By Nick Rynerson
“Unless the gospel is made explicit,” says Matt Chandler in his book “The Explicit Gospel,” “people will believe that Jesus’s message is that he has come to condemn the world, not to save it.”
Much has been made lately of this idea, that the gospel must be consistently made the explicit focus of our ministry, teaching, preaching, writing, thinking, and living. At first it sounds good; who wouldn’t want to center their life on the gospel explicitly preached? Declaring, believing, and enjoying God’s grace given to us through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the penultimate privilege of the Christian.
But what does this mean for Christian bakers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and insurance salesmen? Does this mean we need to weave gospel presentations into everything we do and avoid things that don’t fit in with our understanding of the gospel?
According to the Bible, maybe not.
While Jesus said that the whole Bible testified about him (John 5:39), in the first 39 books of the Bible, there is basically no explicit mention of Jesus. But that certainly doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t present in the Old Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus on the road to Emmaus applied the explicit gospel to the less obvious gospel message of the Old Testament: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
One of the wonderful things about the gospel is that it is a story. It’s the story of man’s rejection of God and God’s redemption of the creatures that rejected Him through the blood of the sinless son of God. And in this story there are themes that any good gospel presentation will communicate: rebellion, love, grace, redemption, and unmerited favor.
When we see the world through these “gospel-colored glasses,” we begin to see those themes in unexpected places. Understanding the explicit gospel helps us see the implicit gospel. By having a level of explicit “gospel fluency,” as Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt puts it, we aren’t provoked to put gospel demands on earthly things. Instead, we begin to see echoes of the explicit gospel in those same earthly things.
The apostle Paul, maybe the most “gospel fluent” person to ever walk the earth, modeled this for us in Acts 17. Here, Paul preaches the explicit gospel in Athens and then, incredibly, cites Greek pagan poetry as examples of the love and graciousness of God! This means that Paul must have read these poems and thought, “Wow! The themes of the gospel are so strong, I bet I could use these to actually preach the gospel!”
He saw the implicit gospel because he knew the explicit gospel.
This means we are free to see the good gospel themes in the “secular” world. Whether it’s a movie, song, book, or TV show, if we are familiar enough with the themes of the gospel we can pick out those gospel themes when they show up in culture. The Christian appreciation of culture is possible when we are convinced that God’s world, even in its fallen state, echoes God’s word (i.e., the gospel).
Seeing the world through gospel-colored glasses also allows us to not have to tell the whole story every time. This is why good fiction written by Christians can be so powerful. Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Marilyn Robinson can bring me to tears not because they present an elaborate gospel presentation, but because they use well-crafted stories to imply gospel truth. It’s truth that circumvents propositional logic and hits the heart.
Art, music, and stories have a funny way of doing that. They speak to something deeper than our logical mind, as if when we read a good story or listen to a good song, something deep within us is stimulated and our hearts “burn within us” (Luke 24:27). So yes! Preach the explicit gospel, and put on your “gospel-colored glasses” to be on the lookout for the implicit gospel too. We need both. As Martin Luther reminds us, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
Nick Rynerson is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and works for Crossway Books publishing house in Wheaton.