As we begin to explore the seismic shift ongoing in the Evangelical world as it wrestles with the meaning of the gospel, let’s focus, first, on the way many came to understand it in recent generations. To do this, we’ll look at two popular models for explaining the gospel to an outsider—two common evangelistic tools—The Chasm and The Roman’s Road.
In the chasm model, we start with the fact that God is holy (that’s good). If we could talk about God having a moral character, which seems strange to do, his being holy would mean we have to say he’s (not even practically) perfect in every way.
But there’s a problem. We are not perfect (that’s bad). The Bible couldn’t be more concise: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Bummer.
Now, according to the chasm model, this means there is an uncrossable gap between sinful us and holy God. What’s worse, all our attempts to cross the chasm—be they good works, or perfect religious observance, or just being super nice to people—don’t even come close to closing the gap (that’s bad).
Thankfully, there’s a solution. Jesus’ death on the cross provides a bridge across the great gulf (that’s good). Again, more bite-sized Scripture: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
And viola! We can now cross over to God’s side of the canyon where eternal life sits (that’s good).
The Roman’s Road
This tool is a little different in that it strictly uses brief passages of Scripture taken exclusively from the book of Romans. The picture it paints, however, is similar to the chasm model.
We begin at Romans 3:23. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Then we heap it on with Romans 3:10 and Romans 5:12. “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous; not even one'” (3:10). “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (5:12).
Just as we are rending our clothes and tearing out our hair, hope crests the horizon. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Doubling down, Romans 5:8 is also brought in: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That sounds great. Now what? “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).
Could it be that simple? We are assured: “For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Rom. 10:13).
What’s Wrong with These?
Let me first be very clear at the outset. The principles presented in both of these tools are true. We are sinners. Our good deeds do not earn our salvation. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have procured our rescue. Acceptance of this does lead to eternal life.
The issue, many are finding, is that the portrait these and similar evangelistic tools paint is too small and too far removed from a greater context. And as a result, our fixation on these simplified versions of the gospel have produced Christians with a skewed concept of what it means to be a Christian.
How skewed? Here are just a few consequences of such gospel presentations.
First, a gospel solely about the forgiveness of an individual’s sins—important as that is—consequently devalues all tangible work, aside from evangelism, certainly, and preaching, possibly. That is, when forgiveness becomes the entirety of the gospel, then the announcement of that forgiveness is the only sure vocation that aligns with God’s will. Any other work, good as it may be, becomes nonessential. Of what value is your work as an accountant, following your salvation?
Second, a gospel focused on the salvation of the individual loses its grasp of the gospel’s impact on communities. Many in the Christian family have lamented this development in the West for some time. We are, especially in the United States, an individualistic culture. This is vastly different from the cultures of the Bible, which may not be “collective” cultures like some Asian peoples today, but are certainly communal. How does the gospel address larger units of people, as it seems to do in the New Testament (see, for example, Acts 16:31)?
Third, a gospel centered on eternal destinies loses its interest in the world today and comes dangerously close to abandoning the created world altogether. In fact, certain streams of Christianity have already fallen over this cliff. When all that matters is whether people will end up in heaven or hell, the created order quickly becomes irrelevant. Lost is any recognition of the Creator’s affection for his good creation. Does Jesus’ death and resurrection have anything to say about what becomes of the earth?
Perhaps, the gospel of the New Testament has plenty to say about these things and much more. But we might never know it walking the Roman Road.