21st-Century Challenges to the Gospel
By George Paul Wood
Gregory the Great once wrote, “Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”1 What Gregory said of Scripture generally can be said of John 3:16 particularly. Few verses in Scripture state the gospel with such simplicity and profundity as it does: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
I learned this verse as a child, as did my wife. We teach it to our 3-year-old son. We understood its meaning when we were young, and so will he. Doing so does not require a graduate degree in theology, let alone a high school education, let alone literacy. It only requires the ability to understand the words, “I love you” as they come to us from God through Christ.
Behind these simple words are profound truths, however. We can analyze John 3:16 in terms of the gospel’s ground, object, means, and end. The love of God is the ground of the gospel. The world is its object. (God is saving both planet and people, according to Romans 8:21, though only personal salvation is in sight in John 3:16.) The gift of His Son is the objective means of accomplishing the gospel, while belief in Him is the subjective means of appropriating it. And the end of the gospel is eternal life for those who believe. Or we can analyze John 3:16 in terms of doctrines it touches on: the existence and attributes of God; the Creator-creature relationship, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement; justification by faith; and eschatology, among others.
Whether we view it from the perspective of the lamb or the elephant, John 3:16 is a river of life.
In the early 21st century, a variety of challenges to this simple, yet profound, gospel present themselves. This issue of Enrichment seeks to address some of the prominent ones:
- atheism, which challenges the ground of the gospel.
- the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, which challenges its scope.
- distorted views of the atonement and the Muslim denial of Jesus’ divine Sonship, which challenge the objective means of accomplishing the gospel.
- religious pluralism, eternal security, and Buddhist merit, which challenge the subjective means of appropriating the gospel by downplaying the need for or distorting the nature of faith in Jesus.
- annihilationism/conditional immortality and universalism, which challenge the end of the gospel, or at least traditional understandings of it.
- nonevangelism, which challenges people’s access to the gospel.
The list of challenges this issue addresses does not pretend to be either exhaustive or global. It focuses on largely theological challenges that North American Pentecostals often face. Elsewhere, our brothers and sisters face other challenges, both intellectual (e.g., animism, ancestor worship, pantheism) and practical (e.g., poverty, oppression). Given that our readers overwhelmingly minister in a North American context, however, we chose to narrow our list to their concerns, without thereby downplaying the concerns of others in different social contexts.
Moreover, not all challenges we do address are created equal. If the gospel is a river, then some of the challenges to it are like dams that block it at its source. We can consider atheism, Islam, pluralism, Buddhism, and nonevangelism dam-type challenges. (Isn’t nonevangelism just a form of practical atheism, after all?) Other challenges are like debris that muddy the clarity and purity of the river. We can consider aspects of Calvinism, mistaken views of the Atonement, eternal security, and nontraditional eschatologies debris-type challenges.
Dam-type challenges to the gospel are usually the work of nonbelievers (with the exception of nonevangelism), while debris-type challenges are often the work of Christians who are well-intentioned but theologically misguided. Whatever their source, all challenges need a response, if the river of life is to flow with clean water.
The church’s mission is to channel clear water to all who are thirsty. That is our privilege and responsibility as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, this requires the hard and dirty work of dam busting and debris cleaning. But isn’t such work worth the effort? Of course it is.
Let us work, then, that lambs can wade and elephants swim in the waters of John 3:16.
1. Gregory the Great, Moralia, or a Commentary on Job, para. 4. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/texts/moralia1.html