timing around their needs and availability.
The mistake many Christians make about evangelism is establishing activities and their timing around their needs and availability. For example, a church might have a program to send people out to the local supermarkets at 3 p.m. after the Lord’s Day service, since that is the time the congregation members are readily together and available. They can go to a supermarket and have tracts available with the name and contact information of the church they attend.God brings people to faith at different times, often through life experiences, at any hour of any day. It is at those times that they would seek someone to help them meet God, but because evangelism only occurs at special pre-planned bursts, the people who are seeking do not receive help from these Christians who are busy when the seekers are longing for help or guidance from God.
Christians no longer see evangelism as making relationships, but rather see it as a goal-oriented activity.
Another reason why modern-day evangelism fails is because Christians no longer see evangelism as making relationships, but rather see it as a goal-oriented activity—just like work in the modern world. Their metrics may be for someone to repeat the “sinner’s prayer” or to get them to their church.Several people who desire their local church to grow in membership have asked, “What do I need to do in order to get more people to church?”[ix] The problem with this question is that it begins with the mindset of needing to do something and have activities in order to produce results. When they are told that they need to go meet more people and form relationships with them, they are often taken aback with thoughts that there must be another way that perhaps is quicker and more efficient.
Accordingly, pastors who do not understand that evangelism requires building relationships may tell their congregations to go out to popular places for the sake of evangelism. The congregation may rightly follow out of obedience to their shepherd, but it may be of greater benefit for pastors and the believers in his care to better understand the Great Commission of Jesus so that they will benefit through true discipleship.
Evangelism is building relationships. . . . walking with others hand in hand through life together.
Evangelism is building relationships. It is about being available. It is walking with others hand in hand through life together. It takes much commitment and sacrifice of time to truly win a person to Christ. It cannot be done over a short time by simply passing out tracts and asking someone to recite a special prayer.Being available to the people who are interested can be seen in Paul’s life in his letter to the church of Corinth:
Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19–23
Paul made himself available to anyone in just the way they needed Christ while holding on to the heart and pursuit of bringing them to Christ. Consider his wording: I lived like, I have become, I too lived, and When I am with. These words are not short-burst projects to accomplish, but a living-out over time to win the hearts of others and make disciples.
Paul also shares in his letters to the Christians in Corinth that his intent is not just to give instructions, but to truly spend time with them in fellowship:
This time I don’t want to make just a short visit and then go right on. I want to come and stay awhile, if the Lord will let me. In the meantime, I will be staying here at Ephesus until the Festival of Pentecost. There is a wide-open door for a great work here, although many oppose me.
1 Corinthians 16:7–9
You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1
Paul also exhorts them to know with certainty that they are believing correctly:
Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
1 Corinthians 15:1–2
Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.
2 Corinthians 13:5
Prayer Tents, a Christian mission organization, summarizes the gospel this way:
God created us, starting from Adam and Eve, to have a close relationship with us.
However, there was a problem with disobedience to God, called sin, that separated us from God. People tried to bridge this gap, but it was not possible because of the perfect standard of God. God had a plan to resolve this issue, because this was something only He could resolve.
This plan was to restore our relationship by giving us the hearts that enable us to love God and follow His commands (Deuteronomy 30:6, 10). It would not be out of duty, but our hearts and actions would be aligned to what God has in mind.
The end result of this plan would be a continual relationship with God—He would be with us and would be our guide. He does this by sending His Spirit to dwell in our hearts.
Who can receive the Holy Spirit so that they may dwell with the Lord at all times? We must become a sanctuary for God; that is, we must be holy and pure before God so that He may dwell in our hearts.
This was the original problem when sin came into play, remember? For this reason, God Himself came down to earth (the Son, whose name is Jesus) to make a permanent sacrifice for all. Anyone who believes in Jesus and what He has done will be considered as if they have no sin, which means they are pure and acceptable before God (John 3:16; Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19; Hebrews 10:1–23; 1 Peter 2:4–5).
Anyone who has the Holy Spirit living in them is said to be born again with the Spirit of God. We will live eternally with God with joy and reign over many things, as it was intended in the original Garden.
Then, the Good News of the Bible is this: Believe in God, and you will have a relationship with Him. He will enable you to joyfully love Him and follow His commands. He will guide you every step of the way, and you will not need to worry about anything in life. Your spirit will be born again with His, and you will live eternally with Him.[x]
This summary of the gospel includes the truth that God provides the faith, and it is not something we do. Through the faith that He gives, He enables us to grow into a state that is acceptable to commune with Him.
1. How does the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, affect your everyday living?
2. How is your relationship with Jesus? How goes your soul?
[i] Samuel S. Goebel (Presented at the Morning Reflections, Charlotte, North Carolina, July 24, 2019).
[ii] For more details on the process that is involved before a person is saved, see:
Sang Kwan Lee, The Gospel that Jesus Taught: The Gospel of the Kingdom (Seoul Korea, 2010).
[iii] An example of the Sinner’s Prayer from “Four Spiritual Laws” from CRU (Formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ): “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.”
[iv] John Wesley, Journal of John Wesley, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed September 21, 2017, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html.
[v] “Strangely Warmed,” Good News, accessed September 13, 2017, https://goodnewsmag.org/2017/07/strangely-warmed/.
[vi] “Why Do People Brag About Being Busy?” Huffington Post, October 28, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/quora/why-do-people-brag-about_b_12692178.html.
[vii] “The End of Solitude: In a Hyperconnected World, Are We Losing the Art of Being Alone?” NewStatesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/2017/04/end-solitude-hyperconnected-world-are-we-losing-art-being-alone.
[viii] Samuel Hwang (Presented at the Ambassadors Conference 2017, Central Presbyterian Church, Little Neck, NY, May 28, 2017), https://www.ambassadorsconference.org/.
[ix] This question is similar to that of the rich young man who asked Jesus what “good” he must do to earn eternal life in Matthew 19:16. Jesus pointed him to God, who is the only One who is able to provide eternal life, not some good works initiated by an individual. Jesus was telling the rich young man that he must keep the First and Second Commandments, which are to love God with all his heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:37–38) and to love others as yourself (Matthew 22:39), but he misunderstood this to mean that he would be considered perfect by “doing” those things. That is why Jesus told this rich young man to remove what was distancing him from God and others, which were his riches. The relationship is what mattered. The relationship with others demonstrates the believer’s growing relationship with God, which is how a person is given perfected faith, or eternal life.
[x] “What Is the Gospel?" Prayer Tents, accessed September 22, 2017, https://www.prayertents.com/gospel101.