An engineering friend of mine works at a power plant at one of the nation's largest chemical companies. He works with power systems so great that an arc flash, which is hot enough to vaporize copper, could set the entire chemical plant ablaze. To say that his work is complex is a massive understatement. He must stay up-to-date on the latest safety codes, procedures, and power equipment updates. On top of this, he commonly has to search out and read complicated scientific papers on electrical engineering concepts just to keep up with the mental demand of his job.
As you can probably tell, I'm not an electrical engineer. I'm not an engineer of any kind. I made a 69.8 in college algebra and had to take statistics three times before I got it right. The papers he reads on a regular basis are dense and difficult for him to understand at times. I've glanced at some of his reading material, and it's so over my head, I might as well be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
The reason I can't understand the concepts in those papers is because they were not written to me. They were written to other electrical engineers. Engineers use so many acronyms that almost entire sentences can be composed with strings of letters. I don't know the jargon, the acronyms or even the basics.
There is a book about electricity that I do understand. It's a children's book that I read to my two-year-old son sometimes. It's a clever, colorful thing, with great illustrations and simple one line explanations of how electricity flows. I have no problem grasping the concepts in that book. The reason I understand this kids book is because it's written for children's comprehension. It covers some of the same concepts but in a way that even a child can easily grasp them.
In this chapter and following sections, I'm going to show you that the Gospel of John is written for those who don't know anything, and the rest of the Bible is written to an audience whom it assumes already knows the basic concepts. Even more, some of the books of the Bible are written on what we might call, expert level.
You may have noticed that a lot of people don't use the Gospel of John to share the saving message. Many people who attempt to evangelize use the book of Romans. You've probably heard of The Romans Road. It’s one of the most widely used methods for explaining the Gospel that I’m aware of. Using the Romans Road comes with all kinds of problems. To see why, we ought to remember what Peter said about Paul's letters:
…our dear brother Paul also wrote to you… He writes the same way in all his letters… His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people distort… (2 Peter 3:15-16)1
Peter explained that some of Paul’s letters are hard to understand. In case you’re not familiar with which books of the Bible are letters, it’s all of the New Testament except the first five books. Check the footnote to see a full list.2 He goes on to explain that Paul’s words get twisted by those who are untaught and unstable. Obviously, this is not a phenomenon unique to Paul alone, but Peter specifically mentions that Paul's writings can be difficult to comprehend.
One of Paul's letters which contains the most difficult to understand passages is Romans. I would call Romans an expert level letter. They used to say all roads lead to Rome. In terms of evangelism, I say a lot of confusion comes from the Roman’s road. Using Romans to explain the Gospel is like using an electrical engineer’s scientific paper to explain electricity to a child. Paul’s letter to the Roman churches is incredibly complex at times.
Reading Paul, Peter says, comes with some risk for those who are untaught or unstable. Couldn’t unbelievers be classified as untaught and unstable? Wouldn't this mean that there is a risk in unbelievers reading Paul since they could get their meanings twisted? Many well-taught believers who can read through Romans and be confused. How much more is this true if an unbeliever read through it. Having an unbeliever read Romans from beginning to end is unlikely to result in that unbeliever picking out the saving message.
Couple this with the fact that not only Romans, but all of Paul's letters are written to people who are already saved. In the same way that a rocket scientist talks differently to other rocket scientists than he does to his children, Paul speaks differently to believers than he would to unbelievers.
Not only Paul's but all New Testament letters assume that the readers already know the Gospel message. The letters from Paul, Peter, James, and John focus on clarifying theological matters important to people who are already saved. This is a very different objective from giving the Gospel message to people who have never heard it. It’s like the difference between attending a high school freshman physics class, and sitting in on a private conversation between Ph.D. physics professors. They may be discussing the same concepts, but they discuss them in a very different manner. Freshman physics explains the basics, whereas conversations between peer physicists will explore those topics in ways that freshmen are not ready for.
This is why one is advised to seek out the Gospel message first in John, and consider the letters only after fully understanding the Gospel message found in John's unique Gospel. Though it is true that there are snippets of the saving message peppered throughout the New Testament letters, we must be careful in trying to build a Gospel presentation from them. Some who protest this might suggest Ephesians 2:8-9 as an exception. However, this verse alone comes with its own difficulty.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Some claim that one can get saved by believing in the truth of those verses. Not so fast. Those verses mention grace by faith, but they do not mention what the object of our faith must be: Jesus. I love these verses. My ministry is named after them (289 DESIGN). However, I wouldn't use them alone to try to explain the Gospel to an unbeliever. That's because Ephesians 2:8-9 does not include the entirety of the Gospel message. They leave out the name of Jesus. I think you'd agree that is a pretty important omission. I’m not complaining about this verse, I’m simply explaining that Paul did not intend this verse to act as a Gospel presentation to those who have never heard the Gospel before.
