Hi Elder Ritchie,
There’s a lot to say and it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just start with a definition of the Gospel.
“Gospel” is a loaded word which gets thrown around by Christians of every variety all the time, but it’s rare for people to actually slow down and ask “what exactly is the Gospel anyway?” There are many different gospels on offer (Including the LDS “restored Gospel”), and all of them are true, but some are more true than others. When evangelising, you need to be clear exactly which of these gospels you are trying to convey and impart, because how you convey a gospel depends on which gospel it actually is. It is important to remember that “Gospel” literally just means “Good news” or “Glad tidings”, and keeping this in mind can help you to spot whether someone’s gospel is not quite right, because invariably it won’t actually be “good news” if you analyse it closely.
You are already familiar with the LDS restored gospel (more familiar with it than I am). I’ll attempt to roughly summarise it (forgive me for butchering the nuances here):
Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death. Jesus came and atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane. He founded a church which was meant to carry salvation to the world. Unfortunately that church apostatised and the true faith was lost until the 1800s when the church was restored by Joseph Smith. The good news (gospel) is that now it is possible to be saved by joining this restored church. All you need to do is be baptised, live a good life, be sealed in the temple, experience the endowment ordinance, follow the word of wisdom and so on. Failure to meet these conditions is akin to rejecting the offer of salvation, and may either reduce your heavenly glory to one of the lower kingdoms, or perhaps even condemn you to the outer darkness for all eternity with the sons of perdition.
You may have also encountered the “evangelical protestant gospel” in your time as a missionary. This gospel goes roughly something like the following:
Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death (or everlasting torture in Hell, depending on the temperament of the evangelical in question). However the good news (gospel) God sent Jesus to take the punishment in our place on the cross. Now, all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus! It doesn’t even matter whether you are a good person any more! However failure to believe in Jesus will result in the original punishment remaining over you and so if you don’t believe in Jesus before you die you will have to suffer death (or everlasting torture).
There are other gospels too. The catholic one is quite similar to the LDS one, just that the ordinances are a bit different.
Whereas the most true gospel that I’ve encountered goes something more like this:
We all experience evil, suffering and death. Sometimes it gets so bad that the word “Hell” is appropriate. This is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved, and WE have to solve it, because no one else will. However paradoxically, we are totally unable to solve it. The good news (gospel), is that there is a happy ending to the story: no matter how bad things get, we can have faith and hope in the promise that everything is moving towards God himself, and in God there is only light and no darkness, no evil, no suffering. God himself guarantees a happy ending for all of us. The gospel is basically this promise, with some qualifying attributes:
- Antinomianism: there’s nothing we really have to “do” in order to secure this happy ending, because God himself has already secured it on our behalf, and he promises it to us unconditionally. We don’t have to follow the word of wisdom, or sharia law, or Jewish law, or secular law, or any law.
- Universalism: God loves the entire creation and everyone and everything in it. His promise applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are a saint or a sinner, a Mormon or a Muslim, a Catholic or Protestant. God promises to save and glorify every single soul.
- Pluralism: All truth is God’s truth, and all religions and philosophies and world-views are 100% true in their domain. Islam is the one true faith, but so is Catholicism, Calvinism, Atheism, Islam and Mormonism. All religions are 100% true. Every aspect of every religion also contains the gospel promise embedded in it, and it is the evangelists job to extract it.
There are also some caveats, to balance out those three happy attributes
- Expensive Grace: God doesn’t just carry us to heaven while we are sleeping. He requires us to work extremely hard to bring it about. In order to walk the path to the promised happy ending, all of us have to be made perfect, and perfectly follow the divine law of love (i.e., Love God, Love neighbour, Love self). This is something we must do with our own free agency, however the good news (gospel) is that God guarantees that we will succeed, even though the task seems impossible. He promises that he will never leave us, no matter how dark it seems or how hard it gets or even if we end up in Hell or the outer darkness: God will stand by our side and never abandon us, giving us the strength to keep fighting even when all is eternally lost. The law of love is not written in books or church traditions or moral philosophy: it is written directly on our heart, and speaks to us through our conscience. If you listen to your conscience, God will speak and guide your actions from moment to moment. In this way you will know when you have done right and when you have done wrong and you won’t need any priest, pastor or bible to tell you it.
- Evangelism is essential: God is going to save the world, but he uses believers to do it. His promise needs to be spread to the ends of the earth, and all people need to hear it and trust it and become full of joy and love. “But how can they believe if they have not heard? and how can they hear if they have not been told? and how can they be told if no one is sent to them?” If we believe the gospel and are saved, but then don’t overflow with love and compassion for those who are still wandering in the darkness, this is the height of selfishness. If we are truly perfect in love, we need to spread that love to the world, starting with our own families, friends and community, and then all the way to the other side of the world.
- Great Apostasy: All religions and philosophies are 100% true, however every single one of them is missing the point. None of them teach the true gospel, because all of them are institutions, and the lifeblood of institutions is money, and money is the root of all evil. Imagine me standing out the front of the congregation and preaching this stuff. Many people would have hard hearts and be offended. “You don’t have to pay your tithe. You don’t actually have to follow the word of wisdom” etc. This message is the message that saves, but it is not in the interest of institutions. Furthermore, at the top of every institution is a demon (Paul talks about this in his letters). Fallen angels are the ones calling the shots right now. Every government, religion, and organisation is guided by a demon behind the scenes. We must respect the truths of all religions, while also remembering that not a single one of them clearly proclaims God’s divine promise unadulterated.
