Suppose you go to Wal-Mart to buy a microwave oven. What is it that you want? You might think that you want an appliance that is inexpensive or one that fits in the corner of your counter, under your kitchen cabinet. Actually, those are not the things you want. What you want is hot coffee and popped popcorn. You are willing to buy a microwave because you want those things. You want to be able to put a cold cup of coffee into it and take a hot cup out. You want to defrost frozen chicken or to put un-popped popcorn in and take out popped popcorn.
Now suppose a salesperson approached you in order to persuade you to choose a particular model. What would she do? One thing she would not do is take out the little booklet that you find in the bottom of the box, turn to the back and explain the schematic to you. The schematic is the diagram with the sort of symbols only engineers understand. It explains what sort of mechanism the particular model has. The mechanism is extremely important. It is what makes the microwave work. The salesperson does not explain it to you, however, because she knows that you do not care about those details. You want a microwave that will heat your coffee.
In thinking about microwaves, I have raised two questions. Although, I raised them in reverse order, they ought to be asked as follows. First, what makes a microwave work? Second, what does a person want such that he might buy it? Notice that with microwaves, the answers to these questions are nearly always distinct. What motivates someone to buy a microwave has little to do with what makes it work.
Let’s ask the same questions about the Gospel. First, what makes the Gospel work? What is its mechanism, so to speak? Second, what is that people want such that they might turn and accept the Gospel?
What makes the Gospel work is, in brief, the atonement of Christ. It is the finished work of Christ on the cross that provides forgiveness and renders our redemption possible. All of the benefits of the Gospel come because of the forgiveness Christ purchased for us. In this way, the atonement is somewhat similar to the mechanism of the microwave. Just as the microwave is worthless without its working mechanism, Christianity is not really Christianity without the atonement.
The second question is striking. What is it that people want such that they might turn and accept the Gospel? My guess is that we think they want forgiveness from God. This is my guess because we usually present the Gospel in a way that appeals to the need for God’s forgiveness. I wonder, however, whether our habit of presenting the Gospel in this way actually prevents us from being more effective in evangelism. We tend to present the Gospel in a way that is very much like the microwave salesperson explaining the schematic.
Consider, however, the Gospel of John. The English words “forgive” and “forgiven” are found in only one verse in the whole Gospel (John 20:23). Almost every time Jesus articulates his mission or his identity, he uses the term “Life.” This term in this way over thirty times. Think of some of the central passages on His identity and mission: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”; “I am the bread of life”; “I am the resurrection and the life.” In fact, John summarizes the purpose of his writing accordingly: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (20:31) In John, the Gospel is framed around the concept of Life.
Seeing the emphasis on life (and the relative absence of an emphasis on forgiveness) can be transformative. Few people see their lives in the categories of guilt and forgiveness. People are deeply moved, however, by the prospect of finding life. Life is a Gospel category. My point is that there is a Thickness to the Gospel. The Gospel consists of everything God has done for us in Christ though the atonement. It consists of all of the implications of God’s work in Christ.
Recognizing the Thick Gospel has helped me read the Bible with new eyes. I find treasures throughout that reveal how the work of Christ takes up my deepest needs. Thinking about the Scriptures with Thick Gospel questions in mind opens up new horizons for my life and for making Gospel connections with the lost. The more we can experience and understand the Thickness of the Gospel, the more we can live out and hold forth that Gospel as a compelling vision of Life.
Read more in part two of this post.
Gregory E. Ganssle is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. His latest book is Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspiration (IVP, 2017).