Others might point to Romans 6:23, claiming that it encapsulates the entire Gospel.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
It’s true that Romans 6:23 does mention Christ, eternal life, and that it is a gift. However, it does not mention what a person is obligated to do in order to receive eternal life. The obligation is belief/faith, which is not mentioned in the verse. It leaves out this vital ingredient. Thus, Romans 6:23 does not contain the full Gospel message. It’s a beautiful verse which reminds saved people of God’s amazing grace, but it’s not written to an untaught unbeliever.
Others might cling to 2 Corinthians 5:21, but it has a similar problem.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
It says that Christ is our means of salvation, but it does not tell the reader by what method they are expected to acquire that redemption. It does not mention faith at all. In addition to that, it does not state the objective of one’s belief, which must be eternal life. I love the verse, and I’d happily share it with other believers, but I wouldn’t use it alone to share the Gospel with an unbeliever.
This concept very well may ruffle some feathers because it goes against a long-held norm. However, should we hold on to traditions merely because they have been practiced for years?
Now, all this is not to say that the saving message cannot be found in the New Testament letters. I would agree that even Romans does have the saving message contained within, but it is most often expressed implicitly rather than explicitly. It's talked about in a way that usually requires inference.
It would be insulting for one mathematician to tell another mathematician that 2+3=5. It's assumed that essential information is already known by colleagues. Though if you were to listen carefully to the conversation of two advanced mathematicians, you might be able to infer from their conversation that 2+3=5 even if they don't explicitly say it. Though, if 2+3=5 were the saving message, I wouldn't want to leave it up to inference, when eternal destinies are at stake. This is similar to the way the New Testament letters express the Gospel. They allude to the Gospel message often without giving the basic formula.
Some examples of the saving message appear explicitly in the New Testament letters, but often those examples are complicated and difficult to understand. Romans 3:23 is regularly used to present the Gospel; however it does not have the entire saving message. One must expand their reading a few verses to get the full picture. When one reads Romans 3:21-26, a full image of the Gospel is possible but still fraught with problems. Here it is:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Be honest, did you actually read every word above, or did you only skim it? If you just skimmed it, I understand. It’s hard work to grasp what Paul is talking about. In essence, the content of the Gospel is present in the above passage, but it's worth remembering what Peter said about Paul's writings. They can be complicated to understand.
Nearly that entire paragraph (Romans 3:21-26) is one sentence containing 85 words. The average sentence length of this book is between ten and fifteen words. Paul's explanation also contains some complex words that are not in widespread use and must be defined. In fact, I put the above verses in a reading level assessment app. It showed me the percentage of difficult words to be 1100%, whatever that means. The point is, it's hard to understand both in English, and in its original language. Words like justified, propitiation, righteousness, and others must either be skipped or defined. What's more, the focus of the passage is forensic justification, an accurate term for what happens the moment a person believes, but not the only thing that happens at that moment. This is quite a lot to ask of an unbeliever to take in. It's possible to use this verse to explain the Gospel, but it is an effort filled with needless difficulties.
In reality, most evangelists do not treat Romans or any of the New Testament letters as evangelistic books. Instead, the Romans road approach requires the evangelist to jump from verse to verse, filling in the gaps with their own words. This alone proves that even avid evangelists do not trust Romans to convey the saving message without help.
I remember having a conversation with my Dad about this. He said, “Yeah, it always bothered me that I’m supposed to memorize a list of verses that requires me to bounce around the Bible to share the Gospel. Isn’t there a single verse that says everything that it needs to?”
One can read the Gospel of John and believe it without much need for definition. Romans does not enjoy this clarity and simplicity. In fact, an unfamiliar unbeliever reading Romans without help will certainly be confused. Trusting Romans and the other epistles to do what they were never intended to do is a poor approach, and actually makes it more difficult for unbelievers to understand the simple saving message.
Early on in the church, the leadership faced a complexity problem. Some believers thought that new believers should have to read and obey the law. Others thought that would muddy the waters. After deliberating about it, the leadership of the early church said:
We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." (Acts 15:19)
I'm promoting a similar notion. The most effective evangelistic approach is the one that does not make it difficult, either in practice or in understanding, to come to God. Expecting to discern the saving message from the New Testament letters needlessly complicates the Gospel message and is an approach that should be abandoned.
To prove this point you can see what I call the unneeded complexity of the Roman Road on the previous two pages. Notice it involves sixteen different verses that appear all over the New Testament. It’s confusing for the one who is listening to the presentation and difficult to remember for the one presenting the material. This is why so many people don’t share the gospel: they can’t remember sixteen verses and what they are supposed to say in between them.
There has got to be a better way. There is! Notice the chart called The Incredible Simplicity Of John’s Approach on the previous page. It explains the difference and simplicity of the approach found in the Gospel of John. It uses one single verse. Now that’s something we can all remember. What a beautiful difference. I’ll give more explanation on this diagram later in the book.
Only one book in the Bible that is written primarily to unbelievers with the stated purpose of turning them into believers. The New Testament letters do not fit that description. They can play an active supporting role, but shouldn’t be mined for the primary content of the Gospel.
1 Author’s amalgamated translation.
2 Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation