As my team was traveling through South Asia to meet potential partners for church planting, I began to reflect on a serious problem I have observed through the years. An unnecessary barrier to expanding God’s Kingdom through networks of churches has been the lack of cooperation between theologically similar churches. The regular chorus that repeats itself from conversation to conversation tends toward the desire to stay independent from other national church planters and associations of pastors. This resistance to cooperative missions seems to have multiple foundations. Among the righteous sounding reasons are the desires for theological and ecclesiastical purity while the less honorable reasons revolve around a desire to strengthen an individual church or personal position.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Cor 1:10-13
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:1-7
It is important to remember that the missionary movement was one of the earliest forces creating global networks and new media of communication… This was true of Catholic missions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and even more so of Protestant missions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. So the difficulties we face now are not really new ones.
But how do we determine the exact points of the gospel with which we should be able to agree in order to cooperate effectively? If we can agree on a simple gospel devoid of denominational, theological, and even cultural markings, the harmony of effective cooperation will begin to appear. In the following section, I will strip away as much theology as possible from the gospel message in order to present a single-sentence gospel that can travel across cultures and demographics. This simple gospel can then be unpacked within the receiving culture with the necessary explanations to make it as indigenous as possible.
THE ESSENTIALS OF THE GOSPEL
So, what do the lost need to hear? What must they know? Is there a heavenly list of facts of which knowledge about them is necessary in order to be saved? Once this knowledge is obtained, at what point does one acquire sufficient faith to have the ability to believe? Is some action required in order to make salvation effective? If there is a list of essential knowledge for salvation, why is that list not widely publicized to the Christian community in order to assure proper evangelism? These are some of our concerns that require consideration.
Scriptural References to the Essentials of Conversion
In an encounter with Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30-31, a Philippian jailor asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The direct response to his direct question was simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
After describing the desperate situation of mankind in regard to sin, Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved … For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:9,13).
“But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:14-15a,17).
Paul speaks to the fact that people must have knowledge of that which is intended to be believed. For that reason, the Church has concluded that it must take the gospel to those who have not heard of Jesus because salvation depends largely upon their opportunity to hear and respond to the message, within the providence of God. The theological essentials of salvation must be grounded in biblical statements; otherwise, they are musings of the human mind.
The “Follow Me” Passages
The gospel records contain twenty-three references to Jesus using this phraseology. Mark 8:34 records a typical representation, “And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” When Jesus challenged people to follow Him, He was iterating the importance of allowing Him to direct their lives. As James Brooks stated, the phrase is, “closely related to self-denial, involving a willingness to give up everything dear in life and even life itself for the sake of Jesus. It is a willingness to suffer for Jesus and for others. Such a concept of discipleship is so radical that many contemporary Christians in the West have difficulty relating to it.”
When Jesus issued this challenge, He offered the ultimate test of true faith to see if they would obey Him. The challenge was and is to place Jesus as the highest authority in one’s life. If this does not occur, Jesus says there is no salvation available for that person. In the well-known example of this statement, during the Lord’s conversation with Zacchaeus in Luke 19, sorrow for his sin was evident as was his willingness to do anything to follow Jesus. In response, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). In this situation, nothing is noted in Scripture about the quantity or quality of knowledge present in Zacchaeus, only his willingness to follow that which he did know and to which he ascribed truth.
The “Believe in Me/Him” Passages
In addition to the charge that one is to follow Jesus, many passages pronounce that proper belief in Jesus is sufficient for salvation. These passages introduce the discussion of the appropriate meaning of faith. The words believe, faith, and trust all originate from the same Greek words, pivstiV or pisteuvw, which require some defining. The definition is two-fold, defining the action and the object. The action is composed within the believer, but it is also necessary for the object to be believable. Therefore, propositional truths are necessary in the development of an individual’s belief.
In His conversation with Nicodemus, John records the single most memorized verse in the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” He then continued, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16,18). The promise of salvation goes out to the one who believes, and the promise of condemnation is professed to the one who does not believe. Here, the condition of having eternal life is belief in the Name of Jesus.
