What is the simple gospel? This is not a trick question. I simply don’t know. My difficulty is that I am quite sure I do rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and illumined by the Holy Spirit. Now, please understand. By affirming that I rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ I am not affirming that I exhaustively understand it, or know everything there is possible for a sinner saved by the mercy and grace of God to know regarding the biblical gospel. I do know that I do not know all that I could or should know regarding the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are two basic reasons for my degree of ignorance.
First, I am sinfully fallen. In various ways and to varying degrees every moment of every day I resist learning more about the gospel. Second, I am a finite human. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is about the eternal Son of God and what he has done, is doing and will do to save his people from their sins. You will note, then, that my sinfully fallen condition is related unavoidably to my finitude and my Savior’s infinity. In fact, this is, perhaps, the very point at which I have difficulties with the gospel of the Lord Jesus getting modified by the adjective simple. Thus, my question is: If you rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that is revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, would you ever regard it as wise or accurate to describe it as simple?
Of course, author’s have intentions in the terms they use, and there is the English translation of 2Cor. 11:3. The text expresses Paul’s concern that the church members at Corinth not be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ as the New American Standard translation has it. But the term in the Greek New Testament is perhaps more accurately translated sincerity, which is the way the NIV, RSV and ESV translate the term. But let’s grant that simplicity is just as legitimate, if not the better term to use. We are still left with the truth that the context of Paul’s words reveal that his concern has to do with them falling prey to Satan’s craftiness, just as Eve did, and thus departing from obedience to Christ. Furthermore, Paul’s statement cannot be disconnected from all of what Paul had written to them prior to that point in 2Cor11:3 not only in his second letter to them but in his first. One need merely read 1 and 2Corinthians to understand that there were a number of, shall we say, involved and difficult matters that Paul obviously identified as united to the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Our English word simple, however, is, pardon the statement, not so simple of a term. If one seeks for a dictionary definition of the term one can find some of the following words listed as synonyms and explanations given to help one know how to use the term rightly. Simple equals 1) easily understood or done, straightforward, easy, uncomplicated, uninvolved, effortless, painless, undemanding; 2) composed of a single compound (hardly relevant in this matter); 3) free from guile: innocent; 4) free from vanity: modest; 5) lacking in knowledge; 6) not socially or culturally sophisticated; 7) free from elaboration; 8) not subdivided into branches; 9) readily understood. So, I ask again: Would you ever regard it as wise or accurate to describe the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as simple?
Certainly we can present the gospel in a way that might be rightly described as straightforward. Indeed, I would argue that this is precisely how pastors and all Christians ought to present the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is consistent with the apostle’s words when he told the Ephesian church to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) instead of being “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). So we should be willing to recognize that there is a kind of simplicity to the gospel. Perhaps one could use the term simple to modify gospel when affirming the simplicity of the gospel, but that is sort of like saying that brain surgery is simple. You can describe it simply; it has its own simplicity. They give you drugs, cut your skull open, take instruments and try to fix your problem, and then sew you up. Pretty simple—description. There is a kind of simplicity to it, as the description communicates. Still, it is hardly a procedure that is rightly described as easy, uncomplicated, uninvolved or undemanding, free from elaboration or readily understood, at least not by the great majority of the eight billion or so people who populate the planet.
The apostle Paul wrote that he was “determined to know nothing among” the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” and that his preaching of the gospel was “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power so that” the Corinthians “faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1Cor. 2:2, 4-5). Here again, though, Paul’s point does not warrant us to conclude that the incomparable gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes it is simple. Paul’s words that I just quoted stress that the gospel was regarded as foolish to the Greeks of his day and as an offense to the Jews. A simple gospel? Hmm . . . It seems that Paul affirmed that it is rightly understood when we understand it as the foolish gospel and offensive gospel. At least those are the adjectives that Paul used to describe what Christ crucified meant to the people who have not yet believed the gospel and to whom we must proclaim the eternal gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What exactly brings a professing Christian to conclude that the term simple is a good way to describe the gospel of God, who loved his Son so much that he ordained to have him crucified on a cross, and that this only took place because he sent his Son through His Holy Spirit to be born of a virgin, because this same God made promises to the first people he created and that lived who knows how many years before Jesus was born of a virgin? What exactly is simple about any and all of this? And I have not even mentioned anything about how all this fits with the life that God calls each of his beloved children to live because they believe the gospel of his kingdom. What exactly does it mean to be saved from sin when sin is against this Triune God who crucified his own Son?
What exactly does it mean to evangelize someone to this allegedly simple gospel? Perhaps the chief problem with a view of evangelism that thinks that it is evangelistically strategic to refer to the glorious and eternal gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as simple is that it is seriously out of step with the gospel revealed in the Old and New Testament. The biblical gospel can be described as many things. I have mentioned a few of them. Simple is not one that fits. It leaves one wondering just how biblically faithful and successful evangelism to the biblical gospel will be under the leadership of those who think it strategic to compel God’s people to proclaim the simple gospel. This allegedly simple gospel sounds a lot like a distortion of the gospel that is no gospel at all.