Could you explain the gospel to an unbeliever using only three words?
That was the challenge someone posted a couple of weeks ago on social media. “One can’t explain the whole gospel in only three words,” I mumbled to myself. “That’s why we have a canon of 66 books.” The more I thought about it, though, the more my mind changed, and I became open to taking up the challenge.
I think I could explain the gospel in three words, so long as I would have follow-up time to explain all three words. And those words would be “Lord Jesus Christ.”
The word “Lord” would mean pointing to the Godness of God, what it means to speak of God as sovereign king and as loving Father. This would entail a discussion of God as Creator, what it means for us to be his creatures. This would involve a discussion of what God has revealed to us about his lordship as Creator. That he designed all things by and for Jesus Christ (John 1:1–5; Col 1:16).
It would also include our human predicament as idol-makers, who consistently choose other lords and gods and Pharaohs and Caesars, thinking they will be better to us, all the while cutting ourselves off from our only source of life, God himself.
The second word, “Jesus,” would entail a discussion of what the name means: “She will bear a son and you shall call his name ‘Jesus,’ for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Who is this speaking? He is the Creator God, the covenant God of Israel. To whom is he speaking? He is speaking to Joseph, of the lineage of Abraham, of the house of David. This would communicate both the sending of salvation by God the Father through the Holy Spirit, and also the covenant history behind this. The story here is that of Israel, summed up now in this person, the seed of Abraham and son of David.
Then the word “Jesus” would necessitate the definition of “save” and of “sins.” Why do we need saving? What has happened to us? What does it mean that we are sinners before a holy God? This would mean unpacking something of the wrath of God against sin, the love of God in providing salvation, and the way the two come together in the cross of Christ (Rom. 1–3). This would mean a discussion of the curse that has come upon us for our sin, and how, through substitution and sacrifice, Jesus bore that curse for us (Gal. 3).
The name “Jesus” would also necessitate defining the words “his people.” Jesus is the Word, that which holds the universe together, become flesh. He has joined us in our humanity, fully one of us, except without sin. He is therefore able to be our priest, to mediate for us in the heavenly temple with his own blood, his own prayers, his own life. This would also entail defining what it means for God to say, over and over, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
We cannot say the word ‘Jesus’ without speaking of his church. . . . We are saved to be a people.
In Jesus, all the promises of God find their “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus is the heir of God’s promises to Abraham, and if we are hidden in him, those promises become fully ours (Gal. 3:29). Those of us who were outsiders to God’s promises are now, in him, by the blood of his cross, “brought near” to God (Eph. 2:13). We are all now, in Jesus, “no longer strangers and aliens” but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
That means we cannot say the word “Jesus” without speaking of his church, united to him by the Spirit as a head to a body. We are saved to be a people.
The final word is “Christ,” which I would explain is not Jesus’s last name but a title, meaning “Anointed One.” Anointed with what? The Spirit of God. Anointed by whom? The Father God. Anointed for what? Kingship. Jesus is the rightful covenant king, fulfilling the missions of the fallen kingships of Adam and David. The kingdom of God, then, is the present reality and future hope of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. This kingship is demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as the firstborn of an entire family freed from death and hell (Rom. 8:29). In the word “Christ” we look backward to our story as the people of Israel promised deliverance. We also look forward to our future as joint-heirs with Jesus, ruling over the entire created universe. In this way, Christ Jesus sums up all of God’s purposes for the universe (Eph. 1:10–11) and hands over a completed cosmic mission to his Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
We groan as we see the wreckage of the fall all around us, but we also joyfully enter into it in the present as we are formed by the Spirit, and as we embody together in the church, the demonstration site of the coming kingdom. We love and forgive and serve one another, and live on mission toward the outside world, as ambassadors for the coming king.
There’s much more to be said, of course. That’s why we need 66 books of God-breathed Scripture. That’s why we need the Spirit of Christ to teach us how to hear from him in that Scripture. We need many words, and God has given us many words. But we can start the conversation, I think, with three: “Lord Jesus Christ.” And, if we do, it might train us for what all of us one day will confess, on bended knee, “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).