Above, the brief interchange between Paul and Silas and the Philippian jailor was noted. In this exchange, the simple route to salvation resides in the jailor’s belief in one about whom he would have known little other than His influence on Paul and Silas. In fact, in both of these verses, the main emphasis is placed upon belief in Jesus’ ability to do that which He said He will do, which is directly associated with the Name of Jesus. In biblical culture, the words name and fame carry similar meaning related to the actions and reliability of the subject. When employing the use of “the Name” as a descriptor of Jesus, the writer implies that some propositional truths are necessary regarding the person of Jesus.
Theological Essentials of Conversion: Repentance, Faith, and Knowledge
True conversion and salvation result from faith and repentance. Repentance is the negative condition while faith is the positive element. Repentance apart from saving faith results in sorrow caused by unresolved guilt or shame, and faith apart from repentance results in knowledge and belief that do not produce a change in one’s life. Therefore, wherever true saving faith is present, true repentance should supernaturally exist, and vice versa.
The words repent, repentance, and repented occur in fifty-nine verses throughout the New Testament. Misunderstanding and confusion persist over what the word repentance means within the context of conversion. When the word repent is used in the Word of God in the context of biblical salvation, it is referring to a truly God-given, Spirit-led change of heart and mind toward God about sin, such as, “Repent therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).
Repentance is biblically proven to be of salvific importance, for 2 Corinthians 7:10 states, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” A personal choice is inherent in all of these contexts. One must make a choice or change his mind. Repentance and issues of faith are inexorably tied together by certain common facets of knowledge.
As a suitable starting point in the discussion about knowledge, a definition of truth seems to be proper. For something to be believable, it must have truth that is enduring to the believer. This truth comes in at least three senses: a metaphysical sense—the true being the absolute, the complete, as opposed to the relative; an epistemological sense—the true being correct, or propositional truth; and an ethical sense—walking in the truth, that is, doing right. Therefore, truth and knowledge contain spiritual, intellectual, and physical qualities.
Since repentance is the changing of the mind in recognition of wrong-doing, the repentant person must have available to him persuasive truth to identify the wrong. Moreover, saving faith, presented next, must also contain propositional facts concerning Jesus. For this reason, identification of the essential facts will be a worthy venture.
Being inseparable from repentance, faith is also described as possessing emotional, cognitive, and volitional elements. Pisteuvein is typically used in one of two important styles: with a dative or with prepositions. Used with the dative, it usually infers believing assent, specifically when the object is a thing, the Word of God, or a person, Jesus or God. The most pregnant prepositional use is the construction with eiV; it is also the most common, carrying the meaning “an absolute transference of trust from ourselves to another, a complete self-surrender to God.” Even though these are solid definitions within the Western perspective, one should recognize the forced practical and theological meanings placed on the idea of faith.
The Practical Essentials of Conversion: Repentance, Faith, and Knowledge
America and the West abound with theological writings that expound upon the intricate details of a mechanical understanding of salvation. An ordo salutis was devised to specify the order in which the decrees of God affect humanity and the ways in which humanity responds. Beyond these western theological understandings, must be the “nuts and bolts” of salvation: from what must one repent, what knowledge is necessary, how does one believe, and how does one actuate faith?
Repentance seems to be the easier process through which to work and is, therefore, the starting point. Billy Graham, among many others, tended to concentrate upon simple repentance as a key to salvation. Using Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out,” he stated, “Repentance involves first of all an acknowledgment of our sin.” This acknowledgement brings about a required sorrow. This need for repentance is placed against the standard of a perfect and holy God to demonstrate man’s shortcomings and also his possession of a sinful nature, hence a requirement of some knowledge of God’s holiness and perfection exists.
Not only did Graham state the requirements for the emotional and cognitive, but he also dealt with the volitional requirement. He summed up the practical side of repentance as, “Thus, repentance is first, and absolutely necessary, if we are to be born again. It involves simple recognition of what we are before God—sinners who fall short of His glory; second, it involves genuine sorrow for sin; third, it means our willingness to turn from sin.”