Based on all of this, here are some practical principles for living the gospel and spreading the gospel:
- Every law is good. Despite the fact that we don’t have to follow any law but the divine law of love, religious laws are still good and helpful, and if you follow them, you will receive unique blessings and graces. For example, the word of wisdom is good. If you refrain from tea and coffee, your life will be blessed, I guarantee it. Similarly, Sharia law requires you to abstain from pork, and this is a good thing to do, even if it isn’t obvious why at first. If you want to understand why refraining from pork is a blessing, you have to try it. It’s the same with abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee. People who don’t do it don’t understand the amazing blessings and graces. The only way to understand is to take the plunge and dive into it. Basically you can take any list of “Do and do not” laws from any religion or governing authority, and there will be legitimate blessings from following those rules. However it is important to remember that our salvation in no way depends on following these rules, and they are therefore fundamentally optional.
- Become all things to all people. When spreading the gospel, you are not trying to “convert them to your religion”. You are simply proclaiming the divine promise, on behalf of God (and sometimes in the name of Jesus, if you are talking to a Christian). If they fail to trust the promise, then they remain in the darkness. However if they fail to trust the promise, it’s not their fault: it’s your fault, because you were unable to proclaim it to them in a way that penetrated to their heart and soul. The solution is to get into the other persons shoes as much as possible: If you want to save a catholic, you need to become a catholic. if you want to save a Muslim, you need to become a Muslim, and i mean that as literally as possible: you need to follow sharia law, pray five times a day, say the Shahada, honestly believe that Muhammad (pbuh) is the final prophet of God, etc.You need to pray the same way they pray, believe the same things they believe, do the same things they do, talk the way they talk. Because once you have done this, you are “one of them” and they will listen to you when you speak the promise. If you fail to do these things, the encounter will always be a combative one, because you are the Christian and they are the Buddhist, and there is no common ground between you, and then your proclamation of the promise will fall flat. The strategy i describe is exactly the strategy that Saint Paul used on his missionary journeys. He “became a Greek to the Greeks, so as to save the Greeks, and a Jew to the Jews, so as to save the Jews”. He also “put himself under the subjection of every law, so as to save those who are under those laws, even though he himself is not bound by any law but the divine law of God”. Remember when he was in Athens converting the Greeks? He didn’t quote bible verses at them; he quoted their own scriptures, poets and philosophers. In the same way, to proclaim the gospel to a Muslim, you have to quote the Quran, not the book of Mormon. But remember the gospel promise is pluralistic: It can be found everywhere once you have eyes to see it, and once you see it in Islam, you can lead Muslims to it using their own faith. Once you see it in Buddhism, you can lead Buddhists to it using their own faith. Besides, people are more likely to become Mormons if you are willing to convert to their religion first.
- Handling contradictions: Whenever you encounter a philosophy or world-view that appears to fundamentally contradict your own, follow the following rule: Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. You should never, ever think in your heart “you are wrong” towards someone. You should instead always think “I don’t understand what you mean” and keep asking honest questions. Usually they are on to something and if you keep digging, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom and it always fits with what you already believe. This is also a practical implication of “become all things to all people”: how can you do that if you insist on disagreeing with someone? Basically, there is almost never any good reasons to disagree in a discussion. Instead you should always seek deeper understanding and keep asking questions until the link between your view and theirs becomes clear.
I have said a lot already, so in closing I’ll just ramble on a bit about the gospel promise a bit more.
The resurrected Christ IS the gospel promise and the gospel promise IS God. There is a strict equivalence. So whenever you proclaim the promise to someone, you are actually verbally giving God (Christ) to them. This is quite profound. Because if they truly trust the promise when you proclaim it, this just is faith in God. And consider what it would look like if you trusted such a promise: Infinite happiness, joy and bliss forever and ever, for you and all your loved ones. If you actually believe this, it changes how you see the world right now. It’s almost as if the lights come on throughout the whole creation. “I was blind but now I see”. When you trust the promise (i.e., believe in God) You taste the joy of the happy ending right now. You overflow with joy and become a light in the dark. Proclaiming the promise looks different in every case however, because every person is different. This is why we must become all things to all people. If i need to proclaim the promise to a Buddhist, it is essential that I am able to proclaim it in Buddhist language. If i am to proclaim it to a catholic, i need to be able to proclaim it in catholic terminology. And for this very reason, real evangelism occurs in the context of friendship. It’s not often possible to proclaim the promise correctly and save someone in a 5 minute conversation. You need to walk with them for a long time, together meditating on the promise and addressing each other’s doubts and concerns, learning from each other. We can do the best we can out on the street with random passers by, but the real deep conversions happen in long conversations between friends, over many years. Friendship is very important.
Anyway, i have to run off to class! Sorry for sending such a long email, but despite the pure beautiful simplicity of the gospel, it is always hard to put into words. But always a joy. Stay in touch!