The Unbelievable Gospel

Let me begin with some personal anecdotes. Ever since I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior in my high school junior year, I have led only two friends of mine to church.  Given that there might be some slight chance that I might have led more students to Christ as a seminarian and a part time pastor, those two friends of mine are the only people I ever did “evangelizing” with. It was not even sharing the gospel message. It was simply my asking them to come with me to church. I am afraid that I was not sure what the gospel message was all about, even after well into my academic career at a seminary I was attending. The turning point was in 2006 when I heard the message of Tim Keller, awakening in me “wow, I have not even understood what the gospel was all about! Perhaps all I did so far was to try to live a religious and moral life, and nothing else!” This brought me to a phase of my life from which I began to think and reflect on the gospel message, which I have been doing ever since. As I grab and read Jonathan Dodson’s The Unbelievable Gospel, I was very glad that I have run into a book which summarizes so well what I have been thinking about the gospel.

Dodson is a church planter and Christian writer who is pastoring a church in Austin, TX. This book contains his own intense struggles over the question of sharing the gospel with the people of Austin not just clearly, but also powerfully, speaking truth to their practical life circumstances. The book is divided into three parts in large. In part one, Dodson looks into what he calls defeaters of evangelism, i.e., reasons for us not to share the gospel. They are: 1) objectifying people as points to score in order to accomplish the gospel sharing project of ours; 2) our own self-righteousness that sets up high walls between us and our neighbors; 3) our intolerance toward other religious faiths; 4) our fear deriving from our diffidence in the knowledge of the gospel. Dodson argues that these four reasons can be overcome through understanding evangelism as being subsumed under the great commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves. While this type of argument is commonplace in many books on evangelism, what distinguishes Dodson’s is that Dodson encourages his readers to look in on themselves and how they benefited from accepting the gospel message. For in most cases the gospel we understand are not our own, but our teachers’ and pastors’. Thus, if we begin to question ourselves how the gospel has helped us and saved us from our sin, then we will be able to be more authentic, sharing the gospel with our own authenticity.

In part two, based on the false motivations for sharing the gospel in part one, Dodson revisits the gospel message. Dodson summarizes 1) the personal, 2) the historical, 3) the cosmic dimensions of the gospel message, and each 1) changes our identity, 2) changes what we believe about doctrines not as something absolute and dogmatic, but as something that represents the historical Christ, thus limited in scope for the purpose of representing the historical person of Christ and who God is, and 3) changes our own perspectives on the gospel being limited to personal toward calling for social, cultural, and universal transformation.

In part three, Dodson lists five metaphors for sharing the gospel message to contemporary people, and they are simultaneously the five benefits of accepting the gospel message and the five struggles and desires of contemporary people: 1) being accepted, 2) intimacy, 3) approval, 4) tolerance of others, and 5) hope for new life. What is excellent about Dodsons’ analyses is that he connects these five metaphors to the five traditional metaphors of Christian salvation: 1) justification, 2) union with Christ, 3) adoption, 4) redemption, and 5) new creation. In particular, Dodson narrates all these metaphors through his own life experiences of sharing the gospel with real people in his ministry and life. In that regard, this book is not only a great summary of what the gospel message is all about, but also a good introduction to how to share the gospel to our neighbors, coworkers, and friends.

I was particularly benefited from 1) Dodson’s emphasis on the heart as where the gospel message is reached, which is the ultimate locus of our desires as orienting our lives, 2) his illustration that repentance is not just shifting from secular to moral/religious lifestyles, but the fundamental change of where we put our trust in, from ourselves to God (for even if we live upright and moral lives, we could still put our trust in ourselves.), 3) Dodson’s sense of realism which does not sugarcoat and idealize all the changes brought by the gospel sharing as one-time and complete, but honestly confronting the still messy life of ours.

In spite of all these strengths of Dodson’s book, I would say that the potential weakness of this book is that this book is apt to lead people to think that Dodson’s construal of the gospel message is all there is about the gospel, which is not true at all. I was surfing the Amazon site of this book and able to locate similar reviews pointing to what I just said. Historically speaking, Christians have been trying to share the gospel in changing cultural contexts to different class of people in different times. Dodson’s attempt in this book should be understood as part of such historic endeavor, which I think is also part of Dodson’s arguments. The gospel of Jesus Christ is never to be reduced to a simple rendering of what we can benefit from, or how the gospel message fulfills our deepest longings, but always multidimensional, multilayered, and much more complex than we can possibly comprehend at any given moment.   With this caveat, I highly recommend this book to every Christian who is interested in uncovering the meaning of the gospel for our society, and I would be willing to use this book for a small group discussing evangelism.

The Unbelievable Gospel