As stated above, some practical knowledge is necessary for repentance, which deals mostly with the shortcomings of self. The essential knowledge for this act is recognition of an ultimately holy God. Since, however, faith is dependent upon propositions and a God/man, Jesus, the essentials of knowledge are compounded. True belief, however, is not a function of advanced intellect, sophisticated theological understanding, or complex doctrinal knowledge. Very few people intellectually understand all the gospel truth at the moment of salvation. Fortunately, the essential truths are basic enough that even a child can understand. Jesus himself characterized saving faith as childlikeness in Mark 10:15.
The difficult question addresses the quality and quantity of knowledge to be believed to actuate salvation. Paul clearly argues for certain knowledge when he says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). One must know that Jesus really died for some purpose in regard to man’s shortcomings and that Jesus was resurrected. But what else does one need to know about Jesus, the God-man, by propositional truths? The mountain of attributes belonging to Jesus could become a slippery slope into an intellectual wasteland for the one desiring to exercise faith.
Problems do appear when a list of facts is deemed necessary for proper salvation. For example, Mark 1:24-25, 34 describes a conversation between Jesus and several demons. The demon asks:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.
In this passage, the demons have more knowledge about Jesus than anyone in His entourage, but they are demons. Their knowledge, although quantitatively and qualitatively much higher than any man, is insufficient to empower their faith. Likewise, in Mark 3:11, obeisance mixed with knowledge is also insufficient for salvation as Mark writes, “And whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they fell down before Him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’”
A definite and joyful offer should be made to inform the prospective believer of as much information as necessary. God will work through truth; however, saving faith is of much greater value than full knowledge, as demonstrated with the demons.
An analysis of practical saving faith begins at the minimal end with Billy Graham’s statement that “The gospel message doesn’t have to be understood by the seeking soul, only to be received in simple faith.” While it is very true that “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), just any faith is not sufficient—only saving faith meets the essentials of salvation. Anthony Hoekema described saving faith as “a response to God’s call by the acceptance of Christ with the total person—that is, with assured conviction of the truth of the gospel, and with trustful reliance on God in Christ for salvation, together with genuine commitment to Christ and to his service.”
The object of saving faith is particular. As above, one cannot have faith in someone unknown to them. Likewise, having wrong information about Jesus would not be sufficient for salvation. People must have minimal but accurate information about Jesus including His deity, His perfection, His sacrifice, and His purpose.
Since the believer is not yet born again, he is unable to understand Christian doctrine because only the Holy Spirit has the ability to open the mind to spiritual matters. Furthermore, although Hodge argued the facts of propositional truths, he concluded his treatment of the object of saving faith with the following statement: “So what the penitent sinner believes, is that God for Christ’s sake is reconciled to him. It may be with a very dim and doubtful vision he apprehends that truth; but that is the truth on which his trust is stayed.”
Hoekema also pulled back from the theological statements to one that was somewhat more meaningful when he stated, “We must have enough knowledge to realize that we are sinners who need redemption, that we cannot save ourselves but that only Christ can redeem us from sin and from the wrath of God, and that Christ died and arose for us.”
The heart of salvation in its essential nature is stated in 1 John 5:11-12, “And this is the testimony: that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” The Bible records a plethora of statements of effective belief that demonstrate sufficient faith but are lacking in details of knowledge. The opposite is never true; one does not find a proper statement of belief that demonstrates sufficient details of knowledge but is lacking in faith.
A HARMONIC STATEMENT OF THE GOSPEL
From the previous discussion, we must agree that it is faith in the available propositional truths that provides for salvific faith. This salvific faith requires the essences of follow Jesus and believe in Jesus, from the previously discussed passages, combined with essential repentance. Follow Jesus is demonstrated by the subsequent actions of the individual in actively pursuing Christ. This stage is comparative to the fruit of salvation and sanctification.
Repentance requires knowledge of a personal offense against the Great God. For much of the Church, this repentance is from the actions of any of a multitude of sins or wrongdoings (lying, drinking, stealing, etc.); however, Scripture indicates that salvific repentance is the act of repenting from the lack of belief in Jesus or resisting the conviction of the Holy Spirit as seen in John 16:8-10: And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. So the sin people need conviction of by the Holy Spirit is the lack of belief or lack of faith. Therefore, the connection between salvific repentance and faith becomes evident as they are two sides of the same coin.
That leaves faith, which is represented above as believe in Jesus. Berkoff, Graham, Hoekema, and Hodge provide the foundation for the fact that propositional truths are necessary, but a limited list of truths is secondary to volition (choice) and assensus (emotion) as Berkoff again clarifies as, “a deep conviction of the truth and reality of the object of faith, feels that it meets an important need in his life, and is conscious of an absorbing interest in it.” But which truths? The simple truth that Jesus is able to accomplish that which he proclaimed. So, faith is based upon the ability, power, and/or authority of Jesus. The actual acts are necessary but subsequent to his authority; therefore, faith in His eternal abilities is the salvific key.
Consequently, this author concludes that the essentials of the gospel may be stated in a cultural form of the following: “I have offended the Almighty God, and Jesus is mighty to save.”
In a guilt-based culture, the offense is understood as an violating the law of a holy God. In a fear-based culture, the offense is understood as an assault against the power of the High God. In a shame-based culture, the offense is understood as an affront against the honor and authority of a holy God, and salvation is the act of reconciliation. As noted above by Charles Hodge, using this standard, the lost have recognition of need and a provided solution. The essential belief for salvation is the belief that Jesus is Lord, master, Savior, or reconciler; and the essential faith is a personal submission to Him in that capacity. This is more than just the foundation of the gospel that should be built upon; it IS the gospel that saves, and it should be easily agreed upon by all of us with moderate discord in theology.
My simple task herein was to encourage cooperation between close brothers who are in majority agreement in both theology and praxis. To accomplish this, I wanted to survey some causes of discord in order to build a path toward the creation of harmony. Disunity in theology across the Church is to be expected due to culture and demographics among other reasons; however, the gospel is what should universally hold us together, just as the octave in music does the same.
Theology must serve the gospel as the gospel is the overwhelming proclamation of God’s Word. Therefore, I conclude here that if we can firmly agree on the essential statement of the gospel over the many intricacies of theology, then many, if not most, of our barriers of cooperation should be dismantled.
The scriptural gospel was shown above to contain propositional truths, but it is not tied to a list of necessary propositional truths. Rather, the truths that must be believed focus on the ability of Jesus to accomplish that which is necessary for salvation, but not so much in a historical list of facts and actions. As Hodge states, “So what the penitent sinner believes, is that God for Christ’s sake is reconciled to him. It may be with a very dim and doubtful vision he apprehends that truth; but that is the truth on which his trust is stayed.”
With this in mind, I compress the gospel into the single sentence: I have offended the Almighty God, and Jesus is mighty to save. Within that phrase is: admission of personal offense, existence of one Almighty God, and the ability of Jesus to accomplish reconciliation. This phrase can then be expanded within the host culture to the necessary level in order to explain appropriately each of these facets to a level that makes salvific faith possible.
The thesis stated that we must break down the barriers of negotiable theological and practical differences in order to cooperate for the gospel. I pray that with a firm agreement on a simple gospel, church planters from across denominations, associations, and ministries can effectively cooperate with each other in order to push back the darkness of a lost world. Our enemy knows that the gospel is our greatest weapon and that theology sometimes keeps us from using that weapon. Let us resolve to use the gospel to bring harmony to the Church so that we will grow closer to being in unity with each other and with the Lord.
Dr. Hoyt Lovelace graduated from the University of Arkansas with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, He started and expanded a small chain of fine dining restaurants and coffee houses. In 1999, God called him to seminary and church planting. He with his wife successfully planted a church in Memphis, TN and taught church planting in many countries around the world with Global Church Planting Partners (GCPP), a company Hoyt founded in 2007. With a PhD from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, they lived in Japan in hope of seeing an expansion of churches being planted. After four years and one major tsunami, they were moved back to the States where he began to focus more on GCPP by developing sustainability projects and medical outreach in countries with limited medical access.